Monday, February 10, 2020

Proper Tales Press 40th Anniversary Essay: Rebecca Fishow

In 2012, newly graduated from my MFA program, I left cold Syracuse, New York for colder Montreal. I didn’t have much of a plan, or a clue. I simply knew that, as a dual Canadian-U.S. citizen, who hadn’t ever lived in Canada, I wanted two things: to experience and understand my Canadian roots, and to find a writing community that would inspire, motivate, and teach.

I quickly fell in love with so much about Montreal— the arrondissements, and their unique personalities and busy street festivals. I fell in love with the row houses, and their winding, exposed, staircases, which I couldn’t help imagining as the city’s DNA, shooting up out of the ground.  I loved the bagels. I loved the students, banging on pots in protest. I loved the parks, which filled with people all year around. I loved the dogs that donned little boots in winter.

Above all, I loved the city’s artistic pulse. Brilliant murals, seemingly around every corner. Festivals in Place Des Arts. Museums and galleries. I loved the outdoor contests, and the sense that no matter where I found myself, here was someone practicing the violin, sending notes melancholy into the air. There was someone tucked into a studio, carefully stroking paint to a canvas. Dancers were spinning stories with their agile bodies in converted factory spaces. And at their desks, writers and poets were carefully choosing words that rendered and questions the complications of world.

I was lucky enough to find some of my people— the writers— fairly quickly. Classes at Concordia University led me to a passionate, vibrant, endlessly talented, lot of them. We formed our own workshop group, read each others work. We cooked dinners for each other, drank wine, and geeked out over books we were reading. Some of us worked together on a new and exciting literary journal, Cosmonaut’s Avenue. I learned a lot, and quickly, about the Canadian literary identity, and  I learned that there were certain Canadian literary figures who were not only living legends, but the glue of the community.

Stuart Ross was one of these larger-than-life figures. Someone whom I’d heard of long before I met. He seemed to be everybody’s friend, and many a young writers’ mentor. Writers sung praises for his poetry, and lauded his work with Proper Tales Press. He seemed to be everywhere at once, a fixture of the Montreal lit scene, but not a resident Montrealer. He reached across the entire Canadian landscape.

It wasn’t until the night of Cosmonaut Avenue’s very first launch party, 2015, that I officially met the legend. We were both scheduled to read that night, and true to form, I was nervous. I doubted my reading selection, while sweating and sipping some overpriced cocktail. I was wasn’t up until the second set, and, thankfully, Stuart Ross was scheduled for the first. What was I expecting? I’m not sure anymore. But what I got was magical.

His words were at once profound and lighthearted, epiphanous and mundane. They told everyday stories with a certain brand of surrealistic flair that got me line by line. The man, himself, was quietly charming. Friendly, magnetic, and humble. Listening to his words calmed and inspired me in the best possible way.

That night, I could tell straight away that Stuart and I shared a certain sensibility. We were both concerned with exploring the alchemic under-workings of reality, the sadly beautiful humor of the absurdity of life. We both liked to get a little weird, a little sentimental. So I suppose it made sense that, years later, after I’d moved back to the states, and Stuart Ross stumbled across one of my published stories, he would reach out and ask to publish a collection of my work through Proper Tales Press. I felt both honored and grateful, and of course I said yes.

In the year following, I came to better understand Stuart Ross, and his mission for Proper Tales Press. I witnessed his unflinching commitment to championing the work Canadian writers. I wondered at history of cultivating a platform, a home, for literary misfits and poetic eccentrics. What he has been doing for the past forty years is truly an ideal, truly a dream. Stuart Ross—Proper Tales Press— has been doing the very best kind of work. Work that is nothing less than vibrant, essential.  Work keeps the literary world honest and luminous. Work that is quite simply undeniable.

I’ll drink an overpriced cocktail to that.

