30 December 2016

So long, Mansfield Press. It's been surreal.

This past fall, I said goodbye to my partnership with Mansfield Press, where I had been acquiring and editing books of Canadian poetry, fiction and non-fiction for a decade. As an experiment, Mansfield founder/publisher/editor Denis De Klerck brought me aboard to broaden his list with a single book in 2007. When we couldn't decide between the two I proposed, we went with both, titles by Steve Venright and Lillian Necakov. Each season after that, I brought on between one and six books.

Working on the 46 books, by 30 different authors, was one of the most exciting and fulfilling facets of my literary life so far. It was a thrill to help an author's first book into the world, or to work with a seasoned pro I'd admired since I was a kid, and equally to see an already-published author move into the mid-career range with second, third, fourth books.

I'd like to think that with my contribution to the press Denis launched with four poetry titles in 2000, Mansfield's audience expanded, just as did its aesthetic.

Under my "a stuart ross book" imprint, I was responsible for bringing out stunning first full-length books by Natasha Nuhanovic, Nick Papaxanthos, Sarah Burgoyne, Tara Azzopardi, Paula Eisenstein, Aaron Tucker, Leigh Nash, Jaime Forsythe, Robert Earl Stewart, Carey Toane, and Peter Norman. In the cases of Robert and Peter, I also helped their second collections into the world.

I also co-translated and saw through the press the first English-language book by francophone Montreal poet Marie-Ève Comtois, which was an amazing experience.

In the mid-career category, I ushered in new books by Dani Couture, Meaghan Strimas, Stephen Brockwell (two collections), Jason Heroux (three collections), Laura Farina, Jason Camlot, Alice Burdick (three collections), Lillian Necakov (two collections), Kathryn Mockler, Christine Miscione (her first novel), Steve Venright, and Gary Barwin.

As for the old-timers, I had the privilege of working with these guys, all of whom I'd been following for decades: David McFadden (five books, including one memoir), George Bowering (a poetry collection and an essay collection), Nelson Ball (three collections), Frank Davey, Tom Walmsley (a novel), and Jim Smith (two collections, including a New & Selected).

I also did another really unusual book: a collection of collaborations between me and 29 other Canadian poets.

The one book I see I neglected to add to the stack in that photo above is David W. McFadden's 2015 collection, Abnormal Brain Sonnets. It's been a fulfilling journey with Dave: I've loved his work since I was a teenager, and he was a big influence on my own writing. Around 2004, Paul Vermeersch asked me to edit a Selected by McFadden for Paul's then-imprint with Insomniac Press. An incredible, exhilarating experience, and one followed up by a Collected Long Poems. Dave and I had a lot of success with his books: one was short-listed for the Governor General's Award for Poetry, and two for the Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize — with the second, What's the Score?, winning that most prestigious award. A nice recognition of Dave's remarkable six-decade writing career.

All these books are out there in the world, and you can still explore them. Find them in your local library, order them from Mansfield, or order them through your local indie bookstore or big-boxer. You might even find copies of some of the more recent titles on bookstore shelves.

I know I'm not exactly objective, but I believe many of these books are among the most exciting and unusual that contemporary Canadian poetry has produced. I wish I'd written most of them myself! There were more books I had hoped to bring through the press, too, but I had to accept it was time to move on.

Some of these books received a lot of attention, but many that were more than worthy never even got a singe print review. That's the struggle, increasingly, that Canadian publishers face. That, and finding space on bookstore shelves. Well, Canadian publishers face a lot more challenges than even those.

Although not all the books I championed through my imprint were surreal or post-surreal, "a stuart ross book" still feels to me a bit like a continuation of my 2005 anthology, Surreal Estate: 13 Canadian Poets Under the Influence (The Mercury Press). And while I'm proud of what I accomplished at Mansfield, my imprint isn't without its shortcomings. I need to think more about those, and I'll try to talk about them in a future blog.

Meanwhile, my gratitude to Denis for the opportunity to make what I feel is a significant contribution to the dialogue that is Canadian poetry.

Other projects are afoot, and more about those later.

Over and out.

