Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Stuart Ross

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Ten Questions with Stuart Ross

Editor Stuart Ross talks with Open Book about the editing process, advice for hopeful authors and what it was like to edit David McFadden's latest collection of poems, Why Are You So Long and Sweet?, which is set to launch through Insomniac Press on May 11.

Open Book: Toronto:

You recently edited Why Are You So Long and Sweet? by David W. McFadden, the companion to Why Are You So Sad? Can you tell us about both books?

Stuart Ross:

The full titles of each book tell more of the story: Why Are You So Long and Sweet? Collected Long Poems of David W. McFadden and Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems of David W. McFadden. Both were issued under Paul Vermeersch’s 4 a.m. Books imprint from Insomniac Press. Both contain introductions by me, and the latter has wonderful notes at the end by Dave.

Why Are You So Sad? (2007) is a career retrospective of Dave’s first five decades of poetry-writing. I originally imagined it would be in chronological order, with no changes to the poems (beyond corrections to typos). Well, Dave had other ideas, and his approach proved wise, I think: he did edit some of the poems, and some he altered substantially (he referred to all his changes as “corrections”); and then, right at the end, he told me he wanted them in random order. I was sceptical, but it was genius: the mixing of the eras gives every poem equality: it means that at some points in the book twenty-four-year-old David McFadden is talking to sixty-year-old David McFadden. The random order suggests that the poems aren’t a progression: they’re a cumulative life work. The book was one of three short-listed for the 2008 Canadian Griffin Prize for Poetry. It should have won. As everyone knows.

Why Are You So Long and Sweet? (2010) covers a slightly shorter span of time, since Dave hasn’t written a long poem in a long time. The book contains nine previously published long poems, most of them out of print for decades; it also has a long poem Dave dug up while we were assembling the book — a great piece from 1990 called “Nevada Standstill” (Dave doesn’t recall what the title refers to) — and a sort of bonus track: a not very long poem called “Danny Quebec” that appeared in PRISM International in 1961 and that had never been collected into a book. Again, Dave remembered this one at the last minute and wasn’t sure whether it was a long poem or not. When we finally dug up a copy, we discovered it was only about four pages, but hell, how exciting to bring back a poem Dave wrote when he was barely out of his teens!

Truth is, three more long poems appear in Why Are You So Sad?, but there was no certainty a long-poem collection would ever be published at that point: it was just a hope Dave and I had. So for the true Complete Long Poems, you need both books. And they sure look handsome together.

One side note: there’s a third book of Dave’s I edited between the Insomniac collections: Be Calm, Honey (2008), from Mansfield Press, a collection of 129 wonderful, quirky sonnets. That one was short-listed for the Governor’s General Award for Poetry, Dave’s third time on that list.


Describe the editing process. How did you select the poems for the collections?


For Why Are You So Sad? I went through all Dave’s books and chapbooks and ephemera and made an initial selection. Dave spent some time with that, then deep-sixed a couple of the poems and decided to include a few that I’d passed over. I’ll tell you, it was tough: there is so much good stuff we had to leave out. As it is, the book is about 50 percent bigger than the space we were initially allotted.

For Why Are You So Long and Sweet? (I thought Dave was joking when he came up with that title: as with all his decisions, I’m totally won over now) the process was more straightforward: pull together the long poems (most fifteen pages and over) that didn’t appear in the first book.

In both cases, Dave chose to do some editing: some of the poems are untouched, some just tinkered with in a minor way, some with entire passages deleted or rewritten. Dave takes great care with his work, and it was exciting to watch how he revised. I felt secure that the sixty-something-year-old Dave wasn’t getting in twenty-year-old Dave’s way. He was just helping the young guy out a little.


What was it like to work with David W. McFadden?


It was probably the greatest honour I’ve had as an editor. Maybe as a human. Long before I met David, I was a huge fan of his work. Probably since my mid-teens. I’m very easily intimidated by my heroes, and Dave is my favourite Canadian poet, but now we’ve known each other for many years, and though I’m still in awe of him, he’d kill me if I told him that. So working with him was a kind of dream fulfillment. I learned a lot; I felt proud to be a part of bringing his work to a new audience; and at times I was exasperated: he pulled a lot of last-minute switcheroos on me! But it was always all for the best.


How did the books come together? Did you approach Insomniac Press with the idea?


Paul Vermeersch at Insomniac wanted a “selected McFadden” and offered me the job. Obviously, I was thrilled. I got the exciting task of approaching Dave with the idea, and he was all for it. The “collected” was something Dave and I felt would be necessary, since some of the best poems couldn’t fit into Why Are You So Sad?, simply because they were too long. So while we were working on that book, I was already bugging Paul and publisher Mike O’Connor about a long-poem book. Last year, Paul asked me if I was still interested in shepherding that one through. Yes, sir.


