Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Stuart Ross

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Stuart Ross

This spring, Toronto high-school students from two Writer's Craft classes conducted interviews with some of Canada's finest poets. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book in June and July 2011.

Dianne Aguilar:

From what I’ve read and found in many bios floating around the internet is that you were born in Toronto’s north end and grew up in the Borough of North York. You began writing at an extremely young age. You were first published at age 16 in The Thing in Exile by Books by Kids. Up until this day you continue to have a successful and lively collection of works, from Poodles to I Cut My Finger and Dead Cars in Managua. I am curious to know how at such a young age you were able to channel this ability to write so well, what or who was it that influenced you or gave you the drive that made you love writing so much?

Stuart Ross:

Yeah, I grew up in North York in a neighbourhood called Bathurst Manor, which was mainly populated by Jewish families in the 1960s and 1970s. I started writing at nine or ten years old: stories and poems. I’m not sure how I actually channeled an ability to write: or if that ability came any differently than it does now. I read like crazy. I read a really wide variety of books: adventure, poetry, literary fiction, science-fiction, whatever I could find that interested me. Reading is the key to learning how to write: you can’t write well if you don’t read a ton. So I think that’s where my writing skills came from, and certainly where my drive to write came from. I wanted to have books on the library shelves with my name on them! I was also lucky to grow up in a household where we had plenty of books, and books were respected. (Incidentally, the book you call “Poodles” is probably Hey, Crumbling Balcony! Poems New & Selected.)


You have been active in the Toronto literary scene for long period of time now and have also been visiting classrooms to give readings, conduct workshops and [talk] about your life as a writer. When you think of canonical poets such as E.E Cummings or William Wordsworth, how does the idea of being potentially canonized one day yourself [appeal to you]?


I can’t imagine that the poet Stuart Ross will ever be canonized. I don’t really give that a lot of thought. One of dangers maybe of being preoccupied with that kind of thing is that you might start writing what you think will get you canonized. That doesn’t interest me. I think the best I can hope for is that I still have a handful of readers in 50 years. Thanks for mentioning E.E. Cummings, though: he was a huge inspiration to me when I was starting out writing, as I think he is for a lot of very young people who are attracted to poetry.


It is rare that a reader ever gets to actually ask a writer what they mean to evoke in the reader or what they were trying to get across in their writing. While reading the touching and uplifting poems in Dead Cars in Managua, it’s as if this small place was being painted in my mind the further I went along in the book, it was like putting the puzzle pieces together and seeing the big picture at the end. On page 35 I was wondering if by having this poem run all together in this big clump, with no commas and periods except for one at the end, was to evoke the feeling of prayer?


I think the important thing is what you as the reader get out of the poem. How you read it. What you draw from your own life to connect with it. I’m honoured that you would put so much thought into it. I appreciate you used the phrase “get across” as opposed to “mean” — I don’t think about meaning with my poetry. I present some images, phrases, perhaps rhythms, occasionally ideas, and if the reader draws something from this, then I’m happy. All that I’m trying to evoke in the reader is what the parts of the poem naturally evoke for her or him. As for the poem on page 35 of Dead Cars in Managua, that’s a nice observation: I think the poem is part prayer, part panicked outpouring. The lack of punctuation hopefully replicates the run-on desperate mind of someone clutching for straws in an impossible situation.


When you began as a writer you had to write on paper with a pen, and it was as easy as that. Nowadays, [we live] in such a fast-paced and technologically advanced world with Internet, vlogs, blogs and social networking. How has this change in the way you can publish your work affected you? I noticed you have a number of blogs from Hunkamoonga to Bloggamooga. This time we live in allows us to reach more people and faster. Do you like this new way of sharing your work?


