26 October 2009

A Poem for Toluca

OK, here's a link that's on the way out, but before it goes, thought I'd share it here. It was brought to mind when Joan, this afternoon, put up a lovely gallery of Toluca photos on Facebook.

It's a poem that appears in my Hey, Crumbling Balcony! Poems New & Selected. I wrote it for my friend Joan's cat Toluca, who met an early end in 2003. I met Joan — at least virtually — through the Randy Newman listserv, where I've made a lot of neat friends, a few of whom I've even met.

Over and out.

22 October 2009

McFadden shortlisted for the GG Award!

I was thrilled to hear that David McFadden's latest book of poetry, Be Calm, Honey, has been shortlisted for the Governor General's Award. It's a book I acquired and edited for Mansfield Press, where I'm the poetry editor.

Dave has been nominated before, but he's never won. This crazy and wise book of sonnets just might be the winner. Dave's in his fifth decade of writing poetry, and my admiration for him never stops growing. He was a huge inspiration to me when I was a teenager and found his book Knight of Dried Plums on the shelf at North York Central Library. You could write about serious stuff and be goofy! He's one of my all-time favourite poets!

Here's a picture of David, alongside John Ashbery, both of them signing their books at the 2008 Griffin Prize for Poetry reading. Dave had been shortlisted for the Canadian prize there, for his book Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems of David W. McFadden. I edited that one for Insomniac Press, at the request of dear Paul Vermeersch. Robin Blaser ended up winning, and John Ashbery in the International category.

Got my fingers and toes crossed this time.

Over and out.

20 October 2009

Two Toronto workshops in November!

After a little break from leading workshops, I'm offering two in November — the return of the ever-popular Poetry Boot Camp and a new one for beginning writers that touches on several literary genres.

Both these workshops are in Toronto, but as always, if there's a group that wants to bring me somewhere and can make it worth my while, I'm glad to travel.

I led my first workshops back when I was in high school. As part of one of my credits, I returned to my old elementary school, Wilmington, and taught poetry to grades 4 through 6. In my twenties and thirties, I taught a few workshops here and there, but it was the last decade when I really started to make these workshops part of my writing practice.

Here's the guff on next month's sessions:

THE WORD BLITZ: a workshop by Stuart Ross
Sunday, November 15, 10am-5 pm (w/ 45-minute lunch break)
Christie/Dupont area
$75 includes materials, light snacks & a book by Stuart Ross

To register, write Stuart at hunkamooga@sympatico.ca

For beginning writers, or those who simply want a one-day writing holiday or to break through one of those mythical writers' blocks. The Word Blitz is a hands-on exploration of short fiction, poetry, the personal essay and memoir. We'll write, and we'll talk about how to make writing a part of your life, as well as about various forms of publication.

Sunday, November 22, 10am-5 pm (w/ 45-minute lunch break)
Christie/Dupont area
$75 includes materials, light snacks & a book by Stuart Ross

To register, write Stuart at hunkamooga@sympatico.ca

A relaxed but intensive one-day workshop for beginning poets, experienced poets, stalled poets, and haikuists who want to get beyond three lines. Poetry Boot Camp focuses on the pleasures of poetry and the riches that spontaneity brings, through lively directed writing strategies and relevant readings from the works of poets from Canada and abroad. Arrive with an open mind, and leave with a heap of new poems!


"I really enjoyed myself and felt like I got a lot done. I think you very
much for the stimulation & the relaxed atmosphere."

"Yay! Excited to go back to trying to write poems. I have so many new things to try now. Thanks!"

"I liked being exposed to the familiar in a new, fresh, creative way."

"A big help! I have a much better idea now of how to get the ball rolling."

"I most enjoyed the relaxed pace and the self-directed nature of the work."

"I loved hearing other people's work & liked that there was all positive response."

"The Boot Camp pushed me beyond my comfort zone in precisely the way that I hoped it would."

"Thank you, Stuart, for opening the door."

"I wrote much more than I anticipated — that's a good thing."

"Excellent overall. I got a lot of out of it. Money very well spent! I'd recommend it to others."

"My favourite part was the variety of non-threatening strategies for writing."

"Really informative, really helpful workshop. Great energy!"

Over and out.

13 October 2009

Cigarettes in sub-Terrain

sub-Terrain, the punchy Vancouver litmag where my Hunkamooga column appears, has run a review of Buying Cigarettes for the Dog.

There's been something really encouraging about the mostly positive attention my short stories have been getting, and in the past couple of weeks, I've written six new stories. That's all got to stop now, because I'm smothered in editing work and gotta get back to all that or I'm doomed.

