04 November 2019

Me and my novels, plus a review of the most recent one

Back in April, Will Fawley of the journal Prairie Fire reviewed my novel Pockets (ECW Press). I am pretty thrilled with this, especially the culminating paragraph. I realize I have been calling Pockets my "second novel," somehow forgetting Father, the Cowboys Are Ready to Come Down from the Attic, Wooden Rooster, and Guided Missiles, all of which were written for Pulp Press's 3-Day Novel-Writing Contest and all of which I self-published through Proper Tales Press. (Though Guided Missiles later appeared in my story collection Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand Books).

Incidentally, I tend to reject the label "novella." My reasoning is that something that is 200 pages is called a novel, and something that is 800 pages is called a novel. So why is something that is 120 pages called a novella? (Given the respective 600-page and 80-page differences in size from the 200-pager.)

I confess that I thought my first novel (that is, my fourth), Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew (ECW Press), was going to be a career-changer for me. I'd never worked so hard or long on a book, but that was also because writing a book about (sort of) my mother was psychologically and emotionally really difficult, and I found myself paralyzed around that project for long stretches. I also got sidetracked when I showed it to an agent (my only-ever experience with an agent), and he suggested I put the chapters in chronological order and lose the chapter titles (which made the thing look like a story collection, he felt). I did that, and it froze me for 18 months. Finally, Larry Fagin, the New York poet with whom I signed up for writing coaching, said, "You're a poet. Treat this book as a poem." And I was finally able to de-chronologize the novel and finish it. It wasn't a career-changer, though it did win a small prize for Jewish fiction.

With Pockets, I knew I was writing something ephemeral, something that would have an audience no bigger than that for a poetry book, but it was a book I was determined to write. My expectations for its reception in the world were modest. I was thrilled that ECW was game to publish such an odd creature. And I'm so grateful to Vancouver artist Catrina Longmuir for the beautiful cover.


Here is the review of that book:
Review from prairiefire.ca
Review by Will Fawley
A seasoned writer of both poetry and fiction, Stuart Ross has melded both forms in Pockets, and has created a brand new experience for fans of both genres. 
Though the title of the book is Pockets: A Novel, this book is not a novel in the traditional sense. Do not expect a straightforward plot, character arc, or anything else you’d expect from a traditional novel. If you’re looking for that kind of experience, you will be disappointed. Pockets is more like a collection of prose poems, pushing the definition of “novel” past the popular novel in stories form that has recently been explored by so many writers around the world, including Canadian authors such as Jenny Ferguson in her novel Border Markers.
In the acknowledgements, Ross explains that Toby MacLennan’s 1 Walked Out of 2 and Forgot It was a major inspiration for the novel. That inspiration is clear in the book’s structure, which creates a fragmented, surreal feeling that builds with each page.
The unique format of the novel is its most distinguishing characteristic. It is made up of bite-size moments, memories from an unnamed narrator. Each page is a new one, and most are only a few sentences, pushed to the bottom of the page so the majority of the book is blank space. This may be the evolution of the novel, what might be the next step after the novel in stories trend, but is more likely a structure that works only for rare books like this one.
The question on every reader’s mind when encountering a fragmented novel is, “Are the stories connected?” In the case of Pockets, while the pieces are not directly connected, each passage is a moment where some kind of connection is made. The pieces are untitled, so I will refer to them by page number. On page 8, the narrator sees his parents in bed, and then sneaks out of the house to visit their grave. The passage of time is not realistic, but shuffled by memories, categorized by topic—in this case connected by the category of parents. 
On page 9, the narrator remarks, “It is marvellous how everything is connected.” And while the stories themselves aren’t directly connected, there are overlapping themes and characters that come together, allowing the reader to experience fragmented moments of one man’s life.
In another passage, he sees himself, in a sense watching his own memory. In a sense, this is what the whole book is about, each page a pocket of abstracted memory, distorted in its own remembering. “I passed the window of a house, where a small lamp threw light on the face of a boy lying in his bed, looking across the room and out the window. Just before he left my field of vision, I recognized the boy as me, peering out the window at his brother drifting by” (page 33).
The narrator’s brother is always floating through the sky, transient. His mother is perpetually sick. There is a dreamlike chronology from one page to the next, and even within each section. “Stevie pushed his pockets back into his pants, wiped the back of one hand across his nostrils, and disappeared from view. Soon his front door opened. He appeared on the porch. Then he was on the roof. Then he stepped out of his open garage” (Page 13).
Amid this surrealism, the pieces are grounded by pop culture and historical references, movies and TV shows, and current events—from Lawrence Welk to Kennedy’s assassination and World War II. The most realistic aspect of the novel is not in these references, however, but in the realness of the emotions it stirs. Many of the larger and weightier passages in the book focus on the trauma of the unnamed narrator losing his brother and mother.
Through these fragments of a life, Ross gives us snapshots of surreal moments, memories distorted by time and overwhelmed by emotion. And throughout these memories we begin to form a complete picture, we grasp something intangible that isn’t a traditional novel, but more of a feeling, an experience. And that transfer of experience and emotion is the function of all great novels. Pockets pioneers a new novel form, giving readers the opportunity to become the protagonist, to know what it feels like to be the singular person that is the culmination of all these moments and memories stacked on top of each other, each one distorted by the last.

