Oh, what a week!
The rewards are few and far between for small press publishers, editors, and writers, and we all struggle to make ends meet while doing what we can to create interesting stuff for audiences of 17 or 381 or maybe even 749.
So it's a rare pleasure when I get an actual week packed with amazing and transformative moments, and moments I can be proud of.
It all began on Tuesday, March 12, when a hundred or so poetrypeople packed the Monarch Tavern in Toronto for the launch of Mansfield Press's spring 2013 list. Publisher/editor Denis De Klerck kicked things off by introducing me, and then I had the great glee of introducing each of the four writers, three of whom (the boys) have new books under my "a stuart ross book" imprint. First, Peter Norman read well from his sharp, dark, and funny second full-length collection, Water Damage; then Priscila Uppal gave her usual fun and friendly reading from her second collection written as Poet in Residence for the Olympics and the Paralympics, Summer Sport: Poems. After a break whose conversations I was reluctant to rupture, I had the honour of introducing my friend and huge influence, David W. McFadden, who read from Mother Died Last Summer, a sometimes fun, sometimes moving journal that was privately published (in an edition of 11) in 1992 and revised for the Mansfield edition; and then, to close off the night, we brought on George Bowering, all the way from Vancouver, who delivered his usual powerhouse reading, from Teeth: Poems 2006-2011. My favourite line from George, after he'd read a poem consisting of potential epitaphs for himself, was "Dead is the new seventy, you know."
What is additionally exciting about these Mansfield launches is how many other Mansfield authors come out to celebrate, and how many other publishers and editors join us. It really feels like Denis and I — and the writers — are building something very important, and appreciated, and anticipated.
On Thursday, I hopped the train to Ottawa, a sort of second home for me, where I took part in the Tree Reading Series' installment for VerseFest, a celebration of poetry in its third year. It was an eclectic night, as I read mostly new work alongside heavy metalist/poet Catherine Owen from Vancouver and the now-St. John's-based Don McKay. I'd never met Don before, or seen him read, and I was surprised how damn funny he was. It is always great to catch up with my Ottawa friends, and make a couple of new ones, and afterwards Catherine, Don and I had a few drinks and munchies at the bar at our hotel. A fantastic night, and I wish I had been able to stay for more of the festival.
Friday, it was back to the train station, where I hopped the rails for Montreal, which is quickly rivalling Ottawa — and New Denver, B.C. — as my second home. (I'm not sure what happened to Toronto in this hierarchy.) That night, my favourite little store in town, Argo Books, was sardinely packed for readings by Rachel Lebowitz, in from Halifax to launch her new poetry collection, Cottonopolis, drawn from some fascinating labour/industrial history; Stephanie Bolster, in a supporting role (as per her name), reading from A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth and an absorbing new long poem in progress; and very entertaining opener Sarah Burgoyne, a young poet whose broad influences are test-tubing into some brilliant linear and prose poems, sometimes reminiscent of Charles Simic, sometimes Harryette Mullen (who Sarah hasn't read, in fact). I predict great things for her if academia doesn't ruin her!
Saturday night, my friend Glenda, who worked across the road from me when I was at Harlequin in the early 1990s, took me on a tour of some less-touristy areas of Montreal, which was fantastic. And then we went to Café Cherrier, once a hotbed of intellectuals, artists, and FLQ types, and now a swanky restaurant-bar for the upscale Francophone crowd. We sat the bar and I was embarrassed to speak only English. The bartender looked a bit like Claude François might have had he lived another twenty-five years, and I told Glenda about my obsession with the late French pop icon. She'd never heard of him, but as we paid our bill to leave, she asked the bartender if he knew about Claude François. He lit up, and the staff near the bar laughed, and he turned to me asked me, in English, how I knew about CloClo, and whether I'd seen the biopic. And then he broke into a brief rendition of "Le Téléphone Pleure."
Sunday evening was the big night, though. I received an email a few weeks about by an animated Montreal poet named Catherine Cormier-Larose, telling me I had won the sole Anglo prize handed out by a group of young Francophone writers, l'Académie de la vie littéraire au tournant du 21e siècle. The awards night was the culmination of an eight-day celebration called Festival dans ta tête, created by Catherine, who also founded l'Academie, about eight years ago, to create community for the younger French lit set. I was pretty nervous: I'd be in a room filled with French speakers, and unless they said "Donnez-moi le poulet," I probably wouldn't understand anything. Luckily, I was joined by Sarah Burgoyne and Nick Papaxanthos; Nick is another brilliant young poet, one I met during my stint as writer in residence at Queen's University in 2010 (he too better not get ruined by academia!). There were about 120 people in Club Lambi, and the atmosphere was friendly, beautiful, smart, and celebratory.
About 15 awards were handed out to writers, zinesters, graphic artists, and playwrights, and the brief onstage readings and performances were mesmerizing. My mind often wanders at readings, but at this one, where I understood almost nothing, kept my attention non-stop. When it was time for me to go up, I read three poems from You Exist. Details Follow. — which received the esteemed Exist Through the Gift Shop award — and Catherine read translations she's written of each, as we'd arranged in advance. I read each of the poems very differently: some fast, some slow, some loud, some soft, and Catherine perfectly mimicked my delivery. It was pretty exhilarating, I'll tell you. The Anglo on the stage was well-received, and afterwards many of the other writers came up to talk with me; some were fluent in English, some struggled with the language, but I was pretty ashamed that I couldn't reciprocate in French. (I'm going to fix that.)
This event — this immersion for an evening in the Francophone literary community, more joyous and exciting than any English-language reading or awards night I've ever been to — was a life-expanding experience. How much poorer I'd be now if my weird-ass poetry book hadn't attracted the attention of a few young French writers. In talking with Catherine, as well as Mathieu Arsenault, who created the collectible authors' cards, and some of the other writers there that night, I learned a lot about what it was to be a writer in French in this country, and on this planet.
I said, when I was introduced, that as a writer in English, this was perhaps the best prize I could possibly win. I managed a pretty-well-accented "Merci beaucoup," but I couldn't thank them enough.
Over and out.