Here's the review:

Buying Cigarettes for the Dog: Stories
by Stuart Ross
Freehand Books, 2009; 200 pp; $19.95

Buying Cigarettes for the Dog is Stuart Ross's second collection of short stories, released into a bibliography thick with poetry, plus two collaborative novels and a book of essays. Ross is what you might call a writer's writer. Not only a poet and essayist, he has published and sold his own chapbooks, and is also a poetry editor and co-founder of the Toronto Small Press Book Festival. Not to mention his Hunkamooga column for this very magazine, the fearless true tales of trying to make a living by writing in Canada.

It's no mean feat, and Ross has done the work. This collection shows the effort of a mature writer who's not afraid to play, plopping the reader into absurd situations and dangling disbelief above our heads, such as in the title story about a man who goes out for a pack of cigarettes and decides to "circle the globe and still be home in time for dinner." He walks and walks, acquiring a "small apartment with a dog and typewriter named Princey" in the process, before remembering he was on an errand and returning home, or where he used to live, anyway.

It's all the sort of thing you don't often get all at once in Canadian fiction: originality, inventiveness, and stories that hang together. It feels more like a South American writer in translation, frankly. I chewed through each one of the twenty odd pieces, delighting in the wordplay and imagery of each, as well as their diverse forms. "Language Lessons with Simon and Marie" riffs on the stilted dialogue of ESL texts, while "So Sue Me, You Talentless Fucker" subverts the expected emotionless language of legalese into a scathing rant simply by beginning every long, angry, funny sentence with a "whereas."

Some of the stories are long, interconnected affairs; some are short. It's hard to sum up the book without resorting to the word "zany." How else to describe a story like "Cow Story," which imagines a world where cows are invading the city, blocking spaces meant for people, such as elevators and supermarket aisles, and forcing the narrator to alter his routines and plans and movements. And when the cows are gone (much like wildlife from new-ish suburbs), the people feel the emptiness. Or "Me and the Pope," in which the Pope is a guy who comes to crash in your apartment, leaving a mess and stealing your girlfriend before going out to do his Popemobile thing.

Like most short story collections, the assortment is uneven, and Ross's brand of poetic surrealism tends to work better in shorter bursts than sustained over the longer stories. "Guided Missiles," the longest story in the collection, concerns a group of losers with overlapping lives, a part-time DJ named Archie, his neighbour Martita, a stalker by the name of Hank and a street preacher referred to as "the prophet"—all set in some unnamed North American city, with political strife in Nicaragua simmering in the background. A wonderful piece to read, with lines like, "He looked into the leaves above and through them he saw the grey clouds, rolling and tumbling like waves of lava, bubbling and screeching, spitting out the occasional bird and always threatening to smother the earth." However, and maybe this is just me, in the thick of description and dialogue, I often lost the plot points and had to go back a couple of pages to find where I was in the story.

Ross's background as a poet translates well to creating fiction. His work is experimental but accessible, and anyone with a modicum of appreciation for satire and surrealism (Kids in the Hall fans perhaps?) ought to pick up these smokin' Cigarettes.

— Christine Rowlands

Over and out.

07 October 2009

Make mine miscellaneous: the actual numbers

I can't believe what I left out of that Hunkamooga column: a bunch of crucial numbers. That's what I get for writing my column at the last minute!

While I was lamenting the dearth of poetry books containing "Miscellaneous" poems rather than "Project" or "Theme" books, I meant to include the breakdown of the 89 grant submissions.

Here it is: Project books: 39. Theme books: 25. Themes in Sections: 11. Miscellaneous: 14.

So only 14 out of the 89 grant submissions were for books of miscellaneous poems! That's why I was frothing at the mouth, you see!

Over and out.

05 October 2009

Make mine miscellaneous!

I don't keep up to date on all the Serious Debates going around the poetry world, because I'd rather just read and write poems, but a link connected me to a link that connected me to a link that brought me to Zach Wells' always-interesting blog, and apparently a bunch of guys are talking about thematic books of poetry.

Hey! That's the subject of my latest column in sub-Terrain! I don't normally run my subby columns here on Bloggamooga, but I figured I should get in on the action. Meanwhile, subscribe to sub-Terrain today!



Make mine miscellaneous!

Earlier this year, I sat on a jury for the Canada Council for the Arts. We were giving out grants for poetry to “emerging writers.” Our little cabal of three could do this presumably because we were “emerged writers.” Anyway, sitting on a jury is often an eye-opening experience. There were the usual aesthetic disputes, the daydreamed throttling of one juror by another, the awarding of grants to people one wants to kill, and the occasional great moment of camaraderie. The food was pretty good too.

