Leo Brent Robillard: A Poetic Apprenticeship

Brent Robillard

A Poetic Apprenticeship

I cut my teeth on poetry. Sitting in the silent lobby of the MacDonald Building on Slater Street in Ottawa, ostensibly watching over the midnight mortuary as an agent for Metropole security, I penned my first published poem. I was nineteen. Box 77 was the name of the literary journal which would eventually accept it – a saddle-stapled, photocopied chapbook printed by the English Literature Society of Carleton University. I have a copy of it still.

A year later, I joined the editorial board and eventually went on to edit three issues, before graduating with a degree in English literature. I had by then moved on to the Jackson building on Bank Street, scribbling ambitiously into notebooks; firing missives off into the literary hives of small press Canada. I became a regular at TREE and Sasquatch (both long-time Ottawa reading series), and a frequent supporter of the Dusty Owl, which operated out of the musty annals of Café Wim on Sussex. May it Rest in Peace.

I rubbed elbows with the founding members of the nascent omni-gothic-neofuturists: Sean Johnston, Michelle Desbarats, Jim Larwill, Craig Carpenter, and Malcolm Todd. I still call the poetry guru, rob mclennan, a friend.

And then slowly, amidst the reams of rejection letters, my own work began to appear in some of Canada’s best journals – Queen’s Quarterly, Grain, The Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire, CV2.

I launched the Backwater Review in 1994. Like these other journals, it offered a mix of poetry and prose. Publishers from across Canada sent us books to review. I wrote fervent editorials. To my eternal surprise, we had the opportunity to publish poems from the likes of Tim Bowling, Stephanie Bolster, D.C. Reid, and John B. Lee. It was a great run while it lasted.

A few years later I published my first novel with Turnstone Press. And then I published two more. My fourth, most recent novel, The Road to Atlantis, was released this week. It would seem that the last two decades of my life have been full of fiction, if you will.

Or have they?

The Globe & Mail said my first novel, Leaving Wyoming, was “a case of the word transcending a 1, 000 pictures.” They said Houdini’s Shadow achieved “a keen-edged grace that is almost mesmerizing.” And The Winnipeg Free Press said that Drift left “a strong sensory impression.”

Perhaps in some ways, I have never left poetry at all. For what is poetry but that aesthetic intensity that comes from wielding language for purposes beyond the semantic?

An early review of The Road to Atlantis in Quill & Quire called the prose “surgically precise.” And somehow, if you punch my name into Google, the search engine will announce emphatically: “Leo Brent Robillard, poet.”

Is it possible that the algorithms see through me, after all? It’s tough to argue with Google. I take it as a compliment.

— Leo Brent Robillard



ISBN: 9780888015556 Turnstone Press

Synopsis, The Road to Atlantis, Turnstone Press ISBN: 9780888015556

Following the coast on their summer vacation, the Henrys stop at the beach to break up the monotony of their road trip. Matty and Nat build castles in the sand as Anne and David take turns minding the children. A moment of distraction, a blink of the eye, and the life they know is swept away forever.

Like shipwrecks lost at sea, each member of the family sinks under the weight of their shared tragedy. All seems lost but life is long. There are many ways to heal a wound, there are many ways to form a family, and as the Henrys discover, there are many roads to Atlantis.


Leo Brent Robillard is an award-winning author and educator. His novels include Leaving Wyoming, which was listed in Bartley’s Top Five in the Globe and Mail for Best First Fiction; Houdini’s Shadow, which was translated into Spanish; and, most recently, Drift. In 2011, he received the Premier’s Award for Teacher of the Year. He lives in Eastern Ontario with his wife and two children.

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