01 May 2016

Good night, Mark McCawley, 1964 – 2016

I was reading John Fante the other day, and I thought of Mark McCawley, wondered if he liked Fante. Fante was a huge influence on Bukowski, and Mark loved Bukowki. As it turns out, at the moment I was thinking about Mark, he was already gone.

I just heard this morning in a group email from the poet Chris Faiers, that Mark died, on April 19. rob mclennan wrote an obit here. Mark was nearly five years younger than I was. I know that he had health challenges and financial challenges. But in the last exchange I had with him, a week before he died, he offered to send me a small cheque to help buy a new computer because my laptop is starting to go bonkers. I thanked him for his generosity, but declined. He mentioned, as he so often did, that I was getting a bad break in the Canadian lit scene and should win a GG. I told him my stuff was way too weird for that. He wrote: "Weirdness really ought not to be a barrier to being shortlisted for the GG." He was a really great supporter of my work, and of the work of many other writers who he felt were working outside the mainstream.

He championed Daniel Jones to the end, promoting Jones's work decades after that writer's much-too-early death. More recently, he was soliciting and pirating work that excited him for his Urban Graffiti online project.

Mark was an angry guy when it came to CanLit. He was also a tender and generous man. The last time I saw him was when I visited Edmonton a bunch of years back. Mark took me to the Blue Plate, his favourite diner; we had a colourful, often dark, but ultimately inspiring visit. Mark had trouble getting around, but we took a long walk afterwards, and he showed me some neat Edmonton sights. We were looking forward to our next meeting at the Blue Plate, whenever I could get back to his town.

Mark was hardcore. Hardcore in his aesthetics. A hardcore small-presser. A hardcore promoter of the transgressive in literature. His comments on FB were often indignant, pissed-off, and outrageous. And it all came from a good and principled place. He was a very loyal guy. In Edmonton, I gave a reading in the lower level of some fancy bookstore there: the only people to attend were Catherine Owen, at whose place I was crashing, and Mark McCawley.

In December, he wrote to me: "I've sadly discovered lately that transgressive writing is disappearing from local libraries, including works by Jones, Firth, Quinn, Burnham…"

When I whined to Mark that I had become an ignored "literary geezer," he replied: "Where there is life, there is work to be written. Soon we 'geezers' will take over! Imagine a legion of literary 'geezers' with walkers…"

Mark kicked against the pricks. And he was a man who experienced a lot of pain. I hope his end, however that played out, was gentle.

I never did send him that copy of Juan Butler's Canadian Healing Oil I promised him. If he reads this and has a new address that Canada Post can reach, maybe he'll let me know. When someone dies unexpectedly, isn't there always this rush of things you wanted to say, to express, to ask?

 Spend some time at his website today, will ya?

And for Mark, here's one of his favourite artists. 

Over and out, Mark. 

23 April 2016

4 exciting new books under the "a stuart ross book" imprint

I'm pretty proud of the books I've ushered through Mansfield Press since 2007, when publisher Denis De Klerck let me aboard on a trial basis. That year I worked on new books with Lillian Necakov and Steve Venright. In all, I've brought about 45 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction to Mansfield.

For this spring's list, I've worked with Montreal poet Sarah Burgoyne on her first book, with Kingston's Jason Heroux and Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia's Alice Burdick on their respective fourth collections, and with Paris, Ontario, poet Nelson Ball on his … well, he's got a lot of books.

Those books are launching next week in Montreal, Kingston, Toronto, and St. George, Ontario. I haven't seen them yet, but can't wait to hold them in my hands.

Denis did send me a photo of them, though, as well as the new book by Toronto's Eva HD that he saw through the press this season.

What particularly excites me about this season's crop are the challenges inherent in each book. Writers challenging readers, and also challenging themselves.

Saint Twin is Sarah Burgoyne debut, and it is as challenging as it is moving and powerful. This 160-page volume is comprised of nine sequences, a couple of which even have subsequences. Mostly, these amazing sequences are interwoven through each other throughout the book. It makes for a read that can be disorienting, but also exciting and rich, and it allows the echoes — and the distinctions — between the sequences to really stand out. It was a brave decision by Sarah — and a beautifully outrageous one — to order the book that way. I don't know of any other book of Canadian poetry that is structured quite like Saint Twin. I am immensely proud to have helped bring it into the world. I think readers are going to find extraordinary things in this glorious and hefty book.

