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After dominating the poetry awards, Toronto’s BookThug finds itself at a crossroads

Every independent publisher hopes for that pivotal moment when it all turns around, when it all turns big time.

For Toronto’s BookThug, the moment came last fall, when the small press claimed three of the five books nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry. One of those titles, Killdeer by Phil Hall, won. The collection also took home the $20,000 Trillium Book Award and was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, alongside Jan Zwicky’s Forge (Gaspereau Press) and the eventual winner, Ken Babstock’s Methodist Hatchet (House of Anansi Press).

These would be considered major accolades for any publisher, much less an independent press operating out of a basement home office, which doubles as a family rec room. But with success come challenges, as BookThug publisher Jay MillAr (who employs the capital A to emphasize the correct spelling of his surname) has since discovered.

MillAr and his wife, BookThug’s managing editor Hazel Millar (she doesn’t use the capital A), instituted a new reading cycle to accommodate the massive influx of manuscript submissions that arrived after all the awards attention.

“Before we just accepted submissions all the time,” says Millar, a former dancer who sold her spa business to officially join BookThug full-time last year. Now, a BookThug advisory board reads blind submissions, alerting the publisher to manuscripts worth further consideration. (MillAr declines to name the board’s members to avoid their being targeted by aspiring writers.)

MillAr continues to personally approach emerging authors, with the intention of publishing at least one new writer per season. It’s a tradition that has carried on since BookThug’s early days: Elizabeth Bachinsky published her debut collection, CURIO: Grotesques and Satires from the Electronic Age, with the press in 2005, the year before her book Home of Sudden Service was nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry.

Since he began publishing chapbooks in 1992 (originally under the imprint Boondoggle Books), MillAr, a poet with five titles to his name, has focused on experimental and formally innovative poetry from Canadian and international writers. He was drawn to the form in the early 1990s after watching concrete sound poet bill bissett read at Western University in London, Ontario. Bissett, who, at the time, ran blewointment press, led MillAr to discover other small imprints like Stuart Ross’s Proper Tales Press.

BookThug kicked off its first trade publication in 2004 with Pencil of Rays and Spiked Mace by Danish poet Niels Lyngsø. Translated by Gregory Pardlo, the collection appeared in conjunction with the Harbourfront Centre’s SuperDanish Festival in Toronto.

The press has since continued to publish Danish writers in translation. “It’s their international calling card to have their writing in English,” says Millar. This fall, BookThug will release Morten Søndergaard’s collection of concrete poetry, Wordpharmacy, translated by Barbara J. Haveland, following the spring publication of A Step in the Right Direction, Søndergaard’s collection inspired by the act of walking. MillAr hopes to bring the poet to Canada for a launch and appearance during Toronto’s International Festival of Authors.

Over the years, BookThug has diversified to include experimental fiction and non-fiction prose that’s “highly influenced by poetry, poetic techniques,” MillAr says, naming John Francis Hughes’ spring 2012 memoir, Nobody Rides for Free: A Drifter’s Guide to the Americas, as an example.

Though the evolution has occurred naturally, BookThug’s future editorial direction takes on added importance as the press feels the pressure to grow. “We’re in an in-between state right now,” says Millar. “We know we have to go somewhere from here.”

On the sales side, MillAr hopes to take advantage of the publicity by directing new readers to BookThug’s PDF-format ebooks and especially its backlist, where they may discover writers such as Mark Goldstein. His third book with BookThug, a long poem called Form of Forms, came out this spring.

Goldstein, a freelance book designer, was responsible for typesetting Killdeer, which received third prize for poetry at the 2011 Alcuin Book Design Awards. For its typography, Goldstein employed digital versions of classic typefaces to echo the collection’s tension between the historic and contemporary ““ a tension that’s emblematic of BookThug itself.

This article appeared in the September 2012 issue of Q&Q.