25th Trillium Award

Notes on the Archive

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rob mclennan's office, 2012

By rob mclennan

Having spent the past eighteen months sorting, preparing and sending forty boxes to the University of Calgary, I can now say with some certainty that, from the author?s perspective at least, a literary archive is a very strange thing. I think of Allen Ginsberg?s literary archive at Stanford University, Christopher Dewdney?s archives at McMaster University, John Newlove and Andrew Suknaski?s archives at the University of Manitoba, or derek beaulieu, George Bowering and bpNichol?s extensive archive at Simon Fraser University, which includes Nichol?s old Apple computer. These are the documents of the productive stretches of their writing lives: writing letters, poems, essays and everything else. Did you know that the Archives at Simon Fraser University also include one of the original scrolls of Ginsberg?s Howl?

Anyone who recalls my previous apartment on Somerset Street West knows that it overflowed with boxes of paper archives. I?ve got material going back to the late 1980s, a great deal of which has already been sorted and reorganized into banker?s boxes, a mound of paper recycling, and even the occasional book recovered to our growing bookshelves. What does it all mean? I can honestly say I saved almost everything, waiting just for this moment. I?ve saved every draft of manuscripts, including many failed, halted and abandoned projects, drafts of editorial projects, proofs of published books and chapbooks, above/ground press originals, multiple letters (incoming and outgoing), scraps of reading materials, newspaper articles, photographs, rejection letters, submitted poems, numerous postcards and reading flyers. My past decade-plus of letter writing have also included two printed copies of every letter composed ? one to send, and another to keep.

Now I work through boxes in the storage unit we?re soon giving up, and boxes left in my former bedroom on the homestead, some opened for the first time in more than a decade. Some since the very early 1990s. My father is visibly relieved, and rooms on the homestead and in our current apartment both begin to breathe. Soon I?ll leave another message to UPS to collect another eight or so banker?s boxes from our entranceway.

Archives are kept to help understand how work might have been created, and to record and acknowledge a particular stretch of activity. Will anyone care about mine? It?s a strange thing, to archive into a public space the documents of more than half my life. What kind of portrait will this archive paint? What does the accumulation say about me, as artist or human being? I pour through notebooks to salvage unutilized sections and lines, before they finally slip away into another completed box. Twenty-six published trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction in half a dozen countries, and perhaps two dozen manuscripts more (including about a half dozen or so of abandoned works), each with multiple working drafts, file folders of false attempts, scraps and variations, pushing toward a particular polish. Two dozen book projects as editor, half of which I?m publisher of as well, with correspondences and manuscripts there as well. Nearly seven hundred publications through twenty years of above/ground press. I?ve kept it all. What does any of it mean? Stacks of juvenilia produced well before my first trade collections appeared, writing I?ve made a point of not rereading before I include it for archiving. How can one provide an incomplete portrait?

I?ve long considered that the benefit of my particular literary archive is that it allows a record of a series of activities, not simply my own individual writing, including editorial and curatorial works, from my tenure running The TREE Reading Series, and ongoing works through above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, ottawater, the ottawa small press book fair and The Factory Reading Series.

I?m reminded of the generosities provided me over the years, through the correspondence with both peers and elders throughout my twenties. How to make public out of such private? Correspondences between myself and George Bowering, Joe Blades, Elizabeth Hay, Diana Brebner, Ken Norris, Laurie Fuhr, Nelson Ball, George Elliott Clarke, D.G. Jones, Judith Fitzgerald, Lea Graham, Henry Beissel, Sylvia Adams, derek beaulieu, R.M. Vaughan and Anne Stone, among so many others. Conversations that have fueled the continuation of whatever it was I was attempting to do, which was write. Handwritten notes from George Elliott Clarke predominantly on hotel stationary, from hotels across Europe; notes from George Bowering, on the other hand, often on hotel stationary as well, but from around Vancouver, including the infamous Sylvia Hotel (where Dr. Gould, uncle of pianist Glenn, treated the dying American actor Errol Flynn). For some reason, missives from Bowering almost always included a snapshot of him, usually in the stands at a baseball game, sporting a grin and the appropriate ballcap.

I know that there were revelations that provided a different perspective on Mordecai Richler, as presented in the most recent biography. A letter he wrote his mother that was never sent, discovered deep in the archive, sealed. I don?t know how revelatory any of my items might be, but I slip my own secrets in as well (of the beige sort, I?m sure), with the rare bit I decide to exclude. I am not doing that kind of selective editing, removing what I might not wish to think about. It is what it is, and needs to remain honest.

In an interview I can?t seem to find, Lisa Robertson discussed composing poems included in her Magenta Soul Whip (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2009) from lines from her donated journals/notebooks, in the possession of the archives at the Simon Fraser University. Did the fact that the journals were no longer hers alter the way in which she read her own words? How will I consider my own, if I?m ever to enter the archive to read? This is not just about making space in our little apartment. In so many ways, I?m still getting used to the fact that my titles are available in bookstores, both new and antiquarian, or libraries; still getting used to the fact that people I might never meet have access to reading my work.

I am interested in what gets put in, and what gets left out, including files I?m convinced I?m not done with yet, or photos from a friend?s wedding, drawings from my daughter or notes from her mother. Everyone else seems fair game, but these two, somehow, feel exempt. Still, it would seem that the archive I?ve put together is far more than a record of activity, but of a series of relationships. I?ve found things I?ve long forgotten about: the collaborative renga I composed with Dean Irvine, Shane Rhodes and Richard Carter at The Royal Oak Pub, Ottawa, on July 16, 2002; a copy of Andy Weaver?s MA thesis (a poetry manuscript, dated 1997); various snapshots including the one Joe Blades took of me in front of Molly?s Reach, Gibson?s Landing, B.C. in 1996; the letter from Insomniac Press publisher Michael O?Connor informing me that Ian Stephens had died.

I discover long-forgotten notes and letters from Jane Rule, John Newlove and Andrew Suknaski. Still engaged in the process, what else might I find? And then this, a small poem from former Montrealer Andy Brown, dated April 3, 2001:

                                fr rob mclennan
Andrew Marvel

(with only one word)


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). Spring 2014 sees the publication of The Uncertainty Principle: stories (Chaudiere Books). 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 http://robmclennan.blogspot.ca/.

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