Just heard that the American poet Bill Berkson died yesterday. He was 76 years old.
Berkson was the author of over 20 wonderful books of poetry, as well as volumes of art criticism, lectures, and memoir. He was also an enthusiastic collaborator with many other writers and artists. Among my favourite books of his are Our Friends Will Pass Among You Silently, Fugue, and Serenade. But everything he wrote is worth reading.
A few years back, I had the honour of including some poems by Berkson in my mag Peter O'Toole: The Magazine of One-Line Poems.
My new book, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent, contains a poem for Bill Berkson, which I'm glad I got around to sending him shortly after I wrote it. (His response seemed, well … bemused in a friendly way.)
DECLINE, THANK YOU, PLEASE GIVE IT TO BERKSON, BILL
The pure pleasure of
reading Bill Berkson’s Serenade
(Zoland Books, 2000; cover and interior drawings by Joe Brainard) while I’m
lying in the claw-footed bathtub is such that I levitate. My body rises beyond
the rim of the tub, then about another metre, till I can see sweet cobwebs flutter
from the ceiling, and I hear the water drain below me, and drops sail down from
my naked body, and as they fall they turn to various colours of paint and,
landing in the tub, they make a portrait of Bill Berkson. His features are hewn
and striking, and he wears a white hat, which the drops quickly change to brown
with a white band. I raise a hand and brush away the cobwebs, “Fragile as the
glitter on Dame Felicity’s eyelid,” and the ceiling opens, an Underwood
typewriter lowering until it’s hovering just over me, a sheet of white foolscap
rippling on the platen. I type this poem, shave, dry myself off, pull on some
jeans and a madras shirt, and win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
To Bill Berkson: good night and sleep well. Thank you for enriching the world of poetry with your incredible work. (Beautiful photo below, full of spirit and joy, by Robert Eliason.)
The Sparrow is landing in five more towns, starting tonight! I'm spreading my mainstream sensibilities far and wide with A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent, my new book from Wolsak and Wynn.
Monday, June 6, 7 pm — Cobourg, Ontario The Human Bean, 80 King Street West Also featuring: Ashley-Elizabeth Best, launching her debut poetry collection, Slow States of Collapse (ECW Press), and a musical set by Rhonda Murdoch of VanLand.
Tuesday, June 14, 7 pm — Hamilton, Ontario
Mills Hardware, 95 King Street East Wolsak and Wynn spring launch party. Also featuring: Kilby Smith-McGregor with Kids in Triage; Susan Perly with Death Valley, and Rachael Preston with The Fishers of Paradise.
Thursday, June 16, 6 pm — Wolfville, Nova Scotia The Box of Delights Bookshop, 466 Main Street Also featuring Alice Burdick, launching Book of Short Sentences (Mansfield Press).
Saturday, June 18, 7 pm — Lunenburg, Nova Scotia
Lexicon Books, 125 Montague Street Also featuring Lance La Rocque, author of Vermin (Bookthug).
Thursday, June 23, 7 pm — Halifax, Nova Scotia
The Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia, 1113 Marginal Road Also featuring Alice Burdick, launching Book of Short Sentences (Mansfield Press).
Look for future launches in Ottawa and Montreal — and maybe even Alberta and British Columbia in the fall!
For a very long time, maybe a couple of decades, I've belonged to a list-serv dedicated to the great singer-songwriter Randy Newman. This guy:
Randy Newman is one of my Top 5 favourite songwriters, along with Nick Lowe and Bob Dylan and Aimee Mann and David Ackles. (Sometimes Van Dyke Parks is on that list, sometimes Kristin Hersh, but Randy is always on the list.) We on the list-serv call ourselves the Little Criminals, named after the Newman album of the same name. Over the years, I've been fortunate enough to meet half a dozen or so Little Criminals, and what amazing people they are. There are many more I haven't met but who I consider friends.
On November 28, 2002, I wrote a poem called "Poem for Randy Newman's Birthday." It appears in my 2003 collection, Hey, Crumbling Balcony! Poems New & Selected (ECW Press). The same book also contains the poem "Sonnet (Storm & Cat)," a poem about Toluca, a cat that lived with a Little Criminal named Joan, down in California. The Little Criminals are all over the world. Some are poets, some are musicians, others are impresarios, airline employees, students, nurses. They have been great supports at difficult times. They are intelligent, funny, interesting people. I mean, they must be if they love Randy Newman, right? And they have made it possible for me to meet my hero a few times in Toronto and once in Rochester.
