Poetry and Art that Challenge Ottawa’s Sleepy Stereotype: rob mclennan and Tanya Sprowl-Martelock Discuss Canadian Journal ottawater
ottawater is an annual, free PDF journal with a unique twist: All of the featured poets and artists are residents—current or former—of Ottawa, Canada. It’s one of numerous projects spearheaded by publisher and editor rob mclennan to enrich the literary scene in his native city. I talked with rob and ottawater’s designer, Tanya Sprowl-Martelock, about how they choose the art and poetry for the journal and about rob’s new project, Touch the Donkey.
rob mclennan, a native Ottawan, is the author of nearly thirty 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 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, Touch the Donkey, and 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 robmclennan.blogspot.com.
Tanya Sprowl-Martelock is the owner and principal graphic designer of PhiveDesign, a design company that produces creative and cost-effective solutions for many arts and cultural groups, NGO/NPOs, health sector organizations, and small businesses. Since 1998 she has worked with international festivals, museums, advertising firms, and design studios; she has also served on industry and charity event committees in a design capacity. She lives in Ottawa and loves her job, cat, and husband, in no particular order.
Interview by Alexis Schaitkin
Can I ask you to start off by telling our readers a little bit about the origins of your name, ottawater, and your logo, O2(H2O)?
rm: I think it was a term I first heard via poet, artist and Broken Jaw Press publisher Joe Blades: “ottawater.” He would often play around with words for cities, including “Fredtomb” for his own home-city of Fredericton. The logo emerged somewhere in the early 2000s, when I was playing around with visual poetry, and I came up with the chemical compound, sounded out as “ottawater” (oh-two-water) which became perhaps the cleverest piece I might have composed, titled “local element.” Unfortunately, I often had to explain the piece, sounding out how I thought it worked.
Eventually, my frustration with seeing the literary cultures of Ottawa overlooked by those both beyond the borders and within led me to found the journal (the first issue appeared to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the City of Ottawa), and the name simply made the most sense, given the journal’s editorial focus: the journal is limited entirely to writers who live within the Ottawa area, as well as former residents. The accompanying logo simply made the most sense as well, and Tanya had enormous fun designing the chemical compound into a logo.
Unfortunately, I’ve since learned that the compound, if it were to exist, would be toxic. I’m not sure what that means in terms of the journal.
What is the process for submitting to ottawater? What’s a typical response time?rm: Predominantly, works are solicited from a wide array of writers I know and have heard of, and I often seek out recommendations for new writers to solicit work from. I start working on any given issue around April, and attempt to put the final touches on the content in October (including acceptances and rejections), so Tanya has some time to play around with design before the journal launches in January. But anyone with ties (former or current) to the city is welcome to attempt me with a submission: as .doc with bio (referencing their time in Ottawa) to rob_mclennan (at) hotmail (dot) com.
When I started the journal, I deliberately established that if you appear in one issue, you can’t appear again until another issue has passed, simply to force the content to be far more open than just a small, select group. I would hope that such a consideration would allow for a far more diverse range of works in each issue.
Would you say that ottawater has any particular aesthetic? Is there anything you wish you saw more of in your submissions pile?
rm: The journal has no particular aesthetic, but my own interests favour more experimental works. I think in terms of aesthetics, ottawater is interested in a far wider range of styles than anything else I edit or publish. I am constantly seeking out new poets to possibly include in the journal.
How are poetry and art selected? Do you have a team of readers or do you put together the journal yourself?
rm: I select and solicit all the text myself, including interviews, poetic statements, reviews and short essays. Once the text of each issue is complete, I hand the entire document over to Tanya, who has complete control over the design as well as the selection and solicitation of artists and artworks. She is remarkably connected to the visual arts scene in Ottawa, and has included some remarkable works by local artists, a number of whom I hadn’t been aware of previously.
TS: We solicit and receive submissions. Throughout the year I make note of established working artists who have had peeked interest or who have had a standout show. We ask them to submit 2-3 pieces of their choice (encouraging pieces produced that year) for inclusion.