28 December 2016

Six poetry books for 2016 + a bonus for the kiddies

Truth is, I didn't read enough of 2016's poetry output to offer up a "best of." Whatever a "best of" is. But I read enough to be moved to write about six poetry books published this past year that especially
stood out for me.

Certainly there were others from 2016 that made their indelible mark on my skull. For example, the six books I ushered through Mansfield Press in my final year at that outfit: Yes or Nope, by Meaghan Strimas; All of Us Reticent, Here, Together, by Stephen Brockwell; Chewing Water, by Nelson Ball; Book of Short Sentences, by Alice Burdick; Hard Work Cheering Up Sad Machines, by Jason Heroux; Saint Twin, by Sarah Burgoyne. Every one of those wildly different titles is a brilliant contender. Here's what I say: collect the whole set.

I have also left out other books I loved, but had some kind of editorial role in. And other books I loved, but had no editorial role in.

Why didn't I read as much new poetry as I usually do? Well, a few reasons. For one, I spent far too much time reading about the terrifying decline into redneckery of the United States of America. Also, I read a lot more fiction, and a lot more essays, than I did poetry in 2016. And then there's this: I've been concentrating on reading some of the many hundreds of books I own that I haven't yet read, so I didn't pick up as many new books as I usually do.

But here are six poetry books I did read in 2016 that numbered among my favourites.

COMMOTION OF THE BIRDS, by John Ashbery (Ecco)
One of my favourites by Ashbery of the past decade: some tiny poems in here, some prose poems. I find this book so often hilarious, which isn't to say it isn't often moving.

A PILLOW BOOK, by Suzanne Buffam (Anansi)
Rich and rereadable, with surprises at every turn. Prose poems, lists, one-line poems, and abecedariums. How could I not love this book?

POUND @ GUANTÁMO, by Clint Burnham (Talonbooks)
An unsung hero of 2016, this collection is as chaotic and over-the-top as anything Clint writes. And that's what I love about him, that and his fearlessness.

ARCHEOPHONICS, by Peter Gizzi (Wesleyan)
There are so many things going on in here, and all of it intelligent and readable. Gizzi continually explores what it is to be human in this world, through prose poems, list poems, lyrics and more.

CALAMITIES, by Renee Gladman (Wave Books)
A dense and exciting hybrid of prose poem/essay/fiction, with each piece beginning "I began the day" and then going somewhere entirely unexpected.

THROATY WIPES, by Susan Holbrook (Coach House)
This book is both complicated and fun. It's also refreshing. I love its eclecticism of form, and know I'll be visiting it again and again. A great follow-up to Joy Is So Exhausting.


A VOLE ON A ROLL, by Nelson Ball, illus. JonArno Lawson (Shapes & Sounds Press)
Who knew that seventy-something poet Nelson Ball would come out with his first book of poetry for children this year? Well, I knew, because he showed me the manuscript last spring. These poems are delightful, and they are pure Nelson. JonArno Lawson's scrappy illustrations are a lovely accompaniment.

Next year, I'll try to keep up a bit more on the current output. After all, poets will have their work cut out for them in 2017.

Over and out.

22 December 2016

Talk Hunkamooga — I'd forgotten about it!!

I was doing some excavations in my study — digging into a box of press clippings, old stationery, press releases, posters — and I came across this poster for Alice Burdick's 2003 reading at my short-lived Talk Hunkamooga series in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood. I'd forgotten that series ever happened! But now it's coming back to me.

Talk Hunkamooga took place at the soon-to-be-demolished Victory Café on Markham Street. Not upstairs, where most literary events took place, and not in the main bar, but in the little snug to the left as you came in the front door. I remember we could fit about 20 people in there, and for all three installments of Talk Hunkamooga it was a major squeeze; in at least one case, people left because there was simply no room for them.

Alice Burdick read around the time her first book, Simple Master, was released by Beth Follett's Pedlar Press. Beth had me edit that book for the press, and I remember what an exciting thing it was to be holding the manuscript for Alice's first-ever full-length poetry book. Even back then, in 2003, Alice already gave such good readings: so conversational, so matter-of-fact, with a sort of "didn't you already know this?" tone to her voice. One of Canada's greats, and it feels lately that she's finally getting some long-overdue recognition.

