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rob mclennan

rob mclennan

DHP: What is your definition of transgressive?


rm: Something that exists outside the norm. Something different enough that it threatens the concept of form, subject or genre.


DHP: What was the first text you read that made you question accepted societal tenets or values or the way in which the world works?


rm: A good question. During my late teens and into my twenties there were multiple texts that affected me in different ways: Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept; Matt Cohen’s The Expatriate; Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter; Timothy Findlay’s Stones; George Bowering’s Delayed Mercy; Barry McKinnon’s Pulp/log and Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook. In each example, they presented to me alternate ways to see how the world worked, and the possibilities of what writing could be. I don’t know how to explain any more precisely without taking up pages.


I found a copy of Irving Layton’s For My Brother, Jesus in my high school library (the fact that it was there still baffles); contemporary to this, my eventual ex-wife presented me with Richard Brautigan’s Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970 and Eli Mandel’s anthology Poets of Contemporary Canada 1960-1970. All three titles presented me with a world and worldview far more expansive than the more conservative bubble I’d been living in, in my corner of the Ottawa Valley.


While some titles on this list might seem rather straightforward now, each of these books presented me with varying degrees of freedom, opening up a series of options I didn’t even know were possible.


DHP: Give an example of a transgressive work & explain why you felt it was transgressive? The work could be literature, film, visual art, theatre, graphic novels or something else.


rm: I worry my considerations of “transgressive” are fairly tame: I liked what Seinfeld did with the form of the sitcom; after watching two decades of sitcoms, I’d become bored with the form. His was the first to feature characters that weren’t “likeable.” Drew Carey did some interesting things as well, shifting away from the standard of the baseline narrative returning to zero at the end of every episode. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The Simpsons very much play with this standard “return to zero” in different ways. Whitney Cummings’ short-lived sitcom was fantastic, and deserved far more credit; on the surface, it felt like any other sitcom centred around a particular actor/comedian, but then each episode would veer hard right, and handle some rather dark and serious material.


There is a short story on perspective by Alan Moore that I read when I was very young, via a neighbour’s comic book collection, that has stuck with me: a story of two blue giants moving at a far slower speed than the microscopic civilization at their feet. The civilization rose and self-destructed quite literally before the giants could blink.


My thoughts on composing poems has shifted enormously over the past decade or so through reading works by Cole Swensen, Rosmarie Waldrop, Pattie McCarthy, Julie Carr, Stephen Collis, Christine Leclerc, Eric Baus and Jordan Abel, among others. My thoughts on composing prose, whether fiction or creative non-fiction, has shifted thanks to Elizabeth Hay’s first three published works, as well as through a variety of titles by Ken Sparling, Sheila Heti, Etgar Keret, Dany Laferrière, Diane Schoemperlen, Susan Howe, Lorrie Moore, Sarah Manguso, Ali Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Jean McKay and Lydia Davis. Reading Milan Kundera was very important to me in my twenties, and I have yet to wrap my head around what he accomplished in his novels, blending the intimate and the personal with the political. I might have to return there.


Transgressive is such an odd term. When used in terms of creating art, what does it mean to transgress? It doesn’t necessary exist in opposition, but it certainly does exist as a challenge, forcing a shift in expectation and/or perception. For years, people paid attention to the work of the late London, Ontario visual artist Greg Curnoe because they didn’t know what he was going to do next. There are a few around that one can say the same about, from Michael Turner and Lynn Crosbie throughout the 1990s, to Christian Bök. bpNichol was a great writer, according to something jwcurry once said, not because everything he did was great, but that he was willing to try everything. Part of the appeal of works by any of these artists is in the mutability of their work, and the daring. Where will they go? The entire purpose of art, one could argue, is to challenge ideas and perception.


DHP. Name a historical transgressive role model & tell us a bit about this person.


rm: Transgressive: to live in a way that makes no sense to anyone around until years pass, and suddenly, everything is incredibly clear. Examples? Perhaps too many to mention.


DHP: List a few transgressive fictional works from your personal library.


rm: Ken Sparling, Book; Sheila Heti, How Should A Person Be?; Milan Kundera, Immortality; Sarah Manguso, Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape; Jean McKay, The Dragonfly Fling; Susan Howe, That this; Etgar Keret, Suddenly, A Knock at the Door; Anne Stone, jacks; Dany Laferrière, Why must a black man write about sex?; Nicole Brossard, Mauve Desert; Miranda July, No One Belongs Here More Than You; Richard Brautigan, The Abortion: An Historical Romance, 1966; Elizabeth Hay, Captivity Tales: Canadians in New York.


I’m currently reading Yanara Friedland’s Uncountry: a mythology and am amazed.


DHP: In what ways are you trying to create or publish work that is transgressive according to your definition?


rm: Well, I’d think if I’m transgressive in any way, I’m rather on the shallow end of it, far away from so many authors producing far more radical works. How am I transgressive? These days: my poems fragment, shift and eddy, writing out flavours of an ongoing domestic; my prose explores moments and characters via the dense lyric, while setting aside wordy description or dialogue.


In my prose, I care little for extraneous detail: I write out the bare bones.


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. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection A perimeter (New Star Books, 2016). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He is “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, a regular contributor to Open Book and both the Drunken Boat and Ploughshares blogs, and an editor/managing editor of many gendered mothers. 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


Photo credit: Matthew Holmes




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