canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Stuart Ross

Stuart Ross is a Toronto poet, fiction writer, editor, and creative-writing instructor. He has been active in the Toronto literary scene since the mid-1970ís. He is co-founder, with Nicholas Power, of the Toronto Small Press Book Fair. His work has graced the pages of Harperís, This Magazine, Geist, Rampike, and Bomb Threat Checklist, to name a few. His poetry book Farmer Gloomyís New Hybrid (1999) was shortlisted for the 2000 Trillium Book Award. In 2003, ECW published Hey, Crumbling Balcony! Poems New & Selected. Rossís website is

Danielle Couture interviewed Ross by email in early-spring 2004.

Stuart, you started self-publishing in í79, selling your poetry on the street. Sometimes, do you wish that you could go back to doing that, standing on Yonge Street, pedaling your poems, immediately connecting with the would-be readers?

Iíve thought so many times of going back out into the street, at least for a day or two. I was out there from 1979 to about 1991, but by the end, the street was getting pretty heavy. Also, there were so many homeless people out there, and I felt I was elbowing in on the territory of people who really needed to be out there. I find, though, that doing readings fulfils the same thing for me -- connecting with new potential readers, getting immediate feedback.

The one advantage the street-selling offered, though, was it also gave me contact with people whoíd maybe only read bestsellers or potboilers, but who checked out my weird poetry because they were curious about this dude standing on the street with a sign saying "Writer Going to Hell" around his neck.

Speaking of self-publishing, what is your opinion on the negative stigma that is sometimes attached to self-publication?

I think that crappy stuff gets self-published, and crappy stuff gets published by literary and trade houses. And good stuff also occasionally comes from those two sources. I understand the impulse to condemn self-published books (the authors couldnít get published elsewhere, the books arenít edited, etc.) but it discounts the fact that many authors actually take pleasure from self-publishing and do it as a conscious choice.

Iíve heard you say that poems can have different lives in different mediums, i.e. chapbooks, "big books", leaflets. Can you please expand on this idea?

Most poems have a pretty fleeting life, like we all do, I guess. Sometimes I write a poem, though, and Iíd like to see it stand on its own -- perhaps as a chapbook, or as a leaflet (depending on length) -- and Iíd like to see it nudging up against other poetsí work in a magazine and ultimately Iíd like to see how it bounces off other poems by me in a book-length collection.

Kevin Connolly published a gorgeous chapbook of my long poem "Paralysis Beach" in his Pink Dog series (1989), and I loved seeing that poem be its own entity. Later, I included it in my first big book of poems, The Inspiration Cha-Cha (ECW Press, 1996). It was the penultimate poem in that collection. Then last year, it appeared again in my New & Selected, Hey, Crumbling Balcony! (ECW Press, 2003), where it was positioned in the chronological trajectory of my work between 1978 and 2003.

So that poem has had these three distinct lives. It means a) I got more mileage out of it, and b) the poem got to exist in three different contexts, which is exciting for me.

In the online article The Maturing of Stuart Ross, by Harry Vandervlist, you are quoted as saying, "A poem that is sort of absurd or has silly things in it really bugs academics, or those who think that poetry is not Ďsupposed to be goofy.í" Why do you think there is such pressure in academia to be serious, and to write serious, meaningful poetry?

Now, I might be wrong on this, because I have not been in the academic world for a long time, and my brief career in academia was pretty undistinguished, butÖ I think thereís this sense (and itís not only in academia) that Art must be Serious. If itís humorous or silly, then itís an Assault on Art. Of course, I think this is crap. That said, Iíve been invited to read to undergrads at universities by profs who knew my work, and theyíve been pleased that Iíve made their students laugh, because they got to see their students actually enjoying literature. Iíd like to add, though, that just because somethingís funny or absurd doesnít mean itís not also deeply serious.

Do you write poetry with the intent of being meaningful?

I definitely never mean to be "meaningful" and I rarely worry about meaning. The meaning comes afterwards, and it comes differently to each reader, as each reader brings a different life experience to the poem. I donít believe poetry is about meaning ó for me, itís more about textures and juxtapositions and having fun.

A rambling, picaresque poem like "Little Black Train" or a frenetic list poem like "After the Event, but Before the Thing That Happened" ó I sort of see them as the literary equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting: I just keep throwing blobs of paint onto the canvas, one after the other, and see how all the colours and textures play together, or play off each other.

Certainly there are actual stories in some of my poems ó like "We Got Punched" or "One of Those Lakes in Minnesota" or "The Catch" (those are some of my most overtly autobiographical poems) ó but I still approach them the same way. I throw down a line, and then try another line, and the thing just builds. I almost never have a structure or plan in mind. When I write a sonnet, the only thing I know is that Iíll end after 14 lines.

Even in writing a poem thatís personal and cathartic ó such as "Selecting the Proper Coffin," about the sudden death and rushed burial of my brother Owen ó itís not about meaning. In that case, Iím exploring a horrific event in my life, and Iím challenging myself to find a way of containing it on a piece of paper.

I never try to get a message across. I just present my brain spillage and hope itíll amuse or intrigue someone.

I know that you teach a number of creative writing "boot camps" over the course of a year. What do you enjoy about teaching, and why do you call your classes "boot camps"?

I call them "boot camps" because they donít take the format of most poetry workshops. A workshop usually consists of a buncha folks sitting around a table reading their work and then critiquing it. This often results in poetry being written by committee, with all the cool edges of spontaneity shaved off the poems of the inexperienced and the insecure.

In my workshops, the emphasis is on producing new poems, and producing them quickly and in new ways. I inflict exercises on the participants, give them limitations and rules, make sure they donít write any first-person "feeling" poems. I want them to try all sorts of new ways of writing in a concentrated period of time.

Iíve come to enjoying leading workshops more and more. I like the feeling of turning someone onto some new poetry, or new approaches to poetry. I like when I can get people to surprise themselves. Doing workshops also always makes me think about poetry, and about process, in ways I donít when Iím actually writing. And, finally, especially when Iím working with high-school kids, it brings me back to the things that first excited me about writing. Itís like giving myself a refresher course several times a year.

I have to admit that I enjoy the sense of humour that most of your poems have, but I also realise that there are some pretty bleak undercurrents to your poetry. Have you ever read a poem that you felt was serious, and the audience perceived it differently? If so, does this change the way you look at the poem?

This happens frequently, but Iím less and less surprised, and less and less concerned. Thereís a poem I wrote about my fatherís death, "Road Trip, Southern Ontario, 1999," and the first movement has a few jokes in it, some tender humour, and then it goes, "Two years later, my father will be dead, the car will be mineÖ" and audiences always laugh at that. But usually, by the end of the poem, they feel a little guilty.

It may be a defense mechanism on my part, to couch heavy stuff with humour. But I also think itís simply that people find "weirdness" funny, but to me "weirdness" is my usual way of thinking, so I donít always see the humour in what Iím writing.

It used to really bug me when people laughed at pieces I considered serious. Now I just accept it.

At the Kat Biscuits reading with Lillian Necakov and Ben Walker in February, you read an excerpt of a novel you are working on. When do we get to read it?

I hope to have it finished by the end of the year. Gimme a call then and you can read the MS. Everyone else will have to wait until it gets published ó if it gets published. Well, if no one else bites, I guess Iíd just publish it myself. This oneís really important to me.

Dani Couture is a Toronto-based poet. Visit her website.




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