Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

BookThug: Small Press, Big Ambitions

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Jay MillAr with his son Cole at the last BookThug launch. (Photo credit: Ralph Kolewe)

By Michelle Medford

bill bissett was giving a reading at a library in downtown London, Ont. in the early 1990s and Jay MillAr wanted to be there. MillAr was then a student taking his first English Literature course at The University of Western Ontario. He’d never been to a poetry reading and his course had just begun tackling contemporary Canadian poetry. When he arrived at the library, everyone was sitting in chairs arranged in a circle. MillAr took a seat and tried to spot the poet. “I picked out the guy that had a mock turtleneck on and a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows,” he says. As it turned out, this was the man who stood up to introduce bissett. “Then, this crazy looking guy, with his orange sunglasses on, got up and pulled a maraca out of his back pocket and started shaking it around,” says MillAr about bissett. MillAr was both a bit frightened and amused, but even more so intrigued.

Back at Western, MillAr started looking into bissett’s work and he stumbled onto bissett’s blewointment press. The press had been a magazine in the late 50s that evolved into a publisher of pamphlets and chapbooks, noted for their hand-decorated covers and inserts. “They looked like scraps of paper that were stapled together. He made them himself,” says MillAr. “That was when I realized that anyone could be a publisher.”

Years later, MillAr is now the publisher of BookThug, a small press that produces chapbooks, trade books and variety of other formats, including broadsides, reissues and others. Although some would say that the roots of BookThug began in 1992, back then, the press was a bit different than it is today.

In 1992, after learning more about bissett’s press, MillAr began to explore the Western library further, searching for books without spines. The hunt let him to Stuart Ross’ Proper Tales Press and Crad Kilodney’s Charnel House, both of which were used for self-publishing. He decided to leap into the small press business and created Boondoggle Books. He began to self-publish and eventually started printing the works of friends from York University. “It was just exciting to be able to help these people put these things out into the world,” he says. MillAr came to Toronto shortly afterward and attended the The Toronto Small Press Fair.

As Boondoggle began to grow, MillAr decided to apply for a grant. He also opted for a name change: BookThug. It was inspired by a line from an author he’d published, Daniel f. Bradley’s 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.” Around then, the press’ variety of formats began to grow and someone helping MillAr with his grant recommended he ask Jenny Sampirisi to join the team.

Sampirisi, who’d edited for The Windsor Review and was publicist for The Scream Literary Festival, was more than thrilled to step on board as managing editor. She’d come across BookThug before in studies at the University of Windsor and was taken aback by the physical beauty of the books they’d published, which is understandable, as MillAr has always paid particular attention to the aesthetic of their books.

Although the book industry is moving into the digital world, MillAr explains that he doesn’t want to forget the physical form of the book. “I really love beautiful books; it’s a piece of architecture for the writing inside it,” he says. He speaks about working with Mark Goldstein, a fellow author published by BookThug. “His sensitivity toward the book is beautiful,” says MillAr about Goldstein, citing Goldstein’s work on the press’ reissue of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and its companion book by Steve McCaffery, as well as Phil Hall’s Killdeer.

MillAr and Sampirisi made a fitting team, sharing the same understanding of the ever-growing press. When asked how they’d describe BookThug’s work, they both shied away from the term “experimental.” Although admittedly, some of BookThug’s is experimental, MillAr reminds us of the variety within poetry alone: prose, lyric and visual. In addition, they also produce novels, essays and more. “BookThug is interested in people who are trying things, experimenting with thing,” says MillAr. It’s a sentiment Sampirisi echoes, choosing “innovative” as the most fitting word to describe the press. “Every word I could possibly choose is kind of fraught with inaccuracy,” she says. She’s also particularly proud of the authors published by BookThug. “They’re often getting ignored and they’re not the type of writers that get awards. They’re not the type that maybe even get grants and yet they’re producing amazing and exciting work,” she says.

Years later, BookThug continues to grow. Today, the press is run by a staff of four, as MillAr’s wife Hazel and web guru John Schmidt have joined. MillAr continues to be as optimistic as from the start when he plunged into the small press business. “We’ve got a big fall coming up, actually a lot more books this fall than I could imagine a small press with four people working for could possibly produce,” says MillAr, “but we’re going to do it anyway.”

Michelle Medford is a journalism grad and intern at Open Book for the summer of 2011. She has written for TV Guide Canada, Glow magazine and other online publications. She’s also an avid blogger and film reviewer at Cinefilles.

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