31 March 2013

The stray breezes of You Exist. Details Follow.

Very happy about this review from the Ottawa-based poetry journal Arc. I'm especially happy about the first sentence. But what I like overall here is that the reviewer deals with the material on the page: he doesn't seem to be inflicting agendas on my writing. And, as in all the reviews that make me happiest, he points out things I had never noticed.

As always, I feel very fortunate that my books get reviewed pretty widely.

Plucking a Stray Breeze: Stuart Ross’s You Exist. Details Follow.

Stu­art Ross. You Exist. Details Fol­low. Van­cou­ver: Anvil Press, 2012.

Reviewed by Andrew Johnson

Stu­art Ross’s You Exist. Details Fol­low. is a won­der­fully sprawl­ing col­lec­tion far more inter­ested in explor­ing poetic process than in using poetry to make grand statements. The title quashes any desire for con­clu­sions right away: “you exist”, full stop, clears the way for the inter­est­ing parts—the details that fol­low. Ross exca­vates those details play­fully, using var­i­ous struc­tural strate­gies, one of which is the cento, or “patchwork” poem, in which a new poem is con­structed from an exist­ing poem or poems. “Cento for Alfred Purdy” gives us “love and hate/ doing pushups under an ancient Pon­tiac…” and “I knew a guy once would buy a sin­gle drop/ of the rain and mists of Baf­fin,” lines where Ross chan­nels Purdy, reflects on Purdy, and works at push­ing past him through the respect­ful assim­i­la­tion of the other’s work. The poem also ends with a lovely, lov­ing evo­ca­tion of Purdy: “stand­ing on a patch of snow/ in the sil­very guts of a labour­ing ter­ri­bly use­ful lifetime.”

In notes included in the col­lec­tion, Ross writes that a num­ber of these poems were writ­ten “dur­ing” another poem—“’Keeping Time’ was writ­ten dur­ing John Ashbery’s ‘Grand Galop’”—which sug­gests that he uses his read­ing of a poem to pro­vide the spring­board for cre­at­ing a new poem. In this case, Ross trans­forms Ashbery’s descriptions—“the smil­ing expanse of the sky / That plays no favourites…” and, “The dog barks, the car­a­van passes on” (Ash­bery, Poetry, 1974)—into con­densed, assertive metaphors—“The sky is hon­est, / smil­ing down at the bark­ing / car­a­van.” Ross’s approach acknowl­edges the role of read­ing, sug­ges­tion, and influ­ence on creation, while the selec­tion of Ash­bery and David McFad­den (another poet whose work is inter­po­lated in a sim­i­lar fash­ion) sit­u­ates him amongst other avant-garde poets with a deep under­stand­ing of surrealism.

While Ross’s bent for sur­re­al­ism is evi­dent through­out You Exist, it is par­tic­u­larly effective in the haunt­ing prose poem “Lin­eage,” which begins, “I step into a crowded swim­ming and look for my grand­par­ents. They are dead on another con­ti­nent.” The asso­ci­a­tions and juxta­posi­tions Ross works with in “Lin­eage” cre­ate a pro­found sense of absence and loss, leav­ing behind “the sort of silence that broad­casts from another era or from across an ocean.” The poem ends with an apoc­a­lyp­tic vision of “dis­tant explo­sions of orange,” con­vey­ing a sense of dread founded in humanity’s propen­sity for com­mit­ting the same hor­rors over and over.

This volume’s reflec­tion on process shows up in five new offer­ings of his annual New Year’s Day poems, most notably “Inven­tory Son­net.” From 2008, it is an exam­ple of Ross’s respect­ful use of the son­net to work through an idea before pro­vid­ing a cou­plet that is typ­i­cally a bit wacky but that is sus­tained by its apt­ness. Here, after rad­i­cally dis­as­sem­bling him­self within his “inven­tory” (includ­ing see­ing part of him­self as “Claes Oldenberg’s / Giant Hamburger”), the poet writes, “I sit in a circle/ all by myself try­ing to con­vince myself/ that I love myself. A pass­ing fork­lift agrees. / I rake fin­gers through my hair and pluck out a stray breeze.” Who, reflect­ing on a new year, isn’t at once weighted down by dis­ap­point­ment and buoyed by hope­ful­ness? We all believe in the pos­si­bil­ity that a “stray breeze” will come along, offer­ing some­thing fresh and new. Thank­fully, stray breezes abound in Ross’s You Exist. Details Follow.

Andrew John­son is a Hamilton-based writer and editor.

Over and out.

23 March 2013

Oh, what a week!

The rewards are few and far between for small press publishers, editors, and writers, and we all struggle to make ends meet while doing what we can to create interesting stuff for audiences of 17 or 381 or maybe even 749.

So it's a rare pleasure when I get an actual week packed with amazing and transformative moments, and moments I can be proud of.

