I Read as Scatteredly as I Write: An Interview with Stuart Ross
Stuart Ross published his first literary pamphlet on the photocopier in his dad’s office one night in 1979. Through the 1980s, he stood on Toronto’s Yonge Street wearing signs like “Writer Going to Hell,” and selling over 7,000 chapbooks. He is the author of 15 books of fiction, poetry and essays, most recently Our Days in Vaudeville (Mansfield Press), collaborations with 29 poets from across Canada. His many chapbooks include three released in 2014: Nice Haircut, Fiddlehead (Puddles of Sky Press), A Pretty Good Year (Nose in Book Publishing) and In In My Dream (BookThug). Stuart is a member of the improvisational noise trio Donkey Lopez, whose CDs include Juan Lonely Night and the forthcoming Working Class Burro. He is a founding member of the Meet the Presses collective and has his own imprint, “a stuart ross book,” at Mansfield Press. Stuart lives in Cobourg, Ontario, and blogs at bloggamooga.blogspot.ca.
EVENT: You’re the author of 15 published books of poetry, fiction and personal essays, as well as nearly 40 chapbooks. You mentioned in a recent Facebook post that you’re currently working on three novels, two collaborative books of poetry, two new poetry collections, a collaborative translation, a memoir and a book of essays. How do you manage to work on all of these projects? Do you focus on one at a time, or are you constantly juggling? Do you ever sleep? And can you share some details of some of these new projects you’re working on?
STUART ROSS: Oh, there’s also a book of stories, and I’ve added another solo poetry collection to the mix, and another collaborative poetry project. Three of the books will come out this spring, so that’ll chop down the list a bit; I just have to resist conjuring up something new before then.
I am constantly juggling, though every so often I just swing myself up onto the back of one of the projects and gallop through to the finish line. A publication deadline will usually make that happen. I fear that what I do is add new projects so I can avoid the old ones. But I do intend to finish them all. Thing is, I’m 55, and even if I published one project a year, and never added any new ones, I’d be about 67 by the time I caught up. Hence the three books this spring—I don’t really want to do that, but I have to face certain facts.
As for sleep, I’m not very good at it. I rarely get more than five hours a night, and I wish I could say that it’s because I’m writing for the other 19 hours. I write very sporadically. In fact, I feel like I write so little and yet I’m surprised at how prolific I’ve been. I do pretty good first drafts, so I think that helps.
At the same time, I’m always working on several books at once that I wish I’d written—those are the books I usher through under my imprint, “a stuart ross book,” at Mansfield Press. Plus various other freelance editing jobs; right now I’m doing the substantive edit on an autobiography by Dennis Bryon, drummer with the Bee Gees for six years.
As for my own book projects, let’s see: I’m collaborating with three poets right now. With Richard Huttel, I’m exchanging lines for a collection of sonnets. With Jaime Forsythe, I’m exchanging lines toward a book-length poem. With Michael Dennis, well, what we do is we get together and collaboratively write 20 poems simultaneously in one sitting. We’re shooting for six sittings, and then we’ll decide what to do with the 120 poems we’ll have generated.
The book of essays is the sequel to my 2005 collection Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer. Anvil Press is publishing it in the spring. I’m also working on a memoir of my writing life up to the time I began getting trade books published. One of the novels is a kind of sequel to my novel Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew, while another is a novelization of a one-minute puppet show I created some years back and eventually expanded to six minutes. It’s called The Ape Play: A Novel.
With Toronto writer Michelle Winters I’m translating a book of prose poems by Montreal poet Marie-Ève Comtois; that’ll come out this spring with Mansfield Press. Also this spring, a new collection of poetry, A Hamburger in a Gallery, with Jason Camlot’s Punchy Poetry imprint at DC Books.
Rounding all that off is a collection of miscellaneous stories, a two-character novel, a kind of mainstream poetry collection, and another collection tentatively titled 1,000 Tiny Poems.
E: In 2013, Mansfield Press published your most recent collection of poems Our Days in Vaudeville. What’s unusual about the poems in this collection is that they are all collaborative—you wrote each poem with one of 29 other poets. In your introduction to the book, you write:
For me, it’s a dream book. It appeals to both the reckless experimenter and the commie collectivist in me. There’s beauty in here, and beautiful terribleness. There’s adventure and head-butting and collegiality.