Over and out.

31 October 2019

I won the Harbourfront Festival Prize. Really!

I have been working in the literary underground since I was a teenager. And so, it was a great surprise  when Geoffrey Taylor, artistic director of the Toronto International Festival of Writers, phoned me last month to say I had won the annual Harbourfront Festival Prize. It comes, he told me on the phone, with $10,000. Previous winners? Dionne Brand, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro…

I'm usually pretty grumpy, kinda bitter, sort of resigned, about my literary life. I complain about just about everything! Even though, really, I don't have a ton to complain about. But to win such a prize, well, it was just not a possibility that was on my radar.

But last Sunday, my day in the sun arrived right at the top of the TIFA event showcasing the finalists for the English-language Governor General Awards for fiction. That's when Geoffrey publicly presented me with the award. (And also a mysterious paper bag with a ribbon tied to its handle.)

When Geoffrey introduced me, he explained that the prize was given for literary accomplishment and/or one's contribution to the Canadian literary community. He said I fit into both categories. This was an incredible thing to hear. I'd been wondering if my writing had anything to do with my being chosen for this honour.

So here is the speech I delivered that afternoon. I really agonized over this one. I knew if I fucked it up, or missed something, I'd be kicking myself for the rest of my life.


I want to begin by thanking the jury – Geoffrey Taylor, Deborah Dundas, and Alison Jones – and the Toronto International Festival of Authors, for this recognition.  
When Geoffrey phoned me to let me know I’d won the Harbourfont Festival Prize, I was in Paris, Ontario, in the home of Nelson Ball, a great friend and also a great Canadian poet and small press publisher since the early 1960s. Nelson, who died in mid-August, had also been a mentor to me, an example, and it’s my job now to go through his papers and see what publishable materials he may have left behind. So getting the news while I was there, in Nelson’s place, his ashes sitting in a box in his usual chair across from me, was especially meaningful – here was this guy who had operated beneath the radar and made incredible contributions to this country’s literature. 
The list of previous winners of this prize is humbling. And among those names are a couple of writers who mentored me when I was a teenager: John Robert Colombo and Victor Coleman, two very different poets. John was a patron at the library where I worked as a page, up at Bathurst and Lawrence, and he suggested I become his apprentice, which I did for a couple of years, mostly cutting thousands of quotations out of books with a pair of scissors in exchange for critiques of my poetry. And Victor taught a few mind-boggling creative writing classes through the alternative high school I attended at Yonge and Sheppard. He introduced me to the works of some of the wildest underground writers of the 1970s and brought me for my first time to the near-mythical site of Coach House Press. 
One more brief anecdote: in the fall of 1982 I was standing out on Yonge Street selling my chapbooks, wearing a sign saying Writer Going to Hell: Buy My Books. A woman stops and asks if I have any fiction. I show her my short novel Father, the Cowboys Are Ready to Come Down from the Attic. I’m a little nervous when she opens it up, because it’s got a couple of raunchy sex scenes and she looks so kind and wholesome, so I try to distract her. 
“Do you write, too?” I ask. 
“Yes,” she replies.“Fiction?” 
“Yes.” 
“Have you had anything published?” 
“Yes…”
“Oh,” I say, “what’s your name? Maybe I’ve seen your stuff.” 
“Alice Munro.” 
So that’s another connection I have to a previous winner. 
I’m particularly struck by the premise of this prize. I do think it is enough to write. But some of us are also moved to organize readings and book fairs, to edit, to teach, to mentor, to fold and staple, to try to nurture community, and then these activities become an integral part of our practice. 
For me, issuing fiction and poetry that I love through my micropress, Proper Tales, which I started 40 years ago, and visiting with students in classrooms from kindergarten to high school, in the Kootenays and here in Ontario, and working editorially through my imprints with both brilliant young authors like Jaime Forsythe and Alice Burdick, and also masters I read as a teenager, like Dave McFadden and George Bowering – these are things that sustain me as much as my writing. 
That said, this prize will allow me to take some time to totally immerse myself in my own manuscripts, hopefully in a place surrounded by mountains. I’m deeply grateful for this rare opportunity. Right now, I’ve got eleven book projects on the go—I keep starting new ones so I can avoid finishing the other ones. But if I can finish a couple of them, I’ll feel an awful lot less guilty. 
My partner told me I am not allowed to joke that I must have gotten this award as the result of an administrative error. So I will not make that joke. Thank you, Laurie, for your wise counsel and for your steadfast support. And thank you to all my co-conspirators in the literary underground for comradeship, inspiration, debate, and adventure over the past four decades. 
Last year, the Toronto International Festival of Authors got me to Slovenia, one of the greatest experiences of my literary life, where I met wonderful writers from all over Europe, gave a reading in a dripping cave, and was discovered by a young Russian writer who has since translated and published a dozen of my poems. First Slovenia, and now this. It’s a profound honour to have my name join the list of the previous winners of the Harbourfront Festival Prize. 
Thank you.
And here's a photo by Steve Venright of me onstage delivering that speech, with Geoffrey off to the right. And that paper bag on the floor to the left. After I made my remarks, Geoffrey handed me the bag and whispered, "Here's something that you'll still have when the $10,000 is gone." It's a gorgeous, wobbly pottery bowl.