It all began on Tuesday, March 12, when a hundred or so poetrypeople packed the Monarch Tavern in Toronto for the launch of Mansfield Press's spring 2013 list. Publisher/editor Denis De Klerck kicked things off by introducing me, and then I had the great glee of introducing each of the four writers, three of whom (the boys) have new books under my "a stuart ross book" imprint. First, Peter Norman read well from his sharp, dark, and funny second full-length collection, Water Damage; then Priscila Uppal gave her usual fun and friendly reading from her second collection written as Poet in Residence for the Olympics and the Paralympics, Summer Sport: Poems. After a break whose conversations I was reluctant to rupture, I had the honour of introducing my friend and huge influence, David W. McFadden, who read from Mother Died Last Summer, a sometimes fun, sometimes moving journal that was privately published (in an edition of 11) in 1992 and revised for the Mansfield edition; and then, to close off the night, we brought on George Bowering, all the way from Vancouver, who delivered his usual powerhouse reading, from Teeth: Poems 2006-2011. My favourite line from George, after he'd read a poem consisting of potential epitaphs for himself, was "Dead is the new seventy, you know."

What is additionally exciting about these Mansfield launches is how many other Mansfield authors come out to celebrate, and how many other publishers and editors join us. It really feels like Denis and I — and the writers — are building something very important, and appreciated, and anticipated.

On Thursday, I hopped the train to Ottawa, a sort of second home for me, where I took part in the Tree Reading Series' installment for VerseFest, a celebration of poetry in its third year. It was an eclectic night, as I read mostly new work alongside heavy metalist/poet Catherine Owen from Vancouver and the now-St. John's-based Don McKay. I'd never met Don before, or seen him read, and I was surprised how damn funny he was. It is always great to catch up with my Ottawa friends, and make a couple of new ones, and afterwards Catherine, Don and I had a few drinks and munchies at the bar at our hotel. A fantastic night, and I wish I had been able to stay for more of the festival.

Friday, it was back to the train station, where I hopped the rails for Montreal, which is quickly rivalling Ottawa — and New Denver, B.C. — as my second home. (I'm not sure what happened to Toronto in this hierarchy.) That night, my favourite little store in town, Argo Books, was sardinely packed for readings by Rachel Lebowitz, in from Halifax to launch her new poetry collection, Cottonopolis, drawn from some fascinating labour/industrial history; Stephanie Bolster, in a supporting role (as per her name), reading from A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth and an absorbing new long poem in progress; and very entertaining opener Sarah Burgoyne, a young poet whose broad influences are test-tubing into some brilliant linear and prose poems, sometimes reminiscent of Charles Simic, sometimes Harryette Mullen (who Sarah hasn't read, in fact). I predict great things for her if academia doesn't ruin her!

Saturday night, my friend Glenda, who worked across the road from me when I was at Harlequin in the early 1990s, took me on a tour of some less-touristy areas of Montreal, which was fantastic. And then we went to Café Cherrier, once a hotbed of intellectuals, artists, and FLQ types, and now a swanky restaurant-bar for the upscale Francophone crowd. We sat the bar and I was embarrassed to speak only English. The bartender looked a bit like Claude François might have had he lived another twenty-five years, and I told Glenda about my obsession with the late French pop icon. She'd never heard of him, but as we paid our bill to leave, she asked the bartender if he knew about Claude François. He lit up, and the staff near the bar laughed, and he turned to me asked me, in English, how I knew about CloClo, and whether I'd seen the biopic. And then he broke into a brief rendition of "Le Téléphone Pleure."

Sunday evening was the big night, though. I received an email a few weeks about by an animated Montreal poet named Catherine Cormier-Larose, telling me I had won the sole Anglo prize handed out by a group of young Francophone writers, l'Académie de la vie littéraire au tournant du 21e siècle. The awards night was the culmination of an eight-day celebration called Festival dans ta tête, created by Catherine, who also founded l'Academie, about eight years ago, to create community for the younger French lit set. I was pretty nervous: I'd be in a room filled with French speakers, and unless they said "Donnez-moi le poulet," I probably wouldn't understand anything. Luckily, I was joined by Sarah Burgoyne and Nick Papaxanthos; Nick is another brilliant young poet, one I met during my stint as writer in residence at Queen's University in 2010 (he too better not get ruined by academia!). There were about 120 people in Club Lambi, and the atmosphere was friendly, beautiful, smart, and celebratory.

About 15 awards were handed out to writers, zinesters, graphic artists, and playwrights, and the brief onstage readings and performances were mesmerizing. My mind often wanders at readings, but at this one, where I understood almost nothing, kept my attention non-stop. When it was time for me to go up, I read three poems from You Exist. Details Follow. — which received the esteemed Exist Through the Gift Shop award — and Catherine read translations she's written of each, as we'd arranged in advance. I read each of the poems very differently: some fast, some slow, some loud, some soft, and Catherine perfectly mimicked my delivery. It was pretty exhilarating, I'll tell you. The Anglo on the stage was well-received, and afterwards many of the other writers came up to talk with me; some were fluent in English, some struggled with the language, but I was pretty ashamed that I couldn't reciprocate in French. (I'm going to fix that.)