But the thing that struck me most was the nature of the manuscripts. Sometime over the past couple of decades, something really strange has happened to poetry in this country. And I wanna know why.

See, I did some statistical forensics of the two big boxes of submissions we had to go through. I sorted the 89 manuscripts into categories. I called the first category “Projects” — these were book-length poems, or collections that comprised a single project. Think Christian Bök’s Eunoia or angela rawlings’ Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists. Think Herménégilde Chiasson’s beautiful Beatitudes and Tom Walmsley’s glorious Honeymoon in Berlin.

The second category was “Themes” — collections of poems all exploring a single theme or character. Like Paul Vermeersch’s The Fat Kid or Gary Barwin and Derek Beaulieu’s Frogments from the Frag Pool. Adam Sol’s Jeremiah, Ohio.

Next came what I called “Themes in Sections” — either a book divided into, say, three or four sections, each exploring one theme, or a book containing discrete projects. Alessandro Porco’s highly entertaining The Jill Kelly Poems and Sharon Harris’s Avatar. My own Dead Cars in Managua would just about fit into this file. Maybe Paul Dutton’s Aurealities.

The final category I labelled “Miscellaneous” — collections of poems whose greatest connection is that they are all written by the same author. In other words, this latter category is simply a collection of poems someone wrote. The best of what they have lying around, presumably.

Now, there are some good Project books, and some good Theme books, and some good books constructed as Themes in Sections. Great ones, even. But my favourite poetry books are the Miscellaneous breed: an eclectic grab bag of poems by a single author. Tulsa Kid, by Ron Padgett. The Nearness of the Way You Look Tonight, by Charles North. Primitive, by Gil Adamson. I could go on.

In fact, I will go on, because you should read every goddamn one of these books. The Bone Broker, by Lillian Necakov. Capitalism, by Campbell McGrath. A Defense of Poetry, by Gabriel Gudding (OK, most of the poems in there invoke butts, asses, and rectums, but it’s not truly a Theme book). Rhymes of a Jerk, by Larry Fagin. Pearl, by Lynn Crosbie. The Romantic Dogs, by Roberto Bolaño. Flutter, by Alice Burdick. Shroud of the Gnome, by James Tate. Jen Currin’s The Sleep of Four Cities. Your Name Here, by John Ashbery.

Read them, you bastards! Buy them and read them! (You’ll never find a copy of Rhymes of a Jerk, but I’ll make you a pirate edition for $75, OK?)

But I ask: Why so many stinking Project and Theme books? And why are writers who describe themselves as “emerging” writing so many of ’em? Shouldn’t writers who are learning the trade be trying out everything they can, creating a tangle of eclectic experiments, writing about any stupid thing that pops into their churning skull?

Where did this all start? It’d be easy — and fun, too! — to blame it all on Christian Bök, whose book-length poem Eunoia sold 14,000 copies and made a lot of young poets think they could be superstars. Now, there’s a book that you can describe to someone and make it sound interesting: “Oh yeah, so each section uses only one vowel! It’s really cool. Yoko Ono!” But how do you make Shroud of the Gnome sound good? “There’s all these poems and they’re great and one of them’s called ‘Shut Up and Eat Your Toad’!” Just doesn’t grab in the same way.

I think, though, we can apportion the bulk of the blame three ways.

First, grant applications. Those “Project Description” requirements are evil fuckers, eating at the very fabric of our nation’s poetry. Does a focused Project or Theme make for a better book of poetry? Nope — more often than not it means oat-meal-like homogeneity. Or some interesting idea stretched beyond its natural limit to achieve “book length.” But it sure makes it easier to describe what you’re working on when you have to fill out a grant application. Maybe it even makes the book you’re applying for sound more important. Maybe it makes the writer feel more important.

Next, let’s string up those goddamn MFA programs. Lucky for us, we don’t have the kind of sausage-factory industry that’s eating away at the U.S., but I think that’s the hideous direction we’re headed in. Again, it’s easier to spend a couple of years working on something you can define in a concrete fashion, rather than something you can’t. Plus, again, a Project manuscript sounds important. It’s more tangible: you can talk about it with your thesis advisor and it’s like you actually have a topic for your discussion. I don’t know that it’s the way to write exciting poetry, though. So I hereby command all universities to shut down their MFA programs in creative writing.

