Literary genealogy can be such a tricky thing. What does it mean to attempt to trace anything as nebulous as literary parentage or forebears? Sometimes it’s a matter of discovering a particular writer’s work that presents a permission to do our own work in a particular way, or even the simple permission to be able to begin to produce our own work at all. Other times, it is far more specific, and far more personal: a mentor, perhaps. This is far easier for some. My early years included a number of encouraging figures, writerly and otherwise, but no-one emerged as the mentor I was so desperately seeking. Early encouragement for my own literary scribblings emerged from Eastern Ontario poets Henry Beissel and Gary Geddes, and later, Ottawa poets Diana Brebner, Marianne Bluger, Mark Frutkin and Michael Dennis, all of whom helped the possibility of my writing more often, but not in any way did they help with the possibilities of the what or even the how. Would these be instead midwifes, or does that confuse these metaphors of literary mothers and fathers?
As we begin to write seriously, most of us seek out examples of writing that by itself encourages, engages and offers something from which we might learn. From the work of Vancouver writer George Bowering, I learned a particular kind of curiosity that expanded out across genres and formal considerations, and a critical and editorial generosity towards others. From San Francisco writer Richard Brautigan, I learned lightness, patience and a particular kind of whimsy. From Toronto poet David Donnell and Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley, I learned how breath shapes the line, and the line-break. The late Toronto poet bpNichol, among a number of others, helped me learn to be fearless. Still: how do we decide on our particular branches of lineage, and why does it matter? As British writer Jeanette Winterson writes in her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Knopf, 2011):
Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in the womb.
Self-invented, as Winterson writes. There are important parts of my story still missing, and the mind can’t help but crave something to fill in the gaps. I am constantly seeking. When I look back through my own work there were the traces of permission I received as an early teenager, reading and rereading the highly religious novels of Ralph Connor, pseudonym of the Rev. Dr. Charles William Gordon (September 13, 1860 – October 31, 1937). The son of a Presbyterian minister from Scotland, his novels on my immediate geography gave me a permission to write on and even from our shared landscape of Glengarry County, even through his highly moral and outdated prose, and the contemporary indifference to literature that surrounded my growing up. To read Glengarry School Days (1902) was to engage with specific locations within a mile or two from the McLennan homestead, a century before I had even arrived.
It was most likely after I moved to Ottawa from the farm at nineteen when I discovered the work of Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart (December 27, 1913 – March 4, 1986). I was immediately struck by the lyric and passionate prose of her infamous novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945), and began to read as much of her work as I could find, from her two works of prose and the multiple volumes of her journals, to stunning biographical works on her by Rosemary Sullivan and Kim Echlin. Michael Ondaatje even produced a short film on Smart, on her later years in Toronto. It was this, but perhaps more than this. I spent my twenties exploring a number of paths, including as much writing as I could get my hands on, and an exploration of self that I could distinguish from where I had begun, in my rural Ontario space. Some six decades apart, Smart and I were born to the same city, and my attraction to her and her work involved not only her passion but her perseverance, having raised four children solo, abandoned by family and lover, somehow managing to continue writing throughout (although never as much as she wished). Wild and wilful from an early age, she was born to a prominent Ottawa family, and her first novel emerged from the doomed love affair she had with the married British poet George Barker, with whom she had four children, and received not a speck of support (Barker eventually fathered fifteen children with five different women, and never, through the entire process, left his wife). For Elizabeth Smart, it is very easy to let her work be overshadowed by her biography, but to hear the prose of her heart does away with all else. From the opening line of the novel:
I am standing on a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire.
My twenties in Ottawa were spent exploring various internal and external spaces, from the library shelves to the late night taverns of this sleepy government town, this capital city. Elizabeth Smart showed through her example that this could be a place from where writing could emerge, even as I saw far too many artistic peers fall into the culture of government service and, whether quickly or eventually, abandon artistic expression altogether. From such an overpowering constraint, only the exceptional emerge: Elizabeth Smart, Tom Green, Paul Anka, Alanis Morissette. There are certainly others, all examples of those who could neither be categorized nor contained. The confines of Ottawa is a geography Elizabeth Smart abandoned early—giving birth to her first child, Georgina, at Pender Harbour, British Columbia, before her decades living in the United Kingdom—away from the interference and absolute judgment of her mother, who would never forgive her for writing and publishing such a scandalous book. Leaving town in the 1930s, she would never return to live in our capital again. When By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept first appeared, her mother managed to convince Canadian officials to seize and destroy what few copies made their way into Canada. Even two decades later, when the book was rediscovered and reprinted, finally making a name for her in both Canada and the United States, her mother renewed her brutal disappointment to Smart in a letter.
Oh, the scandal, the scandal. I loved Elizabeth Smart for being an outcast, and for thriving somehow, despite all the difficulties that came with her relationship with George Barker, as well as her unforgiving mother. I loved her for unapologetically feeling and writing out her passions and romantic fervours, despite what obvious entanglements these caused the whole of her life. I loved Smart for the example of her daring, her grand gestures, and her stubbornness, especially during a period of time that would have harshly judged a single mother raising four children. I loved that she was for a long time the highest paid copywriter in England, well-known for her quick wit, and her quick copy. I loved her for being able to write her own story, and having the willpower to repeatedly get up again, every time someone or something else knocked her down.
This past December would have been her one hundredth birthday, and I’d been months hoping to celebrate her centenary, somehow, but was waylaid through circumstance. Perhaps it was entirely appropriate that I was, my wife and I caught up in the fact of our new daughter’s birth. We were and are distracted and waylaid, and happily so, especially knowing we each have the force of will to return to creative work when we’re able, writing out what we can’t help but write. Elizabeth Smart would certainly understand.
rob mclennan is the author of nearly 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. His most recent titles include 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 (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 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