Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Sound Structure: 35 Years of Brick Books

How one of Canada’s longest-running small presses in Ontario keeps evolving and staying current in the ever-fragile world of Canadian poetry
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Celebrate 35 Years of Brick Books on Wednesday, October 13th, 2010 at Mitzi's Sister. See Open Book's Events Page for details.

UPDATE! Julie Wilson has been hard at work creating an extensive Audioboo collection of poetry readings by Brick poets. Check it out, have a listen, here.

By Nathaniel G. Moore

It gives me great comfort to know that when Stan began the work of Brick Books, he knew almost as little as I did when starting Pedlar Press. Which just goes to show you: if you care about producing beautiful books of exceptional literary quality, and if you stay somewhat removed from the activities of the sanctified centre, lo and behold, 35 years pass and what you have is an animated and celebrated relationship with writers, literature and the world. That's something to try for.
                                                            — Beth Follett, publisher of [14-year old] Pedlar Press

It's always heartening to see a publisher have another birthday, especially when it's Brick! Brick's dedication to poetry is a brave and rare thing, and Kitty Lewis is an inspiration. I wish them another 35 years of success.
                                                            — Alana Wilcox, Senior Editor Coach House Books

I. CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS: AN OVERVIEW

The only thing I can give you factually is number of books published back to 1997 — five books in 1997; six in 1998/99; eight in 2000 [we had contracts for seven books and then decided to do New Life in Dark Seas: Brick Books 25 to celebrate our 25th anniversary]; 7 books per year since 2003. I have found a spreadsheet and will send those figures to Stan who can distill them
                                                            — Kitty Lewis, always taking the time to crunch numbers, be friendly and promote the press in an accessible and straight forward way.

On the evening of October 13th, London, Ontario-based Brick Books will be in Toronto for a special reading and celebration for the press’s 35th anniversary. It’s a night that will bring together the storied history of a publishing odyssey in Canadian, one that spans the past three (and a half) decades. 35 years of publishing Canadian poetry. To put things into perspective, a large crop of emerging poets in Canada who are now beginning to publish books were born in the mid-seventies. It’s also when revered authors (and at the time University of Western professors) Stan Dragland and Don McKay started Brick Books. The first publications the press produced took the form of short-run chapbooks after noticing a breadth of quality poetry going on in the London area.

"Colleen Thibaudeau's Ten Letters was first," Dragland recalls, "Don's Lependu came a few years later and was a full-size book. Don wasn't part of the house until after Ten Letters and From the Medley."

The duo felt it was worth investing the time and effort into publishing the work of local writers, then over time, this practice expanded into the dedication to taking on larger works. The first chapbook they published was Colleen Thibaudeau's Ten Letters. "I set that one," says Dragland, "and Peggy Dragisic’s From the Medley, in lead type, though they were both printed offset from a proof. Then there was Les Arnold’s Notes on the Paintings of Francis Bacon. These were from manuscripts easily come by in the community."

The first real book the press published was Don McKay's Lependu. "Don has not published with Brick Books since then, and has even resisted having Lependu reprinted," says Dragland, and states that in 1978, the book had been accepted by Applegarth Follies, a London publishing house that eventually collapsed. "The book is about the hanged man of London, Ontario, and it seemed proper that it come out of London," Dragland recalls.

"I see Brick Books continuing in the same direction it has been travelling for the past 35 years," says the press's general manager Kitty Lewis. "Our mandate is to foster interesting and ambitious work by Canadian poets, both new and established; to produce beautifully designed, attractive books worthy of the excellence of their contents; and to distribute and promote these books and their authors." Lewis says she's an admirer of many of the small literary presses in Ontario, in particular, Coach House Books. "They are a unique operation and so creative in all areas of their work — the books they publish, their marketing and promotion, their connections with the outside community. It has also been very interesting to watch the growth and success of Pedlar Press."

II. AN INTERVIEW WITH STAN DRAGLAND

NGM:

What were some of the main obstacles the press faced over the past 35 years?