I still find this whole thing hard to believe. But it has given me such an enormous boost. An underground guy like me getting recognition from the literary mainstream. Just as I get officially old. Holy cow.

Over and out.



26 August 2019

Nelson Ball, 1942 – 2019: His last day

Over on Facebook, on the Nelson Ball Poetry Fan Club page, there has been an outpouring of sadness, love, and remembrance around the death of beloved poet, publisher, and bookseller Nelson Ball on August 16, 2019. Cameron Anstee has written a beautiful appreciation of Nelson on the Apt. 9 blog. rob mclennan posted a fine obituary on his above/ground blog.


I'd like to share with you certain details about Nelson's death on the afternoon of Friday, August 16, 2019.
Nelson opted for a medically assisted death at the Brantford hospital where he had been for about six weeks. It was clear that he was ready. His friend Suzan Yates says his mood brightened after he made this decision. It was tough news to get, but I respected and admired his decision. (A decision he was fine with being made public.)

I want you to know that Nelson died peacefully and comfortably, with dignity. He had taken control of his last days. He had asked Suzan, his friend Catherine Stevenson, and I to be in the room with him at the end, and I can report that he smiled several times during our final short visit. The attending doctor, nurse, and staff witness at the hospital were compassionate and human, and it was apparent that they themselves were moved.
On the previous Wednesday, a few of us had gathered at Nelson's place in Paris, Ontario. Laurie Siblock stumbled upon a passage in an unpublished journal by Barbara Caruso, Nelson's wife of 44 years. The entry was dated December 31, 1989 (Barbara died twenty years less one day after she wrote the entry). It reads:
Man does fit into the universe. We can know this by the simple fact that all men die. Our great schemes of progress and our sophisticated technologies have done nothing to change that. We may believe (to our detriment) that we can ignore this fact, but that does nothing to change it. If we ignore the fact of death and all of its implications in relation to the nature of things (and of the universe), we devalue life. The tragedy is that societies that will not understand the necessity of dying, cannot understand the necessity of living. I believe that it only takes two to start the revolution, but it is equally true that the revolution is going on all the time.
Suzan mentioned this excerpt to Nelson on Thursday and he indicated that he wanted to hear it on Friday.
So these words from Barbara Caruso were, in effect, the last thing Nelson heard, read slowly and beautifully by Catherine. He listened with eyes closed, concentrating, nodding at several points. After the reading, the four of us remained silent for several minutes. Nelson loved good conversation, but I think he loved comfortable silences at least as much.
Soon the medical staff came into the room, at 2 o'clock. Nelson died at about 2:07 pm.

So many of us have been re-reading Nelson's quiet, sublime, wonderful poetry ever since. I hope you will too. Re-read it, or read it for the first time. It is remarkable how present Nelson is in his own poems.


 Over and out.

30 April 2019

Motel of the Opposable Thumbs — the first review

My newest collection of poetry, Motel of the Opposable Thumbs, out from Vancouver-based Anvil Press in a couple of weeks, received its first review — and hopefully not its last, though I'm not holding my breath — in Quill & Quire. It's a group review that also looks at Hymnswitch, by Ali Blythe, and Cluster, by Souvankham Thammavongsa. The review is written by Jesse Eckerlin.

