email from K.I. Press to rob mclennan, April 7, 2007
Hi rob I've read a few times now your Alberta essay on TDR with great interest. It touches on a lot of things I'm writing but may never see the light of day. As a person who has not stayed in one place for very long (since I left my parents' house, no more than 5 years in one place at one time; in the past 10 years, that's 5 in Toronto, 1 in Vancouver, 2.5 in Edmonton and 1.5 in Winnipeg), the only place I am "from" remains Alberta, where I was born, grew up and went to school for many years (I am intimately familiar with the good ol' U of A English department). But no one, no one from Alberta, anyway, would think of me as an Alberta writer. In my mind, though, it is the only regional continuity I've got. This kind of moving around is pretty typical of many writers, I think. Not all, of course. But it kind of makes me wonder why CanLit gets such regional treatment a lot of the time, and if that regional treatment is starting to outlive its usefulness; still useful in some ways, but needs to evolve; more useful for studying writing of the past than for thinking about writing today. I'm very interested in the phenomenon of trying to be from somewhere (or not) when you aren't really from where you live. At the same time as you are not really from where you think you're from, at least, the people who still live where there would not say that you're from there. If you catch my drift. Is it just CanLit that is obsessed with geographical loyalty stuff? Or is it universal? Do writers in England do it? Hmm. It is easy to be a Toronto writer as soon as you get to Toronto. That's because in Toronto, almost no one is from Toronto. Everyone comes there from somewhere else, so you are just one of the gang. Being a Toronto writer is hard to shake, actually. I get the feeling that people are suspicious of it when I go elsewhere, especially in the west. But I digress. I was never a Vancouver writer in Vancouver or an Ottawa writer in Ottawa. I probably could have been, but I didn't try. I never went out and met any writers when I was there. I was too intent on the other reasons I was there (school). I rarely wrote about either city. Do you have to write about somewhere to be a "somewhere" writer? I appear to be sort of a Winnipeg writer, but sort of not. I certainly don't write about Winnipeg (I am writing mostly, it appears, about Alberta these days). I was promptly invited into the forthcoming special Winnipeg Poets issue of Prairie Fire. On the other hand, it was with dismay I learned that my book was not remotely eligible even to be submitted for a Manitoba Book Award. Apparently they have a rule that you have to have lived here for 3 years. (I know this is petty, but practical things like awards and grants make a difference to one's writing. One thing about moving from place to place: you are ineligible to apply for provincial grants for at least a year every time you move--longer if you just happen to have missed a deadline when you arrived. Just, incidentally, when you really could use the grant because you've just spent all your money on moving and don't have a job.) I am not and probably never will be a Prairie writer, despite being an Alberta writer. The landscape in my mind is north-western Alberta (though I rarely go there now). Even when I was in Edmonton becoming a writer and studying CanLit at the U of A, I could read all about people's theories of Prairie writing and not get it at all on a personal level. North-western Alberta has precious little to do with Prairie. I don't know what it has to do with anything. There are a lot of hills and trees. I think it might have something to do with northern interior BC. I also wonder how living in an intellectual bubble (as I often do; at universities, publishing companies, arts organizations or whatever) changes the way in which you are "from" somewhere. When I do go to north-western Alberta now, I feel less comfortable in it all the time. The Alberta in my mind, I was part of it; I remember things like getting a ride from my friend's mother and hearing on the radio that Trudeau had resigned, and the glee and rejoicing that occurred in that car, the utter hatred of damned easterners that there was in the Alberta of my childhood. My relationship to that side of Alberta has always been strained (my mother is Franco-Albertan, for one thing), but by this point in my life it is downright alien. (When I worked in publishing, I was working on a book on Trudeau once, and was telling some people in Alberta about it; it wasn't until I noticed the horrified stares that I realized how much I had forgotten). Is that why I can only be "from" where I grew up? Because everywhere else I've lived, I've mostly known only writers, professors, artists, and hippies; thus I never can never actually know what any other place is really like? rob, when I was a gentle youth living in Edmonton, I was taught to fear the Strath. Seriously. It might give me a panic attack to go in there. Do girls even go there? (I digress again, but your bit about Michael Londry's poem and the Strath made me smile). That's just two cents from me. Felt moved to respond. Have a nice day Karen
email from rob mclennan to K.I. Press, April 7, 2007
Extremely cool you were moved to respond; there was a lot that went into the piece, a lot more perhaps out of it, you know? Still, so much more to be covered. What are you working on that might never see light? What are the links?
Does it matter to you who thinks of you writer where, whether Toronto writer or Alberta writer or Winnipeg writer? Isn't it a matter of how you see yourself that really makes it? Maybe the regional treatment, as you say, has outlived its usefulness; perhaps its simply something that isn’t part of whatever it is you do, you know? I don’t necessarily feel myself strictly as "Ottawa" or "Glengarry writer" simply because I wrote down the words "Ottawa" or "Glengarry" somewhere; more a matter, I suppose, of being a writer & knowing that I as an individual identify with those places. Can you be a writer from a place without writing it down? Certainly. Can you be a writer of a place without currently living there? Of course. John Newlove considered himself a Saskatchewan poet the whole of his life, even though his last seventeen years were in Ottawa, & were also the longest he'd ever spent in one location. Andrew Suknaski will always be the poet of Wood Mountain. Did Eli Mandel become less a prairie poet by living all those years in Toronto & teaching at York? Was George Bowering less a British Columbian writer when he lived in the Niagara Region during his tenure as Parliamentary Poet Laureate?