In my new book, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent (Wolsak & Wynn), Randy makes a very significant appearance in a poem I wrote last year, "And Oscar Williams Walked In." It's about the time the poetry anthologist Oscar Williams, who probably edited just about every American poetry collection up until the early 1960s, visited me at my home on Pannahill, about a decade after his death. Oscar Williams is this guy:
Anyways, Oscar Williams came to visit. So I went to the park and I took some paper along, and that's where I made this poem, posted here as a gift to my dear friends the Little Criminals:
OSCAR WILLIAMS WALKS IN
I’m sitting in my bedroom listening
to Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel
and then Leo Sayer’s Just a Boy
and after that Randy Newman’s Sail Away
for which I read the lyrics on the record
while it plays, every word, even though
I’ve listened to it about a hundred times
and my mother’s in the kitchen burning
and making mashed potatoes and she yells
“Stuart! Your friend is here!” and Oscar
(as I later find out his name is) walks in
wearing a bow tie and John Lennon glasses
says, “I see you like reading,” and it’s
I’m reading the lyrics to “Simon Smith
and the Amazing Dancing Bear” at that
moment but because—I follow his eyes—
one wall of my room is covered in
I find him pretty creepy even though
I have lots of friends who are older than
mostly because of this poetry workshop
led by a guy named George Miller
I go to every Saturday with Mark Laba
where everyone is older than us.
“Have you ever read this?” asks Oscar
Williams and he holds out a mouldy copy of
Poems of the English Language.
“I saw you have a mother down there. My
was named Chana Rappoport and my father
was named Mouzya Kaplan. I am Williams
in the same way you are Ross. Have you
read this?” Oscar Williams asks and he
out a dog-earred copy of The New Pocket
of American Verse from Colonial
to the Present. “They’re
you know, they have poems by people like
Ezra Pound and Robert Frost and Edna St.
Vincent Millay and William Carlos Williams
and Oscar Williams of course. Do you want
hang out at the cigar store?” The album
Away has a big picture of
face and I hold it up over my own face so
looks like I am actually Randy Newman.
“Pardon me,” says Oscar Williams, “I
you were Stuart Ross, teenage author of
immortal poems as ‘jesus tobacco’ and
of the Concrete Penguins.’ I died in 1964
so I sometimes get confused.” And then he
Like it was a dream. I go downstairs where
my mother is opening a can of peas and say,
“Why did you let that guy in, Mom?” and
“What guy? All that rock music you play is
me a headache and you hallucinations. Go
your hands, we’re having dinner soon.”
It is 1974. In forty-two years I will
poem in a book called A Sparrow Came Down
Resplendent. Barry and Owen sit down at the table,
An appreciation by Michael Dennis; a chat with Pearl Pirie; Cobourg newspaper stuff; and Aaron Tucker clubbers me in chess
As I wait for all the paperwork to be completed for the Nobel Prize, my new poetry collection, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent, is beginning to get a bit of pre-Sweden attention.
My very good friend, the unstoppable Ottawa poet Michael Dennis, who has blogged — about a new book of poetry he's enjoyed — every two days for the past several years, has written an appreciation of Sparrow. He writes, among other things: "…Ross has added two new twists to his considerable canon. Access to his massive and generous heart and a concerted effort to tie into a more direct narrative." I hope Michael Dennis is Swedish.
And earlier this week, I had a great chat with intriguing Ottawa poet Pearl Pirie, who hosts CKCU FM's Literary Landscape. It aired last night, but it's available online.
Meanwhile, here in Cobourg, local newsrag Northumberland Newsran some generous advance notice of my June 6 Cobourg launch, which will also feature Ashley-Elizabeth Best reading from her debut collection and a musical set by Rhonda Murdoch.