Rebecca Fishow is the author of The Trouble with Language (forthcoming from Trnsfr Books), winner of The Holland Prize, and The Opposite of Entropy (Proper Tales Press). She has taught creative writing, English and writing composition classes at the college and high school levels since 2009. She holds an MFA in fiction from Syracuse University. She lives in Maryland with her husband, the linguist, Daniel Goodhue, and her cat, the purrer, Harvey. Find her at

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Proper Tales Press 40th anniversary essay: Dani Spinosa

          I first met, properly met, Stuart Ross in my first meeting as a member of the Meet the Presses Collective. I entered that meeting feeling like a bit of a phony, like I was brought in as a volunteer to help the real poets do the real work of the Collective: to organize the Indie Literary Market and to facilitate the bpNichol chapbook award. I worked on that Collective for three years and three markets until I had to take a hiatus to focus on the other piles of work in front of me, and during that time, Stuart did a lot of work to make sure that I didn’t feel like a secondary, supplemental addition to the Collective, that I instead felt central. Much of this was Stuart’s trademark altruism: he liked me, he valued my contributions, he didn’t want me to feel small. But, some of Stuart’s welcoming kindness came from a fear and a terrible sadness that I felt in him then, and still feel now; he’s worried that one day the members of the Collective, already getting on in their years a little, would need to retire, and with that we’d lose the Indie Literary Market. It’s a fear and a sadness that I share, too. I’ll try my best to make sure it doesn’t happen.
          I’ve never worked with Stuart to publish anything, which I think is cool (I also think that will likely change soon). But, I’ve worked with him on the Collective long enough to know that one of his primary concerns in this small press community is making sure that individuals of any age or experience level feel as though they are not just helpers, but the main stuff of it, the people who are actively contributing to and building this community. We talk about that often, and one of our biggest concerns is how to get new members to join to Collective and to do the (often thankless, always unpaid) labour of putting together the Indie Literary Market and facilitating the prize. It’s not easy to convince people to do this work. People in Toronto especially are struggling to pay rent; add to that the fact that small press publishing is often a money-losing venture and the fact that people are busy with many jobs and other responsibilities. How does someone convince others to join in on this work? I did it for three years and I had no choice but to step back, to give myself time to rest and write. But somehow Stuart Ross convinced me not to stop my work with the Collective, just to take a break, take some time to recover and rebuild, and to come back when I felt like I could. It’s a lot of work, this small press business, and you can’t do all the things.
          In terms of small press and chapbook publishing, for over forty years Stuart Ross has been busier than most. He tells me that for him this means that he lives in a lot of chaos, and he and I both agreed that sometimes the busy-ness of this business means that we sacrifice a bit of our mental health to get it done. I met him for a coffee not long ago and I kept pressing him: how do we motivate people? How do we make the administrative and organizing work of the market easier? How do we find funding to try to pay some of the people who do this work? How do we keep going? I was panicking, but he wasn’t. He said, instead, “we’re not talking about the work itself.” And it was true, I was dancing around it, obsessing over the how and forgetting about the why. Without that work—the social media, the applying for funding, the visits to 3 Cent Copy, the manual folding and stapling, the record keeping—those books, the whole point of this thing supposedly, just wouldn’t exist. Part of me wanted to say, “So what? I’m tired.” I thought that’s what he might say, too.
          Instead, he launched into an almost giddy discussion about how we need small press to create, to discover, and to share the kind of interesting, innovative work that small press publishing encourages. He talked for a long time about the work that MLA Chernoff is doing, which Stuart says he’s really excited about. And it’s true. What other venue would let Chernoff’s beautiful mixture of hilarious absurdity and poignant political critique run wild than a small press community that is always just barely holding itself together. That work, Stuart assured me, assures me, is vital and it’s exciting and it’s only possible if we’re doing the labour of support and community building. That’s part of the thanks we get, this thing, these things. And then one day, when you’ve been doing this work for four decades, if you’re lucky and devoted, you’ll start getting those big fancy TIFOA prizes. Maybe.
          And the Market, too, is necessary work. Stuart admits that he never sells much at the Market, and he often ends up spending most of what he’s made at the other presses’ tables. But that’s the point, too, isn’t it? The Market is enjoyable because it’s a place to meet new people, get introduced to new work, and get a sense of discovery. And I think it’s beautiful that discovery is still what Stuart is grabbing onto after running the same small press for forty years. He’s still discovering, and there’s still joy in that.
          So I’ve resolved to be a little more like Stuart as I trudge through judging prizes and reading through slush piles and renaming files FINAL DRAFT REV. 3, REV. 5, FINAL FINAL. To do so, I’m promising—in true January fashion—to devote myself to the three big takeaways from my time working with Stuart Ross. 1) Publish yourself, in some form, in some way, at least once. Do it somewhere weird and wonderful. Lose a bit of money on it, if you can. Do it to get your words out there and try to make a connection. 2) Publish someone else, someone you love, so you know what it’s like to be responsible for someone else’s work. Publish someone else’s work that you think is great, and support that publication with your whole heart. Publishing, Stuart reminds me, is an elevated fandom. And 3) for goodness’s sake have some fun with this. We’re not getting rich or famous here—are we?—and eventual the eternal recycling bins of time will take all our poems with them. The only thing really at stake here is the joy of sharing words. It should be fun!
          And so far, Stuart, it has been fun. And like the best kind of fun, it’s been busy and chaotic and messy and weird. Congratulations on forty fun years, and thank you.

