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: www.heatherbirrell.com