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Photo of rob mclennan by Emma Derochie

Tour de blogosphere: rob mclennan, Ottawa’s prolific literary treasure

By Alejandro Bustos on April 13, 2013

Local writer rob mclennan has had a profound impact on Ottawa’s literary scene.  The author of 26 books, including two novels, the non-fiction work Ottawa: The Unknown City (a must read, if you want to get to know the city’s little secrets), and numerous volumes of poetry, he has also published, interviewed and reviewed the work of a large number of his fellow wordsmiths. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that he has promoted hundreds of writers from the National Capital Region and beyond, many of whom would not have received much publicity – if any – otherwise.

In addition to his regular writing, mclennan is a prolific blogger. When interviewing him for this story, I told him that I subscribe to hundreds of blogs, and joked that on certain days I feel that he writes more posts than I read. His main blog, which was launched in 2003, is certainly one of the most important literary sites in Ottawa, and arguably among the best in Canada. While the blog contains information on his writing career, it also has many interviews with other authors and numerous book reviews.

“I wanted to have a website where you could find everything that I am writing,” he tells me in a phone interview.  “But I also didn’t want it to be focused solely on me.” This goal has definitely been met, as mclennan estimates that he has interviewed around 800 writers since starting to publish author interviews online in 2007.

While his blog covers poetry extensively, it also discusses other genres, such as the recent interviews with U.S. comic book artist Howard Chaykin and Canadian short-story writer Tamas Dobozy.  “I have around 7,000 comic books so I am not just into poetry,” says mclennan, whose name is spelled all lowercase.

His blogging work, however, is not limited to his main blog, which is accompanied by an online index site. Thanks to his distinguished career as a publisher, he created a blog for Above / Ground Press, the Ottawa-based publisher that he created in 1993 and which has published hundreds of poetry chapbooks. He also manages the blog for Chaudiere Books, a second local publishing house that he co-founded and which releases poetry, fiction and short stories.

Photo by Christine McNair

“There is this view that Ottawa is not interesting and that is the end of it,” says mclennan, who in addition to his previously mentioned works, has also written more than 110 poetry chapbooks, and contributed to or edited about three dozen other literary works. “I’ve been telling people for 20 years that we have a great literary scene.”

Given the large amount of local talent that he has published and reviewed, mclennan is critical of those who view Ottawa as an artistic dead zone.  In his view, it’s not that our region lacks talent, but rather that we often don’t recognize what we have.

“I have been saying that Ottawa is like Canada back in the ‘60s,” he says. “We don’t acknowledge our own unless they are acknowledged elsewhere.”

When asked why there is this tendency by some areas residents to look down on local artists, mclennan gives an interesting answer. “I have a theory that Ottawa thinks it can’t be both national and local, it must only be one,” he says. By focusing on being a national capital, a lot of great local talent often does not receive the encouragement that it deserves.

In addition to the above blogs, mclennan also writes for the Ottawa poetry newsletter, as well as being the founder of the (Canadian) Small Press Book Fairs, a blog that chronicles small press fairs across Canada. He also writes two pieces a month for Open Book Ontario.

Given all his work, I asked mclennan if he ever gets frustrated by the pessimists who constantly criticise Ottawa.

“I take the long view,” he replies. “Starting a community requires infrastructure. What Pearl Pirie is doing, what VERSeFest is doing, is building infrastructure….   I grew up on a farm so I have a sense of community. My father was the kind guy who would shovel snow for five people…  You can’t do everything by yourself, you have to help build a community.”