Dani Spinosa is a Canadian scholar and poet. Her work investigates the role of authorship and anarchist politics in digital and print-based experimental poetry. She is the author of one scholarly manuscript, nine peer-reviewed academic articles, four poetry chapbooks, and over a dozen literary publications. She is the managing editor of the Electronic Literature Directory, an adjunct professor of English at York University and Sheridan College, and a founding co-editor of the feminist experimental micropress Gap Riot. She lives in Toronto with one nice man and one mean cat. You can find her online at

Monday, December 30, 2019

Proper Tales Press 40th anniversary essay: Sarah Burgoyne


For Stuart, and his press, on the occasion of neither his birthday nor his retirement, but to celebrate him alone or perhaps him and his generosity yet the two cannot be separated, so this.
After a course I attended on writers who happen to walk around (although one may argue most writers, if they are able, walk or have walked around or wandered about, or even sauntered or, if they are daring, frolicked in their lives) therefore on writers who both walk and write about it, as far as one can tell, in 2013, I mentioned a little essay I had written for said class to a certain Stuart Ross, whom, as soon as I mentioned it to him, the first time we ever met, in a little bar near the university, on Rue MacKay, I believe, over bière-sans-bulles, as if we were already friends, as though I, as a mere friend who’d come along to meet my friend’s friend (that being Stuart Ross), whom my friend admired very much, asked to read it, and to my great honour to then publish it, after of course, proper pondering,  with his press, Proper Tales Press, it being deemed a “proper tale,” or at least not an improper one, and it, upon reminiscence, feeling also like the publication of our friendship, which would endlessly go on, which is the true gift of Stuart--endlessness in friendship--friendship being a word which takes its root in “love” (-pri) which is associated also with freedom, as in to be free to choose someone, to prefer them, to experience a friendship with them, one, perhaps, full of mentorship and kindness and many cups of tea, living room readings, wedding attendances, and the writing of collaborative poems under the dim infected light of Montreal’s once famous dive bars, the published “it” being not only this, then, though “this” is in no way an “only”, but in this case manifesting as a long poemish thing (which is my definition of friendship) called Happy Dog Sad Dog. Because it was long for a poem-of-mine, and I’d never quite written a thing-poem (what one might call a thoem, a thoem being then again what friendship is) that long before, even if I had a sense of where it was going, and where I was going, in fact, since it was constructed of seven walks all starting from my home near Lafontaine Park, I needed it to be propelled by language, and so I established four constraints: I used nearly all conjunctions and conjunction phrases in the English language, and in every chapter (after the first introductory one) I mentioned a dog, inserted, where I could, les faibles doses de français, and a Montreal street name or landmark (like the Kondiaronk Belvedere), “Kondiaronk” being still a word unbeknownst to most who gather there, as I may, this upcoming New Year’s Eve, sadly sans Stuart, though Kondiaronk was once chief of the Hurons, and indeed meant to be known as more than a few slabs of loose rock holding up some orange cones. As long as I am on it, I may mention that these “dogs,” as much as I didn’t intend them to be, became a motif of mine, which, as soon as I noticed this, that is this motif of dogs across my work, dogs being uncannily the champions of friendship, began cropping up in poems that referenced me, which I am honoured to admit exist now, in at least two books, notably in the latest books of both poets Stuart Ross and Hugh Thomas, whose recent reading in Montreal, in a bedazzled loft on rue Jean-Talon, I attended, and before which I did not realize how much we all love dogs, or at least, I might say, how dogs, in our work, have become symbols of friendship, even if I’ve never had one (one being a “dog” friend in this case) for longer than three months, and even though the end of those three blissful months full of tossings of sticks, chasings of deer, struggle-washings, and buckets of bacon (I worked in a kitchen which produced many unethical leftovers) resulted in my poor pup being tiré dans la tête, that is, shot in the head, (unbeknownst to me before the deed was done, I might add), the whole tale of this being most likely improper in the context of this short essay, and rather than I tell it, may I turn your attention instead to living dogs, so long as dogs “live” in “eternal lines to time”, as the beloved tend to do, and the wondrous friendship and symbolic value they provide, especially among poet-friends, and to the following two lines, heard that night on Jean-Talon, about living poetical dogs from Stuart’s poem “Considerably Sarah” and Hugh’s poem “Unofficial Translation, for Sarah Burgoyne”:

The sun, wriggling around in the red sky, is only a small dog. Such a small dog with so many eyebrows.

Only what freezes is called water. / Goodbye is a direction / to which dogs sing the best songs.

These lines that both Stuart Ross and Hugh Thomas read from Motel of the Opposable Thumbs and Maze, respectively, so thoroughly delighted me (when I wrote “embarrassed” I replaced it with “delighted” since this was the nature of my embarrassment—a word which originally meant “to hamper”—a good hampering being the fate of most writers at certain points in their careers, though in my case, the wealth of English conjunctions, and in this case, the realization of the dog motif or puppy pattern, and namely, my admiration for Stuart, or how this pattern of dogs is in fact simply an illustration of friendship, has had a rather “unhampering” effect on my short essay in honour of Stuart Ross--though it was perhaps slightly hampered by the firearm tragedy described above, but one cannot have friendship without tragedy, Derrida might say, that tragedy being the eventual loss of a loved friend, such losses I know Stuart has weathered in the past year, which only go to reveal their own depth, the depths (of friendship, of loss) which we discuss, over tea, marvelling at how the friendship lives on, past death, past loss…) that I felt the need to include them here, now that I have indeed noticed the pattern, originally upon that evening, whereas if I hadn’t heard these two lines, which, according to the titles of these poems, have something to do with me, I may have never noticed it, a pattern that indeed established itself in work published by the aptly named “Proper Tales Press” the second properest tail, besides those published by said press, indeed by Stuart Ross himself, in my opinion, being that on the back of a dog, the wagging of which, signifies “hello!” or indeed, “hello, friend”, which “hello” alone, often signifies, the “friend” being implied, since one, in Canada at least, rarely “hellos” one’s enemy, or even a stranger. Perhaps you may raise your many dog eyebrows. So allow me, sufficiently hampered by digression, to sing in the direction of goodbye, a direction in which, to the relief of all, I may now take this essay.

Of Stuart, as the compellingly apt acronym for the coordinating conjunctions in English cheekily point out, yes, I am and will always be a fanboy. A constant state of admiration shuffles through my blogging heart. Stuart is the Stuart whom we all love (especially me). Hello!