Do you remember the first time you read David W. McFadden's work? When was it, and what was it you read?


I was in North York Central Library, up on Yonge Street, north of Sheppard. I was about fourteen and I was attending an alternative school called AISP up in that neighbourhood. I went to the library several times a week after school. Anyway, there, in the Canadian poetry section, 819.12, was a copy of A Knight in Dried Plums. Holy shit, I couldn’t believe it! This McFadden guy’s language was so direct and conversational, and he was funny as hell — even when he was talking about heavy stuff. I read that book like a novel, and then I read On the Road Again and I found The Ova Yogas in the Canadiana archives, and I just read, from then on, everything I could find by David McFadden. Around the same time, I discovered the New York poet Ron Padgett, who does many of the same things, but in different ways, and it was an incredibly freeing time for me as a poet. I’d found my route.


You're the poetry editor for Mansfield Press. What do you look for when you're considering whether to publish a book or not?


Broadly speaking, I look for stuff I wish I’d written myself. Much of that turns out to be surrealist or quasi-surrealist, deeply imagist poetry, absurdist material. I also hope that I’m acquiring books that no one else has the sense to acquire. Some of the books are manuscripts I’ve solicited, just a couple are manuscripts that have come in the mail, and a couple are books I helped to conceive: like Jim Smith’s recent brilliant return to poetry, Back Off, Assassin! New and Selected Poems.


How does working closely with another poet's writing affect your own writing?


Editing someone else’s work always teaches me something about editing my own work. And closely reading the work of a writer I admire always has some influence on my own writing. For David McFadden’s Why Are You So Long and Sweet?, I typed up all the poems into Word files: just that act of keying in every letter and every punctuation mark was very instructive. It’s an interesting way to read another writer’s work.


What advice do you have for writers who are trying to get published?


I could go on forever about this. I think that writing good poetry is more important than getting published. Too many writers are clawing for recognition, for books, for “feature readings,” and paying far too little attention to their writing. That’s why there are so many terrible books out there. So that’s the first thing.

At the same time, I’m a great believer in self-publishing in leaflet and chapbook form, and I think every writer should do some of that. It makes them look at their own work differently, it’s a way of workshopping the poetry, and it gives them a calling card. But I think it’s really important that they get some idea of the publishing process from the point of view of the publisher, and think about the implications of taking manuscript and turning it into something more or less permanent.

Other than that: send stuff out to magazines, buy other writers’ books (if you ever expect anyone to buy yours), start up your own magazine, and don’t expect that having a book out is going to change your life in any material way.

When you think you really are ready to put out a book, send it to a publisher whose books you’ve bought and enjoyed. And if you get rejected, don’t be a fucking idiot and phone them up and tell them they made a big mistake.


What are you reading right now?


I always have a lot of things on the go, reading-wise. Right now:

The anthology American Hybrid (Norton, 2009)

The novel The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga (Free Press, 2008)

The novel Epitaph for a Dead Beat, by David Markson (Dell, 1961)

The novel It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis (Doubleday, 1935)

The poetry collection Polite to Bees, by Diana Hartog (Coach House, 1992)

The poetry collection Braille, by Bob Perelman (Ithaca House, 1975)

The story collection Varieties of Disturbance, by Lydia Davis (FSG, 2007)


What's your next project?


Again, I work on a lot of things at once. As an editor at Mansfield, I’m working with authors on two first poetry collections for the fall: Goodbye, Ukulele, by Leigh Nash and Stray Dog Embassy, by Natasha Nuhanovic.

At the same time, I’m working on new issues of two of my little magazines, HARDSCRABBLE and Peter O’Toole: A Magazine of One-Line Poems.

As a writer, I’ve just nailed down a novel that ECW is publishing in spring 2011, and I’m working on various stories and poems, which will eventually become new collections.

Thanks for your interest!

Stuart Ross is a writer, editor, and writing coach. He is the Fiction &
Poetry Editor at This Magazine and the editor of his own poetry and fiction
imprint at Mansfield Press. His most recent books are the poetry anthology
Rogue Stimulus: The Stephen Harper Holiday Anthology for a Prorogued
(edited with Stephen Brockwell; Mansfield Press, 2010); the story
collection Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand Books, 2009); and the
poetry collection Dead Cars in Managua (DC Books, 2008). Stuart is the
co-founder of the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, and a founding member of
the Meet the Presses Collective. He has taught writing workshops across the
country and coaches individuals in poetry and fiction writing. Stuart
divides his time between Toronto and Cobourg.

For more information about Why Are You So Long and Sweet? please visit Insomniac Press.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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