Poets Online Talking About Coffee: rob mclennan

I can’t even function properly until I’ve had my first cup in the morning. And yet, I’ve much to do before that happens. How should we begin?

Perhaps with a flat white?

How many different coffee shops do you frequent?

Coffee shops? Oh, those were the days. I spent fourteen years writing mornings in a Second Cup downtown, watching the world float by. I haven’t even set foot in the place since my daughter Rose was born in November, 2013.

When I did frequent, it was singular; I went to one location, the same time every day. Routine is how I get work done.

How often do you write?

Daily, except for the rare days she doesn’t nap.

How long have you been running your On Writing series?

Every week or three (or so) since April, 2012.

And which have been some of your favourite essays?

It’s really hard to select out of what has been, so far, a rather impressive array of pieces. Recently, I’ve re-read the essays by Gail Scott, Priscila Uppal and George Stanley, which do stand out, as do earlier essays by Adam Sol, Gary Barwin and Renee Saklikar. But there are so many. I would have to replicate the list of essays almost entirely.

What’s the story behind above/ground press? 22 years now!

Story? Well, I looked around me and saw the only small press publishing was historic, buried deep within the library shelves of the University of Ottawa, so I started self-producing small items. It was relatively easy, so I expanded into publishing works by others. The press has produced more than 750 items, including some half a dozen journals, such as Missing Jacket, drop and STANZAS magazine, as well as the current Touch the Donkey. Twenty-two years: I know, eh? Madness! Someone once suggested that the life-span of a small literary press is around five to seven years, and I feel no need to even slow down. There’s so much more to do!

It must be a record…

Well, I don’t know about that. But it sure is a long time, and super-fun…

What have been the ebbs and flows of the Canadian poetry scene over that time?

There have been plenty, as you can imagine. My first half-decade was focused far more on local than national, but we went through some hard-hits in the small press in the mid-1990s, including the Canada Post getting rid of “book rate,” the collapse of General Distribution (who nearly took a couple of dozen publishers along with it), the rise of Chapters (which took out numerous independent booksellers along the way), and the Canada Council for the Arts not following through on 20 million dollars in already-promised funding to Canadian publishers (resulting in books delayed and even cancelled, as well as the death of more than a couple of small presses). Every five years or so, I’ve seen articles talking about the resurgence of small press, which I always find hilarious, given that a number of us are still here, and have been for quite some time. I mean, I might be one of the few chapbook publishers still around, but there are plenty of small publishers/small presses that have been around equally as long, if not plenty longer. We’re pretty damned strong.

Is there a Canadian equivalent of AWP?

AWP happens in Canada too. Wasn’t it in Vancouver a few years ago? Not that I’ve ever been. Between it not happening close enough to my house, and that I’m not actually attached to either university or creative writing program, I simply haven’t had the opportunity to attend.

Excuse my ignorance! I was a last-minute attendee at last year’s Minneapolis event.

Are there any other small presses that you feel warrant more attention?

No worries. There are far too many things to keep track of, honestly. There are plenty of presses! Micro-presses such as Apt. 9 Press, Puddles of Sky, Room 302 Books and Baseline Press are producing amazing things, as are Canadian small (and less-small) publishers including BookThug, Nightwood Editions, Invisible Publishing, Mansfield Press and so many others. I think our Chaudiere Books is doing some pretty cool stuff as well (but I might be biased).

What’s your next book after The Uncertainty Principle? Another short story collection?

Possibly. I am attempting to complete another manuscript of short stories this year (as toddler allows). I’ve also another poetry manuscript currently making the rounds, as well as a memoir/creative non-fiction manuscript I’m hoping to return to, for the sake of getting it also out the door. Once all of those projects are off my plate, I can return to the big novel, hopefully before winter sets in. Although, this month also saw the appearance of Guthrie Clothing: The Poetry of Phil Hall, a Selected Collage (WLU Press), a book I helped see through, which includes a critical introduction by myself.

Can you give us a sneak preview of the big novel?

I’ve been working on Don Quixote since the end of 2007. Given that the entire novel is one of perception, I’ve been attempting to show as much of it from Quixote’s own perspective as possible, including the possibility of confusion and contradiction. Back in 2008, I posted a very early section of such on my blog and even wrote an essay on the project, that Rain Taxi was kind enough to post a couple of years later.

Honestly, I’ve barely looked at it for about two or three years. I’m very eager to re-enter the project, and see if a workable draft can emerge, either in 2016 or 2017.

I live in hope.

