“Far too many first-time chapbook-makers aren’t utilizing exchange. It not only broadens distribution, but opens the possibility of both expanding one’s reading, and one’s potential community. One should never be stingy with chapbooks; their inexpensive quality, at least for me, is part of the entire point.”
Four Stories (Apostrophe Press, 2016)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
That’s a huge question, so I can only answer in fragments. Some examples, both recent and otherwise, might include Rosmarie Waldrop’s In Pieces (O’clock Press, 2015), Inger Wold Lund’s Leaving Leaving Behind Behind (Ugly Duckling Press, 2015), Marilyn Irwin’s the blue, blue there (Apt. 9 Press, 2015), Hailey Higdon’s How To Grow Almost Everything (Agnes Fox, 2011), Sarah Mangold’s Parlor (Dusie, 2011), Dawn Pendergast’s leaves fall leaves (dusie, 2011), Robert Kroetsch’s Lines written in the John Snow house (housepress, 2002), Revisions of Letters Already Sent (disOrientation books 1993) and The Lost Narrative of David Thompson & Ten Simple Questions for David Thompson (Wrinkle Press, 2009), Marcus McCann’s Shut Up Slow Down Let Go Breathe (dusie, 2015), Megan Kaminski’s This Place (dusie, 2013), Lydia Davis` The Cows (Sarabande Books, 2011), John Newlove’s Three Poems (Gorse Press, 1985) and George Bowering’s Quarters (Gorse Press, 1991), and then, of course, multiple titles produced by Stuart Ross, jwcurry, Monty Reid, Cameron Anstee, Gary Barwin and Nelson Ball. There are most likely others I’m forgetting at the moment.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
I am not interested in remaining static.
If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
That would be too many to count. I’ve published well over a hundred chapbooks with a dozen or two different presses.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
The chapbook Four Stories is a selection, as opposed to a composition; I’ve been working on a collection of short stories since 2010, and keep hoping that I’m only six months away from completing (I’ve been in this position for about three years now). Generally, the stories have each gone through extensive revision, sometimes daily, over a period of months. Given how dense the stories are, each word has to have a reason for being there, and it must be the right word. I’ve been learning how to not be in a hurry, while pushing as hard as possible to get every word in the right place.
The four stories here are a selection from a handful of pieces in the manuscript that have seen journal publication. There are some threads and repetitions through the larger manuscript-in-progress that there wasn’t the space for, in selecting only four stories, so I tried to select four pieces that played well off each other, without too much overlap.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
I like the simplicity of the title. I find it reminiscent of Sheila Watson’s Open Letter issue, “Five Stories” (which later appeared with Coach House Press in 1984). I didn’t want to complicate anything by coming up with a title that read as arbitrary, and I didn’t want to use the work-in-progress title, both for not wishing to confuse, and because I didn’t think it really fit.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
What are you working on now?
I’m slowly putting a poetry manuscript together, titled Cervantes’ bones, my short story manuscript, On Beauty (from which this chapbook is selected), and eventually returning to my post-mother memoir-in-progress, The Last Good Year. Once all of this is out of the way, I can get back to my novel.
I`m working on a small mound of new above⁄ground press poetry chapbooks, including new titles by Reneé Sarojini Saklikar (Vancouver), Sean Braune (Toronto), Kristjana Gunnars (BC), Pete Smith (Kamloops BC), John Barton (Victoria BC), Sarah Mangold (WA), Katie L. Price (Philadelphia), Robert Hogg (Ottawa), and Sarah Burgoyne (Montreal), as well as new issues of the poetry journal Touch the Donkey and our writer`s group occasional, The Peter F. Yacht Club.
We`re also putting the final production elements together for an anthology of experimental Calgary writing we`re publishing this spring, The Calgary Renaissance (Chaudiere Books), co-edited by myself and derek beaulieu.
There are a couple of other projects kicking around as well, but one has to be realistic about what one is actually working on, while being home full-time with a two-year-old and a two-month-old.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Read as much and as widely as possible. Write as much as possible, and take risks. Don’t be afraid of rejection. Be more patient than you’ve ever been. Give yourself a decade or two in which to become really interesting (and then keep going).
What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?
