Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature! Stuart Ross on Judging the Aspiring Canadian Writers contest

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Stuart Ross

The Aspiring Canadian Writers Contest launched during National Poetry Month in April of 2012 with their inaugural and recurring poetry contest celebrating emerging and unpublished writers. Now in its fourth year, the award is given annually to three developing writers, one winner and two runners-up, whose works has yet to be published. The winning poems are published on the contest website and the winners' names are announced each year in an issue of Quill & Quire.

The winners are also awarded private online mentoring sessions with the contest judge, a role taken on this year by Stuart Ross. A prolific and award-winning writer, Stuart is the author of ten books of poetry, two story collections, two collaborative novels, a solo novel and two essay collections, the latest of which, Further Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer (Anvil Press), came out this spring.

Today, Open Book speaks with Stuart about judging the Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest, his advice that emerging writers read more than they write and the "terrible little rhyming ditties" that were among his earliest writing attempts.

Open Book:

Tell us about how you became involved with the Aspiring Canadian Poets contest and why.

Stuart Ross:

Heidi Stock contacted me and asked me to judge. I had come to the attention of Allyson Latta, the contest’s media/editorial advisor, through retreat organizer Susan Siddeley, for whom I ran a poetry workshop in Chile in 2006. I’m not a huge fan of poetry contests, but this one had a lot going for it. For one thing, there is no entry fee. Second, I was intrigued to read poems by people who had never published anything, ever. Would they all be horrible? Would there be amazing work? Would it be a contest that drew out writers who have been making poetry in secret for years and are finally rustling up the courage to go public?

Also, the past judges were impressive: Catherine Owen, Catherine Graham, Shannon Bramer; and Evelyn Lau has been the contest’s Honourary Patron since it started. And finally, I would be paid for judging and for mentoring the winner and runners-up. We poets are too often asked to do things for free. I appreciate the integrity of this contest: pay the judge, offer mentorship, don’t charge entry fees. Not sure how Heidi does it, but it’s great.


What are you looking for when judging the quality of a poem? What criteria make a poem stand out from the crowd in a good way?


I am drawn to poems that have a degree of audaciousness, a sense of adventure and a lot of room for the reader to move around inside and collaborate. I’m not as interested in formalist exercises, especially those with an obvious “message.” I don’t care for poems that sound like they were carefully written in order to win the Governor’s General Award. Those are a scuffed dime a dozen.


What advice do you have for aspiring and emerging writers? Did you ever receive any advice yourself early in your career that you found especially helpful?


My advice: read like crazy, read broadly, read far more than you write, kick against the pricks, don’t become self-conscious about “your voice,” experiment with daring, don’t write to please anyone except the ideal reader you imagine — hopefully one who doesn’t restrict you or have expectations beyond the desire for pleasure and a challenge. Certainly not a grant jury or a contest judge. Don’t rhyme until you’ve been writing for at least a decade. Don’t buy into the idea that poetry must express a “truth” or depict “beauty.”

I still receive and welcome advice from writers I admire, even though I have ten poetry books published. Maybe that’s another bit of advice: never think you’re too good to consider thoughtful advice. You have to always be open to learning. You’re never going to “arrive.”


What sort of things did you start out writing? Do you still have any of the work you did when you first began writing, and how do you feel about it now?


I think I have pretty much have saved all the writing I did since I was ten or eleven. All these sheets of rotting yellow foolscap. Foolscap is such a great word; too bad it’s disappeared.

I started off writing terrible little rhyming ditties, and then I discovered Stephen Crane, E. E. Cummings and others whose work freed me to go pretty crazy. I was definitely overly concerned with “meaning” as a teenage writer, but I still like a few things I wrote back then. Surrealism came to me naturally. Meeting poets like Joe Rosenblatt, Victor Coleman, George Miller, John Robert Colombo, Robert Fones, sam f. johnson and others — look! all guys! — before I was twenty was formative for me. I am aware of and read and know and admire a lot more women poets now.


What can you tell us about your next project?


I have about ten books on the go, but here are the poetry projects... Next year, Wolsak and Wynn will publish my collection A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent. It’s my attempt at a book of “mainstream” poetry. Friends tell me the poems aren’t as mainstream as I think. I’m also working on an epic book-length collaborative poem with the amazing Halifax writer Jaime Forsythe; a long collaborative sonnet sequence with Chicago’s frenetic and wonderful Richard Huttel; a long solo poem about the street I grew up on, Pannahill Road, in Toronto’s Bathurst Manor; and another project that will be made up of 1,000 very short poems. Those are the ones I’ve started. I have another couple poetry projects lined up. I invent them so I can avoid finishing the ones I’ve started. That is not meant as advice.

Stuart Ross has been involved in literary publishing for over thirty-five years. He is the author of ten books of poetry, two story collections, two books of personal essays, two collaborative novels, and a solo novel. He won the 2010 ReLit Prize for Short Fiction for Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand Press) and in 2012 was co-winner of the Mona Elaine Adilman Award for Fiction on a Jewish Theme for his novel Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew (ECW Press). In 2013 he was awarded the sole prize to an anglophone writer by l’Académie de la vie littéraire au tournant du 21e siècle for his poetry collection You Exist. Details Follow (Anvil Press). Stuart lives in Cobourg, Ontario.

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