The accomplished poet and editor Stuart Ross couldn’t be any busier this spring. He took a few minutes out of his cross-Ontario travels to speak with me about a lifetime with words.
CB: You were first published at sixteen. Using all of my fingers and toes, that means you’ve been writing and publishing for close to 40 years. This is a tough and cruel business. What’s kept you going?
SR: Now, about that forty years is really thirty-six years. At least, in terms of publishing. I’d been writing for four or five years before I was published.
What’s kept me going? A few things come to mind. 1) I’ve gotten some encouragement, and I’m very fortunate in that. I have rarely had much trouble getting a book published. And there are people who enjoy reading my work. 2) The struggle to write the thing I’m trying to write. I think any good writer is always striving to write something almost (or perhaps certainly) unattainable. So we keep going, hoping we’re getting closer. 3) I enjoy it. Not necessarily the actual writing, though I’m starting to enjoy that more, but the publishing, the readings, the discussions with other writers. It’s the world I’m in, the community I’m part of.
CB: You’ve published fiction and essays, but you are considered primarily a poet. Of all the creative writing forms, it seems to me the trickiest in which to carve a space or say something new or perhaps old but in a different way. What is it about poetry that turns your crank?
SR: I think poetry might actually be the easiest form in which to carve a space or say something new, if that’s even possible. You can do far more things in a poem than you can in an essay or a story, in terms of form, or use of language. Though I’m starting to feel that short fiction is no different — it’s just that readers are not as used to experimentation in stories. I wouldn’t say, though, that my crank is turned any more rapidly or in bigger circles by poetry than it is by fiction. I agree, though, I seem to be considered primarily a poet, and I don’t know why that is, except for the fact that I’ve published more poetry books than prose books.
CB: Al Purdy, John Newlove and Charles Bukowski are sitting around getting sloshed in a dive apartment off Dundas Street East. A fight breaks out. Who wins? Who is first to apologize? SR: These are not my guys. I’d be more interested in a fight breaking out between Ron Padgett, James Tate and Lisa Jarnot. And it would likely be in a Ukrainian deli. But then, I don’t like fights and I don’t want anyone to get hurt. However, I think they would all trip over each other to apologize. And then they’d all dig into the matzoh ball soup.
CB: I wish I had been able to have a wild drunk with Al Purdy, but that probably says something about me that I need to look into. I loved your books ‘I Cut My Finger’ (Anvil 2007) and ‘Buying Cigarettes For The Dog’ (Freehand 2009). They welcome a lot of questions from fellow riders on the bus. Is choosing titles an art form in itself?
SR: Glad you liked the books! Choosing titles is part of the art. I put a lot of thought into it, and I tend towards goofy or unlikely titles. I “wasted” a couple of my favourite titles on chapbooks early on: I sort of wish they were titles of full-length collections: When Electrical Sockets Walked Like Men and Mister Style, That’s Me. One of my favourite moments in this literary career was when my second poetry book was shortlisted for the 2000 Trillium Book Award, and at the swanky awards ceremony at the Royal Ontario Museum, the Tory culture minister had to straightfacedly utter the words ‘Farmer Gloomy’s New Hybrid’.
My next book, which apparently just got shipped from the printer today, is called ‘You Exist. Details Follow’. I like the fact that the title consists of two sentences, each ending with a period. I hope your fellow riders bought their own copies! (And wait’ll you see the title for my next book of short stories.)
CB: With the advent of digital books the concept of self-promotion seems ever more important. You started out hawking your books on street corners. Are we headed back to the idea of author as creator-editor-marketer-agent all in one?
SR: I’m not sure if we’re headed “back” to that, because I’m not sure we were ever there before. But even with publishers, writers are now expected to do more marketing and promotion. People do these goddamn book trailers, for example. I think they are hideous, overly serious, or else overly clever things. I mean, isn’t it enough that we write the books and live in poverty or near-poverty?
I did a whole bunch of anti-book-trailers: they have probably had more exposure than my actual books. One of them was featured online on Utne Reader up against a trailer for Republican politician Tim Pawlenty’s memoir. I think it was for best trailer, or worst trailer. I also got some notoriety on HuffingtonPost for doing one of the worst book trailers ever. The thing that killed me (though I am not actually dead) is that so many viewers missed that I was trying to create the worst book trailer ever. Look up “farmergloomy” on YouTube and you can watch my trailers.
CB: You are also an accomplished editor. What are the biggest and most common mistakes that young writers make?
SR: They don’t read enough, or they don’t read broadly enough. They play it safe and try to sound like Lorna Crozier. They philosophize. They attend MFA programmes in creative writing. (Okay, it’s true that some very good writers come out of MFA programmes, but I’m not convinced they wouldn’t have written the same damn stuff without school.)
CB: You have a thousand dollars and a ticket to travel to any place and time in history to spend time with an author or artist of any medium or genre. Who, where, when, and what do you get up to?
SR: Tough decision. But I think I’d like to hang out with Stephen Crane, in Manhattan, circa 1895, just after his return to New York and the year his first poetry collection, The Black Riders and Other Lines, came out. His most famous work, the novel The Red Badge of Courage, also came out that year. I’d just want to grab a pint with him wherever he liked, and shoot the shit. He was a huge influence on my writing when I was a teenager. Hugely underrated poet.
