Ross Belot’s poetry, short fiction and essays have been published in a variety of journals and anthologies in Canada as well as work translated into Spanish in Mexican journals. His first collection, Swimming In The Dark, was published by Black Moss Press in 2008. His poem “O’Hare, Terminal Two, Concourse E, Gate E1” was selected for the Best Canadian Poetry In English 2013 anthology. Ross is also exploring the use of video combined with poetry as well as making documentary shorts. He lives in the city of Hamilton just outside of Toronto, Canada.
Geosi Gyasi: Let’s begin from Hamilton, where you live. Could you there us something about the place?
Ross Belot: Hamilton is home to half a million people and is part of what is called the Golden Horseshoe at the western end of the lake Ontario, an area stretching from Toronto on one side and Niagara Falls on the other side with Hamilton in the middle. The Niagara escarpment runs through the city creating an upper and lower city and the city is marketing itself as the city of waterfalls with over 100 waterfalls within the city. Hamilton has also been known as Steel Town since at one time it had a lot of heavy industry on its waterfront though much of that has shutdown in recent years and many people are employed at McMaster University and a network of hospitals. The city retains its industrial roots in the older parts of city with older factories and warehouses that have been converted by a thriving arts community. It is a city of contrasts.
Geosi Gyasi: How vibrant is the literary culture in Hamilton?
Ross Belot: There is a thriving community of artists and writers in the city. As far as the literary community there are many writers living within the city, a number of independent bookstores and art galleries that provide venues for book launches and readings and some small literary presses that are based in Hamilton. There are a number of reading series that provide opportunities to hear writers from the city and across the country for literary poetry, spoken word and prose. There are also an number of open workshops that literary organizations run. And there is a literary festival, GritLit, that runs in May that brings in writers from across the country.
Geosi Gyasi: You studied Chemical Engineering and Management at McMaster University. Why are you turning into writing at this point in your life?
Ross Belot: I started writing back in 2001, the local university had a large creative writing program at the time that a friend had started attending and when he told me about it I thought it was something I wanted to try. In my younger years in school I enjoyed creative writing but as I went through higher grades I concentrated more on what I needed to do to get a well paying career. I always regretted my limited liberal arts background in university. Once I started I was hooked.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re a poet and photographer. How do you distinguish between the two?
Ross Belot: We always talk about poetry using words to say something that is unsayable; using image, form and sound to evoke something in the reader that goes beyond the literal meaning of the words on the page. I feel the best photographs do the same thing using light, texture, composition. I’ve been studying documentary film making and it was surprising the overlap in poetry and film, this same idea is in film as well.
Geosi Gyasi: How long have you been writing?
Ross Belot: I wrote when I was young, had some extra classes when I was in Grade 5 that exposed me to Haiku and other forms of poetry. After that I don’t remember much until 2001 when I started creative writing at McMaster. So if we talk about that second period, I’ve been writing for 14 years.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you know what makes a good poet?
Ross Belot: Someone once told me that a poet needs to know about everything so that they can write about things in the most interesting way possible. So the best poets find ways of telling you something at some level you know already in a way you don’t expect.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your book, “Swimming in the Dark”?
Ross Belot: It is inspired by living life in the beginning of the 21st century in Canada as I approached midlife. That is a time of life where you start dealing with transitions and loss and have life experiences to look back on that you hope you can learn from.
Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write, “Swimming in the Dark”?
Ross Belot:The book was written from 2005 to 2007. However I suppose like most first books I had really been writing it all my life up until that point.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you face any challenges in getting “Swimming in the Dark” published?
Ross Belot: I had sent the book out to several publishers at once but I was really lucky to find my publisher very quickly. I had met him a couple of times and when he saw my work he made me the offer.
Geosi Gyasi: Usually, what sort of preparation goes into the writing of a book?
Ross Belot: I think everyone’s process is different and also different from book to book. For the first book I was just writing, not really thinking about the end result as a book. For the second one which I’ve just finished I thought about it as a book from the start. So I had an idea of what I wanted to explore to fit in with themes I wanted to talk about. The next book I think will be even more focused.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you know who reads your works?
Ross Belot: No, it is a bit of mystery to me. Occasionally you hear from somebody or somebody comes up at a reading and discusses some of my work, how they liked it. But generally I’m throwing it out there and have no idea where it is landing. When I look at used book sites on the internet the book seems to have traveled to places I never would have expected.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you regard as your greatest achievement as a writer?
Ross Belot: I think for me it is the ongoing creation of work and learning more about the craft and about myself. The act of writing poetry requires an exploration of the inner and outer worlds. So even if someone never reads it I feel the work has achieved something.
Geosi Gyasi: In 2006, you were accepted into the Banff Centre’s Wired Writing Studio. Could you share with us some of your experiences whiles there?
Ross Belot: It was really extraordinary. That program has two weeks at the Banff Centre in the Rocky Mountains which is an astounding setting to live, the mountains are a huge presence. And it brings together two dozen poets and prose writers to work with the faculty so there is some really interesting writers discussing the world, such interesting viewpoints and experiences. And the Centre itself has visual artists, playwrights, dancers and musicians also there at the same time for other programs so you interact with all these other artists. So the experience of being at the Banff Centre is like living in a small city of artists who are around you all the time. As a poet it is so interesting to sit down at a table for lunch with people who understand what a poet is relative to what I experienced in my working life. And the faculty member I worked with, Robert Hilles, was a great guy and also an incredible editor. After the two weeks on site I worked with him for 6 months online and he helped enormously in the development of the book. This drove a tremendous amount of writing in very short period.
Geosi Gyasi: Which teachers have had profound influence on your life as a writer?
Ross Belot: Mr. Reynolds who taught me Haiku in Grade 5 started it all I would say. The other would be the first teacher in the creative writing program at McMaster, Edith Smith, she was very encouraging and that experience with her really got hooked on writing.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you hope to achieve with your writing?
Ross Belot: That is an interesting question. Getting the next book published is something I’d like. But really for me it is continuing to develop the craft and explore the world in my writing so that I understand the world better and can communicate that understanding to others in an interesting way.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about “form” or “structure” when you write?
Ross Belot: The form and structure generally come later in most of the work, what the poem seems to be calling for. When I’ve started with form I have found I end up changing it anyway. So if I use form it is a way to initiate a poem.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about critics when you write?
Ross Belot: I have a writing group of four that I’ve been working with for nine years now and I highly value their feedback good and bad. So those are the critics I care about. It is always good to hear feedback from anyone, I think of it as a gift, but I think important to be able to filter it, to use it wisely. Also I think it is good to be objective about the work where possible. Rejection is always hard but I think it is also something to learn from.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you do in your spare time when not writing?
Ross Belot: I mountain bike on the trails near my home, swim. I’ve started working in documentary films. Toronto has great film festivals and is only an hour away. Attend readings, occasionally give readings. Family. Travel. Have started writing essays on energy policy, one published so far. I took early retirement from my job a year ago so my days are my own now.
Geosi Gyasi: What are you currently working on?
Ross Belot:I have just finished my next collection, The Edge Of Everything and am in the process of sending it out to publishers. I’m working with a friend of mine in exploring video for presenting poems. And I am thinking about the next collection which I think will have something to do with technology as a general theme.
Geosi Gyasi: You have the final words?
Ross Belot: This interview has been a great experience. Your questions made me think about what I’ve done and what I’m doing.