14 January 2009

Back from the dead: Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer

Wow, those literary journals sometimes really move in slow motion. So it was pretty exciting to find this review of Confessions in the current issue of The Malahat Review. I'm not sure the book is even still in print!

STUART ROSS, Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer (Vancouver: Anvil, 2005). Paperbound, 128 pp., $16.

Once, back in the early 1990s, I saw Stuart Ross standing firm on Yonge Street amid a swarm of pedestrians, holding out one of his chapbooks. I wish I could remember if he was wearing his customary placard that read, “Okay, So Don’t Buy My Books!” I just remember that I was on one of my infrequent trips to Toronto, trying to pack a lot in, hurrying along with a friend, herself a thwarted poet. She knew who Ross was and said something like, “He’s here all the time, that guy,” before we swept on without stopping.

Now, a shocking three years after it was published, I’m reading Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer and really regretting that I never had the gumption to halt our headlong rush that day and buy whatever chapbook Ross was hawking. No matter what topic the chapbook tackled, the writing would have crackled with Ross’s energy, wit, and passion about language. You can see that passion in this anthology just by reading the playful essay titles: “No Mere Mr. Nice Guy,” “The Great CBC Poetry Death Match,” “At the Controls with Johnny Turmoil,” and “Return to Platen Place.”

Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer is a wonderful book — funny, outrageous, and acute. I’ll even say it’s the best short-essay collection about the writing life that I’ve read in ages. Described by his publisher as “equal parts literary memoir, reckless tirade and unsolicited advice for the aspiring writer,” the collection showcases the best of Ross’s “Hunkamooga” column from Word: Toronto’s Literary Calendar Now you can find the column in the Vancouver literary magazine sub-Terrain. You can also find Ross elsewhere in a number of emanations, as is suitable for someone who has made his name as a publisher of such ephemeral works as leaflets, broadsides, and postcards. He’s just published a new book of poetry called Dead Cars in Managua, with DC Books’ Punchy Poetry imprint; last year he published I Cut My Finger, another book of poetry, with Anvil Press; his work pops up a lot in anthologies and magazines, and he’ll have a short-story collection out next year. In short, it would be difficult to contain Ross’s manic talent in any way whatsoever.

Active in the underground literary scene for more than twenty-five years, Ross has sold over 7,000 copies of his poetry and fiction chapbooks on the street. He was one of the cofounders of the Toronto Small Press Book Fair. He also leads “poetry boot camp,” edits the work of others, and gives numerous readings. In short, he’s no wan academic poetaster; instead, Ross is an activist/populist who believes in making all writing accessible. He says that writers who publish their own writing demonstrate that they “believe in their own work” and h thinks “a book is a book” whether it is eight or eighty pages long. Ross’s imagination is a great foil to his opinionated views. For instance, in “The Only Bookstore That Matters,” he paints a convincing picture of a shop called Spineless Literature, which sells only chapbooks. It’s a quirky and wonderful place, and you’ll want to rush right to Toronto and find it on Harbord Street — except that it’s entirely a creation of Ross’s inventive mind.

Elsewhere in the collection, Ross manages to be self-reflective without sounding the least bit pompous. He knows very well that his tactics will never win him a fat contract with McClelland & Stewart, but he has no plans to reform himself. In “And Because It Is My Heart” (with its references to Stephen Crane, his “favourite poet when I was a teenager”) Ross catalogues his “bitterness about my poetry career.” The guy admits he’s envious, but he’s also whoopingly funny: “I got one stinkin’ Works in Progress grant from the Ontario Arts Council in 1993, freeing me from indentured servitude at Harlequin Books, but nothing since. Meanwhile, all these peers and sub-peers and people like Dennis Bock with huge advances are snorting up the grant money with their jury-pleasing purple prose.” In “The Comfort of Misery,” he describes his talents in the hospitality suite at the Ottawa International Writers Festival where “for once I don’t argue with rob mclennan, though at one point I do kick him in the foot, my contribution to Canadian literary criticism.”

When Ross writes about his family — his surname is an anglicized version of Razovsky adopted by his grandparents in the 1950s — he is at his most compelling. In “Razovsky and Me,” Ross tells about his struggle to write short stories and novels about “Jewishness,” while his mother died and his father became ill:

The Razovsky poems started coming. My father — who never really got my poetry, but still loved to come to my readings — thought it was very funny that I wanted to use the name Razovsky on my third big book of poems. It always made him laugh. I explained to him how Razovsky was me and him and his father and all those really old bearded guys in the family photos on the wall, guys in Russia and Poland, some of whom wound up in concentration camps.

You can find the work that came out of that struggle in Razovsky at Peace (ECW, 2001).

Every aspiring writer should read Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer, just to find inspiration. And so should every established writer — just to keep humble.


In other news, I spent the past weekend typesetting Buying Cigarettes for the Dog, following the designer's (Fidel Peña of Underline Studios) template. It was great fun, a nifty challenge. I also completed one last new story for the collection, one that revives a couple of characters — Mr. Cage and Howie — from Henry Kafka & Other Stories.

Over and out.


At January 14, 2009 7:26 am , Blogger gary barwin said...

Nice review, Stu. I do hope that it bodes well for what I'd love to see:
More Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer.

BTW, I've always wondered how you managed to sell an even 7000 books on the street. That seems so corporate. I'd've expected 7023 or something.

At January 14, 2009 8:52 am , Blogger John MacDonald said...

I found that review highly enjoyable to read. Loved that book!


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