Your website notes that Ottawa is often viewed as, “a town still echoing its origins as a backwater Victorian lumber town, and made up of bureaucrats and technocrats, and a more conservative poetics.” How would you describe the arts and poetry scene in your city? Why do you think it’s so often misperceived?
rm: We have a remarkably diverse and vibrant literary scene that is often overlooked in favour of the stereotype of Ottawa being a sleepy, government town. I grew weary of journals producing special issues of work from Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Kingston, without any consideration for what was happening here. Historically, I think this problem has been heightened due to the lack of trade literary houses here (at least ones that focus on Ottawa writers), as well as a lack of literary media. Over the past decade, with the success of the Ottawa International Writers Festival and the ottawa small press book fair, the creation of the annual poetry festival VERSeFest and the emergence of a variety of literary bloggers, chapbook publishers and an array of writers beginning to publish first books, I think the perception has certainly begun to shift.
Tanya, can you talk a bit about the process of pairing art with poetry? Do you strive to place artwork alongside poetry with which it has some sort of thematic or tonal synergy? Or is your hope that your readers will experience them separately?
TS: Sort of and the other way around. In fact, we try our best to avoid any linking as it would be wrong to suggest they had anything to do with each other directly. Each is a work unto itself and the visual art is not meant to act as an illustration, just as the poetry does not act as a description. We do try to have them compliment each other, but paced like an amuse-bouche, as if each issue is a massive feast, which it is really.
Congratulations on the journal’s tenth anniversary! How do you think the anthology has evolved over the past decade? Are there any changes or evolutions you have in mind for the future?
rm: It’s a good question. I originally thought that the tenth issue should feature larger sections by a dozen or so Ottawa poets, as well as poetic statements, but attempting to organize poets is so often like herding cats, so the feature never actually came together. I am still very much interested in exploring content beyond simply poems, including interviews, reviews, poetic statements and short essays.
rob, you also recently launched a brand new journal, Touch the Donkey. What was the impetus for creating the new journal? How would you describe Touch the Donkey’s vision or mission?
rm: I recently wrote a self-profile on starting the new journal over at Open Book: Ontario, where I attempted to articulate much of my argument and purpose for starting a new journal, amid my seeming glut of other publishing enterprises. The basis for the journal is relatively simple: attempting to engage with more experimental and avant-garde poetry from some of my favourite Canadian and American poets, including interviews posted online between issues with a variety of contributors on their submissions. I recently released the second issue, and some half-dozen interviews are scheduled to post in the three months subsequent, before the appearance of issue #3 in mid-October. Over the past few days, I’ve started accepting work for issue #5 (scheduled for April 2015), as well as three interviews for the same.
You seem to keep yourself very busy with various editorial and publishing projects, but of course, you’re also an accomplished poet. How do you think your editorial projects affect your poetry, and vice versa? Do you have a routine for moving between these various roles?
rm: I’ve always considered that editing, publishing, reviewing, interviewing and events-organizing is an essential part of my writing practice, and now can’t imagine my writing life without any of these other activities. Each one feeds all of the others. Hearing someone read through The Factory Reading Series might allow me a perspective on their work that otherwise I might have missed. Given the number of books I regularly review, I’m constantly receiving copies of new poetry and fiction titles that help propel my own writing, and I’m in the process of attempting to complete a second manuscript of short fiction before the end of the calendar year (if possible). Poems have slowly been emerging as well, but that is a process secondary to the current fiction project. Everything feeds everything else. I can’t describe it any other way than that.
Is there anything more you want readers to know about ottawater or Touch the Donkey?
rm: Not too much, other than the fact that ottawater is completely free and online-only, with each and every issue existing as a pdf on the website. Touch the Donkey, on the other hand, is a chapbook-sized journal. It’s available to order either as single issues or subscriptions (and are included, also, as part of the annual above/ground press subscription).
Alexis Schaitkin’s stories and essays have appeared in Ecotone, Southwest Review, The Southern Review, The New York Times, and elsewhere. She is at work on a novel.