I am sitting here
out the window.
Someone walks by
who is not me,
doesn’t even look
A few moments
another person who is
not me walks by!
What are the
(Stuart Ross, “I Am Sitting Here”)
March 30, 2022.
I sit at a moment of culmination. After six-and-a-half years at New York University, I am a month away from defending my dissertation, which focuses on how poets in Canada and Mexico connected across the borders between them in the 1960s and 1970s —an effort to trace lines of contact, poetry of travel and migration, networks of ephemera, and to rethink how we understand the history of Canadian poetry within a broader transnational context that predates the trade agreements that now connect our economies. I am also a week away from the publication date of my first full-length collection of poetry, Harbour Grids, which tries to understand my position in the complex web of social and economic relations that is Sunset Park, the gentrifying neighbourhood in Brooklyn that I called home for five years.
Over the past year, as these accomplishments shifted from possibility to probability, and, now, certainty, I have found myself returning to a pair of lines from near the end of William Carlos Williams’s poem “The Desert Music,” published in a 1954 volume that shares its title. The poem, which takes place during a one-day visit Williams undertook across the U.S.-Mexico border, from El Paso to Juárez, dramatizes Williams’s self-doubts about his stature as a poet. Ironically, Williams was already in his late sixties and an internationally recognized literary figure by the time he wrote the poem, closer in 1951 to the series of strokes that would effectively end his career as a writer in the early sixties and lead to his death in 1963 than to either his poetic debut in 1909 or his elevation as a major Modernist poet in the early 1920s. That Williams continued to experience such doubts so late in his career adds a layer of humanizing pathos to “The Desert Music.” Williams closes the poem, nonetheless, with a note of guarded triumph that appears as much directed at himself as at the interlocutors that prompt his response: “I am a poet! I / am. I am. I am a poet, I reaffirmed, ashamed” (Collected II, 284).
Williams’s poem represents something of a starting point for the journey that will shortly conclude with the defense of my dissertation. Williams had been a major influence on the Canadian poets of the 1950s and 1960s that I became interested in during research for my master’s degree. Like Williams, these poets also produced poems that tracked their contact with Mexico. I began to notice a literary historical phenomenon: a flowering of poets of the 1950s and 1960s in Canada and the United States who were invested in thinking about their relation to Mexico. My effort to understand and contextualize this confluence of poets’ interest in Mexico at mid-century eventually became my doctoral dissertation.
Yet my interest in Williams’s poetry and his influence on Canadian poetry in the sixties stems from another beginning. Long before I signed a publishing contract for Harbour Grids, long before I decided to dedicate over a decade of my life—including bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees—to the study of literature, I was a precocious student in my first year of high school who had been recommended Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac by my high school English teacher, Kate Reston. Somehow, I acquired used copies of their books. I seem to recall being invited into Mrs. Reston’s office to receive a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl and Williams’s Selected Poems, though it’s possible I have invented the memory, or that the gift came from my other high school English teacher, Shelley Little. Possibly, I managed to find copies in the single used bookstore in my small hometown. In any case, the simple, understated beauty and air of mystery in Williams’s poems, like “Pastoral” or “To a Dog Injured in the Street,” left an indelible mark on my young mind. He used language in ways I had not known were possible, and that created a desire in me to imitate. Williams made music from the overlooked fragments of both language—a pause between two words, say—and the world—a broken shard of glass in the empty yard of a hospital.
The following year, having enrolled in Mrs. Reston’s Creative Writing class, I participated in the class trip to WordFest at the Banff Center for the Arts. We slept in sleeping bags on gym mats in the hall of an Anglican church and were given the option of various workshops and readings. I elected to take the poetry workshop with Stuart Ross. I can remember the layout of the room and at least two of the exercises: the first, to write an interlineal poem between the lines of a poem that Ross had written between the lines of another poem; and second, to produce a phonetic translation of a poem in German, which we completed back in the rec room of the Anglican church. I recall the reading that evening, in which Lorna Crozier (if I am not mistaken) described the sound of two aging bodies making love as the sound mud makes when dropped into a puddle: splat, splat, splat. I remember the feeling of liberation and possibility that accompanies any overnight class trip. I do not recall a single word I wrote.
What I remember most of all, however,
are two things. The first, Stuart Ross recounting how he would stand on Toronto
streetcorners selling his poetry in hand-made folded paper chapbooks and
broadsides with a sign around his neck that simply stated “Canadian poet going
to hell. Buy my poems.” The second, is the inscription that Ross left in my
copy of his Hey, Crumbling Balcony!:
Poodles Poems New and Selected,
the message “Thanks for YOUR poems.” The latter is a gesture that I imagine he
has repeated thousands of times, at the uncountable public events and classroom
visits he’s undertaken in his storied career as a poet, publisher, and
But I had met a poet—I had met a real poet. A poet of flesh and bone, a poet who had struggled to have his poetry read, a poet that was more than a black-and-white photo on the cover of a used book. A poet who believed that poetry could be made in unconventional ways. And a poet who believed that I was a poet. (“I am a poet.”)