Here is the intro and the section on my book:

According to Freud, a dream is the fulfillment of a wish. A deceptively simple formula that implies a double-pronged question: what manner of wish and how fulfilled? Freud’s answer is somewhat as follows: a repressed, unconscious wish fulfilled in disguise. For Freud, then, the dream is a representation, by other means, of a desire inadmissible to the dreamer.

What can Freud’s hypothesis tell us about poetry? It is true that the three collections  under review trace unique aesthetic trajectories along the axes of dream and desire. But more fundamentally, they understand poetry to be the discursive mode that confronts language with the unsayable at the heart of its unconscious. If poetry is to language what the dream is to the dreamer, its paradoxical wish is to give voice to the ineffable. One way poetry stages this confrontation is by disrupting expectations of linguistic sense and narrative continuity. Favouring a gleefully lowbrow neo-surrealism more likely to traffic in radioactive bingo parlours and talking cheeseburgers than erotic seances or lobster telephones, Stuart Ross is an adept of both. An admirably light touch; a democratic sense that all risks are created equal; an irrepressible need to play the clown, even when it results in self-sabotage: Ross’s stylistic hallmarks are on full display in Motel of the Opposable Thumbs.

In Motel of the Opposable Thumbs, prose poems rub shoulders with centos, and impossible lists cavort with commemorations. In Ross’s poems, subject-object relations threaten to become topsy-turvy at the slightest provocation: “A cigarette cupped my hands, / pulled the phone from / my pocket.” Figures of speech grow flesh: “someone’s unleashed cocker spaniel / pounced on my grammatical error.” Inanimate objects prove self-sufficient actors and spectators: “ovation: / the egg stood up / for itself.” And physics and ratio play a psychedelic game of Ping-Pong: “I / shot a star across / the room and it landed / in chicken soup dribbling / off the roof / of a nine-storey apartment.” By voicing linguistic accidents and non-human entities, Ross seeks a poetic illogic free to dream beyond the restrictive bounds of moral edification and calibrated intention.

Over and out.

06 March 2019

a short poem i wrote today

leave
lang leav
on the
shelf
where he
belangs

07 June 2018

A dash of Dave McFadden in every reading!


Still getting used to the idea of a world without Dave McFadden. But there is this: thirty of his poetry books, several volumes of fiction and travel writing — he's left us all that, and it's all worth reading again and again.

I have decided that for the next year (at least),  at every reading I give or host, and every workshop I lead, I will read a poem by Dave or a passage of his prose. Because I really believe that Dave is one of those rare writers whose work actually improves the world.

Dave's writing has the incredible ability to actually imbue its sense of wonder, awe, curiosity, and marvelling in those who read it. His writing amuses us, teases us, provokes us, comforts us. Makes us look at the world around us differently.

A couple of months ago I started up a Twitter account called Poetry of David W McFadden (@DWMPoetry). As often as I can, I tweet a few lines of Dave's poetry, hoping that it gets out there and seeps into the world, finding Dave's fans and creating some new fans.

It's a continuation of my project of helping to bring Dave's poetry to a bigger audience. That project began when Paul Vermeersch asked me to edit Dave's selected poems for Insomniac Press back in 2006. The huge and beautiful result — Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems of David W. McFadden — came out in 2007. It was an incredible and humbling experience working with my literary hero on such a project. It was followed by another book for Insomniac — Why Are You So Long and Sweet? Collected Long Poems of David W. McFadden (2010) — and five entries in my "a stuart ross book" imprint for Mansfield Press: Be Calm, Honey (2008), What's the Score? (2012), Mother Died Last Summer (2013), Shouting Your Name Down the Well: Tankas and Haiku (2014), and what was to be Dave's final book of poetry, Abnormal Brain Sonnets (2015).





How lucky have I been to have found Dave's work, to have become his friend, to have worked with him editorially?

It's a lifelong project. A way of giving back for what Dave's work has brought to me since I was fifteen years old.

Over and out.

06 June 2018

Saying goodbye to the magnificent Dave McFadden



David W. McFadden, October 11, 1940 – June 6, 2018

The sky stretching out forever is me, is me, is me

it made my fingers, grew my hair, animates me

fills me full of light, makes me radiant.

"It's Unbelievable" (1971)


I'll write more later about David. But for now, just sending love and warmth to his wife, Merlin Homer; and to his brother, Jack; his daughter, Jenny; his grandchildren, Chloe and Benny.

Over and out.


 

-->