Chewing Water is the fourth full-length collection (including next fall's Certain Details: The Poems of Nelson Ball, from WLU Press) I've worked on with Canadian poetry and publishing legend Nelson Ball. Nelson is often thought of as primarily a writer of minimalist nature poems, though people have been part of his poems for decades. Since the death of his wife, the artist and writer Barbara Caruso, in late 2009, it seems that Nelson's books are becoming increasingly "social" — lots of friends appear in the poems, as well as Barbara. Chewing Water is almost evenly divided between nature poems and people poems. At least, that's my impression. I haven't really counted the poems in each category. But it made for an interesting challenge when it came to ordering the pieces in the book. Divide it into sections, separating the different kinds of poems? Alternate? In the end, I decided to kick off with a rare childhood poem (Nelson's childhood, that is), and let intuition guide me. After a particularly emotional people poem, it seemed apt to insert a nature poem to allow for some peace and meditation. And certain nature poems suggested others, as certain people poems also suggested others. When I was done, Nelson shifted half a dozen poems around, and then we were both happy. To me, the book seems to have an almost emotional narrative. But really, with Nelson's poems, I could have thrown the pages into the air at random and ordered them how they landed and it still would have been a brilliant book.

It has been a blast to work with Jason Heroux for the third time, on his fourth collection with Mansfield. For the last book, Natural Capital, I really encouraged Jason to push himself in new directions, and he did a fantastic job. It didn't take any convincing to see Jason go even further with Hard Work Cheering Up Sad Machines. The title alone is a great departure for him. But look: there are quasi-flarf poems in this book! And about half a dozen long poems and sequences, where Jason explores different forms and different relations between the sequences' elements. This is the Kingston poet's most exciting collection so far, and his longest, by a long shot. The other thing that I could feel in this new manuscript was all the deep and close readings he has done over the years of works by poets from around the world. There is homage and respect and influence herein. Jason is a poet's poet.

And finally, it's been an intense pleasure to work with Alice Burdick on four full-length books, the first for Beth Follett's amazing Pedlar Press, and the next three with Mansfield. Again, like Nelson and Jason, Alice has been pushing herself to expand her palette ever further. Book of Short Sentences is Alice's longest and most acrobatic book yet. And it also has some very long poems, both of the prose and the linear variety. Alice's poetry is always challenging, in that very pleasurable way that John Ashbery's work is challenging. And comparisons have been made between Burdick and Ashbery, and I think they're valid to a point. Alice's work is much more deeply personal, though. And her wordplay is nearly constant (in a best-of-Nabokov/Burgess sort of way). I feel like Canadian poetry might finally be catching up to Alice Burdick, and this might be the book that brings her the recognition she so deeply deserves.

The fifth book out this season from Mansfield is Toronto poet Eva HD's follow-up to Rotten Perfect Teeth, her twice-reprinted debut from spring 2015. Shiner is the new book. This one is Denis De Klerck's project, and it is an often belligerent, often beautiful collection.

I'm on the train right now for Montreal, where we launch tomorrow (April 24) at 7 pm at the Copacabana on St. Laurent (where Nick Papaxanthos drew a huge crowd to launch his debut, Love Me Tender, this past fall). On April 25, 7 pm, we will be in Kingston at the brilliant indie bookstore Novel Idea. And then on April 26, we're in Mansfield's home turf of Toronto, at the Monarch Tavern at 7 pm. After a few days' break, we head to St. George, Ontario, Nelson Ball's neck of the woods, to launch Nelson and Alice at 2 pm at the Adelaide Hunter Hoodless Homestead.

Then, on June 16, Alice launches her book in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, at Box of Delights Bookshop, 6 pm. Joining her will be Darren Greer, launching his novel Advocate.

As always, I am grateful to Denis De Klerck for the privilege of working with such fine authors.

Come join us at a launch!

Over and out.

01 February 2016

Selected Poems of Nelson Ball — it's happening!

I'm working on an awful lot of wonderful projects.

Here, I'll tell you about one.

A couple of years ago, Paul Dutton invited me to lunch in the Annex. He actually had a written list of things he wanted to discuss with me. At the time, Gary Barwin was working on a Selected volume of Paul's work for Wilfred Laurier University Press's Laurier Poetry Series. (It — Sonosyntactics — was launched last week in Toronto — get yourself a copy!) Paul thought it might interest me to approach the press with a proposal: and then one of us — I think it was Paul, came up with the idea of a Selected Nelson Ball. In fact, Paul might have had that idea from the get-go.