CB: Speaking of Bukowski. His poem ‘until it hurts’ hangs in my writing room because it reminds me why we do this. (lay the line down / a party of one / what a party / swarmed by the light …. / out of the tips of / your fingers). Who were your early inspirations? What motivates you?
SR: Now, just to be accurate, you were the one who brought up Bukowski, not me. Now, early influences: Stephen Crane, E. E. Cummings (about whom I’ve recently read a huge biography and have come to the conclusion he was a narcissistic creep and not nearly as good a poet as I thought, though still pretty daring for the 1920s through 1940s). Soon thereafter, David W. McFadden, Ron Padgett, Victor Coleman, Georg Trakl, Allen Ginsberg, Hugo Ball. Lots of guys, eh?
What motivates me, I guess, is the satisfaction I get from having written, and, I have to admit, the modest recognition. It’s what I do, and what I’m appreciated, occasionally, for. More and more, though, I’m also motivated by doing increasingly extreme things in my writing: stories without characters and plots; poems without narratives — that kind of thing.
CB: What is the best book you read in 2011? Name a book you are ashamed that you still haven’t read …
SR: It’d be tough to choose a best book from 2011. But I’ll say the novel Sandra Beck, by the late John Lavery, a dear friend and sometimes mentor. In terms of poetry, Dean Young’s Fall Higher and Ron Padgett’s How Long are definitely contenders. There are hundreds of books I’m ashamed I still haven’t read. For example, Crime and Punishment.
CB: Raymond Carver wrote an essay on the importance of creative writers ensuring they pass along learnings of the craft to younger writers. You’ve had a chance to do this as a teacher and writer in residence. How did working with student writers inform or change your own writing?
SR: I was very fortunate, especially in high school, to have had great writers come to visit and teach: Victor Coleman, Sam F. Johnson, David Young, Joe Rosenblatt, Robert Fones. What more could a weirdo teenager hope for? As an adult, I’ve studied some with the New York poet Larry Fagin, who has been profoundly helpful to me, especially when it comes to editing my own work.
I do love teaching, and I’ve taught everything from kindergarten to Grade 12 and 13 classes, as well as adults of all ages. It keeps me on my toes. It keeps me from, as Alice Notley says, assuming things.So, I think that teaching encourages me to continually be adventurous in my writing, to always try out new things. That’s what I push my students to do. Perhaps that’s my only pat rule:
try new stuff.
CB: Speaking of Carver. He had a love-hate relationship with his first major editor, Gordon Lish. What is the editor’s job and where are the boundaries between “editing” and “creating”?
SR: This is a huge one, and I won’t do it justice at this moment. The editor’s job varies depending on the writer. Most important: the editor helps the writer to achieve most effectively what he or she set out to achieve. But you also have to call the writer out when you feel something is inherently flawed or lazy. Some writers you have to challenge.
Coming at this on a more straightforward level: the editor’s job is to correct spelling, punctuation, grammar; to weed out useless words and unintentional repetitions, and to smooth out lines and sentences, paragraphs and pages. Help the writing be as good as it can be.
And, as any good editor will tell you, the editor’s job is to keep hands off anything that doesn’t need changing.
The case of Lish and Carver is a pretty exceptional one. Lish is an exceptional kind of editor. He once inscribed a book for me at the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival, where we both read on the same bill. His inscription runs over about 12 pages. I read it often. I suspect that he is a man of excess in everything he does. He sent me a postcard soon after we met that one time, and it got returned to him: he’d addressed it wrong, I guess. He sent me a follow-up letter including the postcard and billing me one dollar for his lost postage.
CB: Tell us about your new book due this spring.
The new book is You Exist. Details Follow., my seventh trade poetry book and my second with the Vancouver-based Anvil Press. It’s a real mixture of coherent narrative poems and less immediately accessible weird-ass poems; I wrote most of the latter in my own workshops. I have included these more experimental (for me) works increasingly in my books. I like the idea, in this book, that readers will be stepping constantly between many different kinds of poems. I have also given the OK to a cartoon cover by Gary Clement, who also did covers for I Cut My Finger (Anvil, 2007) and Rogue Stimulus: The Stephen Harper Holiday Anthology for a Prorogued Parliament (Mansfield Press, 2010). I’ve been extremely lucky: for every one of my books, my publishers have allowed me to choose the cover artist or designer. I expect crummy reviews for this book. But I think there are people who will find a lot to enjoy in it. I just gotta find ’em.
Thanks Stuart … and good luck on the road.
(Stuart has also been busy editing four books that will also be released this spring through your Mansfield Press imprint, “a stuart ross book.” The four books are by Nelson Ball, Alice Burdick, Jaime Forsythe, and David W. McFadden. In his words, “They’re all incredible.” heck out Stuart Ross at bloggamooga.blogspot.com)
CB Forrest’s third novel, The Devil’s Dust, is published by Dundurn this June. His poetry has appeared in Contemporary Verse 2, Bytowne Journal, Ascent Aspirations, and Bloodlotus Journal.