Quill and Quire

Kevin Connolly

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Working overtime

When Kevin Connolly invites me into the east Toronto home that he shares with novelist Gil Adamson, he immediately apologizes for the state of the place. The couple moved in months ago, but boxes remain unpacked, new paint has just been applied, and renovations are still underway. (Connolly recently laid down new flooring for a basement library.) The bustle’s not terribly surprising, however, when you consider how pleasantly hectic the 45-year-old poet’s life has become.

Connolly has a new book of poems out this April, Revolver, but this spring will also see the release of a slew of other titles that he’s had a hand in. As the unofficial poetry editor at Coach House Books, he edited the house’s three spring poetry titles: Jordan Scott’s Blert, Jen Currin’s Hagiography, and R.M. Vaughan’s Troubled. For ECW Press, he’s handled a variety of projects, everything from In Loving Memory, Lori Horton’s memoir (which he ghostwrote), to editing wrestling titles. He edits YA titles for Lorimer. For Anansi, he’s worked on Derek McCormack’s Christmas Days.

Connolly was an editor before he was a poet, and he’s been a longtime force in Toronto’s small press scene. With fellow York grad and playwright Jason Sherman, he co-founded the now-defunct Toronto literary quarterly What!, which published from 1985 to 1993. That litmag was influential and, at the time, largely unique, giving voice to a new generation – Patricia Seaman, Ken Sparling, Daniel Jones, Stuart Ross – and, even more importantly, putting Canadian writing in an international context by publishing it alongside work by Mark Richard, Mary Gaitskill, and A.S. Byatt. What! was the Brick of its day, albeit more low-rent, scrappy, and iconoclastic. “There was a vacuum,” Connolly says of the literary scene at the time. “Everything was really parochial. Everything was much smaller. There were some younger people just starting to produce things, but the older crowd ceased to be interested in local writing – they were all busy becoming famous novelists.”

Sherman and Lynn Crosbie then became part of the Coach House editorial board, and, in 1995, the press brought out Connolly’s first book, the surrealist Asphalt Cigar. Toronto alt-weekly eye hired Connolly as a full-time editor and writer in 1998, and he produced poetry, theatre, and food columns. By 2004, however, he was feeling burnt out – such jobs have a definite stale date, he contends – and left. To pay the bills, he stumbled into book editing: “It found me more than anything; if I had to hustle, I wouldn’t get anywhere.”

He began his tenure at Coach House with Margaret Christakos’s Sooner in 2005. Senior editor Alana Wilcox had been trying to lure Connolly back to the press for years. “Kevin’s got an open and erudite mind,” she says. “He’s very respectful of a diversity of aesthetics.” Connolly’s experience as a journalist helped in this regard as well: “There’s nothing harder for a writer or an editor than to recognize merit in a work you don’t have an immediate affinity for,” he says. “But if you want to be a good critic, you have to be able to do that.”

Such respect is reflected in Revolver, a collection of 45 poems, each of which is radically different – in form, tone, and subject – from the ones preceding or following it. Connolly says the book’s variety was simply a way for him to write after the “claustrophobia” of his last collection, the Trillium Award-winning Drift (Anansi, 2005). He’s says he’s energized about the state of poetry, though he’s also trying his hand at fiction for the first time. He has no plans to return to criticism or journalism, however.

Connolly praises his Anansi editor, poet Ken Babstock, for his keen judgment, and he’s similarly sanguine when asked how his editing career informs his own writing: “For a writer, it certainly doesn’t hurt to look, with care and intelligence, at other people’s work. You can read a book by Karen Solie and be inspired by it. But if you actually edit it, you get an even richer experience.”