Anyway, it was a very exciting idea. I would have to read everything Nelson had written since the 1960s. I couldn't think of a more pleasant reading adventure.

So I wrote the press, and they immediately said yes. It's been a bit of a bumpy ride, though, mostly because I take on far too much. The actual work hasn't been bumpy, but finding time to do it has been a challenge. I began reading through Nelson's books right away, back in 2014. I put a Post-it on every page I thought was worthy of inclusion in a Selected. Problem was, I was putting Post-its on almost every page. Maybe someday there will be a Complete Poems of Nelson Ball (and I sure hope there will be!), but WLU does slim volumes of Selecteds, usually (or maybe always) under 100 pages.

I got caught up in my own books, and in Mansfield Press books, and other editing and teaching projects. And then, a few months ago, Paul bumped into the editor from WLU. The editor mentioned that he had never received the Ball manuscript and assumed I had given up on the idea. Paul said he was pretty sure I wouldn't give up on that, so the editor wrote me a note and asked.

Excited by his enthusiasm, and the realization that I hadn't blown it, I got to work again. And I got more stingy with my Post-it notes.

And this past week, Nelson approved a final selection. And he came up with the perfect title.

Points of Attention.

It works so well in so many ways.

Nelson has already written his afterword, based on a letter about his poetry he'd written to a Japanese student many years ago. This, for me, is one of the most exciting things about the book: Nelson has never before written for publication about his own writing. And here he talks about his process, his aesthetics, his influences. It's an amazing document.

And I'm working away on the introduction. Last night I phoned my old friend Lance La Rocque, a poet and academic in Wolfville, N.S., who is at least as enthusiastic about Nelson's work as I am. He was a great sounding board for my ideas about the introduction, and made a lot of excellent suggestions that I'll explore and perhaps adapt.

This WLU book is slated for publication this fall. I've already worked with Nelson on three previous publications: two books through Mansfield Press, In This Thin Rain and Some Mornings, and a Proper Tales Press chapbook called The Continuous Present. And we're also doing another Mansfield Press collection this spring — Chewing Water. It's a deep pleasure to work with Nelson, and especially to watch the great attention he pays to the most minute details of each of his poems. Which isn't surprising, given the nature of so many of his poems — works that pay attention to / celebrate / document minute details.

I've described Nelson at times as Canada's secret poetry weapon. I shouldn't really call him a weapon, though. But almost inevitably, when I bring his poetry into a workshop, or suggest it to someone I'm coaching, he makes new fans. There is an immediacy, a directness, a purity to Nelson's poems that make them nearly universal.

Points of Attention will cover six decades of work by one of this country's indisputable greats. If you think you know Nelson's work, I think you'll still be surprised by this collection.

Over and out.

05 January 2016

"Wigwam" on Synapse

I have another new poem up on an online venue. "Wigwam" will be making its next appearance in my best-selling blockbuster spring collection, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent (Wolsak and Wynn, under Paul Vermeersch's Buckrider Books imprint), but its debut is right here on Synapse, an onliner out of, I think, Ottawa. I'm wondering now whether my Grade 2 teacher's name was Leibovici or Leibovic. I better find out before the book gets published! Anyway, it features the excellent education I received in First Nations issues in the 1960s in North York.

This online publication is all part of my desperate campaign to give a pile of new poems an extra life before the book comes out. I'll have a few more publications to announce soon.

Over and out.

01 January 2016

Alterations (2016 New Year's Poem)


The weight of John Ashbery’s
Collected French Translations:
(414 pages) and Roberto
Bolaño’s The Unknown University
(835 pages) on my mattress this
New Year’s morning is like
the weight of my mother and
father sitting on the foot of
the bed, watching me as I sleep.
Twenty-one years gone and fifteen,
respectively, they’re from another
world. “What’s a guy like you
doing here? / Are you plotting
a crime?” my father asks,
and he puts me in a headlock.
“O closed heart O heavy heart O
deep heart / You will never get
used to sorrow,” my mother says,
and she strokes my left cheek.
Thing is, I’ve stopped writing
poems about them. Also,
my strides are longer, and
I can be out the door and
at the lake in three steps. I
kneel down and scoop
some water into my palm.
Soon the water turns to ice.
The weight of me makes me
sink into the snow that covers
the beach. By the time spring
comes and the snow has melted,
I will have a little tailor shop
down there. I will have become
my grandfathers. My parents
are just a gleam in my eye.
I switch a little light on
above my sewing machine
and do some alterations.

