A spotty record of a writer.
16 May 2016
14 May 2016
The Sparrow takes flight
This past Thursday, I launched my new poetry book in Toronto. A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent was issued under Wolsak and Wynn's A Buckrider Book imprint, Paul Vermeersch's baby. It was a real nice event, at the Monarch Tavern, and I was so pleased with my launch company: first-time author Kilby Smith-McGregor with her excellent collection Kids in Triage, and Susan Perly, with her second and very edgy novel, Death Valley. They both gave compelling readings and I'm looking forward to digging into their books.
I arrived early at the Monarch and began picketing my own reading (as you can see in Kathryn Mockler's photo, above). I mean, I claim to be this weirdo poet burrowing around in the underground, and here I am presenting an easy-to-read, mainstream collection of family-friendly verse. Despicable! I decided I would stand outside the bar and picket until my reading inside was over. Then I might go in and grab a drink.
Reportedly, one couple left the event early, while I was still out there, and the man said to the woman, "I remember when that guy stood out on Yonge Street selling his books with a sign like that around his neck." And it's true. I was totally comfortable standing there in public holding a sign across my chest. It was like coming home.
But, realizing that protest just doesn't change the world, I gave up after about 45 minutes and went inside. The room was packed. I was immediately asked to sign some books. (In fact, some people had come outside while I was picketing, and asked me to sign my book out there.) I saw lots of friends and lots of acquaintances and lots of strangers. A ton of writers I admire. I was constantly being mistaken for Rod McKuen and Hugh Prather. Oscar Williams, who died in 1964, was tucked into one corner, scowling in my direction, because he doesn't come off too well in my new poem "And Oscar Williams Walks In." Tough luck, Oscar. Go chew on your bow tie.
So then the readings happened. Paul introduced me and people booed me and chanted, "Sell-out!" It was exhilarating. Paul said that I was a sell-out, and thus I had, for the first time, written something everyone would like. Don't remember his exact words but they were insulting in their praise. I was very anxious about the reading, because I had built up expectations and could so easily fail. But about halfway through the ten-minute reading, I realized it was going really well. (See photo by Wolsak and Wynn's Ashley Hisson above.) There was an audible gasp at the end of one of my poems, at a place where I certainly didn't expect a gasp. It was a line about the veins running through my tailor-grandfather's being threads. And soon the reading was over and I took refuge on the closest empty stool I could find. And immediately people were lining up for signatures in my new book. This had never happened before.
In fact, I was so taken unawares that I forgot to make the "edit" I'd made on the books I signed before the reading. If you have a copy of the book, please turn it to the back cover. In the second line of Nick Thran's review excerpt, delete "however" and insert an ellipsis. This was the only disagreement I had with my publisher, which says a lot about Wolsak and Wynn. Small stuff, but I'm a copy editor, so that "however" drives me nuts.
I had a personal record on Thursday when it comes to sales numbers at a launch. Just shy of 50 Sparrows were sold. (Well, really just shy of 150, because I bought 100 copies myself.) I'm hoping this book does some good things for me. I'm getting old. I've been at this racket for over forty years. I would like some new opportunities. Which is why I consciously made a book that consists entirely of one vein — or thread — of my writing: accessible, sorta "normal" poems. I had the glorious experience of doing an entirely in-your-face book, A Hamburger in a Gallery, last year. So now there's this.
A young woman who'd taken a poetry workshop with me in January came up to get her book signed. She was delighted that in one of the poems I read, I named several streets from the neighbourhood where her dad grew up. She asked me to inscribe the book to her dad and wondered if I knew him, since we'd be about the same age. I recognized the last name and asked if he had a brother named Alex. He did! I went to elementary school with the woman's uncle, it turned out. A fellow denizen of Bathurst Manor! I asked her to give him my regards.
The book's in flight. We'll see where it lands.
Over and out.
08 May 2016
For Mother's Day, the poem that leads the Sparrow
This is the poem that — on editor (and friend) Paul Vermeersch's suggestion — opens my new book, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent. As I've said, I wanted this book to be very different from any other poetry book I've published.
My parents, Syd and Shirley, bought a place in Pompano Beach, Florida, in, I think, the mid-1980s. They spent four or five months a year there. I visited them in Pompano a few times before my mother's death in 1995, and a couple more times before my father sold the place not long before his own death in 2001. I usually stayed for a few weeks. It was a surreal experience being in that land of snowbird communities, and it was sometimes trying for both my parents and I to spend so much time in close quarters, but those times were also really beautiful. I miss them.
It was on the balcony mentioned in the poem below that I wrote my much earlier poem "Little Black Train," which was a pivotal piece for me. I also wrote a word-replacement version of Tom Clark's "Sonnet" ("The orgasm completely/Takes the woman out of/Herself…") and another of Mark Strand's "Keeping Things Whole" (which I just heard quoted in the final episode of the first season of Blunt Talk). I did versions of a whole bunch of American poets' poems, and several of them wound up in a long piece of mine called "Yankee Doodle," which maybe appeared in my first full-length collection, The Inspiration Cha-Cha. The swimming pool by their condo was the one that inspired my short story "The Sun Tan," from Buying Cigarettes for the Dog.
Anyway, here's the first poem in my new book. I struggled with this one for many years, and then rewrote it about half a dozen times more after Sparrow was accepted for publication.
POMPANOAnd my mother is on the balconyand my father is making cheese sandwichesand my mother is writing a letterthat my father will discovertwo months later in their bedroomin Toronto, the morningwe’re to bury hershe writes thatshe is on the balconyand he is making cheese sandwichesand she says she feels treasuredand if ever there are grandkidstell them she’d’ve loved themand in five years my brotherdies in my sobbing father’s armsand my father one year afterand I cannot find the lettermy mother wrote in Pompanobut I remember the word treasuredit’s how she felt, she saidand the palm trees sway in the hot breezeand butterflies called daggerwings drift pastand sand skinks swim through millions of grains of sandand I — I am a pompanoI am this forked-tailed fishI am this fish and I searchfor that letter in my mother’s handbeyond the Atlantic coast
Over and out.
05 May 2016
A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent: my mainstream sell-out (plus launch dates)
Shove over, Hugh Prather and Rod McKuen! Stuart Ross has arrived. My new book, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent, now exists. It is published by Hamilton house Wolsak and Wynn, under Paul Vermeersch's A Buckrider Book imprint. It is my mainstream sell-out collection. Now I will just sit back and eat grapes and wait for the awards to accumulate.
Look at what a handsome book this is. The cover painting is by the amazing Victoria painter Roy Green. Cover design is by the superbly talented Natalie Olsen of Kisscut Design. Within the covers writhe about 50 poems, and every one of them is perfectly comprehensible. So that's a first for me.
Sparrow comes on the heels of A Hamburger in a Gallery, my most weird-ass poetry book, released last year by Montreal's DC Books under Jason Camlot's Punchy Poetry imprint. Hamburger garnered somewhere in the neighbourhood of roughly zero reviews, even though it was a very exciting book, one I'm extremely proud of — complete with an odd 50-page interview with me conducted by Camlot-as-blockhead. While Jason and I were putting together Hamburger, which contains scores of personal poetic experiments, I was building a file of my most accessible, narrative, straightforward, personal poems for the subsequent book. That was the book I wanted to do next, with Paul's imprint: my "mainstream" poetry book.
I wanted a book that was as close to mainstream as I could get. (Really, I don't even know what mainstream might mean in the context of poetry.) I also wanted a book that was pretty serious. Paul was good at calling me on some of the more whacky material I tried to sneak in. I mean, I consider myself a serious poet in general, but I do recognize that readers often process my weirdness and surreality as humour.
Sparrow contains a lot of pretty personal poems. A lot of poems about death. A few questionnaires. A prose poem sequence about a version of my childhood. And a ton of homages to writers I admire. There's a lot of hero worship going on in this book. Oh, and there's a long poem about meeting up with everyone's favourite anthologist, Oscar Williams! I know this book is going to be a runaway best-seller!
