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:

Monday, November 18, 2019

Proper Tales Press 40th anniversary essay: Cameron Anstee

He Counted His [Small Press] Fingers, He Counted His [Small Press] Toes

“Perhaps it’s also a way of life.”
—Stuart Ross, Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer

I knew of Proper Tales Press before I’d held any of the books in my hands. I’d surely already encountered the name in various places—print and online—but the first time I began to understand the scope of Stuart’s work in the small press was when I read Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer circa 2006 (a book I purchased at Richard Coxford’s late-great Bytown Bookshop in Ottawa). To that point, I’d primarily understood the small press as something distant in time and space. It happened mostly somewhere else, and mostly in the past (this, of course, was due to my own ignorance). Confessions opened a thousand doors (especially for a kid trying to find a way in from Ottawa, already outside of the centres of Canadian small press) via names of writers and presses and bookshops, via trivia and complaints and support, and most of all, via Stuart’s enthusiasm and generosity saturating every page. It is those characteristics years later that define not only Proper Tales but Stuart’s life in the small press for me.

On occasions where I have the opportunity to talk about my own small press publishing, I steal from Stuart, paraphrasing his assertion that he publishes books he wishes he’d written. I don’t know where he said this first—I probably encountered it in Confessions—but it stands in for the enthusiasm he brings to his publishing. I know of no editor or publisher who speaks with such force and love for every single title he publishes—first books, last books, books in-between. In his publishing, his heroes receive the same love as young writers he has just met. The enthusiasm is in his hand-drawn covers, consistent with the earliest years of the press; in the occasional “vertebrate” book, like the astonishing collection of Ron Padgett’s collaborations; in his loving typesetting, which has more joy and excitement in it than much chapbook design; in his ushering of young writers through chapbooks to trade books, and established writers from trade books back to chapbooks.

(I first met Stuart at the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival in the basement of a decommissioned church, which I now live only a couple blocks from. I think he was launching Buying Cigarettes for the Dog. I had him sign a copy of Father, the Cowboys Are Ready to Come Down from the Attic—an early Proper Tales title. He signed it with humour and kindness—“all the best with your writing. Please excuse the penthouse-letters scenes.”

(I had the book because my dad had the book. He gave it to me along with another of Stuart’s—Henry Kafka and Other Stories. This book is another early site of interaction—albeit unbeknownst to Stuart or me at the time. Stuart had been in Ottawa in the 90s to launch the book at a bookstore where my dad worked. Dad had to take me to soccer practice and so could not stay for Stuart’s reading, a fact reflected in the inscription—“For Rod, Hey, happy soccer!”))

I haven’t published a title of my own with Proper Tales, but I feel I’ve benefited from the press and from the animating forces of Stuart’s small press life all the same. Stuart consented to publishing a chapbook with my own Apt. 9 Press years later—something I was incredibly proud of having done. He was travelling to Ottawa to read with lifelong friend and collaborator Michael Dennis at Ottawa’s long-running Tree Reading Series. Apt. 9 was very young at the time—is still young today up against 40 years of Proper Tales!—and it was a great act of trust for Stuart to send me a manuscript when I approached him. Apt. 9 chapbooks by both Michael and Stuart were launched that night and I sat in the crowd astounded as two of my small press heroes read from chapbooks I’d stitched.

To my great joy, I was able to buy a copy of the first Proper Tales chapbook—Stuart’s own He Counted His Fingers, He Counted His Toes—from jwcurry’s room 3o2 books. Buying it from jwcurry, one of the foremost small press practitioners / collectors / archivists / bibliographers / booksellers / etc. in Canada, was in keeping with the small press ethos of Proper Tales but also reflective of the kind of small press labour Proper Tales has performed and encouraged others to perform over 40 years. Stuart’s work pushes a reader to look more closely at the literary ecosystem one inhabits, and to consider how one wants to participate in that world. Amazon doesn’t care about the small press, but room 3o2 sure does. Even the title of that chapbook seems to gesture presciently at taking stock of oneself, one’s surroundings, and one’s integrity.

Proper Tales is the part of Stuart’s work that has left perhaps the most visible race—that is, bibliographic trace—in Canadian small press history, but it is only a piece. Think of the Toronto Small Press Book Fair and Meet the Presses, and his street bookselling, and his recent imprints with Mansfield and Anvil, and his editing (literary and copy), and Mondo Hunkamooga and his scores of little magazines with fabulous names, and Patchy Squirrel, and his own writing (not sure how he finds time for that!)…. In nearly all of those works Stuart is promoting others, collaborating, and working to keep his small corner of the small press upright and tidy and moving. Over the course of 40 years, his corner has become a vital point-of-entry for some, a shelter for others, and a consistently surprising and exciting library for the whole community. His recent Harbourfront Prize—presented for both his writing and his support and encouragement for the literary community—reflects the range of this ongoing work.

The point I am trying to make is that 40 years is amazing, and it is amazing beyond the folded and stapled bindings of Proper Tales. The essays in this series—lovingly curated by rob mclennan some 26 years into his own small press life—show a cross-section of some of the lives and writing Stuart has shaped in different ways.

And please forgive me. In this essay I’ve indulged in personal digression, but this too I think is rooted in what Proper Tales has meant to me. One of my favourite elements of Stuart’s small press practice is the way that his work deliberately intersects with so many other small press folks, and the new intersections it makes possible simply by creating places for others to meet. He finds so much joy in the small details and chance encounters that have accrued over 40 years and that has provided me with this opportunity to sit down and think about Stuart, and about his influence on my small press life, and about how lives intersect relentlessly in the small press. Stuart—thank you!