So many of these notions of definition are certainly self-definition. It would be an interesting question to pose to a non-Canadian writer, to find out of our obsessions are the same as others. On the other side, did you know that Ken Babstock was eligible for an award in Newfoundland a few years ago, even though he moved away before he was a year old? They still considered him a Newfoundland writer, and eligible for the prize. Doesn’t that seem somehow odd? (Apparently not to them.) I know about the three year rule in various places; the Ottawa Public Library, for example, only purchases titles from me as a publisher by writers who have lived in the Ottawa area for a minimum of five years; how arbitrary does that seem?
Still, I've been thinking the last few years about writing geography and eventually not writing geography, perhaps getting it out of my system in a particular way, so I can deal with writing in a different direction afterwards. How does one almost erase subject, or alter it in some way? Does Christian Bök get affected by these same ideas, from his days as a student at Carleton University in Ottawa to living in Toronto to teaching out there in Calgary? Does his sense of himself as a writer equate with the geographies of his situations? I would say probably not, but that would only be me speculating, and I could be completely off. What about American poet Ron Silliman?
Doesn’t your view of living in different places for extended periods give you a sense of the country that, arguably, I would simply not comprehend? I mean, I've toured nearly a dozen times coast to coast, but have never really been in a place for anything more than tourist time; oh, to spend a month in New York or Toronto or Vancouver or Chicago. Oh, to spend a month in London (England, not Ontario; sorry, Niagara Region).
email from K.I. Press to rob mclennan, April 17, 2007
Okay - I have been working on a novel partly about how to reject where you are from, how to loose it, and what might motivate you to do that. The reason it may never see the light of day is that so far, it is terrible. But I am only on the 2nd draft. It's supposed to be terrible still. Right? For what I write, it doesn't really matter whether or not I'm an "x place" writer. I will write about whatever I am going to write about regardless. What place you are adjectively saddled with has much more to do with how other people see you and how The Machine works around you. The Ken Babstock/Newfoundland example is a case in point. I remember when his first book came out people (not everyone, but some people) were calling him a "Newfoundland writer" all over the place. I think is was just hip to be a Newfoundland writer at the time. The Machine needs writers to be attached to a place for a lot of reasons: criticism (often regionally organized), politics (divvying up of grant money), marketing (region-du-jour, see above), sales (poetry? way more chance of bookstore stocking it if you are a "local" poet); publicity (local media more interested in book a) about local things b) by home-grown writer). See your Ottawa Public Library example. Some of this is just a practical bureaucratic fact, like which province your driver's license is from. Some is, perhaps, excessive and unnecessary. Or, maybe not unnecessary. Would we rather that the bookstore didn't stock poetry at all, or is it better that they at least have some interest in things "local"? This happens in other art forms too. I do publicity stuff for musicians at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. We have to come up with a "home," almost always a single province, state or country, for each musician. This is not always easy. And sometimes not accurate. But I do suspect that it does matter for some writers, to varying degrees, and when you ask about whether I have a different perspective from you because of having seen different parts of the country in a different way, well yes, of course I do, this just maybe goes back to how it is more about the machine than what we actually do or don't think or write? As you also say, some writers don't have this geography obsession at all. Some kind of universal influence of geography? I think the influence of geography is completely fluid. If we have made categories out of it, it is for purposes other than writing. I think your Canadian/American query is worth pursuing, if nation takes this to a whole new level or if, the opposite, makes it just more pointless. Global village and all that. I probably have more daily interaction with writers in Toronto and Vancouver and elsewhere via the internet than I do writers here in Winnipeg. That is probably just saying what a computer-addicted, shut-in, stay-at-home nerd I am. But still. Even when you are talking about writing community, it doesn't necessarily have to be local. Karen
email from rob mclennan to K.I. Press, May 10, 2007
One can argue that leaving home and removing yourself from that idea, rejecting home is a part of everyone's life; you have to reject your parents, your previous life, to get a sense of just who you are, etcetera. And just as you reject it and become yourself, you end up getting a far clearer picture of what it means to be of that previous place; some choose to return (whether emotionally, physically or intellectually, or combination thereof), and others choose to remain as far away as possible. I remember suggesting there are a number of versions of what folk call "home," including what you remember, what it actually was, and what it is now. There doesn’t necessarily need to be overlap at all in that mix.
