Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Profile on Gil McElroy, with a few questions

 
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Gil McElroy. Photo courtesy of Talonbooks.

By rob mclennan

Colbourne, Ontario poet, writer and curator Gil McElroy?s ongoing poetic project weaves itself through four trade poetry collections, each published by Vancouver publisher TalonbooksOrdinary Time (2011), Last Scattering Surfaces (2007), NonZero Definitions (2004) and Dream Pool Essays (2001). McElroy's publishing history is a bit deceptive, given that his work appeared throughout journals, anthologies and chapbook presses for some three decades before Karl Siegler at Talonbooks took a look at his work and became the first trade publisher to actually commit to publishing McElroy's writing. Still, anyone with any passing knowledge of McElroy's previous work might start noticing a series of patterns emerging, from the extended sequences, the abstract punctuations of time and geography, to poems on comets, constellations and other cosmic bodies. Also, there's the sequence that has run through all of his trade collections so far, ?Some Julian Days,? an ongoing series of poems in a ?day book? style titled using the days of the Julian Calendar, such as the poem ?2448263.? It would seem as though, for McElroy, the concept of the ?day book? is firmly placed within the abstract, holding in all moments concurrently.

His upcoming title, also from Talonbooks, is the prose memoir Cold Comfort: Growing Up Cold War (2012). It incorporates threads that have appeared throughout his poetry, of growing up an army brat at various military bases and, as the title suggests, coming of age far closer to the front lines than most of the ?Cold War.? While expanding his repertoire through prose and personalizing much of his previously touched-upon ideas of nationalism, history, home and family, Cold Comfort: Growing Up Cold War links directly to his most recent poetry collection, Ordinary Time, the first section of which, ?Chain Home,? refers to the Cold War ?DEW (Distant Early Warning) line? that ran across northern parts of Canada, a radar-tracking system designed to detect potential Soviet invaders. Writing around and through some of the military?s radar code words, ?Chain Home? references both the World War Two chain of early warning radar stations and McElroy's upbringing as an army brat, linking connection to connection back to a place he might have considered, if only briefly, home.

Q: I?m interested in how you construct individual collections. Do you see them as individual units, sections of a larger life-long project, or as a collection of ongoing threads?

A: ?Threads? is exactly the right word. I've long been partial to textile metaphors, many of which figure in the metaphors of cosmology, a particular interest of mine. My interests — poetic and otherwise — are, however, quite disparate; I draw on many different fields of interest to feed myself and my poetry. There are many threads that constitute my work. Poems weaves a sequence, and sequences weave a book.

I like the metaphor of weaving as broadly descriptive of how a poem sequence might come together at, say, the more ?microscopic? scale, and a book on a more ?macroscopic? level, and I've long been quite partial to philosopher Gregory Bateson's concept of the ?pattern that connects.? My first mentor, the North Bay poet Ken Stange, was fiercely committed to working at the scale of the book, so I'm sure some of that rubbed off on me.

Q: How do you think your writing has changed over the years, from when you were producing chapbooks in the 1980s and 90s to publishing trade collections with Talonbooks?

A: The first three books of poetry that Talon published — Dream Pool Essays (2001), NonZero Definitions (2004) and Last Scattering Surfaces (2007) included poem sequences that I'd written as far back as the 1980s and 1990s, so I guess it's probably up to others to distinguish the more recent from the older work. Me, I see a rather continuous gradation, not discrete jumps, between my work of thirty years ago and what I'm writing now, but I'm far to close to things to get a good overview. I know that my concerns and interests and what I'm trying to accomplish haven't changed substantially at all. Perhaps there has been some slight shift in the voice. I took me many years to learn how to use the ?I? properly.

Anything closely imagined as a major change in my work probably has to do with physical and poetic scale. There's an enormous difference between the chapbooks I self-produced — most of which were only a few pages in length — and a manuscript running over 100 pages. I get to weave tapestries now.

Q: How long have you been where you are, and has it made a difference in the way that you write?

A: Heather and I have lived in the village of Colborne (pop. 2000) now for eleven years, moving here to care for her elderly mother. I'm by no means a city boy, but I've never lived as an adult in such a small community and for the first couple of years absolutely hated it.

That's all changed. Margaret died in 2004, and we stayed on. I?ve grown to quite love the rural quality of life, even as it shifts and changes under the impact of nearby Toronto (about 100 kilometres or so distant). More and more it becomes a bedroom community for The City (though not as drastically as have many other communities along the 401 corridor, probably having to do with the presence of a quarry just at the edge of the village that is a going concern), but for now I enjoy my encounters with the vultures, wild turkeys, coyotes and red-tail hawks, and watching the track of the rising sun and stars as they shift through the cycle of the year. They're necessary presences in my life.

As I've begun to experience a real sense of place for the first time in my life (I grew up a military brat, always on the move, and even as an adult had a hard time staying in one place for too long), it?s consequently begun to figure in my work in a more direct way. The 26 poems constituting ?A Colborne Psalter? is the first poem sequence demonstrative of that shift.

Q: What made you write a memoir? There are links to it in your last poetry collection, but what made you write out the rest in prose?

A: Honestly, I hadn?t set out to write a memoir. One day back in 2005 I simply sat down and started writing down some memories of my father and my family's life moving from one military site to another that I hadn't recalled in a very long time simply because I figured that they would slip beneath the surface and never come to mind again. After I?d accumulated a number of them, it was only that I began to see something larger — a story about our lives and the unknowing that framed how my sisters and I grew up. The fact that my father?s career in the military spanned the entirety of WWII and the Cold War made, I thought, for an interesting framing narrative as it involved important aspects of Canada's Cold War military engagement both domestically and abroad that have largely been forgotten. After his death in 1998, I was given a box of his photographs, dating back to WWII, and so I began this journey to try and figure out who this enigmatic person was that I barely knew based on photographs he'd taken at his military postings (some quite remote, and some quite secret). So Cold Comfort: Growing Up Cold War became a book.

The poem sequence ?Chain Home? which is based on a number of surveillance technologies of WWII and the Cold War (many of which my father was involved with) actually came quite suddenly in the midst of all of this, as I saw another way I could articulate this sense of unknowing. I wrote it in less than a week, and it came out rather whole; it only required minor tweeks. And again, it?s demonstrably about unknowing.



Look for Cold Comfort: Growing Up Cold War in stores on May 22.


Born in Metz, France, poet Gil McElroy grew up on air force bases in Canada and the United States. He studied English Literature at Queen?s University in Ontario. His poems and other works have been published in countless periodicals throughout North America since the late 1970s; issued in a number of self-published chapbooks, broadsheets, and one-of-a-kind book works; and anthologized in Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993?2003 (Broken Jaw Press, 2003), Side/Lines: A New Canadian Poetics (Insomniac Press, 2003) and Written in the Skin (Insomniac Press, 1999). He currently lives in Colborne, Ontario with his wife Heather.


Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) 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.

Photo of rob mclennan by Stephen Brockwell

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