Cameron Anstee lives and writes in Ottawa ON where he runs Apt. 9 Press and holds a Ph.D. in Canadian Literature from the University of Ottawa. He is the author of one collection of poetry, Book of Annotations (Invisible Publishing, 2018), and editor of The Collected Poems of William Hawkins (Chaudiere Books, 2015).

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Proper Tales Press 40th anniversary essay: Tom Prime

Stuart Ross’s Appearances

I first met Stuart Ross at Kathryn Mockler’s Purpose Pitch poetry launch alongside Frank Davey’s launch and another Mansfield Press writer’s launch in London, Ontario.

The reading ended.

At the bar down the street, this anonymous writer talked extensively about cannibalism and fascism as related to the origin of the Chiclet chewing gum company and something about rubber tires. She drank vinegar and talked to me but seemed to talk out of obligation. Eventually we stopped talking, and I was happy about this, because the conversation had devolved into the various places we’d travelled and what the weather was predicted to be.

I could finally talk to Stuart.

Stuart had been sitting beside me, and the drinks I drank were being sopped up. Kathryn’s poetry had been like a kick in the teeth. Kathy Acker reborn—an inaccurate estimation of her work; she’s got her own style, and it’s original and great. Frank’s was great. And the other poet had been cool, though I don’t remember her name. She’d written a poem about her boyfriend’s socks. This poem, she explained, was terrible, but it’s the only poem of hers that I remember.

I had a bit of swollen skin on my fingers which I directed Stuart’s attention to. Was a hot oil burn from deep fried shrimp. He was not drunk, but I like to think he found my story entertaining.

The next time I saw him, it was summer. I was in Toronto with my partner, Amelia, and he was meandering down the street. His hair as cloudy as the mind of Leibniz. The kind of man that doesn’t seem possible in the world we live in but then appears as distinguishable as a 50-dollar bill on the sidewalk. Not to compare him to money, but there are people out there that you’re just so glad to see; they’re better than a paycheck. Read the man’s poetry!

He took our photo and etherized.

Amelia and I had him down to do a reading at our friend, Vince’s. This turned out far worse than anyone could have imagined. The snow hit hard. Some people did show up. The wine had a debilitating effect on the host and I, and the night turned carnivalesque. People sneered, were offended. There were some harsh words. A few discussions of ordering pizza. Amelia and I eventually left. I had been gifted a plastic alien, which I was required to assemble and paint.

The day before, Stuart had driven Amelia and I, shakily through slush, to a vegan restaurant, listening to acapella Frank Zappa. Hoping to compel the poetry from our digits, the conversation at dinner involved the band, Suicide, and axe throwing in Romania.

The fabricated eel had tasted like burnt toast, but the rest was good. Specifically, the fake chicken on thick toothpicks. Hoping to write our collaborative masterpiece, we returned home in the most linear way.

I poured myself whiskey. We wrote. My socks smelled like sweat and rotten leaves. The electric heat was an envelope. We were happily creased inside. We were going to write an epic chapbook. The kind of book that’s about windmills and bivalves.

Amelia went to bed. I snuck some more Jameson in my cup, and Stuart sat in Amelia’s 1000$ chair and talked about the merits of Erin Moure. And I agreed.

He published my chapbook a little while later—on Proper Tales Press. Not to say, I’m a success story, but the man is about good intentions. He’s about new artists making work. As is rob mclennan. These are the people poets need in a society that has no interest in poetry.

Tom Prime is in his first year of the PhD program in English at Western University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Victoria (Specializing in Poetry). He has a BA at Western University. He has been published in Carousel, Ditch, Fjords Review, The Northern Testicle, The Rusty Toque, and Vallum.

His first chapbook, A Strange Hospital, was published on Proper Tales Press. His latest chapbook, Gravitynipplemilkplanet Anthroposcenesters, was published on above/ground press.

His collaborative collection of poems written with Gary Barwin, A Cemetery for Holes, is available from Gordon Hill Press.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Proper Tales Press 40th anniversary essay: Lance La Rocque

Proper Tales in the Classroom

I first encountered Stuart Ross from a distance, in the late 1980s. He was standing on a busy sidewalk selling books. I was walking with Clint Burnham, who, knowing a lot about the Toronto Small Press scene, suddenly dashed across the street to meet him. I knew next to nothing about small presses or writers selling their wares on the street. Great writing existed solely in, say, the Norton Introduction to English Lit. Dumb, I know. Some weeks later I met Stuart again on the street. We spoke briefly and I bought some books. (I would soon discover Stuart’s enormous generosity to other writers, his founding of the Toronto Small Press fair, and tireless promotion of young writers.) What seems like a minor meeting on Yonge Street instigated a new understanding of art--where writing comes from, how it’s made, and circulates. It would not be too much to say that Stuart and Proper Tales Press helped shape how I approach books in the classroom. Since getting a job teaching introductory literature and experimental poetry, I regularly bring Proper Tales books, chapbooks, and zines into first year, upper level, and honours courses. I’ve continued to do it because nothing makes writing seem as vital and weirdly accessible (who can resist titles like Paralysis Beach, Mark Laba’s Movies in the Insect Factory, bunny baby, the child with magnificent ears, or language lessons with Simon and Marie!).  A surprising number of students, inspired by Stuart’s publications, made their own books, chapbooks, and zines. Many began writing for the first time or brought their writing out of hiding. Somehow these wonderful, inventive objects gave students permission to participate in literary culture…to make their own culture. And it’s made the classroom a lot more interesting.

Lance La Rocque lives in Wolfville, NS. with Lisa, Emily, and Max.

He has published in Hava LeHaba, Industrial Sabotage, and The Northern Testicle Review, and has a book of poetry, Vermin, by Book Thug.

He is the author of the Proper Tales Press title The Gross Metaphysics of Meat (2002).

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 mes...