EXCERPT: Don Quixote

A fire in his belly, Don Quixote in his basement suite, his suite, positioned against the strain of his own self. Positioned against the strain of her hands and his mouth dry, down the length of her spine. Is this Dulcinea? She is not Dulcinea, but she is. More than a distraction, but almost enough to make him forget. I forget, she says out loud. Have forgotten. Isn’t it?

Put her mouth in the rum and the rum around him and the rum was the skin and the silver between her soft mouth and his, her fingers on him working hard and then working, pushing deep into her, again and again. He tilted, pushing open what was ever asleep.

Heart knows what it knows, heart wants what it wants. Don Quixote knows, what it wants. When will these journeys end? But there is something missing, something else. Like a deck of game cards and the missing queen. How does one play incomplete?

Burnt almond her skin and the taste of it almond-salt-soft, the taste of her skin and her mouth, even before all the rum. She runs down his sheets. Is this love? Is this something like?

Stop talking, she says. He didn’t realize he was.

At the end she breathes hard, and deep and quick after the shudder of catch, release. Don Quixote knows. But a ways before dawn, she kisses him deep as the ocean floor, and dresses, back to her own bed and the man that then waits for her. Even his lovers have lovers.

Don Quixote looks for a way out but he can’t. It is never the same as the way he came in.


Don Quixote said swear, swear on her beauty. They listened. He said swear, swear on her beauty. They listened, they paused. He said swear, swear on her beauty. They listened. Dulcinea del Tobosa. He said swear, swear on her beauty. Her beauty. Paused. Spoke empty sounds. Dulcinea. Don Quixote said. Beauty. Swear by it. They listened. He said swear by it. Her. Don Quixote said. He screamed breath from his lungs. Don Quixote. They listened, paused. Said nothing. Their mouths silent shapes. They were mute. Said swear. Don Quixote said. Lifted his sword, or his lance. Listened. Don Quixote. Said swear. Brought down, his words, his sharp heart on their heads, the blade of it. Said. Down on their heads, he said swear, pounding down into dust. His heart, and his furious anger. Righteous. Quixote. They paused, listened. His anger, their heads. He said, swear. They tried to protect themselves. Cursing. His sword. He said, listen. Said. Swear.


Don Quixote, confused between furniture. Is this the night sky, or simply a ceiling? Is this a castle, an inn or a foul-smelling stable? Dreams plague his mind, even while awake.

And Sancho no help, shifting as though from the wind; he is dust or fine silk, flowing exactly where the wind takes, offering no resistance.

What is happening, Cervantes, Quixote asks. But the author long gone, so many years dead. Who or where is the author of this? Where has everyone disappeared to? Are you even there, reader, to make the song of these simple lines sing?

And who’s asking, you might respond. Rightly so.

The laws of relativity; this is all point of view. The veritable Quixote, master of the dim-witted Sancho. Master of nothing, of no-one, of none. He speaks out empty air, and off Sancho, all reflects back. Has Sancho become the pale mirror, the long hills echoing speech? Has he not even his own mind?

An empty vessel, perhaps, for Quixote to fill. He ponders. To mold, so to speak. He is muddled, mixing metaphors. He catches his wits in a quick motion of hands and contains them, captures. Reclaims. He is wit-made, no longer wit-less himself. Determined Quixote, to save Sancho from himself. So much better, somehow, than aiming to better himself, shift the focus to his feeble squire. He will save the poor lout, and like My Fair Lady, redeem him.

He will dain lift him up.


There is dust in the crux of the wheat-swollen fields. Don Quixote pauses his steed, feels the wind on his cheek. Feels the breeze sweep in soft through the grain. Even the few peasants are transfixed. Don Quixote holds; he breathes in the warmth of hot sun, and late summer’s breath. It’s warm kiss, a bit dry. The plateaus of season.

At Union Station, Don Quixote sat down and waited. And sighed. A trigger of clocks and diffuse light. Fluorescent, a path for no shadow. For once, Don Quixote is no longer followed, no longer shadowed. A relief, though a strange one. He flowers like petals, he fingers his hands. He singles, is singular. Sits there and breathes out his sameness.

Don Quixote. He lifts his right hand to his forehead, and covers his eyes. He lifts his slow hand, his eyes continue to white. Yellow sun an illusion. His eyes go to white. The hair on his chin circumvent, like a long jigsaw puzzle.

Don Quixote. His mind can be nothing else but pastiche. Some memories overlap, some connect and some don’t but they all still become. The sky fades to white. His head turns. Don Quixote. He turns. He turns and he tilts. Don Quixote, in spades. Sparks. Don Quixote rises, and falls. Don Quixote the bright white-light ceiling collides. He closes his eyes.

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com
Russell Bennetts co-founded Queen Mob's Teahouse in 2014.




Submit a comment