#CouncilSpotlight - rob mclennan

Jenna Brown

The Ottawa Arts Council supports artists and arts organizations through leadership, guidance and the provision of opportunities to advance our local creative potential.

Our series #CouncilSpotlight presents stories and experiences of Arts Council members and art award recipients.

rob mclennan received the Ottawa Arts Council Mid-Career Artist Award in 2014

Where are you from?

I’m originally from a dairy farm roughly a forty-five minute drive east, just outside of Maxville, Ontario. I returned to Ottawa, the city of my birth, in 1989, after graduating high school. Now my wife Christine and I own a house on Alta Vista Drive, near where my mother spent her teen years and much of her twenties. We live almost directly across from the church where my parents married.

How did you get involved in the Ottawa arts community?

I started attending readings, such as The TREE Reading Series, around 1992 or so, and began my own reading series, The Factory Reading Series, the following January. My chapbook press, above/ground press, followed some six months after that.

How would you describe your artistic practice/discipline?

Unrelenting. I began writing full-time in the very early 1990s, after reading something that Margaret Atwood wrote, suggesting that if you wanted full-time out of it, you had to put full-time into it.

I write and publish poetry, fiction, essays, book reviews and conduct numerous interviews. I organize occasional readings as The Factory Reading Series, and organize the semi-annual ottawa small press book fair, which I co-founded in 1994. I edit and publish numerous online journals and other projects, and produce chapbooks along with three different journals under the umbrella of above/ground press, which celebrated twenty-five years of continuous production last year. I have two poetry books out this year (one with a Canadian press, and another with an Irish press), and another out most likely in spring with an American publisher. My enthusiasm often outweighs, and even fuels, my energy, resources and time.


What impact has your involvement with the arts/the Ottawa arts community had on your life?

Ottawa has had an enormous impact upon my life and my practice. The community is active, vibrant and welcoming, which is wonderful to engage with and be a part of. The lack of media and funding for so many years that forced numerous Ottawa-area writers and artists to move away for support and employment also directly forced many who remain to become more attentive to the requirements of community: publishing books, journals and chapbooks; organizing events, promoting events, writers and books; conducting interviews; and for pushing for further funding, infrastructures and media attention for local arts and artists. The creation of the Ottawa International Writers Festival in 1997 made a huge difference. The creation, finally, of a larger version of The Ottawa Art Gallery as well. I’m one of the founding (and still active) members of the annual VERSeFest Poetry Festival, which recently celebrated nine years this past March with an incredible series of readings, talks and performances. One of the projects we spearheaded, as well, as VERSe Ottawa, was to convince the City of Ottawa to support two poets laureate, one in English and one in French. At our most recent festival, we announced our second pair of Ottawa laureates: Deanna Young and Margaret Michèle Cook.

Is there a specific moment/situation in your art career that you remember fondly?

Most of my best memories are focused on the human components. While my days for the past nearly thirty years have been built around getting as much work done as possible (and more recently, around the requirements of small children), what I remember best are the interactions I’ve had with people, much of which has only been possible through my engagement with writing and publishing. The reading tour I did around Ireland in 2002 with my pal, Ottawa poet Stephen Brockwell, was plenty memorable. Another reading tour took me to Vancouver, where I was able to talk through a whole post-reading night with then-Kamloops writer Clare Latremouille, reading organizer Tom Snyder and the since-passed legendary Vancouver poet Gerry Gilbert, until we watched the sun rise slowly ease over the mountains from a warehouse rooftop. The writing is the goal, but the recollections emerge from who I’ve been able to spend time with. And then there was the day, a dozen or so years ago at The Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, that I was able to spend most of an afternoon with the since-passed Toronto writer Paul Quarrington: glorious.

Although: standing on the main stage to perform as part of the tenth year of Elaina Martin’s Westfest was pretty damned cool.

Do you have any advice for artists in the Ottawa community or artists in general?

Participate. Or as jwcurry once claimed as an important goal: “remain interested.”

What are you currently working on?

I’m shopping around a manuscript of short stories, and, since January, I’ve been working on a manuscript of poems, as well as another manuscript of poems that begun last year. I’m working on a handful of poetry book reviews, a slew of interviews, and the spring edition of the ottawa small press book fair, which occurs at Jack Purcell Community Centre on Elgin Street on June 22nd. I’m working on producing another half dozen poetry chapbooks through above/ground press (the press produced sixty-seven chapbooks last year, for example), and the next three issues of Touch the Donkey [a small poetry journal]. I used to work on more things at once (there’s a novel manuscript I sure would like to get back to), but I’ve been home full-time with children since the birth of our wee girls, who are now three and five and a half, respectively. Now I also work on school/preschool pick-ups, drop-offs and laundry, school lunches, reading stories, etcetera.

What was it like to receive an award from the Ottawa Arts Council? How do you think it will impact your career?

Well, it was a couple of years ago, but I’d say the impact was two-fold: from the very specific advantage of having some more cash in my pocket (to pay bills, naturally), to the more abstract advantage of feeling appreciated from not only my immediate Ottawa community, but the larger community of Ottawa-area writers and artists. And it felt very odd to have Mayor Jim Watson, seated beside me during the ceremony, tell me he had a good feeling about me winning, when I didn’t think I stood a chance. “I appreciate that,” I think I responded, “but I don’t believe you.”

Visit rob's website

Join us on May 7 for our 2019 Arts Awards presentation!