Writer in Residence

Debby Florence on Canadian Poetry

By Stuart Ross

As someone who was crazy about a lot of American poets from a very young age, I'm still caught off-balance when an American turns out to be a big fan of Canadian poetry. debby florence is one such American. I first met debby about 25 years ago, when I was a visiting writer at an alternative high school she attended in St. Paul, Minnesota.

debby grew up in Minneapolis and since 1995 has authored and/or produced several zines, chapbooks, and zinelike artist books. Her work has appeared through Proper Tales Press, Unarmed Poetry Journal, and others, and she wrote an essay for a special issue of the Canadian journal Open Letter devoted to bpNichol. For a few years, debby ran a small press called Slumgullion, which she curated and published via a bicycle cart on the street. These days, she lives in Missoula, Montana, where she is a social worker, community organizer, artist, poet, and musician.

We spoke via email this past week.

ME: When and how did you become aware of Canadian writing? I have a sneaking suspicion bill bissett had something to do with it.

DEBBY: I first became aware of Canadian writing around age fifteen. My poetry teacher selected poetry in response to our interests, and exposed us to underground/ experimental/outsider formats. We seemed to follow a thread between a group of Michigan poets and Toronto. At some point we started a poetry anthology, and invited bill bissett to contribute, and bissett regularly did this, to our amazement, and we were avid fans. Via this organic exploration, we were exposed to the whole small press scene up there, too many poets to name, including poets who were my own age and were not formally published at the time. My 1997(?) visit to Toronto, especially when I read at the Idler Pub, probably clinched it for me. Since then I have always wanted to get back there because I have felt that Canada is my poetry home.

ME: I’d forgotten that you read at the now-sadly-defunct Idler series! I think you also once did a reading in my living room in Toronto, and bill attended that. Since the 1990s, the flow of poetry between both countries seems to have increased quite a bit, perhaps because of online publications. Do you see any intrinsic differences between Canadian poetry and American, or between the two literary cultures? Big question, I know.

DEBBY: I don’t have a comprehensive grasp of what is happening in either realm right now so I will just vamp on my passions and tastes. I think a lot of American aesthetic turns me off because it’s far too based on an underlying capitalist celebrity culture, which probably kills far more poets than it allows to succeed. I got lucky as a young person and was taught not to be too impressed by fame or charisma, and to treat the world of art and poetry like it is one big small press book fair: contact those whose work you admire, send them your little books, and maybe they will send something in return. There is a relational art to those exchanges; the primary goal is to communicate. It’s really a far more non-hierarchical, communal approach to publishing than what most Americans value. So maybe when it comes down to it, it’s just socialism that I am vibing on. That being said, I still practically fainted when I tried to talk to Alice Notley once, so there’s that.

ME: I see some parallels between your work and bill bissett’s. Elements of anarchy and of stream of consciousness. A voice that is simultaneously naive-seeming and wise or sharp. What attracts you to his writing? And when you met him, was he what you expected?

DEBBY: That is a lovely compliment, thank you. What attracts me to his writing are the qualities you mentioned, plus his playful use of squished up or repeating typography, or is it typology? His sounds, the drawings next to the poems. And his soul, which comes through everything! Phrases and titles, like "lovng without being vulnerable" or "the wintr people"... They just stick with me as lifelong aphorisms. Even the line “me and jimmee went riding all nite” rings in my head like a song, decades after I first read it. I appreciate that intimate space he creates. His poems feel like decoding secrets. His visual art also speaks to me. Getting to see his book Lunaria was one of my favourite things that have happened in many years. And yes, he was better than I expected him to be when I met him. I loved walking around Toronto with him. I treasure that I have published him in little zines. I like these experiences because they represent for me an ethic of ignoring vapid fame culture and just communing as heart-based creatures (the heart is both naive and wise) and surviving all the shit.

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.

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.

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