Writer in Residence

Doing My Song and Dance

By Stuart Ross

I sent out my first godawful poem for publication when I was ten or eleven years old. I sent it to the Toronto Daily Star; I obviously hadn’t done my market research, since they didn’t publish poetry. They responded kindly to my handwritten-on-lined-paper submission, but they delivered my first rejection.

It was only a few years after that devastating brick wall at the Toronto paper that a tiny press called Books by Kids published me for the first time. The theory behind Books by Kids — the brainchild of Anne Millyard and Rick Wilkes — was that kids want to read books written by kids. Their first foray into publishing was an anthology of kids’ writing called Wordsandwich, published in 1975. Their second book, released later that year, was The Thing in Exile, featuring about a dozen poems each by me and my friends Steven Feldman and Mark Laba. It also featured three ink drawings by me. It’s a beautiful small press item. Steve, Mark and I probably wrote most of those poems when we were fourteen or fifteen.

I discovered a copy of the book in my basement recently, and read my own contributions for the first time in over a decade. Here’s one of them, an untitled piece:

sitting on curb
the man with no chin
the lack
of lower
the passers-by laughed at this freak
but he could not complain
for if he did
he’d slice his throat

I’ve taught at scores of schools across the country, and I gotta say, that poem’s not bad, as poems by young teenagers go. I still remember the chinless man who inspired this. My first big influences — the American poets E. E. Cummings and Stephen Crane — are pretty visible here. It’s got the classic teenage loneliness theme, but it doesn’t use the word lonely.

Other of my poems in the small anthology have punch-line endings — something I rail against now. I really dislike self-conscious cleverness in poems. But I’m proud of the range of approaches: a rhyming poem, some free verse, poems with visual elements on the page. Forty years later, I still haven’t settled on a form or style.

Here’s another untitled poem, and again, I remember exactly the visual that sparked this:

the chicken in the China town butcher
shop looked as if he’d been killed
doing a song and dance
it’s not very strange when you think about it
we all do a song and dance before being slaughtered
don’t we mr. slaughterman
hat in one wing
cane in the other
whoopee doo and all that jazz
and the chicken
the grinning chicken
the grinning chicken is a regular song and dance chicken
and we all do our song and dance too

I’m struck by the enjambment in the first lines of the poem. Not bad for a fifteen-year-old, huh? The poem’s a little heavy-handed, I’ll admit, and of course, if you want some existential philosophizing on the subject of mortality, who better to dispense it than a kid just a couple years past his bar mitzvah?

Steve’s poems in the book are the smoothest and perhaps the most thoughtful. Mark’s are astonishing for a writer his age: he must have taken baths in Joe Rosenblatt poems back then. All of us have kept writing: Steve is primarily a singer-songwriter now, and Mark just keeps writing some of the most brilliantly weird and funny unpublished poetry and fiction in this country.

If I zipped back in time and taught a workshop containing any of the teenage authors of The Thing in Exile, I’d be pretty impressed. And at almost every school I visit to teach or read at, I discover at least one young writer who impresses me immensely — a writer with great poetry instincts and distinctive imagination. And sometimes I see their names pop up in forthcoming-books notices from Canadian literary presses.

The Thing in Exile was pretty widely reviewed: a few magazines and at least one daily newspaper, as well as a library trade journal. When the unbound pages came back from the printer, Anne and Rick threw a collating party. A whole bunch of us walked around and around a ping-pong table in Anne’s basement till we had the several hundred copies of all the pages in order; then I guess they were sent to a bindery.

Next thing we knew, we were at our first launch party, again at Anne’s suburban split-level house. Maybe our parents were there, too, I don’t remember. There were a lot of adults milling around, dressed to the nines. We uncorked some champagne and I had my first taste of alcohol that day.

Books by Kids went on to become Annick Press, publisher of many classic children’s books, a lot of them by Robert Munsch. I went on to edit a single-issue poetry magazine called The Northern Testicle Review. It comes out next month, if I can get the photocopy money together.

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