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 www.genericpronoun.com