This week in the Future of Ottawa series, we’re taking a deep dive into Ottawa’s poetry scene—what it’s like now and where it’s headed. Read on for a guest post from rob mclennan on the future of small press publishing, or read posts from Ellen Chang-Richardson on the future of poets, and Jamaal Jackson Rogers on spoken word.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than 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 and 2017. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent poetry titles include A halt, which is empty (Mansfield Press, 2019) and Life sentence, (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019), with a further poetry title, the book of smaller, forthcoming from University of Calgary Press in 2022. 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 or on Twitter follow @robmclennanblog.
Apt613: What is the current landscape of the indie publishing scene in Ottawa?
rob mclennan: There is an expansiveness and openness to much of the community of writers in and around Ottawa, something that was as true thirty years ago, when I started paying attention, as it is now. There are presses and poets enough these days that it has become more difficult to keep track of them all, although I’ve been attempting to, especially through my series of weekly interviews with current and former Ottawa writers over at the Chaudiere Books blog.
Ottawa hosts numerous poet-run small journals and micro presses all across the city, including natalie hanna’s battleaxe press, Cameron Anstee’s Apt. 9 Press, Pearl Pirie’s phafour press, Marilyn Irwin’s shreeking violet press, Jeff Blackman’s Horsebroke Press, Amanda Earl’s AngelHousePress, Dessa Bayrock’s post ghost press, and jwcurry’s 1cent, all of which are producing stellar work by a growing population of creative folk around these parts.
Given that the annual VERSeFEST, an event that turned ten years old last March, is an event organized by the combined organizers of poetry events around Ottawa, I would say that we get along pretty well, especially compared to some other cities. The level of cooperation and collaboration here is something I’ve long appreciated. We don’t need to agree on everything; but there’s no reason why we can’t be supportive of each other.
In terms of the population of Ottawa writers: just off the top of my head, I could list Monty Reid, Stephen Brockwell, Christine McNair, Sandra Ridley, Marilyn Irwin, Pearl Pirie, David O’Meara, jwcurry, Christian McPherson, Shane Rhodes, Cameron Anstee, natalie hanna, IAN MARTIN, Jason Christie, Jennifer Falkner, Conyer Clayton, Mark Frutkin, Dessa Bayrock, Anita Dolman, Laurie Koensgen, Sandra Nicholls, Chris Johnson, Ronnie R. Brown, Rob Thomas, Amanda Earl, Claudia Coutu Radmore, Blaine Marchand, nina jane drystek, Anita Lahey, D.S. Stymeist, Ellen Chang-Richardson, Ian Roy, Gabriella Goliger, Kate Heartfield, Susan J. Atkinson, Ron Seatter, Frances Boyle, Mer Brebner, Matthew Firth, Elizabeth Hay, Sarah Kabamba, Gwendolyn Guth, Colin Morton, Mary Lee Bragg, Namitha Rathinappillai, Helen Robertson, Maha Zimmo, Rusty Priske, Chris Jennings, Nicola Vulpe, Jennifer Baker, Tim Mook Sang, David Groulx, Jean Van Loon, Missy Marston, and Deborah-Anne Tunney. On and on and on and on.
If you move through some of the sixteen issues and nearly two thousand pages of the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater you’ll get some sense of the wide range of work being produced in the city. There’s an incredible amount of work being done.
The level of cooperation and collaboration here is something I’ve long appreciated. We don’t need to agree on everything; but there’s no reason why we can’t be supportive of each other.
Normally I would suggest emerging writers try their hand at some of the open sets around the city, including The Tree Reading Series, but these are the days of COVID-19, after all. Bywords.ca posts a comprehensive listing of Ottawa-area activities, including readings, calls-for-submission and other notices, as well as seeking previously unpublished poems by current and former Ottawa-area poets. If you are writing and haven’t published yet, that might be a good place to begin.
If you care to make a prediction… Where is local independent publishing going in Ottawa in 2021?
I don’t know the answer to that question. There are certainly more people engaged in small publishing in Ottawa now than, say, ten or fifteen years ago, so that is certainly good. Although I remember that during the mid-1990s there were some two dozen poetry journals published within the boundaries of Ottawa, which is an incredibly large number, and this activity certainly hasn’t diminished in the intervening time (although most of those publications from that period, save Arc Poetry Magazine, have long been shuttered).
I like what some of those younger writers have been doing lately, including Johnson, Clayton, drystek, Bandukwala, Chang-Richardson, Bayrock, Kabamba, MARTIN, hanna, LaPierre and Robertson. I think they are certainly poets worth paying attention to, to see what they might just do next, whether individually or collectively.
Where in your wildest dreams could Ottawa’s poetry/publishing community go in your lifetime?
It would be nice if there was more (or in many cases, any) funding in place for some of these ventures. above/ground press doesn’t receive funding at all, mostly due to the fact that there isn’t funding for chapbook presses, but I manage to figure most of it out through annual subscriptions and other means.
I know Canthius was dealt a blow through the loss of Ontario Arts Council funding opportunities. It would be good if some of these ventures didn’t have to spend so much of their energies attempting to source funding for production and author payments instead of simply getting on with the work at hand. So much more could be accomplished.
It would be nice, also, if a trade literary publisher actually existed in this city, especially one that was open to publishing the slew of writers here doing such incredible work. Venues such as the Ottawa International Writers Festival, VERSeFest and the ottawa small press book fair provide some really good structural support for a number of these enterprises, but there’s only so much that can happen without direct financial support.
What is the best innovation to take place in small press publishing since you created ottawater in 2005?
I have enjoyed seeing further online journals pop up, including Amanda Earl’s experiment-o and podcast The Small Machine Talks, and Jason Christie’s n-o-b-o-d-y. I like the way Canthius has been expanding the print journal with reviews and other critical explorations, including expanding their online content, and the way that reading series’ have moved online due to COVID-19, including The Tree Reading Series and VERSeFest. But at the end of the day, I’m always going to favour the in-person event and the book or chapbook as physical object. I suppose I’m old-fashioned that way.
Who is the future of publishing in Ottawa?
Anyone who is willing to engage with the work. I can’t determine what anyone might do tomorrow. I can only see what is happening today.
Tell us something you wish somebody told you before you got started in publishing.
I learn best by doing, and spent a few years asking multiple others in the literary community about small publishing during my years as an emerging writer and publisher, so I don’t think I actually have anything I would offer my younger self. Well, maybe: keep going. But I think I was already doing that.
Back in 2015, Apartment613 took a look at the future of Ottawa across several different sectors. In 2021, we’re bringing the series back, asking experts, artists, and community leaders to shed some light on their local field or industry, as it stands now and where they think—or dream—it will go over the next few years. Every week we’ll profile a different cultural sector in Ottawa, leaving no niche unexplored—from social justice to theatre, bars to sports, to the future of the municipality and its natural environs. Keep an eye out for a new batch of posts every Tuesday on Apt613.ca.