Canadian Poets Petting Cats

rob mclennan & Lemonade

rob mclennan (not pictured) with his cat, Lemonade.

CPPC: Is it correct that you’ve written a chapbook about your cat, Lemonade? What sort of angle does it take? Was this inspired by his excess of toes?

rm: Inspired somewhat, yes. I had no information about polydactyls before we brought him home, and found it interesting, some of the things I discovered, including the fact that Ernest Hemingway had a ton of them in Key West, Florida, to the point that they’re now also referred to as ‘Hemingway cats.’ The house he lived in there, since turned into a museum, has the descendants of his original cats as residents (perhaps they actually own the place, I have no idea). Sailors considered them good luck, and Hemingway agreed. Lemonade seems pretty good luck for us as well, but he doesn’t have as good a sense of balance as perhaps he should. He often falls off the couch, or misses a jump. It’s part of why we keep him an indoor cat, refusing to let him, sans-harness, loose on our third storey deck. As far as chapbook publication goes, Priscilla Brett of Grey Borders Press asked me for a small poem a few months ago, and she produced the small book to coincide with my appearance at The Niagara Literary Arts Festival. It’s an elegant, lovely thing. I only wish I had more copies.

When Lemonade lifts his paws to swat at a flying insect, it looks like he’s wearing two baseball mitts. I’m told the excess makes them better mousers (something we hope we never have to worry about, obviously).

The poem is part of a manuscript made up of sequences, each focused on a number of elements including our new neighbourhood, our new co-habitation, various Ottawa geographies, and finally, our own Lemonade, among others. The poems in the manuscript attempt a particular kind of mix of collage and density. Stephen Brockwell was good enough to lend me his copy of Ondaatje’s The Man with Seven Toes (a book I couldn’t find in a single library) to help with the possibilities of quotes.

It made me realize, too, that The Man with Seven Toes is Ondaatje’s only title not included in any of his volumes of selected poems. Perhaps it was too recent to be included in his first, and once a further was considered, it felt too far removed from what his current work was doing? Damned difficult to get my hands on a copy.

CPPC: You’re the author of dozens of books of poetry, most recently grief notes (BlazeVOX, 2012). What led you to delve into the heavy subject matter of grief? What (if anything) did you learn about grief by exploring it in poetry?


rm: Well, that specific project came through a brief yet traumatic break in a relationship I was in. I don’t necessarily believe in art as ‘therapy,’ but writing is a great way to explore various ideas or strategies, including grief and trauma. I’m currently working on a creative non-fiction work that began two years ago with the death of my mother, The Last Good Year, working to explore not only grief, but the questions I still have about her life, and my memories of her.


What I’ve learned about grief, I suppose, is that it is a process. But I might have learned this far earlier than the composition of that particular title. Grief is something you have to let run through you at the speed it requires, and no faster. Let it pass through and be done with it, hopefully, before moving on.



CPPC: In addition to being a poet, you’re also a publisher of poetry. How different is the headspace of acting as editor or publisher to acting as the poet (or editing as a poet)?


rm: It’s entirely different, I’d say. It’s different, yet I consider my work as an editor, publisher, events organizer and reviewer an extension of my arts practice. All of this can’t help but inform what I’m attempting to do with my own writing. There are poems I’ve been fortunate enough to publish by others that have changed the way I might approach my own work, even if in the most microscopic ways. To create art, one has to be constantly improving, moving and listening; acting and reacting both.


The more I read, the more nuanced my awareness of writing is. Even editing someone else’s writing can be essential in learning how to approach one’s own writing. You’re going to be harder on their work than you might have been on your own, and the experience might show off some blind spots. I know when I ran poetry workshops at Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeebar, it really helped to articulate what I was doing, even if it was through trying to justify to someone in the group why I thought a particular writer’s work was interesting.



