25th Trillium Award

(Further) notes on the archive

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by rob mclennan

Months after I thought I would have been long finished the process of sorting my papers for the University of Calgary, unopened boxes still lay strewn around our little house. Between my office door and the baby?s room, four banker?s boxes of already-sorted materials have sat for nearly six months, file folders labelled and organized that I may never see again. Once I have a dozen or so, I?ll fill out forms to ship them west. Over forty boxes have already been sent out over the past two and a half years, and there is so much more to go through. In keeping everything, just what was I thinking?

A selection of items discovered include:

  • A notebook entry from April 24, 1993, the day I met Ottawa poet Michael Dennis.
  • A letter from Michael O?Connor from April 15, 1996, informing me that Montreal poet Ian Stephens had died.
  • An uncorrected proof for Lynn Crosbie?s Queen Rat: New and Selected Poems (House of Anansi, 1998)
  • A letter from George Bowering, dated September 27, 1996 (there are an enormous amount of letters from George Bowering, many of which include photographs of him, predominantly at baseball games).
  • A letter from Dennis Tourbin from 1993 describing his newly-revealed cancer, the tumour that eventually took him.
  • I?m intrigued at the fact that I can track so much of my interactions, recording far more than I might have thought, from personal interactions with writers to long-forgotten rejections to various publishers to abandoned works I don?t easily recall having written. The only downside of keeping everything?from correspondences, every paper manuscript draft, boxes of notebooks, event flyers, photographs, catalogues, small publications and publishing ephemera?apart from the obvious storage issue, is then having to actually sort through the bloody mess. The process is taking far longer than I might have imagined, and has provided some interesting recollections through a period of more than twenty years.

    I have long been a fan of archives, long understood their purpose and their power. Thanks to the late Gene Bridwell, I was able to wander the vault in the Simon Fraser University Archives in 1999 during the time jwcurry was there researching his bpNichol ?beepliography.? Imagine: they have one of the original typescripts of Allen Ginsberg?s "Howl," as well as a shelf dedicated to bpNichol?s Apple computer and diskettes. What will remain of me? What do I send, and what do I hold back? How do I help compose and articulate, through the space of the archive, what can?t help but become a kind of self-portrait?

    The purpose of the literary archive?including drafts of manuscripts, correspondences and other ephemera?are for the sake of attempting to understand the writing process of the specific writer, but what emerges, far more, is a portrait of the author themselves. And yet: should I even be considering such? Is to even think the thought a kind of narcissism that might miss the point?

    A third-hand story relates of Montreal poet Louis Dudek being reminded of a letter he wrote years earlier to his first wife, resulting in his destruction of the letter in front of horrified grad student and University archive staff. An apocryphal tale, perhaps, but it illustrates a point: am I to be editing or selecting for the sake of a particular idea I wish, and even don?t wish, to present? What might my accumulated papers end up saying? What do I wish to include, and what might I wish to keep here, close to the chest?

    If you were to go to Winnipeg and visit the archive of the late prairie poet Andrew Suknaski, consider the dozens of boxes of archive materials he destroyed in bonfires throughout the mid to late 1980s. Consider what is there, and what has been irrevocably lost.

    As part of a classroom appearance I did earlier this year at St. Jerome?s University in Waterloo, I talked about the idea of completeness in my literary archive, including elements that I might not wish to read or contemplate. For example: a box of correspondence between myself and a particular ex-girlfriend, sent off to archives, but locked away with a caveat: to remain unopened for another two or three decades. I wish to be complete, given how much that relationship impacted upon so much of what I was working on at the time. I wish to be complete, but I don?t wish to think about any of that for some time, until a time, perhaps, when it no longer matters to myself or anyone around me.

    In one box from the early 1990s, I discover a poem Ottawa poet Sylvia Adams composed and sent around the time she lived two doors away from myself, partner and toddler Kate. Dated July 4, 1993, this was also during the time I was putting together the first above/ground press publications, furiously soliciting, photocopying and collating an anthology of poetry, The FREE VERSE ANTHOLOGY, including a poem of hers:


    The young poet is tired, finding no poetry
    in photocopying, rhythm of feeding
    paper into machine, stressed
    by the unstressed hum, unrelenting
    greed in its pause as he refills
    the trough, its one eye winking
    conspiracy, lean and
    tuneless complicity
    of vicarious feasts

    Now that we?re settling into house and newborn Rose, I?ve been heading off to the homestead to collect the mounds of boxes still in storage there, held in my former bedroom. I return to Ottawa with a half-dozen boxes or more of paper, most of which are quickly sorted and organized into two bankers boxes to head off to the University of Calgary. A box or two of paperbacks is sorted into one pile to leave, and another to shelve. Christine reacts to incoming boxes with horror, fearful of being overrun, and yet: another mound of sorted paper falls into recycling, books slip onto shelves, and another box of books heads out to used bookstores. After twenty years or more, my father is relieved that I?m finally starting to begin, although six boxes are a mere fraction of what remains. And this begs the question: do these scraps provide portrait, or are they merely remains?

    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) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the forthcoming 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 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 http://robmclennan.blogspot.ca/.

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