“I think a poet is anybody who wouldn’t call himself a poet.”
— Bob Dylan
If artists were trees, most would have two roots, one wrapped around a desire to connect, the other reaching out to “comprehend the incomprehensible.” Great artists typically possess an unusually intense, sensitive understanding of the world, and an urge both to increase humankind’s store of knowledge and to present new beauty.
This urge to present clearly animates and drives the life of rob mclennan. The Ottawa-based author has published nearly two dozen trade titles of poetry, fiction and non-fiction in Canada, England and Ireland, and his work has appeared in more than one hundred journals and anthologies in fourteen countries and in three languages. In the past two years alone he has published a travel book on Ottawa, a selection of critical essays, two collections of poetry, and in November of this year, a novel entitled Missing Persons.
This and more makes mclennan an interesting guy to profile. Not only is he productive, but he’s also highly visible and generously community-minded. Poems and promotion don’t typically reside in the same person. This dichotomy plays itself out in the way people react to mclennan. His omni-presence is exciting to some, annoying to others; his massive output marveled at as evidence of energy and passion, but also dismissed as egotistical, as evidence of lack of discretion and talent. Whatever your opinion of him or his work, mclennan is a literary presence to be reckoned with.
Despite his industry and powerful personality, there is precious little out there in the way of response to mclennan’s work. A quick Google search pulls few reviews; mainstream media has virtually ignored his efforts. Given the reams of material, one wonders why so few deem it worthy of analysis. There’s a disconnect between quantity published, and the amount of serious attention received.
This deficit may in part explain both the prodigious output—“If I produce enough, surely someone will see something in it”—and the aggressive self promotion. Paradoxically, these efforts may have inadvertently undermined the understandable goal of being taken seriously as an artist.
Ottawa’s WestFest Lit curator Nichole McGill, has known mclennan for more than fifteen years. Back in 1992 she noticed a series of colourful poem posters displayed throughout the Byward Market. She tracked down their creator and wrote a profile of him for The Charlatan. “What struck me was that he [mclennan] seemed an atypical poet. He was putting it out there. Making it fun. If anything, rob is proactive.”
“In the nineties rob was everywhere,” continues McGill, “it was almost too much.” Many have been put off by this; his domination of the poetry scene, and his heckling, name-dropping, cheek-licking buffoonery, have for some, precluded the serious appreciation of his work.
Despite this, mclennan’s energetic promotion of poetry, enthusiastic administration of The Tree Reading Series, and his email list serve (which for years prior to social media served as an essential forum where members of the Ottawa literary community could exchange information and connect) have rightfully earned him a devoted following. His blog, too, has many fans.
“I think things changed when he started promoting and publishing other people in the late nineties,” says McGill. “And the blog he started in 2003 is impressive. When you think how many writers have contributed. He does the full gamut. What a great repository. The writer does all the work. It’s sort of brilliant.”
McGill sees the blog, especially mclennan’s “12-20 questions” feature, as a hugely valuable resource, an engine that runs the Ottawa literary scene and an essential component of the Canlit archive.
Writing is, for some, not a matter of choice. It’s an unstoppable urge to render communicable feelings that are difficult if not impossible to express; a hunger—visited upon the soul—to understand, to capture and set down experience correctly, for others, forever.
In what may be the extreme act of narcissism, poets, according to critic Gerald Stern, think of their own lives, emotions, experiences, as overwhelmingly important. In order to pay for this, Stern says, poets put it in form; they detach themselves from it, they organize it musically; they submit it to magazines, to critics, to their lovers … to the world.
Poet Denise Levertov has suggested that the poet’s primary function is to articulate his or her own inner or outer experience—to act as the voice of those who don’t have the ability to do so —with utmost honesty and fidelity. Poets, she says, are simply people who have a very special relationship to language which enables them to articulate feelings and experiences and thoughts and the osmosis of those things shared by everyone.
This tangle of often conflicting, contradictory desires described by Stern and Levertov seems tensely alive in mclennan, a man who, though insisting his name be spelt using only lower case letters (vis. e.e. cummings), and, in spite of having published umpteen volumes of poetry and dozens of chap books, requires that he not be labeled a poet.
