25th Trillium Award

A profile of Stuart Ross? Proper Tales Press (with a few questions)

 
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Stuart Ross

by rob mclennan

With a publishing and writing history that includes the founding of his Mondo Hunkamooga in 1982, co-founding The Toronto Small Press Book Fair with Nicholas Power in 1987 (out of their monthly ?meet the presses?), which was the first of its kind in Canada, inspiring numerous other fairs across Canada, and various other activities as a writer, performer, editor, reviewer, critic, collaborator, organizer, host, publisher and small press activist/enthusiast, Stuart Ross has long been one of the strongest continual forces in chapbook and small magazine publishing in Canada. Infamous in and around Toronto for years, Proper Tales Press has produced chapbooks and ephemera going back thirty-five years, with titles by Ross and those of his friends and contemporaries, including Lillian Necakov, Kevin Connolly and Gary Barwin, as well as two of Ross? American heroes, Bill Knott and Ron Padgett. As Ross himself says of the press? 1979 origins: ?The first publication by the press was a 12-page, unstapled poetry pamphlet called He Counted His Fingers, He Counted His Toes ? published in an edition of 50 copies on my father?s office photocopier, to be sold at a reading I gave at the Axeltree Coffeehouse.? Predominantly a publisher of chapbooks and leaflets, the press has also produced books, cassettes, postcards, a CD and broadsides. Much like a number of other writer-driven small presses across North America, including Gary Barwin?s Serif of Nottingham, jwcurry?s 1cent and Jay MillAr?s BookThug, the work Ross has done as editor/publisher of Proper Tales Press can be seen very much as an extension of his own literary output, with his work as a writer feeding directly into his work via the press, and vice versa.

Throughout the 1980s, it is well known that Ross self-produced dozens of his own publications of poetry and fiction, selling thousands of copies on the streets of Toronto. Even now, his work is produced through numerous chapbooks by Proper Tales as well as a number of other presses throughout the country, even as he has moved into publication through trade publishers both large and small. His trade books include The Pig Sleeps (with Mark Laba; Contra Mundo Books, 1991), The Mud Game (with Gary Barwin; The Mercury Press, 1995), The Inspiration Cha-Cha (ECW Press, 1996), Henry Kafka and Other Stories (The Mercury Press, 1997), Farmer Gloomy?s New Hybrid (ECW Press, 1999), Razovsky at Peace (ECW Press, 2001), Hey, Crumbling Balcony! Poems New & Selected (ECW Press, 2003), Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer (Anvil Press, 2005), I Cut My Finger (Anvil Press, 2007), Dead Cars in Managua (DC Books, 2008), Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand Books, 2009), Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew (ECW Press, 2011), You Exist. Details Follow (Anvil Press, 2012) and Our Days in Vaudeville (with 29 collaborators; Mansfield Press, 2013). He has been writer in residence for the Writers? Circle of Durham Region and Queen?s University, as well as ?Poet in Residence? at the Ottawa International Writers Festival and the 2005 Electronic Writer in Residence for the Toronto Public Library?s RAMP website for teens.

Over the years, the press has produced a series of small magazines, notably Mondo Hunkamooga: A Journal of Small Press Reviews (later subtitled A Journal of Small Press Stuff), but also Peter O?Toole (a magazine of one-line poems), Dwarf Puppets on Parade (a magazine of writing with restrictions), Who Torched Rancho Diablo? (poetry and fiction), Syd & Shirley (a magazine of Canadian and American poetry), and HARDSCRABBLE, a poetry magazine. In the pre-internet 1980s and 90s, Mondo Hunkamooga provided an essential service for Canadian small press activity, reviewing, interviewing and critiquing a wide array of publishing throughout Toronto and across Canada, allowing a diverse and scattered audience an overview of a variety of literary activity as it was happening. Poetry and Fiction Editor for THIS magazine from 2004 to 2012, Ross went on to edit the anthology Surreal Estate: 13 Canadian Poets Under the Influence (The Mercury Press, 2004), as well as two selected works by Toronto poet David W. McFadden: Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems of David W. McFadden (Insomniac Press, 2007) and Why Are You So Long and Sweet? Collected Long Poems of David McFadden (Insomniac Press, 2010). In 2007, he began acquiring books for Mansfield Press, where he later earned the imprint ?a stuart ross book,? producing single-author works of poetry and fiction by Peter Norman, Jaime Forsythe, Lillian Necakov, Jim Smith, Leigh Nash, Stephen Brockwell, Alice Burdick, Nelson Ball, Gary Barwin, David W. McFadden (including his Griffin Prize-winning collection What?s the Score?) and many others, as well as co-editing (with Stephen Brockwell) the anthology Rogue Stimulus: The Stephen Harper Holiday Anthology for a Prorogued Parliament (Mansfield Press, 2011), all of which could be seen as an extension of his work through Proper Tales Press. One thing that becomes clear when looking through Ross? work as an editor/publisher is his ongoing attention and loyalty to a handful of Canadian poets, many of whom he?s been publishing for the length and the breadth of his publishing history.

