Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Brick Books: The Poetry Press That Could

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Kitty Lewis, Julie Bruck, Alayna Munce and Sue Sinclair at the Rideau Hall. Photo credit: Max Middle.

It's been a great year for Brick Books. This fall, Julie Bruck won a Governor General's Literary Award for Monkey Ranch, which also made the Globe and Mail's Top 100. Salty Ink listed Brick poets Emily McGiffin and Jessica Moore and Brick co-founder Don McKay as top picks for poetry in 2012. The press's recently revamped website is already being applauded, and they continue to build a unique bank of poetry podcasts to bring their authors' words to life. Brick has outposts of writers and editors across the country, from St. John's, Newfoundland to B.C.'s Quadra Island, but its heart — and the address to which hundreds of hopeful poets send their manuscripts each year — is located in London, Ontario and managed by Kitty Lewis.

Brick Books is the only press in Canada to specialize exclusively in poetry, which means two things: it's a labour of love (although they do have bestsellers in Marilyn Dumont's A Really Good Brown Girl and Michael Crummey's Hard Light); and the poets, generally used to limited fanfare, receive all the careful attention of the dedicated minds behind Brick Books.

It's the kind of press that will ship copies of your first collection all the way to the Philippines so that you can sit on a bench near an old Spanish bulwark and leaf through your own book for the very first time, as Emily McGiffin did this spring. It's a press that hosts its authors for evenings of partridgeberry jam and co-founder Stan Dragland's guitar. It's a press that gives poets a detailed schedule of the editing and publishing process — and sticks to it; and it's a press that celebrates the achievements of their writers by bringing an entire band of well-wishers and collaborators to the awards ceremony, as they did this fall when Julie Bruck was presented with the Governor General's Literary Award for Poetry.

We asked a number of Brick authors what it means to them to be published by Canada's poetry press. Here is what they had to say:

Stephanie Bolster, author of A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth:

Publishing with Brick Books has been a tremendous gift. I'd heard very good things about their promotional work for their authors, and the reality has even surpassed my expectations. When, very soon after my manuscript was accepted, I received a detailed description of the various stages of the editing and publication process, I knew that I was in good hands. Working with the team has been an absolute pleasure, from Alayna Munce's inspired copy-editing (with her, that adjective-noun combination is not a contradiction in terms) to Kitty Lewis's tireless promotion. They have a marvellous team of editors, and I was fortunate enough to get to work with Don McKay, who had edited my previous two books, again. Everyone puts such care into the books, such intelligence and enthusiasm and heart. Brick offers the kind of support that most writers can only expect from immediate family and very close friends; being published there has made me feel like I'm part of a family of poets whose work I admire greatly.

During our recent reading tour of Maritime universities, fellow Brick poet Susan Gillis and I visited the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, Nova Scotia, where the writers Anne Simpson and Valerie Compton were in the midst of a mini retreat. They took a photo of us outside the house; a few hours later, Susan posted it on Facebook. Within moments, Kitty had already linked it to the Brick page as a way of keeping followers aware of our tour. She's got Google alerts out on all Brick poets and sends her hurrahs as soon as there is good news, at practically any hour of the day or night.

One more anecdote: This fall, I came upon a review of my book in Matrix magazine. When I mentioned it to Kitty, she immediately asked for a scan and told me that she'd type up the review for the Brick website within the next day or two. Fortunately, Matrix's editor was able to send her an electronic version of the review, but I have no doubt that she'd have typed it up otherwise.

Julie Bruck, author of Monkey Ranch:

If I had to characterize Brick Books in a word, it would be thoroughness. These are people who care deeply about poetry, and their mindful attentions extend to every aspect of planning, editing, designing, proofing, producing and marketing their books. Perhaps some of this comes about because of how geographically far-flung their writers, editors, business and production people are: maybe that's what keeps the focus so sharply on the work itself, since we can't often get drunk and sloppy together. More likely though, it's the ethos of Brick's founders, Don McKay and Stan Dragland, paired with the unflappable enthusiasm of Kitty Lewis, Brick's general manager. Whatever its source, it's a privilege to have this team focus on your work. After three books and almost 20 years, I can't imagine what more a writer could ask for in a poetry press.

Méira Cook, author of A Walker in the City:

I love being a Brick poet — in many ways it feels like a vibrant collaboration between writers, editors, book designers and always our wonderful amanuensis, Kitty Lewis, whom none can praise sufficiently.

