Stuart Ross, founder of the Patchy Squirrel Lit-Serv
When I started this series of articles on the Toronto literary community, I was surprised by the diversity of the conversations, but one thing remained consistent, no matter which host was speaking: all series hosts relied on Stuart Ross’s Patchy Squirrel Lit-Serv to help promote their series.
“Everybody who is on Patchy is someone who specifically asked to be on the list,” Ross told me via Skype, which connected us from Toronto to Cobourg where he now lives. “I’ve started to put all organizers on the subscribers’ list as well. I figure if they’re organizing events, they probably should subscribe to it. But those are the only people on it who didn’t specifically ask to be on it.”
Founded in 2007, Patchy Squirrel is a list of events that comes directly to the inbox of its subscribers, listing events from around the GTA. At last count, Ross had about 1055 subscribers, which is a huge reach for local promoters who mostly rely on social media to get the word out. “It’s amazing, and there would be a lot more if people knew about it. It’s thrilling to me.”
When Patchy first started, there was only around a hundred and fifty subscribers. “The first few months, we kept having these big leaps as people found out about it. Dani [Couture] and I would find other ways to publicize it. There were times where I might hand out little flyers at Word on the Street, or little bookmarks or something. Since the four or five hundred mark, it’s just sort of crept up really gradually by a few a week.” Dani Couture was one of the first Patchy Operatives with Ross, followed later by Carey Toane. Now Ross more or less runs the service alone.
His never-ending dedication to the project comes from a strong involvement and history in the Toronto community. “Ever since my early twenties, I’ve been involved with things that were very community oriented for the small press literary, poetry community or communities. I’m one of the founders of what existed as the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, along with Nicholas Power, [in the 1980s]. More recently, I am part of a group called Meet the Presses. It’s a collective that puts on literary events and indie literary markets and performance things. I did a magazine called Mondo Hunkamooga: A Journal of Small Press Reviews with the idea of becoming a forum for small press publishers. So that’s always been part of my practice as a writer, and back when I lived in Toronto (and I still consider myself a Torontonian), my goal was to do things that nurtured community.”
Patchy was inspired by a variety of listservs for artists in the community. “Instant Coffee was one of them, and Akimbo in particular. The only listings we would get in the literary world were very brief. I thought it would be great to have a thing like that but where people could just put in whatever they wanted. I would, within reason, include the whole entry. And that was the way Akimbo worked as well.” Ross and Couture decided how the listserv would look and picked a patchy squirrel to be its mascot as a reference to “the tattered squirrels of Toronto, torn apart by cats and dogs. They’re a real symbol of Toronto.”
Part of Patchy’s success comes from its simplicity. “I thought of using one of those services where it comes through all in HTML form, but one of the problems is that it would take maybe more work for me. I kind of like the simplicity and the real kitchen table made look to it. Sometimes people say, ‘Oh it would be great if you had a website with all the listings on a calendar.’ And you know, if someone wanted to do that, that’d be great, but it takes enough time and is enough of a volunteer project as it is without creating a website that I’d have to keep up with all the time.”
While Ross tends not to get a lot of feedback about Patchy, he has received a few complaints about the basic format of the listserv. “One of them was this guy that just kept pummeling me with emails saying it’s really ugly looking, it would look better this way. The other person who unsubscribed sent me a complaint [that] said something like, ‘Oh yeah, this is The Stuart Ross Events … it’s all just there to glorify you.’ I have a little ‘Patchy Says’ section up at the top, with announcements and so forth. Like if I have a workshop coming up, I’ll be like Patchy Operative Stuart Ross is doing a workshop, and that’s the only recommendation outside the listings that I do. Maybe that’s what the complaint was referring to. I’ve thought about having an event of the week at the top, and I just thought, ‘I don’t want to do that’ because I don’t want to inflict my tastes.” Ross says people complaining about a volunteer-run service like Patchy is “bewildering,” although he invites more feedback about the service.
Ross moved to Cobourg full-time in 2010, but sees Patchy as “a way of keeping myself hooked in” to the Toronto community. I asked Ross if he’s found a literary community in Cobourg. “I’m not a big part of the literary community here. But the thing about the Toronto scene is that almost all of my closest friends are part of it. And the thing about a small town is I thought it would be really, really easy to make good friends because there’s so few people, but actually there are so few events that you don’t see people out, and people already have their communities. They’ve been welcoming to me, but Toronto is where my literary heart is.”
By running Patchy, Ross is able to see what types of events have emerged in the community lately. “There’s a lot of really different things going on. I think [the Toronto community is] incredibly diverse, and I think as long as people come in and start creating new things, it’ll always be evolving because it would get boring if it was even the same eight reading series over and over. I know that excitement of being a writer who helps create community. I think every writer should have the experience of doing something like running a magazine, or a website, to feel what it’s like to contribute in that way.”
To subscribe to Patchy, send a blank email to Stuart Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org with SUBSCRIBE as the subject line. Organizers are encouraged to submit their listings. Ross includes all genres of literary events (lectures, workshops, readings, launches) and does not curate listings.