SD:

Don’t know that I would speak of obstacles. There was much to learn, but we edged into things in near-complete ignorance, gradually. First we (Don McKay and myself) did almost everything, including paste-up and design. It took us awhile to find a printer who really understood the needs of a poetry press, and knew how to take on the design of both cover and guts. It wasn’t until we linked up with The Porcupine’s Quill that we got the books to look sharp. Early on, we had no clue about distribution. The books got printed, but didn’t much get out into the world. Not until Kitty Lewis joined us did we get a handle on the business of publishing. When I say “we,” there, I mean Kitty, and she had to learn all the very great deal she now knows, because she started without any background in publishing. Insofar as we have been successful, we are an argument for starting up blind — except maybe of what makes good poetry.

NGM:

House of Anansi and Coach House have re-invented themselves drastically over the past 15 years. How would you say Brick has changed in since 1995?

SD:

The bigger changes, for us, came earlier: moving from chapbook to full-length book (the only way to qualify for grants), finally understanding that we needed a business manager and a production manager, and finding wonderful people to fill those roles. I’ve mentioned the inimitable Kitty. Sue Schenk, Sue Leclaire and Maureen Scott Harris have held the position of production manager for varying periods of time. Now the job is as beautifully handled, but split between Alayna Munce and Cheryl Dipede. Early on, all of those involved in Brick Books lived in London, Ontario, and we used to meet weekly to get basic things done. Now the only one left in London is Kitty. The rest of us are scattered across the country, from British Columbia to Newfoundland. We do our work mostly by mail and e-mail, with irregular AGMs and a yearly acquisition meeting. It took us awhile to get the exploded system working smoothly, but we’re there now.

NGM:

What is the best advice you can give a first-time poet hoping to publish with Brick Books?

SD:

Push the work as far as you can. There’s little point in sending us unfinished work, because we receive so many terrific polished manuscripts. Every one of those accepted evolves further as a result of editorial advice, but the selected manuscripts already read like books. The other advice would be not to get the hopes too high, because we have room for only seven books a year, and we choose those from a shortlist of publishable books often twice that long. Persistence is necessary, and I mean persistence in the writing, not just the submitting. It should not be easy to publish. I don’t mean to be discouraging, though. One of our greatest joys is to encounter amazing work by writers new to us, and this happens every year.

NGM:

What makes a Brick Book a Brick Book?

SD:

In its own particular way, it has to sing.

NGM:

What were the major expansion periods for the staff: new hires, larger print runs, publishing more books?

SD:

We published six books in 1987. That was the first expansion. It was some years later, though, that we settled on a basic seven books a year. The biggest change was bringing Kitty into the operation. You’ll need to ask her exactly when that was.

NGM:

How has the poetry publishing business changed since you started out?

SD:

Business questions as such are best addressed by Kitty Lewis. The publishers and editors have not had to concern themselves regularly with such matters. After Kitty came on board, we were freed (and this is a great luxury) to concentrate most of the time on more purely literary matters. In a sense, poetry publishing, if you leave off the word “business,” hasn’t changed at all for us. We still do it out of the conviction that poetry is crucially important to culture in general, and we are still basically volunteering our time out of love and respect for it.

NGM:

How many different official or unofficial offices has Brick had over the years?

SD:

Never had an office as such. My house first, I guess, then Don and Jean McKay’s house on the Coldstream Road out of London, then Kitty Lewis’s house. Production out of Maureen Scott Harris’s house, that sort of thing. I’m leaving out a few steps, but hey! No Brick Books building or office space: that’s a big saving on overhead.

NGM:

What are your goals as you move into the future?

SD:

Don likes to say, about things that are working well, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We want to keep a beautifully-working operation working beautifully so we can continue to publish the astonishing books that are submitted to us every year. Beyond that, we have begun to think about succession, which we want to be gradual, new folks folded in as older ones slip out.

III. KITTY LEWIS REFLECTS

NGM:

I asked General Manager Kitty Lewis to talk about some of the highlights she experienced over the last 20 years with Brick Books.

