Wednesday, March 05, 2014

WHAT IS YOUR FRAGMENT IV: rob mclennan responds

What is YOUR fragment? Poets explain this technique as it appears in their books (see original conversation post HERE for the questions and a response by Lisa Pasold HERE  the second response by Marthe Reed HERE and the third by George Vance HERE. Today, rob mclennan responds:

BlazeVox, 2012 by Rob Mclennan
rob mclennan: Born in Ottawa where he resides to this day, Canadian rob mclennan is the author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include Grief Notes (BlazeVox, 2012), notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the forthcoming poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (, as well as curating the weekly “Tuesday poem” on the dusie blog 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

THE FRAGMENT--rob mclennan
My compositional interest in the poetic fragment most likely emerged during my twenties, my initial decade of serious writing, from my initial interested in a particular form of the Canadian long poem. I was quickly and deeply influenced by the procedural open-form, promoted and furthered by Black Mountain poetics, Canadian west coast/TISH poetics, Toronto’s avant-garde/Coach House poetics and all that followed. Taking stock, and marking each particular step; pulling back to see less of the larger picture and focus on smaller, more immediate concerns, and my poetry manuscripts over the past two decades have engaged with the temporal and geographic immediate, as well as an attention to the flow and the shape of the language itself. Days emerge, and the poems happen, as do the individual days, the individual events. One ties almost directly into the other.

I spent years caught up in works by contemporary Canadian poets who worked in longer forms, themselves influenced by poets including the Berkeley Renaissance poets Robin Blaser, Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, and I devoured works by Canadian poets such as George Bowering, Robert Kroetsch, bpNichol, Barry McKinnon, Daphne Marlatt and so many, many others. Having become very aware of the book as my unit of composition (and even moving occasionally to the multiple-book project), I’ve now published more than two dozen trade poetry books composed as single units, each working a variety of structures to make up an entire whole, whether a collision of shorter poem-sections, a collection of accumulated shorter self-contained poems, or a work made up of one or two longer pieces. Over the years, I’ve been intrigued at the different approaches a single self-contained work of poetry can manifest, from the collage to the accumulation to the seemingly-random assortment.

The idea of the fragment, whatever that might mean to any individual writer, allows the space for the reader to fill in the blanks and perhaps piece together their own particular narrative or through-line. Any poem has to allow space for the reader to make their own connections, but the writer must be capable enough to provide the direction (or directions). Since my initial reading, I’ve been increasingly influenced by other poets working their own variations on the fragment, whether Fanny Howe’s poetic of the ever-expanding single project (a variant on what I saw in the work of Robert Kroetsch), the ongoing accumulations of Rachael Blau DuPlessis (a variant on what I saw in bpNichol’s The Martyrology), the structure of the tightly-crafted “collection” of shorter poems by Sarah Manguso, Lisa Robertson, Sarah Mangold and Kathleen Fraser, or the self-contained essay-style projects of fragment-poems by Cole Swensen and Anne Carson.

The fragment allows for the distractions of easy narrative and straightforward patterns to be abandoned for the sake of the collage or even collision of lines, phrases, stanzas and even poems to shape into something that couldn’t easily be explained, but somehow manages to exist and make perfect sense. The fragment allows for impossible patterns and mixtures that shouldn’t work, and shouldn’t even be, something the “poem” should always be striving for. One should ask exactly what a poem shouldn’t be doing, and then do exactly that.

Although my current poetry project, “World’s End,” is still very much in its beginning stages, it slowly engages through the same series of transitions and distractions that hinders its progress, from our house-purchase and move to the Alta Vista area, to the birth of my second child, Rose. One of the sections, “The Rose Concordance,” perhaps the only work I’ve really done since Rose was born in November, 2013, is constructed out of a series of stand-alone seemingly random phrases. The inattention to work and the impossibility of any longer attention span that Rose presents is something I’m attempting to capture in this fragment-collage work. Art must progress, or die on the page, and if the way in which a work is created becomes different, then one hopes that the work itself can’t help but also be different. And, given I’m remaining home with her once Christine goes back to work after her year of maternity leave, I can expect the next few years to be a series of work-related upheavals, after more than twenty years of full-time writing. If all I can compose at the moment is the occasional stand-alone line, then I will work from that perspective. I mean, if William Carlos Williams wrote short poems due to quick moments amid his work as a doctor, sketched out on prescription pads, perhaps the fragment might just become the only structure that makes any sense. Scraps of paper fill my desk in a way my pre-Rose life never did, and perhaps she might just force my attention to pinpoint, and allow me to create something far more striking than I ever could before.

Wednesday’s child is full of whoa

Sleep, a bitter fiction

Babe agape, snores slightly

One writes like a storm,         intermittent—

u((n)in)t(e)rr((u)pte)d )s(l))ee)p

1 comment:

Jennifer K Dick said...

A very exciting reflection on the fragment, responding to this project and including the image of one of rob mclennan's pages, can be found on Pearl Pririe's PESBO Poetry Journal blog at: