28 June 2008

Opinion! Further words on the Small Press Book Fair, on fair comment, and on failure of imagination

Funny, I was sitting down to write about the Small Press Book Fair stuff today, given that it's the three-week anniversary of the last installment of the event, and Paul Vermeersch sent me a link to an article in today's Globe.

As someone who was threatened with a spurious (in my opinion) defamation lawsuit some months ago, by Myna Wallin and Halli Villegas, current coordinators of the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, this was of particular interest to me. H&M didn't like my criticism of how they ran the fall fair, and of their reaction to criticism from the community, and they didn't like my suggestion, addressed to them and their board and a few past fair coordinators, that they ought to step down. They hired a lawyer to threaten me with various financial penalties if I didn't erase his clients' names from my blog, retract various (unspecified) statements I'd made, and stop defaming his clients.

I erased nothing from my blog, retracted nothing, and had no problem stopping defaming his clients, because I don't believe I had ever defamed them in the first place. As someone wrote on some other blog or listserv, simply saying that someone has defamed you doesn't make it so.

But I — and scores of other members of the small-press community — were deeply angered that people receiving public money to run a fair devoted to literature and free expression would threaten another writer with such a suit.

So, as much I still wouldn't be able to afford a swing through the courts, I was encouraged to see Kirk Makin's article in the June 28 Globe & Mail, "9-0 ruling modernizes defence of fair comment: Controversial radio host Mair didn't defame Christian-values advocate on book-banning, court says, setting terms for 'honest belief'." Here are some pertinent extracts:

The media should not live in constant fear of facing a libel suit every time a provocative commentary is published or broadcast, the Supreme Court of Canada said yesterday in a major ruling won by controversial Vancouver radio broadcaster Rafe Mair.

In a 9-0 decision that modernizes the defence of fair comment, the court found that Mr. Mair did not defame Christian-values advocate Kari Simpson when he denounced her stand on a book-banning controversy.

"An individual's reputation is not to be treated as regrettable but unavoidable roadkill on the highway of public controversy, but nor should an overly solicitous regard for personal reputation be permitted to 'chill' freewheeling debate on matters of public interest," Mr. Justice Ian Binnie said.

Judge Binnie said that the key to a defence of honest belief - particularly in an era when extravagant overstatement is common - should lie in whether an honest person could have held the same opinion.

Brian MacLeod Rogers, a lawyer who represented a coalition of media organizations in the appeal, said that the ruling "clarifies and strengthens a defence that had fallen into murky depths and had become too unreliable to be counted on when most needed."

Judge Binnie expressed a concern that issues of public interest could go unreported "because publishers fear the ballooning cost and disruption of defending a defamation action. ... Public controversy can be a rough trade, and the law needs to accommodate its requirements."

The legal tests the court set out to determine "honest belief" include:

The comment must be on a matter of public interest.

It must be based on fact.

Although it can include inferences of fact, the comment must be recognizable as comment.

It must be capable of satisfying the question: Could any person honestly express that opinion on the proved facts?

What I was originally going to write here today was in response to an article that appeared in the National Post the day of the fair. Here's what really made me sigh in despair: "Says Villegas: 'I don't know if we actually could do anything differently than we did.'"

Jean-Paul Sartre would be shaking his head. We are different from armadillos and chimps in that we do have the power — in fact, the responsibility — to make our own choices. Here are some things they could have done differently:

• not attacked me personally when I criticized their running of the fair and suggested ways to improve it

• not taken my criticism as a personal attack

• formed a board that didn't consist simply of themselves and three close associates, but one inclusive enough to draw in at least one or two people who had a deep history of the fair, such as Beth Follett or Maggie Helwig

• chosen not to hire a lawyer to threaten me with a defamation suit

• held an open meeting with the small-press community when they realized it wasn't just me who was unhappy

• invited me and other members of their constituency to speak before the board

• withdrawn their accusations of defamation, as I requested, when there was talk of bringing in a mediator or conciliator (I refused to go into any discussions with a legal threat hanging over my head)

• thanked me publicly for all the valuable suggestions I made on my blog, given that they obviously used those suggestions as a template when organizing the next fair

And, perhaps most simply, after they'd read my initial blog entry, they could have said: "Thanks for the input, Stuart. We'll take it into consideration for the next fair." And that would have been that.

We're all human, and we all sometimes respond rashly to things said, or don't stop to think before we speak, or take things personally that weren't meant personally. But along the way, there are opportunities to try to right our wrongs, admit our shortcomings, reach out and communicate in a sincere fashion. I speak as someone who has fucked up deeply at times, and when I felt I was wrong, I've done my best to admit it and to make amends.

I don't know how the spring fair went. I wasn't there, and many other long-time participants chose not to go. One who did turn up said he regretted it. Many of those who have shopped at the fair for years chose not to go. It's a profound loss for me as a writer and publisher, not to mention as a founder of the event, but staying away from this fair was a choice I made on principle. It's a tough enough life being a Canadian writer; we're already under implicit attack from so many other facets of the society we live in.

I don't think I have anything further to say on the topic.

So, on to other things.

Over and out.

27 June 2008

Frank O'Hara's birthday today, This Ain't reopens on Sunday and the Scream

Today would be Frank O'Hara's 82nd birthday. He was born Francis Russell O'Hara on June 27, 1926. Hey, that's the same year my dad was born! But Frank died on July 25, 1966, on Fire Island. He wrote an awful lot of truly fantastic poems.

Last year, on John Ashbery's 80th birthday, Carl Wilson, Paul Vermeersch, Erik Rutherford and I met at Clinton's to share our favourite Ashbery poems, turning Clinton's into a temporary Cedar Tavern, the New York hangout of poets and artists in the 50s and 60s. Today, I'm planting myself at Clinton's again, from 2 to 5 pm, with a little stack of O'Hara books. Others may turn up, Frank poems in hand. Or maybe it'll just be me. The suspense is palpable.

On Sunday, my favourite indie bookstore, This Ain't the Rosedale Library, is celebrating its reopening in Kensington Market, at 86 Nassau Street. The new location is small but the abbreviated This Ain't crew are making great use of the space. There will be readings and live music outside the shop, and I'm really pleased to be part of it, since I've been a customer of since the store opened nearly three decades ago on Queen Street East. Here's the tentative schedule:

3:30 - singer/songwriter, busker, and now author (with two books on songwriting and performing from Gaspereau Press) Bob Snider.
4:00 - Stuart Ross, the author, most recently, of two excellent poetry collections I Cut My Finger (Anvil Press) and Dead Cars in Managua (DC Books).
4:30 - Steve Venright, author of post-surrealist
masterworks Spiral Agitator (Coach House) and Floors of Enduring Beauty (Mansfield Press).
5:00 - Saxophonist Richard Underhill will provide a musical interlude
5:30 - Pamela Stewart, self-described 'literary proctologist', former private detective, and author of the story collection Elysium (Anvil Press)
6:00 - playwright and now author of her first novel, Stunt (Coach House), Claudia Dey
The evening will wrap up with live music from Nifty and Rosazia

I'll be reading from my most recent book, Dead Cars in Managua, plus a bunch of new poems, including some from a batch I unearthed yesterday (always great to stumble on poems you forgot you wrote!). This Ain't, by the way, is the only retail outlet in Toronto that sells the CD An Orphan's Song: Ben Walker Sings Stuart Ross.

Next Thursday, I help kick off this year's Scream Festival. I'm taking part in something called Best Practices: The Scream Alumni Night, starting at 8 pm at Supermarket, 68 Augusta. Here's how it'll work: Priscilla Uppal, Kevin Connolly, Emily Schultz, Ken Babstock and I each read from the work of a younger Toronto poet whose stuff we really like. I'll be reading from the published and new poems of Evie Christie. That'll be an interesting challenge, because Evie's poems are pretty specifically written in a woman's voice. Details about that event and the rest of the festival are right here.

Lots more to talk about. I'll save it for later.

Over and out.

23 June 2008


OWEN JAY ROSS, 1954-2000

I remember when Owen raced out the front door to get a kid who had bullied me back when we lived on Pannahill Road.

I remember how excited Owen got when he talked about coaching little-league baseball. That was his greatest pleasure.

I remember, at his funeral, all these kids showing up wearing baseball uniforms. The rabbi had never seen anything like that before.

I remember Owen disappearing for as much as a year at a time, but we were always back to being family when he showed up again.

I remember Owen always saying "Out" in response to "Where are you going?"

I remember Owen lurching towards me, dragging his feet along the carpet in the den, his finger held out as he threatened to give me a shock on the nose.

I remember watching wrestling with Owen and Grandpa: the Fabulous Kangaroos, the Love Brothers, Crybaby Cannon, Haystack Calhoun, Lord Athol Layton, Dewey Robertson (my favourite), and the Sheik and Abdulla Farouk. When the Sheik appeared on the screen, Grandpa would spit.

I remember Owen and I betting pennies on the horse races — the trots and the flats — and checking the results in the Star every day. Later, Owen owned a horse, but it didn't do real well at the track.

I remember Owen making himself a salami sandwich at midnight and how much care he took in the slicing.

I remember that Owen did not smoke and did not drink and did not ever try drugs.

I remember getting lost at the synagogue and wandering home on the day of Owen's bar mitzvah.

I remember, when our mom died, Owen hugging me, a rare occurrence when we were adults.

I remember Owen giving me a mug with a picture of his race horse on it, perhaps the only gift from him I still have. Today I will drink my morning tea from it.

Miss you, Owen.


17 June 2008

Air & Page

The air poets are getting restless. They expel their poems into the air, and the poems dissipate instantly. The air poets get no respect.

The page poets are dinosaurs, pulling their tired carcasses across the uncaring landscape.

Putting a poem on a page doesn't make it a good poem. Shouting a poem at an audience doesn't make it a good poem. Writing or shouting a poem from the heart doesn't make it a good poem. Pontificating makes for bad poetry. Facile rhymes make for bad poetry. Most of what is put on the page is bad poetry.

Anyway, a reporter from something called The Town Crier wanted to interview me a few weeks back for an article she was doing on air poetry (she calls it "spoken word" — as if one might speak something other than a word). I told her I would only be interviewed in writing. She sent me a list of questions. I sent her my answers. The article was published. Only my "outrageous" comments were used. But here's the entire exchange:

What do you think of spoken word/slam poetry?

I think most poetry is awful, and I think a much higher proportion of spoken word/slam poetry isn't good poetry. Mostly I find the work simplistic, badly rhymed, cliché-ridden, didactic and devoid of imagery. I find the performances gushing with ego and self-righteousness. I find the performances often aggressive and competitive.

You know, I guess some people like it, so I'm glad they have something they like. But with maybe one or two exceptions, I can't stand the stuff. And I'm sure most of its practitioners have no interest in my work, either.

Do you feel/believe it is a legitimate art form — on par with traditional forms of poetry?

Sure, it's an art form. Or it's something. But it's not poetry. Just as song lyrics are not poetry. Is it a form "on par" with poetry? I prefer the potential of poetry as a form.

Are you involved in Toronto's spoken word scene? If yes, why? If no, why not?

Nope. I guess I'm not involved because I'm not a spoken worder. Why would I be involved? I also don't want to be involved in basketball, poker, and wine-tasting.

Where do you see the scene in the future?

I don't think much about its future.

I spoke with David Silverberg, founder of Toronto Poetry Slam and editor of Mic Check, a new anthology of spoken word in Canada. He believes spoken word is the truest form of poetry, as the performance aspect of it immediately reaches a listener as opposed to poetry that's solely published on paper. Do you agree/disagree?

What's Dave talking about? When you read something on the page, it also reaches you immediately. In fact, with books, the poet doesn't have to be physically present to deliver the goods. With spoken word, the performer's reach is limited to those in his/her physical presence. Books can travel all over the world much more cheaply than a human. The work can exist outside the physical presence of its creator.

Dave's a good guy, and I applaud his commitment to the form that is his passion, but calling spoken word the "truest" form — what the hell does that even mean? Is it "truer" than Shakespeare, Ashbery, Dickinson, Whitman, Blake, Lynn Crosbie, Al Purdy, bpNichol?

Why are so many spoken worders concerned with being taken seriously outside their own circles?

Why do you think spoken word/slam poetry gets a bad rap? Why isn't it respected?

Well, performance aside, most of it is terrible writing. Most of it seems only to be influenced by other spoken word/slam. I rarely see evidence that any of its performers have read any contemporary poetry. I know that David Silverberg has, because he used to run a reading series where spoken word was only one element, and yet he doesn't list a single poet in the Favourite Books section of his Facebook page.

But isn't it respected? It's respected by those who exist in its scene. Like anything else.

Please let me know if I've missed any questions.

I think it's important to frame my statements with the fact that I am an extremely popular public reader of my poetry and I love doing readings, but I believe poetry lives or dies on the page. I have six perfect-bound books of poetry out there, plus dozens of chapbooks. It's not essential that I ever do another reading, but it's essential for me that I publish again.

I'm not getting into some big goddamn thing in the comments section below, so don't even try. This is my living room. I don't even particularly care about this issue. There are more important things at hand.

Over and out.

15 June 2008

Razovsky Rides a Cloud

SYDNEY ROSS, 1926-2001


Razovsky knows he must
finally be sleeping, because
he is cushioned on a cloud
sailing past a jet bound
for Florida, and this is not
possible, this thing
of floating on a cloud.
He must be so light,
and he feels light
inside. He feels his eyes
are lights, their beams
guiding his way. Straight up
the aisle, from the very back,
where the bent old men pray,
the regulars, their tallitim hanging
like ancient draperies,
up the aisle
towards the rabbi, the cantor,
the trembling bar-mitzvah boy.
Razovsky marvels at this shul
in the sky, and the
storm of candies
that rains over him. Razovsky
sails over the altar
and through the stained glass,
a little baby
floating in a basket
looking for his parents, for
a future, for love.
Jeepers creepers, he's
got racing stripes, he's
wearing pyjamas of cloud,
his glorious sleep
will not end.

from Razovsky at Peace, ECW Press, 2001

04 June 2008

Of Montreal, the Griffins, the Small Press Book Fair, and other stuff

So much has been happening. Spent the weekend in Montreal, where I launched Dead Cars in Managua, along with Sarah Steinberg, Arjun Basu, and David McFadden. Puggy Hammer — featuring David McGimpsey, Jason Camlot (my editor at DC Books) and Matt ? — rounded off the evening. I knew very few people in the audience, though some old friends did show up, but got a really good response. And it was fantastic, again, to see McFadden getting much audience love and totally enjoying himself. His reading was nothing short of masterful. This boost the Griffin nomination has given him has been great: features in the Hamilton Spectator, the Ottawa Citizen, the Toronto Star, a new awareness among audiences, a bit of travel….

And last night, at the Griffin Prize reading, he read last in a cast of seven (four international nominees and three Canucks). He had a shaky start, as he was obviously nervous in front of the auditorium audience of about 600 or 700. But as soon as he began the first of the brilliant four-poem selection, he was the master again, and got a fantastic and spontaneous response from the audience (which seemed to consist of about 575 opera-going rich people, plus about 25 poets). Dave also read one of my favourite poems of his, "Secrets of the Universe." It was also exciting to see John Ashbery — was this his first Toronto reading ever? — I mean, geez. He's old now, and walked pretty slowly, but his voice was so clear and powerful and his delivery so plainspoken. It was such a great experience.

In the meantime, I've been fending off interview requests about the Small Press Book Fair dispute from the National Post. Has the Post ever covered the fair before? But now there's "dirt," so they want in. I told the guy no. It's an emotional place I don't want to go. Plus I've been threatened with a defamation suit, and although I've never defamed the coordinators of the fair, I have no idea how they might interpret anything I say (or don't say, given how mangled one's quotes often get in the press).

He wrote back and pressed me on it. He didn't want to publish the article with only their side of the story. Don't I want the opportunity to deny the statements/claims made against me? Oh, and wouldn't I like to have my picture taken? Um, nope. I think that anyone who has given this some sober thought already has an opinion on those "claims." I gave him a brief written statement only:

This dispute was not strictly between me and the organizers of the Small Press Book Fair. From the beginning, I avoided the personal, even when I was repeatedly attacked personally. I understand that the organizers received complaints from as many as 200 members of the small-press community. So I'm not the only one who was outraged with how they handled input and criticism.

The bottom line for me: I don't believe that people who hire a lawyer to try to silence and censor another writer have any place running a fair devoted to free expression and diverse voices.

So the fair is this weekend, and my understanding is that an awful lot of the regular exhibitors will be sitting this one out. I don't plan to return to the fair until it's back in the hands of people who don't threaten legal action against and smear their critics.

Okay, that's off my chest. Back to more important matters.

Tonight the Griffin Prize will be awarded. I think McFadden actually has a chance in a tough field that also includes Robin Blaser and Nicole Brossard. One of the judges, last night, declared Dave McFadden "the world's most readable poet" or something to that effect. I've never been to one of these Griffin bashes. Should be an interesting time.

And then on Friday, the National Magazine Awards, where I'm up for the Best Column award for "Hunkamooga" in sub-Terrain. I mean, I hope I win, but I know I won't, and I'm going to see Martha Wainwright that evening.

And speaking of magazines, the upcoming issue of This will feature fiction by Karl Jirgens and poetry by Ally Fleming. And I'm really sad that editor Jessica Johnston is leaving the mag, to go back to school or something silly like that. I have loved working with her and I think she's done a great job on This.

And speaking of awards, Emily Schultz has been shortlisted for this year's Trillium Award for Poetry for her first book of poetry, Songs of the Dancing Chicken, which I copy-edited for ECW Press. I'm rootin' for her!

Over and out.