Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Alberta, Redux

Share |

By rob mclennan

We must follow the tradition. We must get lost.
         Robert Kroetsch, The Snowbird Poems (2004)

Near the end of April, the briefest return to Alberta to launch my Edmonton poetry collection, wild horses (University of Alberta Press), alongside Robert Kroetsch and Alice Major, launching their Too Bad: Sketches Toward a Self-Portrait and Memory’s Daughter, respectively. What have I learned of Alberta? The distance that brought me here. Flying into Edmonton, and then out of Calgary. The skies make travel difficult, the float of volcanic ash from the previous weeks’ fury in Iceland across the North Pacific, from St. John’s, Newfoundland over to England, Europe and the Nordic countries, shutting down the largest amount of flights since September 11, 2001. All around me, passengers read newspapers not from where they leave or are headed, but original points of origin. A Toronto Star, an Edmonton Journal, an Ottawa Citizen. Is this how to stay home while travelling, keeping track as though you never left?

What have I learned? After four decades, suddenly, the experience of a new place to return to, a most unexpected feeling of coming back home. Landing in Edmonton, my first visit back since Lainna moved to Toronto, her absence unsettling, but for only a moment. Only a moment, knowing what we’ve achieved; waiting for me, there, in the Big Smoke. The differences, worlds apart. University of Alberta Press publicist Cathie Crooks at the gate, and a subsequent publicity meeting with drinks, even lunch, at my favourite downtown Earl’s, right near Myrna Kostash’s condo. Apart from their location at West Edmonton Mall, this is where Lainna and I most often went; is it wrong to be this sentimental? Wishing there was time for the Grad Lounge, RATT or the Garneau Pub, where I wrote every night for my nine writer-in-residence months. Two nights, nearly three days in the prairies immediately into a book tour; major cheerful, and modestly quiet, and Kroetsch, into his eighties, moving slow, but brightening up once he steps up to read.

rob mclennan

At our afternoon launch, in the Faculty Lounge of the University of Alberta, Alice Major reads a glosa written from lines out of John Newlove’s “The Weather”; her own “Glosa: The Weather,” from her poetry collection written as elegy for her late parents, opening:

Why does it matter that you died
in summer? As though the weather
writes in necessary, sympathetic metaphor.
For both of you, I wanted
only the kindliest of seasons.

An audience populated by well-wishers, friends of the press, writers and friends of the authors, from Jenna Butler to Douglas Barbour, Myrna Kostash to Glenn Robson and even George Bowering, there for a launch of his own, later. There for the presence of Kroetsch.

Kroetsch at the Faculty Lounge podium pointing out he had graduated from University of Alberta in the spring of 1948, forced to cancel a date when he got his job up north. As he writes in his A Likely Story: The Writing Life (1995): “…I applied for a job as a laborer on the Fort Smith Portage, on the southern boundary of the Northwest Territories.” Not, as he wrote, “to discover gold in the Yukon or to find Sir John Franklin’s bones, not even to get rich or to escape from home, but rather because I wanted to write a novel.” The woman he’d broken the date with, there, at our reading. The first time he’d seen her, sixty-two years since. I should have asked her if she thought he’d made the right choice; her, or the future abstract of potential novels? Wily Kroetsch from the podium, already talking up a second chance. Turns his shaky head and laughs.

Victorian Lit, University of Alberta, 1946

Professor Jones said we should listen
to what he was saying instead of writing it down.
We wrote that down too. What he was saying.

We were studying Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”
Half the students in the class were freshly back from the war.
One of the veterans asked, When did Arnold write this poem?

Perhaps he hadn’t been paying attention. I checked my notes
and read the dates: commenced 1851, published 1867.
Professor Jones said, Every enduring poem was written today.

Robert Kroetsch

Since leaving home, writing postcards to Lainna, back east in Toronto. My way of bringing her along for the ride. A parcel of late-1970s postcards, the postcard issue of Ken Norris, Robert Galvin and Jim Mele’s poetry journal, Somewhere Across the Border. In November, 2001, visiting Ken Norris in Orono, Maine, digging through boxes in his basement for what remained of the series. His hesitancy to go through boxes himself the only thing that had saved them. Writing missives and love notes on the backs of late '70s poems by George Bowering, Artie Gold, Patrick Lane; I ask others to do the same, little missives from shared Edmonton friends. "He looks good," Barbour writes. "I’m glad someone is dressing him." Even Bowering writes on the back of one, his own thirty year old poem; "where did you get these," he asks.

The following morning, a car to Leduc down to Calgary for a noon event, the fields invent themselves. Every direction we look is the same. The highway, the highway, and our moment of uncertainty, entering Leduc. In range of Kroetsch, and suddenly unsure. On that black highway, Newlove once wrote along a stretch of prairie blacktop, where are you going? Continuing “The Hitchhiker” with:

it is in Alberta
among the trees

where the road sweeps
left and right

A stillness to trees, a wise knowing; they have been here so long. Two and a half years earlier, reading Robert Kroetsch in a Hudson’s Tap House on Whyte, the dusty floorboards of pints, and older than any other patron. Too old by half, and self-conscious. If I didn’t belong anywhere, did it matter where I went? Like disappointing my parents at the age of four, announcing no intention to farm. It became binary: either farm or disappoint. And to disappoint so early. What a lovely freedom.

What have I learned about anything? Major and Crooks in the front seat, where all the action happens. Kroetsch his eyes closed, adding a chuckle or comment when only required. At both readings, he says, some time ago, I wondered about how to grow a poet, in the prairie. In Alberta. Growing a poet, as his “Seed Catalogue” keeps asking, repeating. The poem itself, asking so many questions that even his answers open up more. The only difference between the first and the second, Bowering’s hearty laugh replaced by Dennis Cooley and Aritha Van Herk, big enough it required two, down in Calgary. Kroetsch’s partners-in-crime. I warned Van Herk of an intervention while we were there, Kroetsch, Cooley and I: we can’t wait a dozen years between novels, they agreed.

Staring out in straight lines, reminded of a recent newspaper article, a Saskatchewan couple complaining that lists of Natural Wonders of the World never include the endless flat landscape of Canadian prairie. Why are Wonders only considered jagged, pointy or deep? Obviously those in charge haven’t stared out long enough, deep enough, across that scrape of kilometres, where the ice age carved out a country for David Thompson to map. Straight enough, you can almost see all the way to Atlantic, Pacific, the Great Lakes. All the way to Toronto.

We are captives
together in the garden
casting endearments—
our collective net
of love.
         Alice Major, Memory’s Daughter (2010)


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of some twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections gifts (Talonbooks), a compact of words (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), kate street (Moira), wild horses (University of Alberta Press) and a second novel, missing persons (The Mercury Press). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater. 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 He will be spending much of the next year in Toronto.

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


Open Book App Ad