KL:

I joined Brick Books over 20 years ago — at first I was filling the orders for books and contacting booksellers for overdue accounts on a part-time basis. The job just continued to grow over the years and now I have been general manager full time for 10-1/2 years. I have learned about publishing on the job - I am the general manager and take care of all the administrative work including grant writing, correspondence, contracts, introducing authors to our procedures, improving and streamlining these procedures, setting up author launches and tours, keeping an eye on sales and distribution…. It has been very fulfilling learning how to navigate and helping new and established poets gain attention for their writing. And there's always something new — now we are looking into e-books….

Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems by Randall Maggs — this has been a very special book to work on — it's about Terry Sawchuk, the famous goalie in the NHL and includes archival photos from the 1950s and 1960s. We have been able to gain a lot of attention for this book because of its subject matter, because the author is such an interesting person and very passionate about the subject matter and because we were able to tap into some extra funding from the Ontario Media Development Corporation that gave us the tools to promote the book much more broadly than was our regular practise.

Short Talks by Anne Carson — We published Anne's first poetry book in 1992. In those days there was no internet or on-line bookstores or any way to get the word out about our books. It has been very interesting to learn how to let people know about this book as Anne continued writing and publishing more books and gaining such a profile in Canada and the United States and further afield. Anne still reads from this book in public. We are in our seventh printing of this book.

A Really Good Brown Girl by Marilyn Dumont ‐ his book is about a young Metis girl growing up in a white-dominated world. It was published in 1996 and has been constantly reprinted — we are now in our twelfth printing of this book. It is adopted on courses at universities all over Canada and the United States and poems from it have appeared in numerous anthologies and high school textbooks. It seems to have been published at just the right time and just keeps on giving.

The LPG is 35 years old too in 2010 — Brick Books joined the LPG very early in its history — I'm not exactly sure when but we were part of a joint catalogue very early in the LPG's history. It is a wonderful organization that has grown from a staff of one person to a staff of eight people — it is an association that advocates for literary presses but more importantly creates projects that help small presses like Brick Books be a very visible part of the publishing world. One of these projects provides us with sales representation to bookstores all across Canada and into the United States through the LPG. As a member of the LPG, we have contact with the many literary presses across Canada and these presses have been very generous in sharing their expertise throughout the years which helps all of us. The LPG and its many activities have been crucial to the success of Brick Books.

IV: THE READERS

The following readers are confirmed to appear on the 13th in Toronto:

Nico Rogers
Pain Not Bread [a writing group composed of Roo Borson, Kim Maltman and Andy Patton]
Kim Maltman
Maureen Hynes
Maureen Harris
Al Moritz
Karen Solie
David Seymour
Barry Dempster

Each poet will read one poem from their Brick book and one poem from another Brick author's book. In addition to the readings, there will be door prizes, cake and books at special anniversary prices.

V: BRICK BOOKS ROLLING CREDITS:

Editorial Staff
Stan Dragland
Don McKay
Barry Dempster
John Donlan
Alayna Munce
Marnie Parsons
Elizabeth Philips
Jan Zwicky

General Manager
Kitty Lewis

Production Team
Alayna Munce, Production Manager
Cheryl Dipede, Production & Design Coordinator

Website Design
Distinct Variation(s)

* * *

Photos courtesy of Brick Books. Please click on an image to start the gallery.

Photo One: Agnes Walsh, Poet Laureate of St. John's and Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Poet Laureate of Halifax, and Kitty Lewis, general manager of Brick Books - in Whitehorse, January 2008.

Photo Two: Harbourfront reading featuring Don Domanski and Randall Maggs in April 16, 2008. Brick authors and staff attended.
Front Row: Don Domanski and Al Moritz
Back row: Roo Borson, Karen Solie, David Seymour, Barry Dempster, Kim Maltman, Sue Sinclair, Randall Maggs
Middle row: Kitty Lewis, Maureen Harris

Photo Three: Brick Books table at AWP in Chicago, February 2009.

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