Friday, December 28, 2007

Stuart Ross, Canadian Icon

LH: The cover of your new book is fabulous, can you tell me about it?

SR: I've been very fortunate in that all of my book covers were created by artist friends of mine. My publishers have been accommodating. The cover for I Cut My Finger is by Gary Clement, who I knew way back when at York University. We're doppelgangers, too, which is sort of neat. Anyway, I love his work and really admired the cover he did for the novel Observatory Mansions. Took a little work to track him down, because I hadn't seen him in a decade or so, but he was game. I sent him about 30 pages of poems and he took it from there. I think it's an insane, audacious cover. I think it's the best cover for a Canadian poetry book ever.

LH: You edited an anthology called Surreal Estate (Mercury 2004), which featured some very fine, very funny poetry by folks such as Gil Adamson, Kevin Connolly, Alice Burdick, Steve Venright, Gary Barwin and yourself. Is there something particularly surreal about life in Canada?

SR: I'm not sure what's responsible for these strains of Surrealism and post-Surrealism in Canadian poetry. My generation has very strong predecessors in Joe Rosenblatt and David McFadden. But life in Canada, it's more absurd than surreal. South of the border, though...

LH: Humorous poetry, why is it so hard to find?

SR: Well, I don't think it's so hard to find. And it's getting easier in Canada. In the U.S., the New York School made it possible, and almost respectable, to give humour a role in your writing. And now that influence has reached beyond the New York School, which really doesn't exist anymore, anyway. Ron Padgett, Kenneth Koch, Elaine Equi, Kenward Elmslie, Gabriel Gudding, Matthew Zapruder, Dean Young, Lisa Jarnot -- all of these poets can be extremely funny, but I maintain that there is a seriousness beneath the surface's humour. Usually, anyway.

In Canada, we're still a bit uptight about it, but the American examples are having some influence. I often try to give my books really stupid titles (I Cut My Finger, The Inspiration Cha-Cha, Farmer Gloomy's New Hybrid, Hey Crumbling Balcony!) to erode the idea that poetry has to be some hyper-serious, Lowellesque meatball of pomposity.

But there are some really bad attempts at humorous poetry, too, out there. When the writer sets out to write something hilarious, there's gonna be trouble.

As for me, I hate being considered a "funny poet," though I won't deny there's some funny stuff in some of my poems. But readers often find it more funny than I do: I think they laugh at the absurdisms, while I think the absurdisms are tragic. But I hope I'll kill some of that with my new book, Dead Cars in Managua.

LH: In a blurb on the back of your book originally found in the Globe and Mail, George Murray says that if you were writing in the US you would be rich and famous. Well, at least famous." Do you have an audience outside of Canada?

SR: I don't know. There are a few people in the U.S. who have read my stuff, but that's probably mostly limited to people I've met. I really should make more of an attempt to get my work onto online literary mags from the U.S., because I think American readers of poetry are more open-minded than Canadian readers. I suspect I wouldn't go over very well in England, though.

LH: Billy Collins, funny?

SR: Not to me. Too self-consciously clever. Too tidy. It drives me nuts that Collins blurbs the back of Ron Padgett's new book, How To Be Perfect. Padgett is a far more complex, more brilliant writer, than Collins. Collins is sort of the Garrison Keillor of American poetry, the Robin Williams of American poetry.

LH: Who is Razovsky?

SR: Razovsky, in my poems, is a sort of amalgam of me, my dad, my grandfather, and all those old guys with big beards in the black-and-white photos that used to be on my parents' walls. My dad's family name was Razovsky, but they anglicized it to Ross, I guess to make life easier in 1950s Canada.

But I started writing the Razovsky poems as a way to reclaim the name, and also to explore the Jew of me. I think this will be on ongoing project.

There will be Razovsky poems until I croak.

And here's a weird thing: a few months ago, a buddy asked me to do a reading in his living room for him and a few friends, including a MySpace friend of his who was visiting from England. Her name is Racheal and she's a writer herself. Anyway, I'm doing this reading, and I'm about to read a Razovsky poem, and I say, "Although my name is Ross, my family's name was Razovsky." And Racheal says, "Mine, too." And then we both look at each other and there
is silence in the room. Then I say, "Sorry?" And she said, "What did you say?" So there, of the four people gathered in my pal's kitchen, two of us are Ross/Razovskys. Well, her mom was a Ross who was once a Rosovsky; the spelling's a bit different. Maybe we're cousins. So many family members are long gone, the lineage is difficult to determine.
LH: Your facebook group Canadian Poetry had more members than American Poetry, is that still true?

SR: As of December 20, 2007, the score is 742 to 467, in favour of the Canadians. How can that be? I've also started Facebook groups for Stephen Crane and Mister Terrific.

LH: Facebook, invaluable social networking tool, evil ego building or self-selecting marketing pods?

A little of all that. It really is a great marketing device, if it's used well. Every book launch and reading series I know is reporting better attendance because of it. The most recent Toronto
Small Press Book Fair had terrible attendance; the coordinators have a page, with relatively few members, and they didn't bother making an "event" or sending "invitations" on Facebook. As grotesque as it is, Facebook is where people in Toronto get most of their information on events these days. It's foolish not to use it.

I have a little collaborative project with Dani Couture, a very fine Toronto poet. It's called the Patchy Squirrel Lit-Serv, and we send out an emailing every Monday of the coming week's literary events in Toronto. It was inspired by visual-arts lists like Instant Coffee and Rhizome. Anyway, it really feels like a prehistoric medium now, but we sort of like that about it. We have over 400 subscribers.

LH: David McFadden. You recently edited a volume of his poetry. Can you talk about his influence on you?

SR: I think maybe it was from McFadden that I learned you could write poetry with the language of conversation. David was a hero of mine when I was a teenager: the first book of his I read was A Knight In Dried Plums, and I couldn't believe it. And now he's a friend of mine. And still a big influence. He's an adventurer in poetry; I admire that. He has devoted his
life to it.

And last year I got the opportunity to select and introduce Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems of David W. McFadden (Insomniac Press, 2007). What greater joy than to immerse oneself in the life work of one's favourite Canadian poet?

LH: Must-read book of the season?

SR: I'm really excited about Gabriel Gudding's new poetry book, Rhode Island Notebook, from Dalkey Archive Press. And Bookthug, in Toronto, has just released the first full-length poetry collection by Camille Martin. I'm looking forward to reading that, too.

LH: Advice for poets trying to get clean?

SR: Pumice stone on one square inch of surface flesh each day. That was Erik Satie's strategy.