Sunday, March 06, 2005

BookThug: an interview with Jay MillAr
This interview was conducted over email from July to August, 2004.

Jay MillAr is a poet, editor, bookseller and publisher. Born in Edmonton in 1971, he was raised in London, Ontario by a zoologist and a music teacher. For the past eleven summers he has collected data on white-footed mice in a woodlot near Tilbury, Ontario for a population Biologist at Lakehead University. A small press advocate, MillAr publishes various things by himself and other under the imprint BookThug, and sells these books as well as other small press and poetically minded literature through Apollinaire’s Bookshoppe, “an imaginary bookstore” specializing in “the books that no one wants to buy.

He is the author of The Ghosts of Jay MillAr (Coach House Books, 2000), Mycological Studies (Coach House Books, 2002) and False Maps for Other Creatures (blewointmentpress, forthcoming spring 2005) as well as many other books that are not ‘real’ by government standards. He lives and works in Toronto with Hazel and their two sons, Reid and Cole.

Current BookThug titles include limited-run chapbooks by Daniel f. Bradley, Alice Burdick, Christopher Dewdney, Jason Dickson, Gerry Gilbert, Phil Hall, Jesse Huisken, Karen Mac Cormack, David W. McFadden, Jay MillAr, nathalie stephens and others. For information contact Jay at or check out

rob mclennan: What made you first start making books?

Jay MillAr: In the early 90s I was living in London, Ontario, and going to Western. I was kind of interested in poetry because of a great English teacher I’d had in my last year of highschool, so I was taking a general arts program. My intro to Eng.Lit. course did a segment on Contemporary Canadian Poetry, so of course we read that New Canadian Library pocketbook by that same title, which had a lot of poems in it by people that were still alive, but none of which were actually contemporary. Anyway, my prof mentioned that one of the poets in the anthology would be giving a reading at the public library downtown, so I went to check it out. The poet turned out to be bill bissett, and his reading both frightened and amused me, but it must have amused me more than it frightened me because I went to the university library to look into his work. That’s when I discovered blewointmentpress, bill’s self-proclaimed publishing empire named after a cure for body lice. I was amazed at the simplicity and often rag-tag production that went into a blewointmentpress book [some were printed sheets just stapled together]. As a result I started scanning the stacks of the Canadian Literature section for books that had no spines – books that had been bound with staples. I discovered all sorts of things, but most importantly I found Stuart Ross’ Proper Tales Press and Crad Kilodney’s Charnel House. All of the presses I discovered showed me not only a different way of going about producing a book, but these three in particular, blewointment, Proper Tales and Charnel also showed me that there was a different kind of market out there for literature – all of these guys stood on the street hawking their books. But besides these obvious differences, more than anything these presses told me that anyone could be a publisher if they wanted. Within a few months I had foolishly produced my first small press book – goofily titled ‘uranium kisses will knock your socks off’ under the imprint Boondoggle Books (I liked boondoggle because it means ‘to carry out useless and trivial acts with the appearance of doing something important’) – in an edition of 300 copies, most of which I still have. Somewhere.

rm: How did you distribute your early titles, and what was the response? Were they only your titles at first, or did you publish others?

JM: Like I said, I still have most of them – it’s really easy to publish a book, but getting rid of them if you want money for them is a pain in the ass. Probably because the general consumer doesn’t know what to do with books that don’t look ‘real.’ And poetry? Forget it. No one can sell poetry to save their life. And yes, at first small press publishing was simply a means for me to publish my own poetic genius – it wasn’t until I moved to Toronto that I published anyone else. At first I tried the selling on the street method a little bit – stood in front of my friend’s dad’s music shop in downtown London at Richmond and King. I was really shy, and there were only crazy people in downtown London because all the ‘normal’ people shopped at the malls in the suburbs. And every time a cop drove by I’d get scared and duck inside. Because there were a lot of crazies there were also a lot of cops. I’m confident that I didn’t sell anything. I tried to put a few copies on consignment in local bookstores, but most of them weren’t interested. I did get a copy in one shop on Richmond Street and forgot about it after a while. Years later I was poking through the store and found the book still sitting in the poetry section. I tried selling them to my friends, people I knew, but that was hard because I felt so guilty charging them money for it. Or maybe they made me feel guilty. I’m not sure. Anyway, the basic response was that no one really cared one way or the other about my books except me. The long and the short of it is that over time I published fewer and fewer copies of things – books started at 300 copies but there was a period in the middle 90s when I would only publish in editions of 26 copies or 52 copes at the max. It wasn’t until recently that I started doing BookThug editions of other people’s work in 60 to 100 copies. I still tend to publish editions of my own work in 52 copies for some reason.

rm: What was the reason for the shift from Boondoggle Books to BookThug? Was there even a difference?