I rarely put my poetry or stories up on my blogs or on FB, etc. I do like to use those outlets for promoting my workshops and readings, talking about works by other writers, musicians or filmmakers who’ve inspired me, and talking about my life as a writer. In this way, I do hope to raise some interest in my poetry and fiction. As for publishing, I still derive the most satisfaction out of that old-fashioned method. I don’t mean cave-paintings, by the way. I’m a big fan of the physical book and the chapbook. And I do a lot of my first drafts of poems with pencil on paper. At the workshops I lead, I discourage participants from writing on laptops.


While reading your works I noticed that they weren’t like all other poets works that I have looked at. I would say you're not as abstract as most poets are. Your poems are filled with life and emotion that can really be felt by the reader or at least I was able to pick up on the emotions in each poem. The poems seem to be drawn from life experiences or your surroundings around you. Do you ever have a lack of inspiration or ever feel stuck when you are writing? If you do ever draw blanks, what is it you do to get past them?


In my workshops, and in my one-on-one work with writers, I’m editing or coaching, I encourage them to eradicate abstractions from their poems, so I’m glad you didn’t find my own work “as abstract as most poets.” I do draw from my own life, and from my emotions, and my interests, to create my work. I also draw from the works of other poets: nothing gets me writing faster than reading something great by a poet I admire. I don’t write as often as I probably should, or as much as I probably should, but I don’t ever suffer from lack of inspiration. And if there is nothing in particular in my head that I want to write from, or about, or into, I try strategies that don’t demand those things: I translate a poem from a language I don’t understand or write a poem using an erasure method, or I write a cento, a poem in which every line is stolen from another poet.


To wrap it all up, I saw on your blog that you have come out with a new book, not of poetry but a novel, Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew. Did you enjoy writing a novel more than poetry, what was the difference between the two? After reading your poetry I’d love to know if we’ll be graced with yet another one of your quirky and life-filled books of poems in the near future or another novel?


SDJ is a very short novel, about 32,000 words. Ridiculously, it took me about eight years to write it. I wouldn’t say that I enjoy writing either form more, or that I find one more difficult than the other, or more satisfying. They are just different kinds of processes. At times I’m drawn more strongly to poetry; at other times to fiction. Right now I’m working on short stories, another novel, and a big mess of poems. I hope that books will come out of each of these projects. No reason to think that won’t happen, but then nothing in this life is certain.

Thanks so much for your questions, your interest and your reading of my work.

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: Buy My Books,” selling over 7,000 poetry and fiction chapbooks. A tireless literary press activist, he is the co-founder of the Toronto Small Press Book Fair and now a founding member of the Meet the Presses collective, Editor at Mansfield Press and Fiction & Poetry Editor at This Magazine. Stuart has edited several small literary magazines including Mondo Hunkamooga: A Journal of Small Press Stuff, Syd & Shirley, Who Torched Rancho Diablo, Peter O’Toole: A Magazine of One-Line Poems and HARDSCRABBLE. He is the author of two collaborative novels, two story collections and six full-length poetry books. He has also published a collection of essays, Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer (Anvil Press), and edited the anthology Surreal Estate: 13 Canadian Poets Under the Influence (The Mercury Press). His poetry collection Farmer Gloomy’s New Hybrid (ECW Press, 1999) was shortlisted for the 2000 Trillium Book Award. His story collection, Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand Books, 2009), was shortlisted for the Alberta Readers Choice Award and the Alberta Book Publishing Award and won the 2010 ReLit Award for Short Fiction. In spring 2011, ECW Press released his first novel, Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew. Stuart has taught writing workshops across Canada. He lives in Cobourg, Ontario.

Dianne Aguilar comes from a Latin background, her father from El Salvador and mother from Mexico. She lived her entire life in an upbeat fast-passed environment with family friends and loved ones constantly surrounding and supporting her. She is rambunctious, coo coo for coco puffs and always tries to look at life in an optimistic way. Growing up in hustle and bustle of Toronto she finds serenity and peace in a few activities. She enjoys biking on a cool and sunny day, exploring new parts of the city, taking photos, making movies and practicing the art that brings her the most joy in life, acting.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page