Finally, there are the publishers. What the hell do they know? The “sales force” for their distributor has been whining to them: “We only have eight seconds to pitch a book to the buyers for Big Fucking Box Stores. It’s way better if we can say, ‘A marvellous collection of poems about gardening and suicide’ instead of, ‘Oh yeah, this is the new poetry book by L. Beau Noodles.’” A Project or Theme collection also makes it so much easier for publishers to write their catalogue copy. So there’s all this pressure on writers to come up with poetry books that can be described as if they were novels.

This new concept thing with poetry collections — it makes me sad. It limits us. It makes art convenient.

I’m heading to the mountains to start a guerrilla resistance. Join me. The food’s pretty good.

Over and out.

01 October 2009

October stuff I'm doing

It's been a crazy month. Tons of story writing, lots of writing coaching, Word on the Street at the Mansfield Press table, getting those Mansfield books ready, and more.

I'm involved in a few events coming up this week, in Hamilton and Toronto …


Friday, October 2
7 - 9 pm
The Staircase Theatre
27 Dundurn St. N

Gary Barwin and Stuart Ross join Anik See for the launch of her new book Postcard and Other Stories.

The reading will feature the three authors reading their short fiction.


Tuesday, October 6
7:30pm till late
Victory Cafe
581 Markham Street

Coach House Books and Freehand Books are teaming up to launch two great new collections of short fiction: Sentimental Exorcisms by David Derry and postcard and other stories by Anik See.

David and Anik will read from their new books at the Victory Cafe, followed by a musical performance by Sigrun Stella (http://www.myspace.com/sigrunstella1).

The evening's festivities will be hosted by the inimitable Stuart Ross, who knows a thing or two about short fiction himself. And he's going to read a new story.


Thursday, October 8
Sage West
924 College Street

livewords is pleased to welcome Chicago poets, Richard Huttel and Christine Aument; and Toronto poets: Lillian Necakov, Jeff Latosik and Phoebe Tsang; plus our special guest Stuart Ross.

Christine Aument was born and raised in the Chicago area. A class on finding one’s dream spurred her to pursue writing. Her work has appeared in Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine (The University of Oklahoma College of Medicine), Prairie Light Review: In Medias Res (College of DuPage), as well as several publications of the Bloomingdale (IL) Writer’s Workshop. Her poem “Cold Comfort” took 25th place in Writer’s Digest magazine’s Fourth Annual Poetry Contest. “My poetry correspondence with Richard Huttel keeps me writing when life threatens to take over.”

Chicagoan Richard Huttel was born in Evergreen Park, Illinois, USA, in 1954. “I started writing poems in earnest in 1979 to try and make some sense of my life.” Huttel is the author of several chapbooks including Rainy Day Cliffhanger (Proper Tales Press), Bucktown Serenade (e.p. press), and The Be Seeing You Variations (Surrealist Poets’ Gardening Assoc.). “Most of the poems I’ve written in the last few decades have been in the context of correspondences with other poets, most durably Lillian Necakov and Christine Aument."

Jeff Latosik’s work has appeared in magazines and journals across the country. His first book, Tiny, Frantic, Stronger, will be published in the spring by Insomniac Press. The film option is still available. Terrence Malick, if you’re out there, please tacitly agree to do the film by making no response to this message whatsoever.

Lillian Necakov lives in Toronto where she has been writing and publishing for the past 30 years. She is the author of Sickbed of Dogs, Wolsak and Wynn 1989, Polaroids, Coach House Press 1997, Hat Trick, Exile Editions 1998, and The Bone Broker, Mansfield Press 2007. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines in the U.S.A., Europe, China and Canada, including Surreal Estate: 13 Canadian Poets Under the Influence, Mercury Press, 2004.

Stuart Ross is a Toronto fiction writer, poet, editor, and creative-writing instructor. He has edited many literary magazines, including Mondo Hunkamooga, Who Torched Rancho Diablo?, Dwarf Puppets on Parade, Peter O’Toole, and Syd & Shirley. His most recent poetry books are I Cut My Finger (Anvil Press) and Dead Cars in Managua. Stuart's newest story collection Buying Cigarettes for the Dog, featuring a heap of stories including "Bouncing," "Me and the Pope," and "So Sue Me, You Talentless Fucker."

Phoebe Tsang was born in Hong Kong, grew up in England and currently resides in Canada. Phoebe’s poetry can be found in the anthologies Garden Variety (Quattro Books) and Not a Muse (Haven Books). Journal credits include Asia Literary Review (Hong Kong), Atlas 02 (UK & India), Brand (UK), and Freefall (Canada). Her chapbooks are Solitaires (Lyrical Myrical Press, 2006) and To Kiss the Ground (Press On! 2007). A professional violinist, she is a multi-genre artist who holds a BSc in Architecture from the University of London.

Over and out.