JM: Yes and no. Most of the Boondoggle Books stuff I think of as photocopied chapbooks, while the BookThug stuff I think of as more of an artbook, or book as object publishing. More recently there’s been a quiet hybridity between the two ideas in the production of books. But mostly I changed things because I was getting tired of the name. Boondoggle Books got kind of silly sounding, to me anyway, after a while. I switched the name to Book Thug Angel for I think two publications, then just to BookThug. Book Thug Angel is plain stupid. BookThug comes from a poem by Daniel f. Bradley called PROLE: “in a crowd i feel / a small press / in a word gang / book thugs / thud the same / we’re words / sloshing into one another.” Great poem.

Do you remember that essay by Clint Burnham that was published as one of the Streetcar Editions about Toronto Smallpress? It’s been a while since I read it but if I remember correctly he talks about the smallpresser as someone that through his or her publishing critiques ‘real’ publishing. Questions the capitalistic assumptions that occur when a ‘real’ book is published. But the examples he used, for the most part [probably with the exception of jwcurry] seemed more to me as though they mimicked what big presses do but on a smaller scale. They seemed more to me like small presses that wanted to be big presses, or at the very least medium sized presses, and through their mimicry flashed a kind of jealousy or spite at not being a big publisher. Maybe I’m totally wrong, but anyway, maybe that’s what Boondoggle Books is, or was, I guess. The other side of that, at least to me, is rather than comparing oneself to a big press, or a medium sized press, or use smallpress publishing as a means to examine the role of the press is a capitalist system, is to simply ignore it all and publish what you want to publish however you feel like publishing it, without having to answer to anyone. My feeling is that BookThug just wants to be itself.

rm: I’ve been hearing about the Burnham essay for years, but haven’t seen it yet. Would it be worth reprinting or even updating, considering it would probably be twenty years old by now? And you do make lovely books. But do they exist the same way as “object publishing” when most of the BookThug titles exist in similar formats?

JM: Yes, in some ways I have hit a stride of some sort with regard to BookThug – a mild uniformity of production. This is mostly because of the nature of my life – I want to publish but don’t have a lot of time to consider each title as an object unto itself. Besides, in the case of presses that consider each title as an object unto itself, for example Pas De Chance, the book is really interesting while the writing it contains is not always so interesting. I would suggest that any publication that shows some ‘other way’ to go about publishing and distributing the work of writers (ie writing) is a book object of sorts. What I’ve done isn’t really new – I’ve actually looked into the past to see how simple, inexpensive books were produced in nicely produced editions. Book design shouldn’t overwhelm the writing but it should be inviting enough to get a reader curious. As for that Burnham essay, I don’t know if it should be reproduced or not – it isn’t necessarily a helpful text, and it is very much a product of it’s time. I’m not sure if a reader today would find it useful, or even know what Burnham is talking about. The version of the small press community in Toronto to which it refers no longer exists. And I think he kind of skewed everything by neglecting to differentiate between smallpress and micropress publishing.

rm: Is this interest in book design part of what attracted you to Coach House Books?

JM: If you mean as a writer, well, it was mostly because Victor Coleman asked me for a manuscript. If you mean as an editor, well, mostly it was because Alana Wilcox and Jason McBride asked me if I would like to be an editor. But generally speaking, it’s one of the things that I always liked about Coach House. Stan Bevington has a very classical approach to design, even if he is designing a book by the most avant garde writer. Coach House, which has the editors and designers upstairs and the presses downstairs, is also an example of something that attracted me to micropress publishing – there’s a certain squashing or shrinking going on to the levels of book production. Not as much as true micropress publishing, but it’s there.

rm: Through all the years you’ve been a publisher, how has this impacted (if at all) your considerations as a writer?

JM: The most influential thing I suppose is that I’ve been forced to think in terms of book a lot. Or I’ve learned to think in terms of The Book. There are a lot of books out there that are books of poems, or whatever they are books of. When I’m reading them I get this sense that each poem can stand all by itself without any of the others. This is fine, people have done this forever, but it makes my experience of the book fragmentary. Almost as though the book weren’t really necessary. I think that in many ways that’s a pretty mid-20th century thing in poetry. There are exceptions, of course, but generally poets wrote poems one at a time, and they eventually put them all together in a book. When I’m writing, I’m not thinking so much about a poem or even a series of poems, I’m thinking more about how the thing I’m working on will fit in the book it’s going to end up in. No, wait, that’s not quite it. It’s more that I’m thinking about that point in the book. I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but I can’t help it. When it comes to my own writing, I think in books. Of those books written by other people, the ones that interest me the most are those that appear to have discovered their own sense of themselves. And since I’d like my own writing to be interesting (at least to me) then I want my books to discover their own sense of self. I want my writing to discover its own sense of the book.

(an abbreviated version appears in the current issue of Broken Pencil)

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