Sarah Burgoyne is an experimental poet. In 2013, she published Happy Dog, Sad Dog with Proper Tales Press, and it was included in her first collection Saint Twin (Mansfield: 2016), a finalist for the A.M. Klein Prize in Poetry (2016), awarded a prize from l'Académie de la vie littéraire (2017) and shortlisted for a Canadian ReLit Award. Other works have appeared in journals across Canada and the U.S., have been featured in scores by American composer J.P. Merz and have appeared with or alongside the visual art of Susanna Barlow, Jamie Macaulay and Joani Tremblay. She currently lives and writes in Montreal.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Proper Tales Press 40th anniversary essay: Heather Birrell

I fell in love with writing as a teenager because of the intensity and emotional availability of poetry, and because of the way it messed with language in ways I found exciting and liberating. But as I wandered deeper into a thicket of prose, I began to wonder if I had ever really known how to write poetry at all -- or what it even was in the first place. There seemed to be a poetry code I could no longer crack; I became intimidated by the form.

Then someone told me about Stuart Ross’s poetry boot camps. I knew Stuart through our connections to Coach House Books, but had never experienced his teaching. In practice, Stuart’s workshops actually deliver the exact opposite of what the term “boot camp” connotes for me. They eschew all manner of militaristic strain, discipline, and whipping into shape for something every artist craves -- a sense of play and permission, a call to the unfettered freakiness of language that skips alongside, do-si-dos with, or completely ignores the structure of ‘thought’. Also, Stuart provides tea and jujubes.

Recently, mental health struggles left me even more adrift when it came to creating. Writing anything felt fraught and risky. Stuart’s workshops allowed me to sidestep my persistent sense-making apparatus, and return to the roots of what made poetry come alive for me in the first place. When Stuart suggested I make a chapbook, I jumped at the chance -- the process represented a welcome antidote to the travails and stresses publication usually entails. Chapbooks combine all the making-magic of a childhood game with the legitimacy and commitment of a grown up endeavour.

My Proper Tales chapbook, Dreaming Fidel, consists of a series of prose poems I wrote years ago in tandem with a (later abandoned) novel similarly preoccupied with Fidel Castro and the charisma of revolution. I showed these poems to Stuart in a file I think I named “Not sure about these ones”. I love that he saw them as a book. A book with a hot pink cover. A book whose cover illustration is a pen and ink sketch of Castro looking doughy and vulnerable drawn by my husband Charles.

Stuart Ross is that rare, odd bird -- a writer whose work conveys heartache and humour using droll, deadpan language, a teacher and mentor who remembers what it feels like to be discovering language anew, and an advocate for publishing who gets that sharing stories/poems is both gift and responsibility. Stuart’s easy manner, his openness and wonder at the crazy capaciousness of language, gave me the sense of joy and confidence that allowed me to write new work and polish old. Eventually, this work became my first full length poetry collection Float and Scurry.

I am so grateful that Stuart and Proper Tales have been giving writers this incredible gift, outside of the strictures (scriptures) of the big publishing machine, for so many years. My teenage students sometimes ask me if their work is proper, and they mean, is it correct, have they followed instructions, met requirements? But when I think of something being properly done, I think of it being done right. Stuart Ross does right by writers and their writing.

I am honoured to be a part of the Proper Tales canon (cannon!) and wish the press many more thriving, three-stapled years.

Heather Birrell is the author of the poetry collection Float and Scurry (Anvil Press, 2019) and two story collections, both published by Coach House Books: Mad Hope (a Globe and Mail top fiction pick for 2012) and I know you are but what am I?. Her work has been honoured with the Journey Prize for short fiction and the Edna Staebler Award for creative non-fiction and has been shortlisted for the KM Hunter Award and both National and Western Magazine Awards (Canada). A recent non-fiction piece published in Canadian Notes and Queries was a notable mention in Best American Essays 2017. She returned to poetry with a chapbook titled Dreaming Fidel. “Snow Day Poem” was shortlisted for Arc Magazine’s 2019 poem of the year contest and won the reader’s choice award. Heather works as a high school English teacher and a Creative Writing instructor in Toronto, where she lives with her family. Learn more about Heather and her work here:

Proper Tales Press 40th Anniversary Essay: Rebecca Fishow

In 2012, newly graduated from my MFA program, I left cold Syracuse, New York for colder Montreal. I didn’t have much of a plan, or a c...