A Sparrow Comes Down Resplendent has two launches lined up so far:
Toronto: May 12, 7:30 pm, The Monarch Tavern, 12 Clinton Street
Also being launched are new books by Kilby Smith-McGregor (Kids in Triage) and Susan Perly (Death Valley)
Cobourg: June 6, 7 pm, The Human Bean, 80 King Street West
Also being launched is Ashley-Elizabeth Best's Slow States of Collapse. Musical guest: Rhonda Murdoch.
I hope to get to many more towns and cities with my shameless sell-out.
Over and (sell-)out.
01 May 2016
Good night, Mark McCawley, 1964 – 2016
I was reading John Fante the other day, and I thought of Mark McCawley, wondered if he liked Fante. Fante was a huge influence on Bukowski, and Mark loved Bukowki. As it turns out, at the moment I was thinking about Mark, he was already gone.
I just heard this morning in a group email from the poet Chris Faiers, that Mark died, on April 19. rob mclennan wrote an obit here. Mark was nearly five years younger than I was. I know that he had health challenges and financial challenges. But in the last exchange I had with him, a week before he died, he offered to send me a small cheque to help buy a new computer because my laptop is starting to go bonkers. I thanked him for his generosity, but declined. He mentioned, as he so often did, that I was getting a bad break in the Canadian lit scene and should win a GG. I told him my stuff was way too weird for that. He wrote: "Weirdness really ought not to be a barrier to being shortlisted for the GG." He was a really great supporter of my work, and of the work of many other writers who he felt were working outside the mainstream.
He championed Daniel Jones to the end, promoting Jones's work decades after that writer's much-too-early death. More recently, he was soliciting and pirating work that excited him for his Urban Graffiti online project.
Mark was an angry guy when it came to CanLit. He was also a tender and generous man. The last time I saw him was when I visited Edmonton a bunch of years back. Mark took me to the Blue Plate, his favourite diner; we had a colourful, often dark, but ultimately inspiring visit. Mark had trouble getting around, but we took a long walk afterwards, and he showed me some neat Edmonton sights. We were looking forward to our next meeting at the Blue Plate, whenever I could get back to his town.
Mark was hardcore. Hardcore in his aesthetics. A hardcore small-presser. A hardcore promoter of the transgressive in literature. His comments on FB were often indignant, pissed-off, and outrageous. And it all came from a good and principled place. He was a very loyal guy. In Edmonton, I gave a reading in the lower level of some fancy bookstore there: the only people to attend were Catherine Owen, at whose place I was crashing, and Mark McCawley.
In December, he wrote to me: "I've sadly discovered lately that transgressive writing is disappearing from local libraries, including works by Jones, Firth, Quinn, Burnham…"
When I whined to Mark that I had become an ignored "literary geezer," he replied: "Where there is life, there is work to be written. Soon we 'geezers' will take over! Imagine a legion of literary 'geezers' with walkers…"
Mark kicked against the pricks. And he was a man who experienced a lot of pain. I hope his end, however that played out, was gentle.
I never did send him that copy of Juan Butler's Canadian Healing Oil I promised him. If he reads this and has a new address that Canada Post can reach, maybe he'll let me know. When someone dies unexpectedly, isn't there always this rush of things you wanted to say, to express, to ask?
Spend some time at his website today, will ya?
And for Mark, here's one of his favourite artists.
Over and out, Mark.
23 April 2016
4 exciting new books under the "a stuart ross book" imprint
I'm pretty proud of the books I've ushered through Mansfield Press since 2007, when publisher Denis De Klerck let me aboard on a trial basis. That year I worked on new books with Lillian Necakov and Steve Venright. In all, I've brought about 45 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction to Mansfield.
For this spring's list, I've worked with Montreal poet Sarah Burgoyne on her first book, with Kingston's Jason Heroux and Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia's Alice Burdick on their respective fourth collections, and with Paris, Ontario, poet Nelson Ball on his … well, he's got a lot of books.
Those books are launching next week in Montreal, Kingston, Toronto, and St. George, Ontario. I haven't seen them yet, but can't wait to hold them in my hands.
