If you were strolling along downtown Toronto in the 1980s and heard someone yell out to buy his poetry chapbook, the half-busker, half-salesman was likely Stuart Ross. For an entire decade, Ross peddled his poetry on Yonge Street, often between Charles and Dundas streets, which seems like eons away from the honour bestowed upon him by Canada’s prestigious Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA).
Ross has been awarded the 2019 Harbourfront Festival Prize, which includes $10,000 and a presentation on Oct. 27 at the Harbourfront Centre during the 2019 edition of TIFA.
Since 1984, the award recognizes an author’s contribution to the Canadian literature community, based on the merits of their own published work and/or the time they have invested cultivating the next generation of voices. Past winners include Alice Munro, Austin Clarke, Miriam Toews, Timonthy Findley and Margaret Atwood.
“I never imagined this would happen. I’m stunned,” says Ross in an interview from his Coburg, Ont., home. “I’ve been mainly working in the underground, with the small presses, and so I didn’t think I was on the radar of this established world that gives prizes to Alice Munro.”
Ross is the author of more than 20 books, including his latest, Museum of the Opposable Thumbs. His trophy case includes awards for the 2017 PoetryNOW: Battle of the Bards competition, the 2017 Canadian Jewish Literary Award for poetry and the 2010 ReLit Award for short fiction. He founded the micro-press Proper Tales 40 years ago, which publishes around three books annually.
Today, he splits his time between writing, proofreading and even typesetting, working for small presses or more established houses, such as leading the poetry imprint for Vancouver-based Anvil Press. He also travels frequently as a touring author (he was invited to read in Slovenia this year).
Ross’s poetry can be tough to describe, thanks to its off-the-wall humour and tendency to sway into unusual directions. “It’s important to strive to be adventurous in your writing,” Ross says, “and not afraid to be goofy at times. I see that as a thread running through my work.”
Growing up in the Jewish Toronto area of Bathurst Manor, Ross admits Judaism comes up in his prose and poetry, albeit not so overtly as explicit references or metaphors. Instead, “a Jewish sensibility comes up in my poetry, a sort of shlemiel character in my personal and narrative poetry.”
One of his books, 2011’s Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew, followed antihero Ben along Bathurst Street in the ’80s as he “wrestles with his identity as he considers himself Jewish, he grew up in that culture, but he isn’t religious, and he wonders what belief really means,” Ross says.
Ross also highlights the book that won him the 2017 Canadian Jewish Literary Award for poetry, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent. “I went back again to Bathurst Manor in that book,” Ross recalls, “and in some poems I revisited my parents’ grave at Wilson and Keele, so that was a really personal book.”
When asked what he aimed to show the publishing world by launching Proper Tales, Ross replies, half-jokingly, “I wanted to prove how much money one individual can lose in 40 years by publishing things he’s excited about, so much so, he wants them to exist in print.”
The poetry he crafts, publishes and most enjoys to read often veers a hard left from the usual path most Canadian verse takes. “While I admire writers whose poems are rooted in reality, I’m excited by writing that goes beyond the real and into the absurd, since, after all, we live in an absurd world.”
Stuart Ross will be awarded the 2019 Harbourfront Festival Prize at the Toronto International Festival of Authors on Oct. 27. It will feature readings by the authors on the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction shortlist.