How did you approach the creation of this book, and these poems? Did you have a set process that you followed with each of the other poets, or was it completely different every time?
SR: I’ve been collaborating ever since I was a teenager. But in the last decade, I’ve really been ramping things up, taking great pleasure in collaborating with a wide range of writers. In fact, I enjoy collaborating more than I enjoying writing solo stuff. I’ve been very influenced by the first two generations of the so-called New York School poets, and they were active collaborators. In fact, through my Proper Tales Press, a few years ago, I published If I Were You, a similar collection of collaborations by Ron Padgett and various of his colleagues: Allen Ginsberg, Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan and others.
When I came up with the idea for Our Days in Vaudeville I already had several dozen collaborative poems I was pleased with. But then I went into overdrive and collaborated with more and more people. There was no set process. I negotiated with each collaborator how the poem would be written: sometimes one line at a time, sometimes one word, sometimes one stanza. Sometimes we just wrote a bunch and passed it back and forth; sometimes we wrote a set number of lines independently and then wove them together. The main rule I like to follow is this: don’t discuss the poem while you’re writing it. I’m very pleased with the book that came out of this, and I’m amused that it has barely been reviewed. Either because reviewers find it godawful, or because they don’t know how to approach it. All my other poetry books have been reviewed multiple times. This one scares people. Or something. I think it’s one of the most exciting, unusual books of Canadian poetry that came out in 2013.
E: You recently moved from Toronto to Cobourg, Ontario. How is living in a smaller place affecting the literary side of your life?
SR: It has its upsides and its downsides. I really miss the community of Toronto writers, where I was very involved, often as an event organizer. But I do like the quiet of Cobourg, the extra time it affords to read and to write. I like that, with a five-minute drive, I can be sitting on some bluff overlooking Lake Ontario, or wandering through a forest. But I did want to have a different experience of living, after nearly 50 years in Toronto. I wanted to know what it was like to live in a small place. In many ways I’m still struggling in Cobourg, struggling to find a way to live and be an artist. But I’m glad to be free of the tension of Toronto’s gridlock and frenetic activity. I have definitely noticed my reputation, such as it was, dissipating with my removal from the big city. Living in a small town, you have to work much harder to connect with the major literary centres.
E: Your work—especially your poetry—is often described as surrealist. Are many of your major influences surrealists, as well? Which authors or books would you say have been your greatest influences over a lifetime of writing and publishing? What have you been reading lately, and what have you found especially intriguing?
SR: I’ve been heavily influenced by various surrealists and imagists. But I’ve also been influenced by Graham Greene and Patricia Highsmith and Samuel Beckett and Jerzy Kosinski. My two favourite living poets, David W. McFadden and Ron Padgett, both have heavy doses of surrealism laced through their work. I discovered their work when I was a teenager. I’m also crazy about Valéry Larbaud and Benjamin Péret. And the crazy novelists Fernando Arrabal and Roland Topor. And the Dadaists Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara were big for me when I was a kid, and I like them still. Nicanor Parra, Chilean antipoet, is also very important to me.
Recent prose reading has included the exciting Bobby Fischer Goes to War (really!) by Eidinow and Edmonds, as well as Elyse Friedman’s new novel, The Answer to Everything, which is a blast. Padgett Powell’s You & Me is insane. A. L. Kennedy’s On Writing is something I savour in small segments: she is magnificent. I’m just digging into Jason Schwartz’s John the Posthumous and Chloe Caldwell’s Women, and I think I’m going to love them both. In poetry, I’m slowly going through Padgett’s Collected Poems and I’m looking back at amazing books by Gloria Frym and Larry Fagin. Enjoying Sarah Burgoyne’s exquisite chapbook Love the Sacred Raisin Cakes and Patricia Lockwood’s cartoonic Balloon Pop Outlaw Black. I read as scatteredly as I write.
Interview by Elena E. Johnson
Elena E. Johnson’s poetry has been nominated for the CBC Literary Awards and the Alfred G. Bailey Prize. Her work has appeared in literary journals across Canada, including The Fiddlehead, ARC and PRISM international, as well as four anthologies. Her first book of poetry will be published by Gaspereau Press in Spring 2015.