Oh, all right, I’ll try. Kitty is a cheerleader and extraordinary book-booster. She knows about grant applications and festival deadlines and such bureaucracy does not phase her. The triumphs of her poets gladden her beyond measure but she is stoical about their small defeats. And, in addition, she never sleeps. No matter what time I email her with my anguished incompetencies — whether at 2 or 3 o’clock, in Winnipeg, which is, I am told, even later in London — she replies by return email.

The editors are extraordinary, of course. I’ve been privileged to work with Maureen Scott Harris and twice with Stan Dragland who is an old friend. But he is a terrier of an editor and reminds me of the story of Flaubert who is supposed to have rolled about on the floor all day trying to find the right word. I always picture Stan agonizing over my commas, my caesurae, my ever-more egregious poetic inconsistencies.

Alayna Munce was introduced to me as a copy editor but I soon realized that she handles a manuscript with the careful, loving and creative eye of the fine writer that she also is. Brick Books is a poetry press for and about poets. The editors — Stan, Alayna, Don McKay, Barry Dempster, Jan Zwicky — couldn’t be more accomplished or more generous with their time.

I loved traveling on the “Girls Lost and Found” Poetry Tour with Jennifer Still. Her book, Girlwood, had come out in May and I had just launched A Walker in the City. We travelled through a blizzard in Prince George, read with Daphne Marlatt in Vancouver, and finished up at the Planet Earth Reading Series in Victoria.

Jenn was a great poetry pal and fellow traveler; a little bit goofy to match my tendency to daftness. We met old friends, discovered new poets, sold books, got lost, and ended up feeling like rock stars.

Jan Conn, author of Edge Effects:

A unique focus on poetry means the attention to detail in editing, book production, and publicity, have been remarkable and unique experiences for me since I submitted my first manuscript (Jaguar Rain: the Margaret Mee Poems, 2006) to Brick Books. Kitty, at the helm of Brick Books, is very open to new reading venues, and novel ways of distributing poems (such as the online poetry podcasts), and now several Brick Books titles are available as ebooks. Brick Books keeps on growing and evolving, fearlessly striding farther and farther into the 21st century.

Travelling for the first time to Newfoundland in March 2010 to visit with Stan Dragland and read in the March Hare Festival was one of the most pleasurable experiences of my life. Snow patches beneath conifers, willows, birch. Mile One Stadium where the TCH nearly begins. A reading at Stan and Beth’s home that ended with hours of guitar-playing and singing, eating berry pie and drinking wine. A cockscomb mountain bristling with last century’s snow. Two moose/vehicle collisions as of March. Among the encaustic, glowering grey ceiling of clouds at Signal Hill. Square Pond. Dog Sledding 100% Canadian. Partridgeberry jam. Rambunctious ocean on all sides.

Karen Enns, author of That Other Beauty:

As a poetry-only press, Brick Books offers a very focused, very attentive approach to the publishing process. I was guided through the editing and production of my first book with expertise and respect. It was a very positive experience.

But publishing with Brick Books also includes an invitation to join a larger community of poets. Because Brick publishes books by authors from all parts of Canada, and its editors live and write from coast to coast, there is a kind of geographic energy at work behind the scenes. My perspective on what’s happening in Canadian poetry has changed and broadened. Brick has given me a wonderful opportunity to engage with the national dialogue around poetry.

Emily McGiffin, author of Between Dusk and Night:

The publication of my first book of poetry with Brick Books this spring has changed Canadian literature for me. It’s gone from being something that someone somewhere else is doing to being a community that I’m part of. As I pick up books by Canadian writers whose names I’ve become familiar with, read their latest in the lit mags, and go to hear them read their work, I have a newfound sense of being among colleagues. This feeling of being part of a community — however far-flung — adds another incentive to keep at this tricky business of writing. It gives me a sense that I’m not just a lone writer in a rocky and remote corner of the continent, but part of a much greater whole.

When my book came out, I was working in the Philippines. I received a note in the mail that a package had arrived for me and on the way home I stopped by the post office to pick it up. A padded yellow envelope awaited me and I took it down to the old Spanish bulwark that juts out into the ocean a few blocks from the little apartment I rented. Seated there on a bench among people taking their evening strolls, I pulled out the books and thumbed through them as the sun went down over the water. It’s a wonderful memory to have and I’m hugely grateful to Brick for going to the trouble and expense of mailing me a package of books as well as sending a box to my home in Canada.

Buy these book at the Brick Books website or at your local independent bookstore.

With thanks to Brick Books for permission to publish these photos.

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