Denis did send me a photo of them, though, as well as the new book by Toronto's Eva HD that he saw through the press this season.
What particularly excites me about this season's crop are the challenges inherent in each book. Writers challenging readers, and also challenging themselves.
Saint Twin is Sarah Burgoyne debut, and it is as challenging as it is moving and powerful. This 160-page volume is comprised of nine sequences, a couple of which even have subsequences. Mostly, these amazing sequences are interwoven through each other throughout the book. It makes for a read that can be disorienting, but also exciting and rich, and it allows the echoes — and the distinctions — between the sequences to really stand out. It was a brave decision by Sarah — and a beautifully outrageous one — to order the book that way. I don't know of any other book of Canadian poetry that is structured quite like Saint Twin. I am immensely proud to have helped bring it into the world. I think readers are going to find extraordinary things in this glorious and hefty book.
Chewing Water is the fourth full-length collection (including next fall's Certain Details: The Poems of Nelson Ball, from WLU Press) I've worked on with Canadian poetry and publishing legend Nelson Ball. Nelson is often thought of as primarily a writer of minimalist nature poems, though people have been part of his poems for decades. Since the death of his wife, the artist and writer Barbara Caruso, in late 2009, it seems that Nelson's books are becoming increasingly "social" — lots of friends appear in the poems, as well as Barbara. Chewing Water is almost evenly divided between nature poems and people poems. At least, that's my impression. I haven't really counted the poems in each category. But it made for an interesting challenge when it came to ordering the pieces in the book. Divide it into sections, separating the different kinds of poems? Alternate? In the end, I decided to kick off with a rare childhood poem (Nelson's childhood, that is), and let intuition guide me. After a particularly emotional people poem, it seemed apt to insert a nature poem to allow for some peace and meditation. And certain nature poems suggested others, as certain people poems also suggested others. When I was done, Nelson shifted half a dozen poems around, and then we were both happy. To me, the book seems to have an almost emotional narrative. But really, with Nelson's poems, I could have thrown the pages into the air at random and ordered them how they landed and it still would have been a brilliant book.
It has been a blast to work with Jason Heroux for the third time, on his fourth collection with Mansfield. For the last book, Natural Capital, I really encouraged Jason to push himself in new directions, and he did a fantastic job. It didn't take any convincing to see Jason go even further with Hard Work Cheering Up Sad Machines. The title alone is a great departure for him. But look: there are quasi-flarf poems in this book! And about half a dozen long poems and sequences, where Jason explores different forms and different relations between the sequences' elements. This is the Kingston poet's most exciting collection so far, and his longest, by a long shot. The other thing that I could feel in this new manuscript was all the deep and close readings he has done over the years of works by poets from around the world. There is homage and respect and influence herein. Jason is a poet's poet.
And finally, it's been an intense pleasure to work with Alice Burdick on four full-length books, the first for Beth Follett's amazing Pedlar Press, and the next three with Mansfield. Again, like Nelson and Jason, Alice has been pushing herself to expand her palette ever further. Book of Short Sentences is Alice's longest and most acrobatic book yet. And it also has some very long poems, both of the prose and the linear variety. Alice's poetry is always challenging, in that very pleasurable way that John Ashbery's work is challenging. And comparisons have been made between Burdick and Ashbery, and I think they're valid to a point. Alice's work is much more deeply personal, though. And her wordplay is nearly constant (in a best-of-Nabokov/Burgess sort of way). I feel like Canadian poetry might finally be catching up to Alice Burdick, and this might be the book that brings her the recognition she so deeply deserves.
The fifth book out this season from Mansfield is Toronto poet Eva HD's follow-up to Rotten Perfect Teeth, her twice-reprinted debut from spring 2015. Shiner is the new book. This one is Denis De Klerck's project, and it is an often belligerent, often beautiful collection.