And finally, fine Toronto poet and better-chessplayer-than-me Aaron Tucker posted this on his Facebook wall this morning:
I only read Stuart Ross's A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent because everyone else was and I really like it ironically. I did not sincerely enjoy how beautiful and personal the poems felt, and how the book works together, all its strange imagery, of flying, of childhood, of nature, in an emotionally moving ecosystem. I thought that was the product of an author really trying to sell out and write a popular book. I definitely did not enjoy how generous the book is, how its tendrils of references, to other poets and books, to other places and times, make for a density that pushes the reader to connect and reconnect each line to its partner, each poem to its proximity.
A good start to what I'm sure will be a poetry-franchise, A Sparrow Still Came Down Resplendent, Keepin it Resplendent: The Sparrow Re-Returns, sequels that I'm sure will make Mr. Ross a lot of money.
Since I picketed my own book launch in Toronto last Thursday, in protest of the unabashedly mainstream nature of my new poetry book, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent, many others have stepped forward to denounce me.
This past Thursday, I launched my new poetry book in Toronto. A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent was issued under Wolsak and Wynn's A Buckrider Book imprint, Paul Vermeersch's baby. It was a real nice event, at the Monarch Tavern, and I was so pleased with my launch company: first-time author Kilby Smith-McGregor with her excellent collection Kids in Triage, and Susan Perly, with her second and very edgy novel, Death Valley. They both gave compelling readings and I'm looking forward to digging into their books.
I arrived early at the Monarch and began picketing my own reading (as you can see in Kathryn Mockler's photo, above). I mean, I claim to be this weirdo poet burrowing around in the underground, and here I am presenting an easy-to-read, mainstream collection of family-friendly verse. Despicable! I decided I would stand outside the bar and picket until my reading inside was over. Then I might go in and grab a drink.
Reportedly, one couple left the event early, while I was still out there, and the man said to the woman, "I remember when that guy stood out on Yonge Street selling his books with a sign like that around his neck." And it's true. I was totally comfortable standing there in public holding a sign across my chest. It was like coming home.
But, realizing that protest just doesn't change the world, I gave up after about 45 minutes and went inside. The room was packed. I was immediately asked to sign some books. (In fact, some people had come outside while I was picketing, and asked me to sign my book out there.) I saw lots of friends and lots of acquaintances and lots of strangers. A ton of writers I admire. I was constantly being mistaken for Rod McKuen and Hugh Prather. Oscar Williams, who died in 1964, was tucked into one corner, scowling in my direction, because he doesn't come off too well in my new poem "And Oscar Williams Walks In." Tough luck, Oscar. Go chew on your bow tie.
So then the readings happened. Paul introduced me and people booed me and chanted, "Sell-out!" It was exhilarating. Paul said that I was a sell-out, and thus I had, for the first time, written something everyone would like. Don't remember his exact words but they were insulting in their praise. I was very anxious about the reading, because I had built up expectations and could so easily fail. But about halfway through the ten-minute reading, I realized it was going really well. (See photo by Wolsak and Wynn's Ashley Hisson above.) There was an audible gasp at the end of one of my poems, at a place where I certainly didn't expect a gasp. It was a line about the veins running through my tailor-grandfather's being threads. And soon the reading was over and I took refuge on the closest empty stool I could find. And immediately people were lining up for signatures in my new book. This had never happened before.
In fact, I was so taken unawares that I forgot to make the "edit" I'd made on the books I signed before the reading. If you have a copy of the book, please turn it to the back cover. In the second line of Nick Thran's review excerpt, delete "however" and insert an ellipsis. This was the only disagreement I had with my publisher, which says a lot about Wolsak and Wynn. Small stuff, but I'm a copy editor, so that "however" drives me nuts.
I had a personal record on Thursday when it comes to sales numbers at a launch. Just shy of 50 Sparrows were sold. (Well, really just shy of 150, because I bought 100 copies myself.) I'm hoping this book does some good things for me. I'm getting old. I've been at this racket for over forty years. I would like some new opportunities. Which is why I consciously made a book that consists entirely of one vein — or thread — of my writing: accessible, sorta "normal" poems. I had the glorious experience of doing an entirely in-your-face book, A Hamburger in a Gallery, last year. So now there's this.