Thanks to things like travel, McLuhan's "global village" and the fact that books can be mailed wherever you'd like, the whole notion of "community" of writers can have absolutely nothing to do with the local. You can engage with works that are hundreds or even thousands of miles away from you, and still be as engaged if you were right next door. The idea of "community" gets pretty spread out. Toronto has to be a magnificent hub of all sorts of activity because of it, including whole swaths of what couldn’t exist in any other city than Toronto (jwcurry said recently that there were more "avant-garde writers" in Toronto in the 1970s and 1980s per capita than anywhere else on the planet). Ottawa has it's fair share too, but for the population being smaller, the threads that come through seem an equal amount, but those that latch onto them are fewer; we don’t have enough people here to stylistically "group," I don’t think, but we engage each other pretty well. Far different than writers who might group around filling Station / dANDelion magazines in Calgary, or anyone around Prairie Fire. Still, bpNichol and Andrew Suknaski were publishing visual/concrete poems in journals on other continents in the 1960s and 1970s; just them knowing about these options before the advent of the internet and email shows just how well a community can work beyond the boundaries of geography.
Part of the question remains, what does it mean to be of a place? What does it mean to be a writer of that place? I think to be a writer of that place or even of that place as any other kind of human is how you personally engage with that place; if I were to go somewhere else & refuse to engage with that place in any way, I don’t think I would be of that place at all. When I head west I want to let the province enter under my skin; I have never left home, in a strange kind of way (I should really read The Illiad before I leave…), so the ideas of leaving home/travel/arriving home are very much in my mind for my eight months of Edmonton; I'm toying with writing a memoir of the experience, from that point of view of leaving and returning; what does it mean to be Alberta? What does it mean to be an Alberta writer? What does it mean to be from any other place? What does anything mean?
When I first started doing reading tours, the most fun aspect of it all was asking what a particular place was like; how many people live here? What do they do for work? I always thought that if I wasn’t willing to ask the questions to try to learn about another place, I should have just stayed home; you know?
Six or seven years ago in Ottawa, I felt my immediate community far less local, engaging more with Jon Paul Fiorentino and derek beaulieu and Stephen Cain than with anyone here, in any real way; there was no real sense for me of anyone interacting in the same way with any of the same reading interests or writing goals, etcetera. Since then its shifted a bit, with Stephen Brockwell, Amanda Earl, Sandra Ridley, Nicholas Lea, Monty Reid, Max Middle, Roland Prevost and John Lavery. Part of what has helped has been the invention of such things as my ottawater annual, the ottawa poetry newsletter, Poetics.ca or our Peter F. Yacht Club writers group and magazine. But what does that have to do with place? What does that have to do with geography? The late American stand-up comic Bill Hicks was once asked if he was a proud American, and saying he was only really an American because his parents fucked there once. How arbitrary is that? Are all of these conversations since simply creating meaning out of simple accidents of birth?
Who are the writers (not necessarily physically) that you consider part of your enterprise? Who are the writers you feel connect to what it is you're doing, and trying?
What is it about geography that sticks? Why does it stick in our craw so badly that we have to talk about it constantly? I heard somewhere that Canadians are infamous for being the only people on the planet constantly talking about the weather; could it be related? Do we simply have too much space around us that we have to talk about it? Is it because we didn’t live through a civil war, or go through a "manifest destiny" that we simply have nothing else to talk about? What are the concerns of British poets, American poets, Chinese poets? Do they talk about the weather? Do we need a new question?
In a piece in the new issue of Open Letter (Thirteenth Series, Number 2, spring 2007), Frank Davey writes about some of the same concerns, if the whole question of "here" should be a past-tense argument; shouldn’t there be another question? Davey includes part a thread of that argument as the second footnote for his piece "Canadian Revisions of the Labyrinth," writing:
In 1965 Northrop Frye proposed "where is here" as the central question of anglophone-Canadian literature ("Conclusion," 826). That proposal has provoked
numerous challenges including most recently the implicit argument that the growing recognition of the multicultural has made the question of "who is here" a more relevant one. See, for example, Tom Stacey in "Who Calls: A Qu'Appelle Quest" (Regina: Mendel Art Gallery website, 2002 http://quapelle.mendel.ca/en/tales/land/whocalls/>, accessed January 29, 2006), who supplement's Frye's question with his own "Who Calls" and "Who is here?", or Karis Shearer in "The Poetics of Autobiography: Lynn Crosbie's "Alphabet City" (Open Letter 12:5, 2005) who argues that Crosbie reshapes Frye's "Where is here?" into "the more personally relevant "Who is here?", or the special issue of Essays on Canadian Writing titled "Where Is Here Now?" (Fall 2000) in which Renee Hulan replaces Frye's question with "Who's There" (63) and Diana Brydon, in an essay titled "It's Time for a New Set of Questions," replaces it with "What Are We Doing Here?" (14). See also Richard Cavelle's argument about Frye's question that Canadians may now have "entered into a new critical context that is asking us to consider new questions" ("World Famous Across Canada, or TransNational Globalities," TransCanada Conference website, 2005, http://www.transcanadas.ca/cavell.shtml#proposal, accessed June 25, 2005). Also of relevance in its swerve from Frye's emphasis on determinative geography to an emphasis on the social is Peter Dickinson's statement in Here is Queer (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1999) that he has chosen "not simply to replace [Frye's] rhetorical question "Where is here" …with another equally rhetorical one of my own, but rather, to provide one possible (polemical?) answer to it: 'here is queer'" (38).