Stuart Ross's poetry books 2008-19

On Spotify, Apple Music and elsewhere, there now exists a digital version of the joint release with poet Stuart Ross An Orphan’s Song: Ben Walker Sings Stuart Ross. It was recorded with another friend, Richard Ashrowan, in the Scottish Borders in 2007 and manufactured in Toronto by fellow traveller Seb Agnello.

Dead Cars

Stuart Ross is an extremely prolific writer. He’s also a consummate performer. In 2008, the year I came over to Toronto from Britain to play An Orphan’s Song live, DC Books of Vancouver published Dead Cars in Managua, a book in three sections.

The first part combines photos taken by Stuart of burnt-out and decaying cars with short prose poems. Hospitality Suite is the title of the second section. The poems are numbered from 1-20 and deal with Stuart’s mum Shirley’s last days in hospital. Stuart’s writing is in its element as he observes absurdly unforgettable details of the hospital’s protocols, patients and inevitable melancholia.

Dead Cars’ third section consists of pieces that Stuart produced while conducting poetry ‘boot camps’. These compositions are NOT numbered and incorporate randomness and Stuart’s trademark disconcerting imagery:

‘APRIL 12 – He claimed he was the first horse to have a person on him. But he was just a tub of margarine in the fridge. Isn’t that enough?’ (Itinerary)

You Exist, Vaudeville

By the time You Exist. Details Follow. came along in 2012, Stuart’s work had moved into a new phase and he was no longer living in Toronto, his home for his entire life until 2009. I detect a freshness and some wonder at the proximity of Lake Ontario, his and other people’s dogs and Victoria Hall, Cobourg. There are some amusingly inaccurate observations of Stuart’s new location.

My first experience of Stuart’s book of collaborations with 29 other poets, 2013’s Our Days in Vaudeville, was a fairly shallow one. I re-read it immediately and it was like listening to a record for the second time. Things made more sense.

In his introduction, Stuart describes this as ‘an insane book’. The methods of collaboration and degrees to which Stuart knows his collaborators differ wildly. There are impressive feats of juxtaposition throughout. However, when Stuart and his childhood friend and fellow veteran of absurd imagery Mark Laba get going, the creative sparks really fly.

‘Speaking of activities try this. One hula hoop, four Benedictine monks, a seltzer bottle and a trade agreement with the hermit crabs of Bikini Island – you know, the ones with the enormous pincers from nuclear testing that have made a killing in the Japanese film industry.’ (Kreplach)

A Hamburger and a Sparrow

2015 saw the publication of what to me is the first instalment of a trilogy. This may become a quartet or more but at present there are three parts. A Hamburger in a Gallery is rife with deliberate misspellings, invented words and section titles which are too big for the line on the page so have to spill onto the next line. There are pages which contain one word. There are also words in very small typeface which, nevertheless, spill over onto the next line.

The last section consists of an interview with Stuart by editor and fellow poet Jason Camlot. It seems that while Stuart’s answers are honest, the questions he is asked are deliberately ill-informed. It’s a fittingly unsettling conclusion to a book that is a long way from meaning anything in the conventional sense but has a lot of artistic validity because of its invention of new forms.

Perhaps it was Stuart’s intention all along to follow something crazy with something conventional. 2016’s A Sparrow Came Down Resplendant, a nod towards what Stuart’s long-time colleague Charlie Huisken might call ‘the Sunday poet’, starts fairly straightforwardly.

But by the time we get to page 40, there is a poem called Stuart Ross in which ‘lentils will sing you songs of praise’. On page 50’s Questionnaire #3, there is a highly amusing mock-interview which harks back to the last part of A Hamburger in a Gallery.

Recent Thumbs

I haven’t always been in sync with the titles, cover art and graphic design of Stuart’s books. And I don’t know which ones have been popular and which haven’t. But 2019’s Motel of the Opposible Thumbs, from what I have seen, is an object people want to own, not least for its title, cover art and graphic design.

More people (and a very dear animal) in Stuart’s life have passed away. There are, perhaps in view of that, a larger proportion of serious or meaningful pieces. The penultimate poem, from which the book takes its title, is a moving echo of a piece I once adapted to make into a song, Road Trip, Southern Ontario, 1999. It is followed by Stuart’s New Year Poem for 2019. These annual compositions are, I suspect, eagerly anticipated by many on his mailing list.

I have sometimes voiced the opinion to Stuart that an artist should stick to what they’re good at and avoid doing things they aren’t good at. Stuart has disagreed and maybe he has tried to write more conventional or mainstream poetry, I don’t know. But at the end of the day we always seem to be back with Pannahill Road, the boll weevil cemetry, the monkey bars, Sid and Shirley, walking Lily the dog on Cobourg Beach, Claude Francois and staplers.

And that seems to have worked because the other day I saw him receive the Harbourfront Festival Prize for his contribution to Canadian Letters.