Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer

By Stuart Ross. Anvil Press, 127 pp, $16, softcover.

Saying Stuart Ross is a stalwart of Canada's independent small-press literary scene isn't an adequate description. When he was 20 (he's 46 now, a "middle-aged Jewish pot-bellied surrealist poet") he started his own imprint in Toronto and for the next 20 years sold copies of his books-thousands of them-on Yonge Street. When working a street corner close to Bloor Street, he wore a sign round his neck that said WRITER GOING TO HELL-BUY MY BOOKS. When he moved south to Dundas, where the strip joints are, he changed to a placard that read CONTINUOUS TOPLESS POETRY. You get the picture. Ross always has been, as he says admiringly of a fellow poet in Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer, "a good alt-poetry citizen".

Confessions derives from columns Ross wrote for Word, a monthly tabloid that lists events in the Toronto literary counterculture but is itself so hard to find that it's virtually covert if not downright clandestine. He ruminates on the psychology of small-press folk, suggesting common ground with those who "canvass for a progressive political candidate who has no chance of winning the riding". He also tells us a lot about the political economy of self-employed poets as well as the personality disorders that result from seeing "crappier writers than me get more attention". All writers have such feelings at times. Ross majors in them, with a minor in insulting his betters.

Yet there's some serious content here as well, though Ross will no doubt deny the charge. Although the book is somewhat repetitious, the repetition serves to underscore how much he has been affected by the death of his parents and brother, and how these losses have caused his writing to grow. With grief and age have come signs of acceptance, about which he's ambivalent. Some of his 30 books have now been brought out by professional publishers and have thus gained him a new kind of reader. "I'm beginning to accept the concept," he says, "that there are people I do not know who have bought my books." This makes him suspicious, but he bravely accepts his fate.