“It’s not all I do. It’s not even all I do as a writer. It’s only a fraction of what I do,” mclennan says. “I’ll call myself a ‘working writer.’ I’ve been an active reviewer since 1993. Trying to focus on fiction since mid nineties. I’ve got a book of essays out. I’ve got the travel book on Ottawa. I’m working on all this creative non-fiction. I’ve got a second novel coming out. It just seems reductive to be labeled a poet. And it’s something I’ve never called myself.”
Ironically, but in line with the confusion, much of mclennan’s poetry reads like prose, much of his prose, including the new novel Missing Persons, like poetry. Still, regardless of output, most people think of mclennan as a poet.
It’s easy to understand why.
Tall and slim, clothed frequently in black, a shock of white highlighting a head of thick, dark shoulder length hair: it’s hard to look much more the part.
And there are those who think mclennan’s persona is just that: a part.
According to McGill, there’s a dichotomy when it comes to poets.
“They’re either insular: I’m communicating through my words, read my words, go away; or performers who really love to do their readings, it’s the rhythm of words in their mouths that they love, and so there’s that kind of communicating,” says McGill. rob though, she says, is neither.
“He’s a phenomenon.”
Carl Jung once defined the persona as “that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others thinks one is.” Others have referred to it as “psychological clothing.” Either way, it represents that aspect of the ego we present to the world for approval. The persona then is a mask or role that a person plays in society which is useful in allowing him or her to move in and out of relationships without being too vulnerable. An overemphasis on the persona can, however, also block communication with others. After 17 years, McGill, for example, still doesn’t feel she knows who mclennan is fundamentally, or that she has gotten much beneath the surface, beyond the noise, the guard … the mask.
When asked about his purpose, about what drives him, mclennan answers first with: “I have many goals and many purposes … there are many things I’m trying to do including getting a third, fourth and fifth novel going, working on short stories, trying to get creative non-fiction books finished and polished, working on another poetry manuscript, continuing the small book fair.” And only then with: “I just want to try different things as a writer, and get better at them.”
While some may not be enthused by mclennan’s poetry, plenty are, notably the many editors who have seen fit to publish his work. Sean Wilson, director of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, is also a fan. In fact, mclennan’s “birth mother” poems are among Wilson’s favorites in all of poetry.
As for mclennan the promoter, Wilson suggests that without all the effort mclennan has put in over the years to cultivate an audience for literature and poetry in this city, the Festival would not be the success it increasingly is today. In fact, without mclennan there would be no Festival at all, says Wilson.
“Before [the Festival] was here providing an anchor for literary lovers, rob was doing it—putting together readings, promoting other people—with the same passion in the nineties as he shows now,” said Wilson.
Seeing what mclennan was up to with Tree Reading Series was inspirational for Wilson.
“He introduced me to some amazing Canadian poets: Stuart Ross, Michael Dennis … if it weren’t for rob I wouldn’t know this great work,” Wilson said. “Many may not like him, but it’s not about making friends … for him it’s about exposing people to work. I have an intense admiration for him. The amount of work he puts in, and the amount of grief he gets astounds me. I wouldn’t be able to work as hard as he does for as little as he does … and for so little respect…you know there is a real lack of respect. Can’t wrap my head around it.”
Even Wilson, however, is not blind to the fact that mclennan may rub people the wrong way.
“There are days where he’ll subvert my desire to have serious discussions. He does like to be irreverent; he does have a schtick. And that schtick can be difficult.”
As for the mask: “I think it’s a pre-emptive strike,” Wilson muses, “there to make sure that if someone is mean to him, he can hide it, say that it’s because of his persona, not him … it’s a protective mechanism … it may have outlived its usefulness …”
Poet, promoter, genuine article or fashioned persona, rob mclennan may well best be viewed as someone who simply does what he does. Leading a literary life in a town inhabited by Eliot’s hollow, stuffed men—being a poetic voice, however it is heard, in a land where many measure out their lives with coffee spoons and wear the bottoms of their trousers rolled—can often be thankless. Ottawans should be grateful for the presence of mclennan and others who encourage and make art, for absence of their life, spells death.
What is a Poet?
A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses
his feelings through words.
This may sound easy. It isn’t.
A lot of people think or believe or know they
feel — but that’s thinking or believing or
knowing; not feeling. and poetry is feeling —
not knowing or believing or thinking.
Almost anybody can learn to think or believe
or know, but not a single human being can be
taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think
or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other
people; but the moment you feel, you’re
Illustration by Anthony Tremmaglia. First appeared in Guerilla Magazine