Jonathan Ball is a Canadian poetry hero. He runs the only — so far as I know — regular poetry-review column in a Canadian newspaper. He crams three or four reviews into each installment, so they are short, but he always makes his point, and in a lively fashion.
In the June 25 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press, he wrote aboutA Sparrow Came Down Resplendent, along with three other really interesting books, including Jason Heroux's Hard Working Cheering Up Sad Machines, which came out this past spring under my "a stuart ross book" imprint with Mansfield. Here's what he wrote about Sparrow:
Stuart Ross’s A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent (Wolsak and Wynn/Buckrider, 68 pages, $18) captures one of Canada’s most inventive and overlooked poets in fine form. "This is a poem about Johnny Cash / as the line above this one clearly states" — this fun, plain-spoken assertion seems to set the stage for a silly poem, but actually presages a crushing, sad scene.
This is Ross’s oft-utilized but never-predictable method: to combine an observation that seems tossed-off and un-poetic with a harrowing image or something more complex than it at first appears.
"The books are full of words / but what’s a word?"
"I wrote a poem. I was / lonely. I wrote a poem / describing how I was / lonely. Many a person / said I should write a book."
There’s a clever joke and an existential crisis both crushed into those clean lines. Ross wins again.
I'm pleased to announce that I recently signed a contract with ECW Press for the publication of my second solo novel, Pockets. It will appear in fall 2017 under Michael Holmes's Misfit imprint. This will be my sixth book with that press since 1996 (they published my first four poetry books and my first solo novel).
I had three other novels on the go (and still do), but this one broke out of the gate and crossed the finish line in the blink of an eye. Last December, I sat down to reread, for the umpteenth time, Toby MacLennan's astonishingly beautiful 1972 novel from Something Else Press, 1 Walked Out of 2 and Forgot It. I first read that book when I was still in my late teens. I hadn't read anything else like it, and still haven't, but I decided on that day in December that I would model a novel after MacLennan's. I liked the way the little chunks of prose rested on the bottom of each page. I liked the tone and the magic of the book.
That day I wrote about 40 pages of the novel I dubbed Pockets. (Some of the pages were only a couple sentences long.) I picked it up again in February, and started adding a new strand to it. I wrote another six or seven pages. Through April, I wrote on three separate days — first, eliminating the February strand (I'll use it elsewhere) and then expanding, lengthening, twisting. The novel reached about 70 pages (with a word count much shorter than your average Derek McCormack novel).
After those five days of work, I inserted epigraphs by Toby MacLennan and John Lavery into the manuscript and spent a week trying to decide where to send it. Perhaps because it is related so closely to my novel Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew, I sent it to Michael at ECW, and within a few days he had accepted it. (In my dreams, SDJ was going to be the book that would launch me into the big time, but that never happened, and the tiny, experimental Pockets certainly won't do it; I'm in the time in which I will remain.)
I've worked on Pockets for one more day, and I think I've got another few days' writing left, which I hope to accomplish by summer's end. (If you want to help facilitate my writing, please visit my Patreon page.) Then I'll see what Michael has to say about what will hopefully be a 90-page manuscript by then (about the length of Toby MacLennan's book). He has been a great supporter of my writing for two decades.
One nice side-effect of all this is that I decided I should finally search out Toby MacLennan and thank her for writing that book, and let her know how much it has meant to me. It wasn't hard to find her online, and I wrote her, and we've had a really lovely and inspiring email conversation that I hope will continue. As I get older, I realize how important it is to let writers — writers who are important to you — know the impact their work has had on you.
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.
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