With 35 candidates competing in seven different categories for this year’s English-language Governor-General’s Literary Awards, due to be announced Tuesday, all eyes as usual will focus on the two or three novelists most favoured to win the marquee fiction prize – the same few who have dominated the busy award season that Tuesday’s ceremony will unofficially bring to an exhausted end.
But when it comes to real domination, none of the authors or publishers vying for the big prizes can match the obscure one-man shop that virtually owns the shortlist for the 2011 Governor-General’s poetry award.
Of five books nominated for the $25,000 prize, three were published by upstart small press BookThug, operated on a kitchen table almost single-handedly by Toronto poet Jay MillAr.
Not since Coach House Press first published the likes of Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje more than 40 years ago has a single publisher of poetry made such an impression on the national literature.
The difference is that today there are literally dozens of similar small presses – maybe not many so small as BookThug – doing the same thing. Fifty-three publishers, most of them surviving on modest grants from the Canada Council, submitted a total of 170 books for the 2011 poetry award.
The unifying theme of the three BookThug nominees is their diversity, according to MillAr, whose unconventional signature honours the legacy of such pioneer avant-gardists as bpNichol and bill bissett, publisher of blewointment press, the original inspiration for BookThug.
BookThug’s nominated titles “are three completely different books,” says the publisher, clean-cut and dressed in a checked shirt with belted trousers, looking more like the semi-suburban hockey dad he is than his mentor bill bissett, whom he remembers “wearing gigantic orange sunglasses and shaking a maraca” while reading. The three nominees’ diversity is exactly what he was hoping to achieve when he first established the imprint in 2004, MillAr says, hoping to bring together the vigorously warring ghettos of the early 21st-century scene.
“The poetry community is very small and it’s so ideologically driven,” he says. “You ended up having all these camps. It was almost like high school. But there was no real dialogue happening.”
Phil Hall’s Killdeer “comes from a lyrical-confessional background,” MillAr says. Michael Boughn’s Cosmographia, subtitled A Post-Lucretian Faux Micro-Epic, is “quite a hefty tome, with all of the workings of an epic – but in a micro way.” Kate Eichhorn’s Fieldnotes, a Forensic “is like CSI for really smart, interesting people, taking that forensic anthropology and plugging it through poetry and pornography and all kinds of strange things wrapped up together.”
Also nominated for the poetry award are Susan Musgrave’s Origami Dove, published by McClelland & Stewart; and Discovery Passages by Garry Thomas Morse, published by Talonbooks.
MillAr launched BookThug as “a response unit to Canadian literature,” its mission “to create a dialogue between experimental writers and people interested in more traditional forms of poetry.”
The new press boasted it was “the future of literature” – a claim no longer as presumptuous as it might once have seemed before this fall’s hat trick of nominations.Almost by accident along the way, BookThug began publishing Danish literature in translation, and is now North America’s premier source of such work, according to MillAr.
In addition to teaching at George Brown College, Ryerson University and the Toronto New School of Writing, he helps support his wife and two young sons counting white-footed field mice in his native southwestern Ontario for a Lakehead University population biologist – a job he has been doing continuously since 1981.
Also along the way, MillAr opened an online book shop named Apollinaire’s “that specializes in all the books nobody wants to buy” – mainly ultra-obscure, staple-bound chapbooks of contemporary poetry from small presses. But his real ambition is not so arcane. Frustrated that “poetry has become like a secret language spoken by poets,” he wants to make it matter. “My ambition as a publisher is to actually make this stuff really exciting again,” he says.