Immersed in the social world of academia and hovering around the edges of both the New York and Canadian poetry scenes, I have needed to remind myself, often, over the past year, how neither of my two impending accomplishments had to happen. It’s easy to assume, with friends, peers, and mentors who have publishing resumés and scholarly CVs that dwarf my own, that of course I would publish a book, of course I would graduate with a doctorate in poetry, of course I would be a poet. (“I am a poet. I am. I am.”) But in reality, none of this was the obvious outcome. While, unlike friends and peers on the little league baseball team that my dad coached, my family never needed to rely on social services, and my father was never absent or incarcerated, we were never that far, geographically, socially, or financially, from those who did. Within my world, culture was something that happened elsewhere—in Toronto or Vancouver, Hollywood or New York—and which you were lucky to glimpse through the staticky transmissions our tv antenna would scrape from the air.
There’s something foundational to my ethics about the first of the two things I recall about meeting Stuart Ross—the idea that you could make and distribute your own poems—that has stayed with me. Something about that punk ethos captured my attention as a teenager and stayed with me. My master’s thesis revolved around the work of Montreal poet Louis Dudek, who, in founding Contact Press with his peers and rivals Raymond Souster and Irving Layton in 1952, emphasized the necessity of keeping the means of publication in the hands of the poets. His mission has been taken up, over the years, by poets including bpNichol and bill bissett, Nelson Ball and George Bowering, rob mclennan and Amanda Earl, Kate Siklosi and Dani Spinosa, Kyle Flemmer and Sacha Archer.
And Stuart Ross, of course.
Urayoán Noel, the chair of my dissertation committee, who has supervised my research and guided my growth as a scholar—and a poet-scholar—reports having had a similar experience. Growing up in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, Noel, a poet, scholar, and translator like myself, had grown up next to an experimental preschool where the canonical Puerto Rican poet (and former political prisoner) Francisco Matos Paoli could be glimpsed writing through a top-floor window. But Noel reports that his first real encounter with a poet, at age 14, had been meeting Roberto Net Carlo (aka Roberto Ncar), walking down the street around the corner from the experimental preschool, selling copies of his book out of a shopping bag. Noel bought the book, Al borde de un silencio [At the edge of a silence], with all the money he had on him. Poetry was something sold in the street, something you hustled for, something connected to the world. The punk rock ethos embodied in these gestures—both Ross’s and Ncar’s—captured our imaginations as young people and helped shape us into the poets we are. I see it in everything Noel does as a writer and teacher.
Poets (and poetry scholars) like to talk about the “world-making” capacity of poetry. That attending to language with intention, exploring its materiality, or pushing the limits of the expressible allows us to glimpse other configurations of the world not determined by our current modes of seeing and understanding. It’s a capacity that is both true and yet grows more false as expressions of the sentiment become rote (or merely an alibi for the absence of politics in a scholarly argument).
Nonetheless, the fact that I am about to become a Doctor of Philosophy in twentieth-century poetry and publish a book of poems with my name on the cover feels like it would have been inconceivable prior to meeting Stuart Ross. It is impossible to know the shape my life may have taken without it, but I know that since that moment I have always thought of myself as a poet, even through periods in which I have drifted away from poetry. (“I am. I am. I reaffirmed.”)
Whatever can be claimed about poetry’s capacity to act in the world, I know at least that it has enabled me to make a world for myself. (If I were a journalist, I might trot out some data here about participation in creative writing workshops and statistical differences in life outcomes.) None of this would be possible with the opportunity as a young person to meet that first “real” poet. Not just in a book but in person—in classrooms and at literary festivals and on reading tours—not just in Toronto and Vancouver and Manhattan, but in Banff and Río Piedras and Kimberley (where in twelfth grade my friends drove to see the legendary bill bissett spill his papers all over the stage mid-word, pick up a random leaf, and continue reading as if nothing). Not just any poets, but poets like Ross and Ncar, poets whose ethical engagement with poetry allows young people to imagine themselves, too, as poets. Real poets’ poets.
(I am a poet.)
Zane Koss is a poet, scholar, translator, and resident alien currently living in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of harbour grids (Invisible, 2022) and co-translator of Hugo García Manríquez’s The Commonplace (Cardboard House, 2022) with Gerónimo Sarmiento Cruz and Whitney DeVos. He has published two chapbooks with above/ground press, Invermere Grids (2019) and The Odes (incomplete) (2020), which was shortlisted for the Nelson Ball Prize.