Mark Laba also read at Talk Hunkamooga, from his 2002 debut book-length collection, Dummy Spit. If you can dig up a copy of that book, you will be holding a very bizarre gem. Mark is uncompromising. That was a book that Mercury Press publisher Bev Daurio let me bring to her press. I'm sure it was a commercial disaster. But there is no book like it in the history of Canadian publishing. Mark continues to be a mad literary genius. We met when we were four years old and both lived on Pannahill Road in Bathurst Manor.

I believe the only other reading in the Talk Hunkamooga series was that given by David W. McFadden. His collection Five Star Planet had come out from Talonbooks in 2002 and there hadn't been a Toronto launch, so I invited him to the snug for what turned out to be a kind of intimate, fireside-chat-style reading. Dave, like Alice, was a master of the conversational reading back then. He did not disappoint the overflow crowd. I later went on to edit seven books by Dave.

I'm pretty sure I did a little leaflet for each reading by that evening's author. And I also held a little chat with them, and opened it up to audience questions. I know that my old friend Mako Funasaka, who is a videographer, documented one or two of the Talk Hunkamooga events. Sometime, in some further excavation, I will dig that — or those — up.

Over and out.

21 December 2016

The 2016 Kitty Lewis Hazel Millar Dennis Tourbin Poetry Prize goes to … me

A nice surprise this morning. I saw that Ottawa poet and poetry-book blogger Michael Dennis was announcing the winner of his annual Kitty Lewis Hazel Millar Dennis Tourbin Poetry Prize and as my finger neared the link, I wondered who had won. Would it be Eva HD again, who won last year?

And it was me, for A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent, my most recent poetry book. I win bragging rights and dinner at Michael's house, and I have the hassle of revising my résumé.

For several years now, Michael has maintained a blog called Today's book of poetry. More or less, he writes about a poetry book he likes every two days. Yes, every two days. I just phoned him up now: he has written about 536 poetry books to date. That's a lot of poetry books, and also a lot of poetry books for one person to like.

But Michael has been receiving books in the mail, since he began the blog, from all over Canada, the U.S., and occasionally even abroad. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what literary presses were around, but more often than not, it's the first I've heard of the American publishers who send him stuff.

I interviewed Michael on this blog back in October 2013, when the project was still pretty young. And that interview also appeared in my 2015 Anvil Press book Further Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer (which I don't believe has received a single print review). I tried to convince Michael early on to write about books he didn't like; he was adamant that he would not. And really, how would he have the time, even if the idea interested him.

A lot has been said about the evils of prize culture, and I agree with much of it. And I've stayed pure by winning only prizes that have no or almost no money attached. Not by choice, mind you. I would gratefully accept a prize that would make me richer, or at least less in debt. But I never expect to be shortlisted for one. I might hope: I did have hopes for A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent — not expectations, though. After all, I did sell out in the writing of that book, and what's the point of selling out if it doesn't pay off?

The other thing about big prizes is they open the door to residencies and festival invitations. If they're really big prizes, it might even be a case of international invitations. It's too bad that's the way it works, but that's the way it works.

Here, by the way, are the previous winners of the KLHMDTPP:

2013 – Nora Gould, I See My Love More Clearly From A Distance (Brick Books)
2014 – Kayla Czaga, For Your Safety Please Hold On (Nightwood Editions)
2015 – Eva HD, Rotten Perfect Mouth (Mansfield Press)

I'm glad to join that list. The prize, incidentally is name for three pretty wonderful people: Kitty is the general manager of Brick Books. Hazel is the publisher and managing editor of BookThug. And Dennis (1946 – 1998) was a beloved writer and visual artist, and a very close friend of Michael's.

Meanwhile, I look forward to having dinner at Michael's place! It may be the first time he cooks vegetarian!

(And no pasta or rice for me, Michael: I have successfully reversed my diabetes this year [diagnosed in August; liberated in December], and I'm going to stay on the wagon. You'll need to use your imagination.)

Over and out.