by rob mclennan
We made a point to visit the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, right by where Australian rock band INXS filmed part of the video for “Never Tear Us Apart,” from their sixth album, Kick (1987). Three days and three nights surrounded by mists and the spectres of history, sweeping up along the Vltava River. In just under four minutes, Michael Hutchence strafing across the Charles Bridge and into a row of gravestones where Kirk Pengilly gestured his saxophone solo. We could live, Hutchence sings, for a thousand years, just by the church where Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel was said to have constructed his Golem in the late 16th century. He presume to create life, something only allowed in the purview of Yahweh himself. Here, where he planted the seeds of his own destruction, and where they bore fruit.
The stories posted here are part of a larger work to appear in the spring, The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014). The seventy-three stories that make up the final manuscript originally emerged through a series of triggers, including the 2007 gift of Sarah Manguso’s Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape (McSweeney’s, 2007), and the later discovery, through Manguso, of the works of American writer Lydia Davis. I was, and still am, amazed by the daring, brevity and sheer density of their writing.
I was in Edmonton during the 2007-8 academic year as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and suddenly found myself in a foreign territory, freed from constraints I didn’t even realize I’d had. I could be different, and my writing was suddenly free to experiment. As I began to settle in this new space, I began explorations on a number of fronts: the sentences of the prose poem, the expansive canvas that was creative non-fiction, and the composition of short, self-contained prose works that didn’t really belong with anything other than themselves. This latter process was the beginnings of a manuscript that would eventually take five years to complete, as I quietly struggled to increase the density and force of my prose into the smallest space possible. My constraint for the project was simple enough: to compose a grouping of untitled stories that could exist together as a suite, that were each a paragraph or less in length, and with lines so tight that one could bounce a quarter off any of them. Some stories took months or even years to complete, and many were edited, rewritten and finally abandoned. Some stories were nearly perfect early on, but still required a long period of tweaking. I wanted to boil down the core of the story. I wanted to not be in a hurry.
I wanted a collection that explored a wide canvas; stories that, together, gave a portrait of how we exist in the world. I wanted stories that showed how we think, and how a few of us live. I wanted stories that came from any and all angles, and some of the pieces in the collection reference American film, Monty Python, dislocation, Canadian politics and history, small essays and anecdotes, and stories so personal they must have happened, at least to someone. A half dozen or so were even originally composed to Twitter, the best of a series of late-night missives.
The results are unlike anything I’d attempted before, and have opened up a whole new series of possibilities. I’m already two years into a subsequent manuscript of short, short stories, quietly shaping sentences, disparate threads and incomplete thoughts into the densest sculptures possible. For example: I’ve been two years attempting to discover the short phrase required to complete a short story that connects Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk to Big Bird and the wonders of Sesame Street. The story currently sits at one hundred and thirteen words in length. It is just a matter of time.
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 2010, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include the forthcoming notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the poetry collection Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). 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. 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.