1 January 2016

Over and out.

31 December 2015

3 poems to usher out the Old Year

I'm very pleased to have three poems up on The Lake today. Nice to squeeze in a final 2015 publication on the last day of the year.

Here be those poems.

The poem "Doxology" contains the lines that title my spring 2016 book, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent, from Wolsak and Wynn, the book that is going to allow me to hire a chauffeur and also buy a small holiday house in Nicaragua. I'm really proud of this poem: it's the one that set the tone — and gave me motivation — for the new book, which I think will be a very different book for me.

I'm also pleased to have "Adul and the Magic Book" up. I've gotten a great response to that poem at recent readings. And it's another poem I'm particularly proud of. Even as it makes me very uncomfortable. Perhaps because it makes me very uncomfortable.

The third poem, "Three in a Room," is from a few years ago. It is a very personal poem, and one of my decreasingly rare strictly autobiographical poems (though A Sparrow has a few more of those). In my mother's last week or so of life, in 1995, as she lay in a hospital bed, she at one point opened her eyes to see me and my two brothers in room with her. The three of us Ross boys together all at one time was not a common sight. I'm glad she got to see that. I think it gave her a lot of comfort.

Over and out.

29 December 2015

25 of my poetry favourites from 2015

Okay, the heading for this blog entry isn't exactly true. I didn't read nearly enough new poetry books this year. So really, these are simply 25 of my favourite 2015 poetry books, chosen from those that I read. And the heading's still not accurate. For example, I'm not including the books I ushered through Mansfield Press under my "a stuart ross book" imprint: Last Stop, Lonesome Town, by Tara Azzopardi; My Planet of Kites, by Marie-Ève Comtois (translated my Michelle Winters and me); Abnormal Brain Sonnets, by David W. McFadden; The Purpose Pitch, by Kathryn Mockler; Love Me Tender, by Nick Papaxanthos; punchlines, by Aaron Tucker. And then there's my own, almost totally ignored, collection, A Hamburger in a Gallery (DC Books), which I think is pretty damn good. And there are also all the books and chapbooks I couldn't locate over the past few days. And beyond that, some of the 25 books below were published as fiction or non-fiction, but I think they're poetry. Oh, and I included a book from my own Proper Tales Press, which I know is cheating, but this is my blog.

Breezeway, John Ashbery (Ecco)
Thirty Poems, Nelson Ball (Rubblestone)
Thrillows & Despairos, Chris Chambers (Wolsak and Wynn)
Poems to Work On: The Collected Poems of Jim Dine (Cuneiform)
Sonosyntactics: Selected and New Poetry of Paul Dutton (Wilfrid Laurier University)
Rilke Shake, Angélica Freitas, trans. Hilary Kaplan (Phoneme Media)
Moods, Yoel Hoffmann, trans. Peter Cole (New Directions)
That Said, Richard Huttel (Proper Tales)
the blue, blue there, Marilyn Irwin (Apt. 9)
Our Inland Sea, James Lindsay (Wolsak and Wynn)
Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, by Sarah Manguso (Graywolf)
The Well-Dressed Wound, Derek McCormack (Semiotext(e))
Get Me Out of Here, Sachiko Murakami (Talonbooks)
Diversion, George Murray (ECW)
The Lake Contains an Emergency Room, Lillian Necakov (Apt. 9)
Tells of the Crackling, Hoa Nguyen (Ugly Ducking)
Alone and Not Alone, Ron Padgett (Coffee House)
The Exiles' Gallery, Elise Partridge (Anansi)
Dear Leader, Damian Rogers (Coach House)
Thirteen Ways of Looking at CanLit, by Rachel Rose (BookThug)
Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine (Graywolf)
Careen, Carolyn Smart (Brick)
That Train Again, Mark Statman (Lavender Ink)
Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, James Tate (Ecco)
A Brief History of Portable Literature, Enrique Vila-Matas, trans. Anne McLean & Thomas Bunstead (New Directions)

Over and out.