Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

and i mean it from the bottom of my heart, of my heart, of my heart

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Merlin Homer and David W. McFadden, August 2015. Courtesy Jennifer Rowsom Photography.

Most writers don’t make much money, and those in the small press realm can barely afford a wet shoebox to live in. When I visit high schools and the students ask me how much money I make from my poetry books, for example, I tell them that, if all the copies sell — a rare scenario in itself — I might make enough to pay half a month’s rent.

Anyway, it’s clear we don’t do what we do for money. If money was all we were after, we’d all be dentists, lawyers, accountants and inter-stellar weasel trainers.

But one of the best forms of payment a poet or other small press writer can receive is an expression of appreciation for their work — especially from a reader who they don’t know. Because of my role at Mansfield Press since 2007 — helping to usher into the world about forty books by about thirty writers — I often get notes from friends telling me they liked a book by someone I worked with. I always forward those remarks to the writer, and I often suggest the friend send a fan letter.

We small pressers don’t get a lot of reviews — if any — and we don’t necessarily get much response either, so this kind of feedback is all the more important. And there’s something lovely about getting a genuine response from a real person out there!

Tom Clark is a poet I have been reading since I was a teenager. Books like Blue, Stones, Neil Young, and At Malibu were key to me. I still read them, as well as many of the books Clark has published over the subsequent few decades. He’s a hero of mine. When I found out that my friend Hoa Hguyen, the fantastic poet who moved to Toronto a few years back, studied with Tom Clark in San Francisco and was still in touch with him, I asked if she could share his email address with me. And I wrote him a note, forty years after I started reading him.

I told Clark how much his work meant to me. How I had read him, astonished, when I was just in high school. He wrote me back a short note of thanks and put me on the e-mailing list for his blog, which he updates pretty much every day. It wasn’t the rapturous correspondence I might have hoped for, but I felt good knowing I had finally told him how I felt about his writing.

More recently I wrote to another writer I’ve admired since I was a teen. Over the course of five days between December and April, I wrote a novel as a sort of response to a novel by her I’d stumbled on back in the 1970s. Toby MacLennan’s 1 Walked Out of 2 and Forgot It is the book I’m talking about. It was published in 1972 by the great avant-garde publisher Something Else Press. I loved those little paragraphs sitting on the bottom of each page. I loved the poetry of the prose. The enigma, the humour, the gorgeous patchwork quality of that short book. My own novel — coming out with ECW Press in 2017 — is called Pockets and it wouldn’t exist without Toby MacLennan’s beautiful novel.

I looked her up online and found that she is now primarily a visual and performance artist in New York City. Her photographic works are astounding trips. I wrote her a note and thanked her for her book, and told her a little about mine, and that Pockets kicks off with an epigraph from 1 Walked Out of 2 and Forgot It. I received a delightful and generous note back from her, and we’ve corresponded a little since then. What an amazing person — and artist — she is.

So when someone tells me they read a book by David McFadden or Jaime Forsythe or Nelson Ball or Alice Burdick that they really loved, I encourage them to write to the author, or else I pass their good words along myself. It’s the kind of thing that makes a writer’s day. And while you might think, “Awww, they don’t need to hear from me,” believe me, they do.

I mean, don’t go intruding into their lives of anything, but if you can find contact info on their website or if you can write them via social media, do it. Or write to them care of their publisher!

On the topic of honouring one’s literary heroes, there’s one more story I want to get in as I sign off from this excellent, gruelling month of online residency here on Open Book. I’ve told the story many times of how — around age sixteen — I came across a book of poetry that changed how I wrote. It was A Knight in Dried Plums, by a guy named David McFadden. He wrote like people talked — in fact, like he was sitting there in the library talking directly to me! — but with this astounding sense of magic and wonder infused in his plainspoken lines. And he wrote hilariously about really heavy shit. I’d never seen anything like it. I was hooked forever on Dave McFadden’s writing.