This event — this immersion for an evening in the Francophone literary community, more joyous and exciting than any English-language reading or awards night I've ever been to — was a life-expanding experience. How much poorer I'd be now if my weird-ass poetry book hadn't attracted the attention of a few young French writers. In talking with Catherine, as well as Mathieu Arsenault, who created the collectible authors' cards, and some of the other writers there that night, I learned a lot about what it was to be a writer in French in this country, and on this planet.

I said, when I was introduced, that as a writer in English, this was perhaps the best prize I could possibly win. I managed a pretty-well-accented "Merci beaucoup," but I couldn't thank them enough.

Over and out.

10 March 2013

You Exist. Details Follow. reviewed in Matrix

Nice review of You Exist. Details Follow. appears in the current issue of Matrix, a punchy litmag out of Montreal. I've been very fortunate over the years. My books tend to get some attention. There are so, so many great books of poetry that barely get reviewed in this country.

REVIEW: You Exist. Details Follow.

Posted by Jeka on February 26, 2013
You Exist. Details Follow.
By Stuart Ross
Anvil Press (2012)

Reviewed by Lise Gaston

In Stuart Ross’s seventh book of poetry, You Exist. Details Follow., details are the signifiers of existence—an existence made strange. Ross’s absurdism doesn’t rely on unconnected sentences, abstract thought, or an unusual, elevated vocabulary: rather, his poetry delights in the silliness of concrete mundanity. These poems inhabit the clean lawns and cul-de-sacs of suburbia, but squints at them askew, listens to the birds chirping in a minor key: “A dog barked at me. / Who is that dog? / What is telling me something / from inside a badly sewn dog suit?” The poems nestle in the wider concerns that envelop suburbia: economics, politics (“It is two thousand ten. / I look around for something / to prorogue”), and the looming worry that existence itself could be wiped clean in a second, some imaginable disaster purring in the corners. Sometimes humour bounces off the profound; sometimes it slides into the intimate, such as in “6:31 a.m.:” “Rain pelts the tent. / Spider silhouettes overhead. / My feet are tangled / in sleeping bag. / I can’t recall / your smell.”

Ross wields the line to effect the precise tone that he wants: in the book’s first, eponymous poem, short enjambed lines of simple diction are interrupted and slowed with Latinate language and caesuras: “You are your / far-off limbs, wandering / amid the sequined detritus, / the indignant, toxic beach. / It is true: I have changed.” The collection thus begins by launching us into a happily disjointed mind, into images connected as though by sparking, duct-taped wires, buzzing weird electrical fires of thought. Ross creates his greatest absurdities through unexpected pairings of nouns and adjectives, sometimes to react against more traditional poetic themes—such as a Canadian pastoral: “I am / a pointy landscape, / a waterfall of quivering farms.” Despite a predominantly first person speaker and a fairly consistent voice, we cannot latch on to a permanent speaker: only appropriate for this unbalanced world. Forms vary from prose poem to loose sonnet, with all sorts of free verse in between. Ross is at ease with line breaks: he usually breaks them at logical pauses, but sometimes leaves us tilting into the short enjambed lines that rush us down a slender poem.

Alongside the incongruous images, there are threads of thematic continuity that ground the reading in collective experience and emotion. A major thread is child-parent relationships, which carries easily into the surreal. Through the child’s eyes, the parent can be larger-than-life: in “Fathers Shave,” the razor blade “rips the welcome / mat off our porch, the / grass off our lawn.” Alternately, a lost parent is either touchingly grieved for or slowly forgotten as life’s details pile up with their distractions and demands, outrageous but also mundane: “His mother’s fall got farther away. Hardwood floors / replaced the carpet. At his cousin’s bar mitzvah, / his father danced with a woman he’d never seen.”

Over and out.

08 March 2013

Mansfield Press spring 2013 launch — Tuesday, March 12, in Toronto!

This Tuesday we launch the spring 2013 titles from Mansfield Press. Three new books under the "a stuart ross book" imprint — Teeth: Poems 2006–2011, by George Bowering; Mother Died Last Summer, by David W. McFadden; and Water Damage, by Peter Norman — as well as one book under the larger Mansfield umbrella, Summer Sport: Poems, by Priscila Uppal.

Needless to say, I'm pretty excited. And ever grateful to Denis De Klerck for making me part of this great literary press, and to the authors who've entrusted us with their work.

Over and out.

01 March 2013

My anti-bullying video. In which I put the "ant" in "anti".

So that guy who loves Billy Collins (a little too much) put up an anti-bullying poetry video and got about 5 million hits in a week. Seriously.

So thought I'd give it a try.

Over and out.