(Opinions expressed in the following text are the speakers' own and do not necessarily reflect those of Open Book or its staff).

rob mclennan:

You?ve repeated the story of the first Proper Tales Press publication from 1979, but not necessarily the details of that first publication. Where did the press name come from, and what other activities (if any) were you aware of at the time?

Stuart Ross:

It?s a long time ago and I don?t keep a journal. I think I liked how ?normal? the name Proper Tales sounded; I knew that what I published would not be ?normal? and probably not ?proper? ? the latter in the sense of doing things the way they should be done. I?m trying to recall whether I had ever seen a chapbook before I published He Counted His Fingers, He Counted His Toes. I don?t think I could have conceived of the format without having seen it before in a literary context. I was involved through my teens with George Miller?s poetry workshop at Trinity Church near the Eaton?s Centre ? Brian Purdy was in that group, and Rosemary Aubert, Heather Cadsby, Jim Roberts, Julie McNeill, Maria Jacobs, my childhood friend Mark Laba and some others. I don?t recall any of them making chapbooks. But I was certainly very aware of small press then, and very small press. I?d seen books by tiny presses by some members of that workshop. I had hung out at Coach House, and through the alternative high school I attended, AISP, I?d done workshops with Joe Rosenblatt, Robert Fones, Sam F. Johnson and David Young. I visited Victor Coleman?s place when I did a workshop with him. He was Vic D?Or in those days.

rm:

You?ve produced an enormous amount of publications over the stretch of thirty-five years. What are you most proud of accomplishing through Proper Tales Press? What do you think the press has accomplished that you feel has been overlooked?

SR:

The greatest accomplishment has probably been continuing the press for 35 years! There were times when I had dreams of Proper Tales becoming a ?real? press ? that is to say, one that regularly published spiny books and had distribution. But the business side of that was too daunting and not at all interesting to me. So I?ve kept it a pretty personal project. I?m proud of publishing early chapbooks by Kevin Connolly, Mark Laba, Gil Adamson, Lillian Necakov, Michael Boyce, jwcurry and others. I?m proud of the books and chapbooks I eventually published by American poets: Ron Padgett and Bill Knott, of course, because they were famous heroes of mine! But also John M. Bennett, Randall Brock, debby florence, Richard Huttel, Gabe Gudding and Loren Goodman. More recently, excited to have published chapbooks by young writers like Nick Papaxanthos, Heather Hogan and Sarah Burgoyne, as well as vets like Paul Vermeersch, Nelson Ball and Tom Walmsley.

I?m hugely proud of Mondo Hunkamooga, the zine that reviewed and interviewed small pressers from around North America. It ran for over 20 issues. The only thing of its kind in Canada. (Broken Pencil is a disappointment: it?s too much of an industry and too slick; too concerned with being hip and cutting-edge: Mondo was hardcore small-press.)

I?m proud that Proper Tales was part of a movement in the 1980s that sanctified small press publication, the ephemeral, the streetly. These days it feels like young writers are just clambering to get agents and book deals and they mostly skip the whole micro-press thing.

Like any tiny press, Proper Tales is barely heard of and almost entirely overlooked. Everything I?ve accomplished with Proper Tales has been mostly overlooked. That?s OK. That?s the nature of the form.

rm:

There have been others, such as Jay MillAr through BookThug, or Joe Blades via Broken Jaw Press, who translated their chapbook publishing into trade presses. One could easily see your work through Mansfield Press as the trade extension of Proper Tales Press. Do you yourself see the work you do through Proper Tales and Mansfield as being connected?

SR:

Mansfield Press was, of course, around for six years before I climbed aboard. While clearly my own aesthetic is at work in the books I do through Mansfield (under my ?a stuart ross book? imprint and the books I acquired before I had the imprint), I feel more like I?m broadening what Mansfield does, what publisher Denis De Klerck does, rather than extending the Proper Tales Press project. I?m still publishing Proper Tales items, and there are things I?m doing there that could never be part of Mansfield, even if they were spiny-length ? either because they?re just too weird for a multi-hundred-book print run or because they?re by Americans. But mostly, Proper Tales is primarily a chapbook venture and that is a conscious decision. I?m okay having work that might appeal to 37 people with Proper Tales. With Mansfield, I have a responsibility to bring in books that hopefully have a much broader audience.

rm:

Proper Tales Press turns thirty-five years old this fall. What are you planning to celebrate the anniversary?

SR:

If I can get my act together, I?ll throw a reading/booksale/party somewhere in Toronto. I?ll display every single thing I?ve published over the years; less than your above/ground probably, but still an awful lot! And I hope to publish four new chapbooks this fall, including a wonderful little collection of essays by good friend Michael Dennis, who I believe you know.


Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014 and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include the forthcoming notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at http://robmclennan.blogspot.ca/.

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