A young woman who'd taken a poetry workshop with me in January came up to get her book signed. She was delighted that in one of the poems I read, I named several streets from the neighbourhood where her dad grew up. She asked me to inscribe the book to her dad and wondered if I knew him, since we'd be about the same age. I recognized the last name and asked if he had a brother named Alex. He did! I went to elementary school with the woman's uncle, it turned out. A fellow denizen of Bathurst Manor! I asked her to give him my regards.
This is the poem that — on editor (and friend) Paul Vermeersch's suggestion — opens my new book, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent. As I've said, I wanted this book to be very different from any other poetry book I've published.
My parents, Syd and Shirley, bought a place in Pompano Beach, Florida, in, I think, the mid-1980s. They spent four or five months a year there. I visited them in Pompano a few times before my mother's death in 1995, and a couple more times before my father sold the place not long before his own death in 2001. I usually stayed for a few weeks. It was a surreal experience being in that land of snowbird communities, and it was sometimes trying for both my parents and I to spend so much time in close quarters, but those times were also really beautiful. I miss them.
It was on the balcony mentioned in the poem below that I wrote my much earlier poem "Little Black Train," which was a pivotal piece for me. I also wrote a word-replacement version of Tom Clark's "Sonnet" ("The orgasm completely/Takes the woman out of/Herself…") and another of Mark Strand's "Keeping Things Whole" (which I just heard quoted in the final episode of the first season of Blunt Talk). I did versions of a whole bunch of American poets' poems, and several of them wound up in a long piece of mine called "Yankee Doodle," which maybe appeared in my first full-length collection, The Inspiration Cha-Cha. The swimming pool by their condo was the one that inspired my short story "The Sun Tan," from Buying Cigarettes for the Dog.
Anyway, here's the first poem in my new book. I struggled with this one for many years, and then rewrote it about half a dozen times more after Sparrow was accepted for publication.
And my mother is on the balcony
and my father is making cheese sandwiches
and my mother is writing a letter
that my father will discover
two months later in their bedroom
in Toronto, the morning
we’re to bury her
she writes that
she is on the balcony
and he is making cheese sandwiches
and she says she feels treasured
and if ever there are grandkids
tell them she’d’ve loved them
and in five years my brother
dies in my sobbing father’s arms
and my father one year after
and I cannot find the letter
my mother wrote in Pompano
but I remember the word treasured
it’s how she felt, she said
and the palm trees sway in the hot breeze
and butterflies called daggerwings drift past
and sand skinks swim through millions of grains of
Meet the Presses Indie Literary Market — Saturday, November 21, 11:30 am - 5 pm. Tranzac Club, 292 Brunswick Street, Toronto. Free admission. Featuring over 30 literary presses and magazines, plus the announcement of the 2015 bpNichol Chapbook Award winner.
Grey Snotes, by Stuart Ross. — from Proper Tales Press, 2015.
Cobourg Variations, expanded edition, by Stuart Ross. — from Proper Tales Press, 2015.
Further Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer, by Stuart Ross. — from Anvil Press, 2015.
A Hamburger in a Gallery, by Stuart Ross. — from DC Books, 2015.
My Planet of Kites, by Marie-Ève Comtois, translated by Stuart Ross and Michelle Winters. — from Mansfield Press, 2015.
In In My Dream, by Stuart Ross. — from BookThug, 2014.
A Pretty Good Year, by Stuart Ross. — from Nose in Book Publishing, 2014.
Nice Haircut, Fiddlehead, by Stuart Ross. — from Puddles of Sky Press, 2014.
Our Days in Vaudeville, Stuart Ross in collaboration with 29 poets. — from Mansfield Press, 2013.
18 Goddamn Centos, Stuart Ross — from Proper Tales Press, 2013.
New Proper Tales!
Black Trampoline, poetry by Jason Heroux — 2015
A Tiresome Litany of Indignities, essays by Michael Dennis — 2014
Hating Animals, poetry by Oded Carmeli — 2014
A Tiresome Litany of Indignities, essays by Michael Dennis — 2014
Happy Dog, Sad Dog, a poem by Sarah Burgoyne — 2013
Sunday, Monday and Tuesday Weld, by Tom Walmsey — 2013
The Technology of the Future Will Emerge Hungry, erasure poems by Paul Vermeersch — 2014