Roughly the same as the previous question. Be curious. Try things. And be open to exchange. Far too many first-time chapbook-makers aren’t utilizing exchange. It not only broadens distribution, but opens the possibility of both expanding one’s reading, and one’s potential community. One should never be stingy with chapbooks; their inexpensive quality, at least for me, is part of the entire point.
What music do you listen to as you work and write?
During much of the composition of fiction over the past year, I had David Bowie’s Heroes on permanent repeat. I’ve long been partial to Grant Lawrence’s CBC Radio 3 podcasts (brilliant). There are also a number of other albums I’ve got in the queue that sit on permanent repeat for weeks at a time. I find selecting new music during writing sessions to be a distraction, and ‘replay’ is the least complicated option; and yet, radio doesn’t work, if there’s a song I don’t like, which knocks me out of my thoughts entirely.
What was the last book you read that made you stop reading, just for a moment even, because you didn’t want it to be over?
Lorrie Moore’s Bark (2014). Toward. Some. Air., eds. Fred Wah and Amy De’Ath (Banff Centre Press, 2015). Lisa Ciccarello’s At Night (Black Ocean, 2015).
Why the chapbook? What made it the right format for your work?
I’ve always been fond of the short form. I spent my twenties composing chapbook-sized works before eventually evolving into composing book-length works. My chapbooks since then have predominantly been made up of elements that have been selected from larger manuscripts-in-process.
I like the inexpensive quality of chapbooks, also. I can afford to produce a good number, mail out a bunch, and even hand out or trade. It becomes far more difficult to be able to afford to do the same with books.
How has your writing and writing practiced evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?
My writing process has become slower, and far more methodical. After twenty-five years of daily practice, I’m far less in a hurry to call something complete. Some of the stories in the manuscript-in-progress took more than two years to complete.
Moons ago, I would start at the beginning, and write chronologically. Now my poems tend to begin somewhere in the middle and expand outwards. Fiction is composed in fragments that are endlessly carved and re-sorted into a narrative order.
What kinds of writing that aren’t poetry or fiction help you to write?
I’ve 7,000 comic books, and watch an enormous amount of television, from sitcoms to drama to talk shows to documentaries. Watching Brian Michael Bendis’ ten-year run destroying and rebuilding The Avengers titles was absolutely genius, and taught me much about the episodic long-form. I always got a bit more work on fiction after watching episodes of Mad Men, and found the movie Smoke (1995) rather generative as well. Neil Gaiman, especially through The Sandman, is the best storyteller I think I’ve read. I do rather miss the conversations in episodes of Inside the Actor`s Studio; I found many of them paralleled considerations of literary writing. Even after a half-decade or so, I`m annoyed that Bravo Canada took it off the air (I still can`t figure out where else to watch it).
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?
Ken Sparling, Lorrie Moore, Jean McKay, Lydia Davis, Sarah Manguso, John Lavery, Dany Laferrière, Etgar Keret, Sheila Heti, Miranda July, Michael Ondaatje.
Patience. Everything takes its own time.
What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
Daily practice. That, and toddler naps.
The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, rob mclennan 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 title is the chapbook Four Stories (Apostrophe Press, 2016). An editor and publisher, he runs above⁄ground press and Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), the online journals ottawater, The Garneau Review and seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics, and the print journals Touch the Donkey and The Peter F. Yacht Club. 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
order Four Stories here
What frightens us most isn’t death, but its result: absence. Memory shapes and makes us, constantly shifting and changing. We are never the same for very long. If humans the only animal with a connection to even the concept of history, how couldn’t absence overwhelm? We dream up vampires, ghosts, the zombie apocalypse.
The dark side of longing. We won’t allow our dead to disappear.
From Romanian folk tales, we learn that suspected vampires were buried in rice-packed coffins. If the dead were to rise, they would first be compelled to pause, to count every grain. The cemetery caretaker would have time to act, decapitate the corpse with a shovel. Separately, bury the head.
These stories fail to explain why vampires have such innate compulsion, or how a craving for blood relates to numbers. A possible blood count. On Sesame Street, the purple-skinned Transylvanian, Count von Count, rolled numbers off his felt tongue with ease. More often, without invitation, or ability to stop. Obsessed.
For the record: I hate the zombie apocalypse. If there is an apocalypse, it will come from the living.
(from “Character sketch”)