I'm on the train right now for Montreal, where we launch tomorrow (April 24) at 7 pm at the Copacabana on St. Laurent (where Nick Papaxanthos drew a huge crowd to launch his debut, Love Me Tender, this past fall). On April 25, 7 pm, we will be in Kingston at the brilliant indie bookstore Novel Idea. And then on April 26, we're in Mansfield's home turf of Toronto, at the Monarch Tavern at 7 pm. After a few days' break, we head to St. George, Ontario, Nelson Ball's neck of the woods, to launch Nelson and Alice at 2 pm at the Adelaide Hunter Hoodless Homestead.
Then, on June 16, Alice launches her book in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, at Box of Delights Bookshop, 6 pm. Joining her will be Darren Greer, launching his novel Advocate.
As always, I am grateful to Denis De Klerck for the privilege of working with such fine authors.
Come join us at a launch!
Over and out.
01 February 2016
Selected Poems of Nelson Ball — it's happening!
I'm working on an awful lot of wonderful projects.
Here, I'll tell you about one.
A couple of years ago, Paul Dutton invited me to lunch in the Annex. He actually had a written list of things he wanted to discuss with me. At the time, Gary Barwin was working on a Selected volume of Paul's work for Wilfred Laurier University Press's Laurier Poetry Series. (It — Sonosyntactics — was launched last week in Toronto — get yourself a copy!) Paul thought it might interest me to approach the press with a proposal: and then one of us — I think it was Paul, came up with the idea of a Selected Nelson Ball. In fact, Paul might have had that idea from the get-go.
Anyway, it was a very exciting idea. I would have to read everything Nelson had written since the 1960s. I couldn't think of a more pleasant reading adventure.
So I wrote the press, and they immediately said yes. It's been a bit of a bumpy ride, though, mostly because I take on far too much. The actual work hasn't been bumpy, but finding time to do it has been a challenge. I began reading through Nelson's books right away, back in 2014. I put a Post-it on every page I thought was worthy of inclusion in a Selected. Problem was, I was putting Post-its on almost every page. Maybe someday there will be a Complete Poems of Nelson Ball (and I sure hope there will be!), but WLU does slim volumes of Selecteds, usually (or maybe always) under 100 pages.
I got caught up in my own books, and in Mansfield Press books, and other editing and teaching projects. And then, a few months ago, Paul bumped into the editor from WLU. The editor mentioned that he had never received the Ball manuscript and assumed I had given up on the idea. Paul said he was pretty sure I wouldn't give up on that, so the editor wrote me a note and asked.
Excited by his enthusiasm, and the realization that I hadn't blown it, I got to work again. And I got more stingy with my Post-it notes.
And this past week, Nelson approved a final selection. And he came up with the perfect title.
Points of Attention.
It works so well in so many ways.
Nelson has already written his afterword, based on a letter about his poetry he'd written to a Japanese student many years ago. This, for me, is one of the most exciting things about the book: Nelson has never before written for publication about his own writing. And here he talks about his process, his aesthetics, his influences. It's an amazing document.
And I'm working away on the introduction. Last night I phoned my old friend Lance La Rocque, a poet and academic in Wolfville, N.S., who is at least as enthusiastic about Nelson's work as I am. He was a great sounding board for my ideas about the introduction, and made a lot of excellent suggestions that I'll explore and perhaps adapt.
This WLU book is slated for publication this fall. I've already worked with Nelson on three previous publications: two books through Mansfield Press, In This Thin Rain and Some Mornings, and a Proper Tales Press chapbook called The Continuous Present. And we're also doing another Mansfield Press collection this spring — Chewing Water. It's a deep pleasure to work with Nelson, and especially to watch the great attention he pays to the most minute details of each of his poems. Which isn't surprising, given the nature of so many of his poems — works that pay attention to / celebrate / document minute details.
I've described Nelson at times as Canada's secret poetry weapon. I shouldn't really call him a weapon, though. But almost inevitably, when I bring his poetry into a workshop, or suggest it to someone I'm coaching, he makes new fans. There is an immediacy, a directness, a purity to Nelson's poems that make them nearly universal.
Points of Attention will cover six decades of work by one of this country's indisputable greats. If you think you know Nelson's work, I think you'll still be surprised by this collection.
Over and out.