Writer in Residence

Introducing Zalman Nehemiah Razovsky … Maybe.

By Stuart Ross

I’ve been wrestling with it for years, and I pondered it a bit in my essay “How Jew You Do?” in Further Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer (Anvil Press, 2015). Should I change my name — Ross — back to my paternal grandfather’s original name, Razovsky? Time’s getting short if I’m ever going to do it. I’ve never been so close to making the decision.

And if I do, do I start putting Stuart Razovsky on the covers of my books? Or maybe I change my English given names to my Hebrew names: Zalman Nehemiah.

Let me try it on for size. “A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent is the tenth full-length poetry collection by Zalman Nehemiah Razovsky.”

That doesn’t really work because it would be the first full-length poetry book by a writer of that name. So would it be an opportunity to completely remake myself as a writer? I could switch to being a formalist, for example. Or a writer of doggerel.

Would I, then, become an “emerging writer” again? Would I be eligible for grants? Maybe I’d manage to outsell that boringly named Stuart Ross!

I feel like my name — Stuart Keith Ross in full — doesn’t reflect my identity as the Jewish grandson of Russian and Polish refugees. They had great names: Max and Sarah Razovsky and Samuel and Nena Blatt. Could Razovsky have at least just been changed to Raz instead of Ross? True, I would likely have been razzed a lot with a name like that back in junior high school. But back in junior high school, the cafeteria monitor, Mr. Meldrum, an elderly fellow with a dapper suit and a thick Scottish accent, used to say, almost ecstatically: “Ssstuarrrrrrt Rrrrrross! What a fine Scottish name!”

So should I change my name? I may conduct a poll among my twenty-three Facebook friends named Stuart Ross. (I’ve tried to friend about sixty or seventy of them, but not everyone with that unique name has accepted my invitation.)

One amazing thing happened about a decade ago when a friend of mine invited me to do a living room reading at his place because a poetry-writing friend of his from Manchester, England, was visiting. Since only one other person showed up for the reading, we held it in the kitchen. To introduce a few poems from an earlier book of mine, Razovsky at Peace (ECW Press, 2001), I said, “Although my name is Ross, it’s a name that got anglicized in the 1950s. It used to be Razovsky.”

“Mine, too,” said the enchanting English visitor, Racheal.

Everyone became silent.

“Sorry?” I said.

“My mother is a Ross who was once a Rosovsky,” she explained, noting the slight difference in spelling.

We were all silent again.

Four humans gather in a room and discover that, out of the billions of people on the planet, two of them are Rosses who were once Razovskys/Rosovskys.

“Do you think we’re cousins?” I asked. “Related somehow?”

Racheal and I looked at one another. We both had pretty small families. Had our families just gotten bigger?

We did a little digging over the next few months, but never unearthed anything definitive. We have decided to consider ourselves cousins, though. Somehow we must be. And if we’re not, we’re at least both people who could have had great Russian names.

The only time I was ever officially called Zalman Nehemiah (the first h is produced with one of those throat-scraping gutturals that gentiles can’t manage when they pronounce the first syllable of Chanukah) was on the day of my bar mitzvah in 1972 (see photo of me on front steps of our house on Pannahill Road, in what was then the mostly Jewish Bathurst Manor neighbourhood in north Toronto). Oh, and probably on the day of my bris, a day I’m relieved not to remember and from which I thankfully have no photos.

And though I’ve never been called Razovsky, except affectionately by friends, I did create a character with that name who has appeared in four of my poetry books (and counting: he sat out the last two books but he’s going to make a comeback). He’s a sort of alter ego. A space for me to explore imagined histories of my family, as well as real histories. I had hoped that my ailing father would live to see my first book with the name Razovsky on the cover — my third collection, Razovsky at Peace. But that Razovsky was sadly already at peace when my book finally came out. He had been amused, though, when I’d told him what I planned to title the book. He laughed and shook his head, perhaps remembering all the times I’d threatened to change my name back to its Russian roots.

I look at many of my Razovsky poems now as poems about my father’s death. Here are the opening lines from “Razovsky Rides a Cloud”: “Razovsky knows he must / finally be sleeping, because / he is cushioned on a cloud / sailing past a jet bound / for Florida, and this is not / possible, this thing / of floating on a cloud.” And in “Razovsky at Peace,” Razovsky discovers nature: “He lies down in the moist leaves, / lets his limbs go limp. […] / He looks up from the ground / at the same moment / he looks down from the trees. / His eyes meet his eyes. / There is a flicker / of recognition.”

A lot of people still tell me my Razovsky poems are their favourites of mine. Many of the autobiographical poems in A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent could have been Razovsky poems.

And the name Razovsky could have been on the cover of that book.

Stuart Razovsky. Or Zalman Nehemiah Razovsky. Or Seth Razovsky — claiming the name my parents would have given me if my grandmother Nena hadn’t had trouble pronouncing the th sound. (She died when I was six months old.) Or perhaps I would go with Pods Razovsky, or Podsy, embracing the nicknames my small-press hero Opal Louis Nations gave me thirty-five years ago when I stayed with him for a couple of weeks in Oakland, California, and he discovered my enthusiasm for fresh peas in the pod.

Opal also wrote me a few letters addressed to “Legumes Ross,” but I don’t think I’ll change my name legally to that. It doesn’t have that authentic Jewish ring I’m looking for.

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