Dave is tied with New York poet Ron Padgett as the greatest influence on my own writing. As I became increasingly involved in the literary community in Toronto, I had the opportunity to meet Dave here and there. In fact, I wrote a poem about him and swore I’d keep reading it at every reading I gave until he was there to hear it — which finally happened at Stan Rogal’s legendary Idler Pub Reading Series on Davenport. I’ve written several poems starring Dave since then, but this was the first, and it was a riff on one of his own poems from Gypsy Guitar (one of the most enchanting poetry books ever!):

SOME KIND OF SLOWDOWN IN THE INTERSECTION

David McFadden lay curled on his side
in an intersection.
David McFadden.
As I stood and watched cars and buses
navigate around his inert figure,
someone appeared beside me and
said, “Who is that lying inert
in the intersection?”
“David McFadden,” I told her. “That’s
David McFadden lying there on his side
in the intersection. Not often
a Canadian poet stops traffic.”
“Well,” she replied, “they’re not
actually stopping, they’re
circumnavigating.”
“Well,” I argued, “it’s an art
still in its infancy.”

Reading it again after all these years, I see that it’s sort of a creepy poem! But Dave liked it, and we crossed paths many times over the years. And by incredible circumstance, I wound up becoming Dave’s editor, as well as his friend. It started when Paul Vermeersch asked me to edit a volume of Dave’s selected poems for Insomniac Press, where Paul had an imprint back then. The result was 2007’s Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems of David W. McFadden, which wound up getting shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize (when Dave didn’t win, he turned to me and said, grinning, “You could have edited it better!”). I also did the follow-up volume, Why Are You So Long and Sweet? Collected Long Poems of David W. McFadden (Insomniac Press, 2010).

I brought Dave with me to Mansfield Press, and I’ve edited five more books by him there: Be Calm, Honey (2009), What’s the Score? (2012), Mother Died Last Summer (2013 — a travel journal), Shouting Your Name Down the Well: Tankas and Haiku (2014), and Abnormal Brain Sonnets (2015). Be Calm, Honey earned Dave his third visit to the Governor General’s Award short list, and What’s the Score? finally handed Dave the major prize that had eluded him over six decades of writing — he scored the Canadian Griffin Prize for that one.

It goes without saying that there is little more ecstatic than editing your hero’s books — especially if he’s really nice about it. I never imagined, as a teenage poet, that such a thing could ever come to pass.

But more thrilled perhaps is the friendship that grew over the years. When Laurie and I married in August 2015, we asked Dave to read some of his poetry at the ceremony, and we asked singer and artist Merlin Homer, Dave’s wife, to sing. Dave was a sport — he had been dealing with Alzheimer’s for a couple of years by then, and it wasn’t easy for him to read in front of an audience, but he did it, and that reading — along with Merlin’s ethereal singing — was a gift that will always stay with me. The photo up there is of Dave reading at our wedding while Merlin watches on.

And that concludes my residency here on Open Book Toronto. I’m grateful to senior editor Grace O’Connell for the invitation. In fact, making this blogging such a major part of my practice over this month has inspired me to attempt to revive my own sluggish blog, bloggamooga.blogspot.ca. We’ll see what happens.

Thanks for reading!

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.

Stuart Ross

Stuart Ross is a writer, editor, and writing teacher living in Cobourg, Ontario. The acclaimed author of 20 books of poetry, fiction, and essays, Stuart got his start selling his chapbooks on Toronto’s Yonge Street during the 1980s. His recent books include Our Days in Vaudeville (Mansfield Press, 2014), A Hamburger in a Gallery (DC Books, 2015), (Anvil Press), and A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent (Wolsak and Wynn, 2016). He is the co-translator or Marie-Ève Comtois’s My Planet of Kites (Mansfield Press, 2015). You Exist. Details Follow. (Anvil Press, 2012) won the sole award given to an anglophone writer by the Montreal-based l’Académie de la vie litteraire au tournant du 21e siècle; Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand Books, 2009) won the 2010 ReLit Prize for Short Fiction; and the novel Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew was co-winner of the 2012 Mona Elaine Adilman Award for Fiction on a Jewish Theme. Stuart has taught writing workshops across the country, and was the 2010 Writer-in-Residence at Queen’s University. Since 2007, he has had his own imprint at Toronto’s Mansfield Press. Stuart is currently working on several poetry and fiction projects, as well as a memoir.


You can write to Stuart throughout the month of August at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to Stuart Ross’s Author Page