February 26, 2016
This blog feature gives readers a glimpse into the life and mind of an author by revealing some of the author’s firsts, both literary and otherwise.
Today's answers are from poet Stuart Ross, whose latest collection, A sparrow came down resplendent, will come out this April with Buckrider Books.
1. What is the first book you remember reading or having read to you?
Aside from stuff like Dr. Seuss, Petunia the Duck and Madeleine the little convent girl, what stands out is the family gathered around a reel-to-reel tape recorder on the living room floor, reading “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Tennyson. Then we played it back and actually heard our own voices!
2. What is the first adult (i.e., non-kids, non-YA) book you remember reading?
Probably 100 Poems by E.E. Cummings. Might also have been a collection of poems by Stephen Crane. As for prose, I’d say it was likely the dirty bits from my mother’s Harold Robbins books. In fact, I might have read A Stone for Danny Fisher in its entirety.
3. What was the first thing you ever wrote (creatively)?
Not sure, but the first bound (with white string) book I created, in an edition of one, was a science-fiction “novel” (about ten little pages) called The Many Escapes of Specimen 939-399X. Oddly enough, I wrote “GRONK” on the back cover, which, as I later learned, was the name of bpNichol’s press. I think I was about eleven at the time.
4. When did you first feel like a writer?
I wouldn’t ever introduce myself as a writer until I had a few books published and I was in my late thirties. Before that I would say, “I’m an editor. Oh, and I also write.” I didn’t want to be presumptuous. I still struggle with impostor syndrome but I can pretty safely say I’m a writer now.
5. Where was your first reading?
Aside from a few readings I gave for other classes in my junior high school, the first public reading was at Harbourfront. They had a conference for high school writers and I took part in that. This would be the mid-1970s, just around the time Harbourfront started becoming a literary venue. I met the poet George Miller there, and joined his adult workshop, which took place in a boardroom at Harbourfront.
6. Who was the first author you ever met in real life?
Toronto poet and anthologist John Robert Colombo. I was a fourteen-year-old page at the library at Bathurst and Lawrence and he came in regularly. I had read his books Abracadabra and Neo Poems, and a couple of his books of found poems. I became his apprentice for a couple of years. He gave me feedback on my poems and I snipped quotations out of books for him.
7. What was the first book you ever bought?
I remember my first albums: The Mikado and Al Jolson before discovering rock: then Randy Newman, Bob Dylan and Leo Sayer. The first book was probably a MAD paperback. A sparrow came down resplendent contains a poem about my first purchases at Dehavilland Bookstore, when I was a kid.
8. How did you spend your first royalty cheque?
My first cheque was an advance against royalties from Books By Kids in 1976. I think it was for $26.50. I assume I spent it on used paperbacks at the Village Bookstore down on Queen Street, or maybe at Old Favourites on Adelaide. Might have saved some of it for the eighty-five-cent lunch special at Kwong Chow on Elizabeth Street: sweet’n’sour ribs, rice, chow mein, an egg roll, and consommé soup.
9. Where ws the first place you lived (city, street, type of dwelling)?
When I was born, in 1959, my family lived in a triplex on Wilmington Avenue, in a Jewish neighbourhood called Bathurst Manor, in the north end of Toronto. When I was a few months old, we moved a few blocks away to a split-level house: 179 Pannahill Road. My elementary school was at the end of the block. My friend Mark Laba was a block away in the other direction.
10. Where did you go the first time you travelled?
Aside from trips with my family when I was a kid, the first time I really travelled alone was just as I turned thirty: six months in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. My thirtieth birthday happened the day after the tenth anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution. It was a life-changing trip, and a hair-greying one, too. I was proud I could do such a thing.
11. Who was your first celebrity crush?
Deborah Walley, the American actress who was the star of such movies as Beach Blanket Bingo, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, Gidget Goes Hawaiian and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. This was during the 1960s. I was eight or nine years old when I became aware of her. Later on: Kim Novak, Peter O’Toole, Parker Posey and Claude François.
12. What was (or would be) the song for the first dance at your wedding or commitment ceremony?
I just got married in August 2015. My friend Ben Walker, who had performed jazz standards at my parents’ forty-fifth anniversary party around 1993, played “I Could Write A Book” (Rodgers & Hart) on a four-string box guitar for our first dance. It was sublime.
13. What was the first concert you went to?
First big concert: Supertramp, Jarry Park, Montreal, July 1979. Breakfast in America. I didn’t like them at all, but I met this nice Israeli girl named Neda or maybe Netta and she was looking for someone to go with. Horrible concert.
14. What was your first alcoholic beverage? (No need to tell us how old you were at the time! LOL)
Champagne, at age sixteen, at the launch for The Thing in Exile. It was a private launch party at the home of Anne Millyard, co-owner of Books By Kids.
15. When was the first time you felt like an adult?
Perhaps when I watched my mother die, after she was taken off life support at Wellesley Hospital, in 1995.
16. What was the first movie you remember seeing in the theatre?
The Family Jewels, starring Jerry Lewis, directed by Jerry Lewis, screenplay by Jerry Lewis. The year was 1965. I saw it at the Willow Theatre in Toronto. It’s possible I saw a Walt Disney movie or another Jerry Lewis movie earlier, but this is the one I remember.
17. What was the first thing you ever published?
When I was 16, Books By Kids (later to become Annick Press) published The Thing in Exile, a volume of about a dozen poems each by me and my friends Mark Laba and Steven Feldman. I also had several ink drawings in there. Around the same time, I was publishing poems and stories in Acropolis, the little student-run magazine published at my alternative high school, AISP, in North York.
Many thanks to Stuart for contributing to our blog.