Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Jay MillAr

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Jay MillAr

This spring, Toronto high-school students from two Writer's Craft classes conducted interviews with some of Canada's finest poets. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book in June and July 2011.

Alexandra Gillis:

First and foremost, I’d like to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer these questions! After reading your book Mycological Studies and researching your work as a poet, I came up with some questions that I would be very interested in hearing your answers to. Here they are:

Apart from writing poetry, you are also an editor, publisher and virtual bookseller. Have you found that the virtual world has greatly helped in getting your work, as well as your name, out there and having it seen?

Jay MillAr:

Yes and no. For the selling of books and making the public aware of BookThug the Internet has been a wonderful tool, but I have to admit that I’m not very good at promoting myself as a writer using the Internet. I only really have time to write poetry. I have mostly found the Internet useful for discovering other poets I want to engage with, it has made that a rather simple task. On the level of community building and networking the Internet is wonderful but on the level of art itself I worry, actually, that the Internet is helping to create a kind of hyper-real poetry that is nothing but surface, lacking depth or attention. Either that or I’m just getting old and can’t keep up with the Internet any more.


Do you have any other writers, such as canonical poets or fictional authors, that you use as inspiration or perhaps even a guideline while writing? Was there anyone specifically that inspired you to become a poet?


Very early on I met poets like bill bissett and Christopher Dewdney. bissett introduced me to the idea of small-press publishing when I discovered he ran a press called blewointmentpress during the '60s and '70s. It was bissett who first inspired me on both the level or writing and publishing. My earliest published work are bad imitations of bissett, published in chapbooks inspired by blewointmentpress publications. Christopher Dewdney, whom I met through creative writing classes at both UWO and YorkU, I felt akin to: we both grew up in London, Ontario, both [had] scientist fathers and mothers working in the arts. He introduced me to a variety of North American poets, in particular the “New York School” and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. In particular, Ted Berrigan was a huge discovery for me. I have always liked his work and continue to read him today. Another poet I was obsessed with early on was Gerry Gilbert, who taught me that writing is more important that “art” or “craft.” Just write and the rest will follow, he seemed to say. I would say that an odd mashup of Dewdney and Gilbert where the inspiration behind Mycological Studies.


In your book Mycological Studies, while reading “Section XXVI Fungal Threads,” I noticed many repetitions of words; however, the word edible appeared to be most prominent. For me, this instantly brought to mind the psychological powers of ingesting mushrooms, as well as simply eating raw mushrooms. Was this your intention or did you have something else in mind? If it was, please discuss why you felt repetition of the word edible brought this image to life effectively.


I didn’t have anything in particular in mind writing that particular sequence, as that section was composed using The Complete Book of Mushrooms — reading through that text using the letters in the first season of fungal threads to select the words. Which means that the word “edible” is of great concern within that seminal text on mushrooms. And it becomes the ominous backbone of the second season of fungal threads as a result.


Some mushrooms are poisonous, and it is sometimes difficult to identify which are poisonous and which are safe. What poetry have you found to be poisonous?


I’m not sure that I have found any poisonous poetry. Either that or all poetry is poisonous and I’m one of those rare individuals who built up a tolerance to the toxin. The latter explanation might explain why poetry has such a poor readership.


You have published books with several publishing companies such as Coach House Books, The Mercury Press and Nightwood Editions. You are also the publisher of BookThug. I’m curious as to what was it that drove your decision to publish with different companies?


Well, I started out as a poet and I started publishing my work with other publishers before BookThug became a “major publisher of poetry.” I’ve always published my own work though (in fact I simultaneously began as both a publisher and a poet, which means that there is a pretty excellent record of my work in the “public” world, even if some of it was published in editions of 26 copies). I suppose it could be said that there is a stigma attached to self-publishing, as though it is less legitimate: you can’t get a grant, you won’t be invited to festivals, etc, etc. For me, I enjoy both having the opportunity to please myself in radical ways (self-publishing = sharing work with an intimate group of readers, etc) as well as having the opportunity to work with other people (working with other publishers = preparing the work for a wider readership). In both cases, writing is not (as it never should be) a solitary venture.


In published books, as well as the virtual world, I’ve noticed that you spell your name Jay MillAr. I’m curious as to why you spell it with the capital A? Is it something which personally relates to you or are you trying to convey a message to your readers through the spelling?


That’s actually a mnemonic device. Growing up I was always having to correct the spelling of my last name from Miller. In the early '90s I went to see Tim Findley read, and he told a story about the cover of his book Headhunter — he said that the graphic designer kept spelling his name wrong in their correspondence (he kept using an a in his last name — “Findlay”) and Findley was constantly correcting him. So when the first edition of the book came out Findley noticed that the “e” in his last name was in bright red on the front cover — a little joke from the graphic designer: “I remembered!” I thought using a capital A in my last name would make people notice how it was spelled. It also makes them pronounce it Millaaaarr, much to the chagrin of my mother. Recently my father was doing our family tree and discovered that throughout history our ancestors were constantly spelling the name either way. Some people had it spelled one way on their birth certificate and the other way on their death certificate. Which just goes to show you how useless names are.


When publishing, there’s only so much space on the page, as well as the entire book. Do you ever find that you are limited to the confines of a book, and that it prevents you from achieving exactly what you want to accomplish spatially?


I love the limitations of the page. I love the look of text in that frame. It is likely that because I began as a publisher around the same time that I started writing that I also began to think about the frame of the book as a compositional framework as well. So no, I wouldn’t say that the book prevents me from achieving what I want, but guides me. It’s much like the formal limitations of almost anything — a sonnet, language itself, civilization, our own mortality. I don’t think that constraints stop us from achieving anything; rather limitations, and how we as individuals deal with them, reveal exactly who we are.

Jay MillAr is a Toronto poet, editor, publisher, teacher and virtual bookseller. He is the author of several books, the most recent of which are esp : accumulation sonnets (2009) and Other Poems (2010). He is also the author of several privately published editions, such as Lack Lyrics, which tied to win the 2008 bpNichol Chapbook Award. MillAr is the shadowy figure behind BookThug, a publishing house dedicated to exploratory work by well-known and emerging North American writers, as well as Apollinaire’s Bookshoppe, a virtual bookstore that specializes in the books that no one wants to buy. Currently Jay teaches creative writing and poetics at George Brown College and Toronto New School of Writing, where he is also the co-director.

St. Michael’s hospital was blessed with the gift of giving life to Alexandra. An awkward child at birth, she threw herself into various forms of writing at a young age, for lack of friends left her with much spare time. When she’s not being held captive by Facebook or watching re-runs of House, Alexandra can often be found riding her horse or residing in the Malvern auditorium. The fact that her 4th grade teacher believed her first composed poem was plagiarized is by far her greatest writing accomplishment. Alexandra aspires to live and die happy, regardless of where that may lead her.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page