CPPC: You also run perhaps one of the most frequently updated blogs in Canadian poetry. When do you find time to interview poets, post events and all the other items featured on the site? Do you feel contributing to the ‘poetry community,’ if such a thing exists, is important?


rm: Not only important, but essential. After the anthology I edited, side/lines: A New Canadian Poets (2002), appeared, I realized that my years of touring, reviewing, reading and publishing had put me in the rare position of being aware of quite a range of writers across Canada doing exciting work. I mean, I’d originally put the book together aware that this wasn’t something most writers could have done, but it was surprising to hear from contributors that I was introducing them to the work of others. I’ve long been aware of my role as one of being a filter; most readers don’t have time to go through all the material to discover what might be interesting or essential reading, so I work to help with that process.


I grew up on a dairy farm, so my notion of community and community work stems from there. We can’t exist without each other, and everyone does something for someone else. My father snow-plows the laneways of at least half a dozen neighbours, and there’s a man on the next road who does the combining for half the township, it seems. We do for each other, look out for each other, help make each other better. I’ve since realized that I simply translated this idea to writing and small press publishing.


How do I find the time? It helps that the interview series are built as memes, so the week or so spent crafting the interviews is offset by the months when they are tweaked and sent to various writers and/or publishers, and posted. The real work is in the reviewing, I’d say. But I suppose that doesn’t necessarily answer the question: I make the time.



CPPC: You’ve been writing and publishing for close to twenty years now, but were you a cat-owner or writer first?


rm: There were always dogs in the house, and feral cats that roamed throughout the barn, drinking raw milk and keeping the area free from mice. I had a dog I named Snoopy when I was a pre-schooler, and don’t think I owned a cat (as much as anyone can ‘own’ a cat) until I was in grade school, a kitten who tumbled bloody-nosed from the haymow to the concrete below, who my father rescued, and brought into the house. I named her ‘Kitty’ (short for ‘Kitty Kitty Bang Bang’). I have long been aware that my temperament is far closer to cat than to dog. I don’t understand dogs. And of course, every so often one of the barn cats would become friendly, and I would name them. Zebulon appeared when I was around ten or so.


I was a pre-schooler when I discovered my first poem, dividing the word ‘home’ in half to find two other words within.


Before Lemonade, my last cat was Omaha, named for the pornographic comic book, Omaha: The Cat Dancer, owned by myself and first wife after we moved into the city. (A friend of ours kept calling her ‘Nebraska’.) Once Kate was born in 1991, we gave the cat to my eventual ex-wife’s mother, who lived near Alexandria. After about six or eight months of happily being an outdoor cat for the first time, he didn’t come home. I would like to think something nice happened, but it’s most likely he was killed by a wild animal, or struck by a car. Poor Omaha.



CPPC: You found your cat, Lemonade, at the Ottawa Humane Society. How did you decide on Lemonade? And what’s with the name?


rm: We did find him there, yes. We brought him home during the first week of January, when he was just four months old. The name simply stuck. Christine had been trolling the Humane Society website for a couple of weeks, showing me pictures of various cats that we could adopt, and the name bounced out of me. When we finally went in to choose and collect a kitten, we had a choice of two, and somehow the name stuck with him, also.


I love that I’ve inadvertently turned the word ‘lemonade’ into an occasional chastisement, a call and a query in our little household. Lemonade?



CPPC: Do you have a favourite piece of cat-centric literature or cat-related art or entertainment?


rm: A good question, I’m not entirely sure. When I was composing that little poem for him I was aware of the chapbook Broken Jaw Press published a decade or so back by Erin Mouré’s own cat, or Artie Gold’s Some of the Cat Poems (CrossCountry Press, 1978). There’s a long tradition in poems for cats, however silly I knew it sounded when I handed copies over, saying: ‘Here’s a poem I wrote for my cat.’ I mean, T.S. Eliot, for god’s sake.


And what of the cat from Red Dwarf? Classic.


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Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). 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.


Lemonade is published by Grey Borders Books.



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