Coastal Spectator contributor Julian Gunn recently sat down over coffee to chat with Kitty Lewis, the general manager of poetry publisher Brick Books. At this year’s League of Canadian Poets gala, Lewis received the League’s Honorary Life Membership Award. She insists that her contribution is to support the artistic vision of Brick founders Don McKay and Stan Dragland. Still, it’s obvious how much the poetry community appreciates that contribution. Gunn’s interview encompassed a discussion of Brick’s current projects, the history of the publisher, and its commitment to Canadian poetry.
Can you tell me a little bit about your history with Brick Books?
The press started 39 years ago, and I’ve been around something like 25. I always forget how long. Don McKay, who’s a poet, and Stan Dragland, who’s a poet, novelist, and essayist, were both teaching at Western University (the University of Western Ontario in those days). They kept coming across students who were writing poetry, and they said, “We should publish some of this.” They started with chapbooks, and then, as people started sending in longer manuscripts, we got into applying for grants for full-length books.
I don’t do the choosing. I don’t do the editing. I don’t do production. I do everything else. I’m the administration. You need someone practical. There are artistic people who are running presses who can do it all. They can write, they can edit, but that’s not one of my talents. What’s great is that I get to run a business but I’m not risking my own money. (She laughs.)
So what’s it like in the Brick Books office? Are there people always coming and going? Interns?
No, no. It’s in my house. I work strange hours. I tend to stay up really late at night. I maybe start working in the morning at 10 or 11. At 8 o’clock I might watch some TV, and then I might do a couple more hours of work. I go away in the summer. I have a cottage and I just move Brick Books there. As long as I have the Internet, I can run the business.
It never worked out to get an intern. I love to impart what I know, and I’m always happy to meet with people. If anybody writes asking about Brick Books, I will usually meet with them, because they’re interested in publishing. I’ll just sit them down, and we’ll have a chat so I can give them an idea of what it’s all about.
I’ve found through the years that the more you do, the more there is to do. We didn’t have Facebook and Twitter years ago. We didn’t have the Internet.
Speaking of which, Brick Books has a broad-based Internet presence. You seem to have ventured into all available social media. I’m assuming that’s a deliberate strategy?
I started on Facebook because my older son said “Hey! My friends are on here. Lots of people would like to be friends with you.” Then I started looking around, and I saw that other publishers were on the Internet. I just started building that up.
There’s a grant called the OMDC Book Fund – that stands for the Ontario Media Development Corporation. There are grants for film and television and books, all under the same umbrella. In the past, the grant was more for something over and above what you would normally do. In 2008 we had two poets laureate on our list: Agnes Walsh from St John’s, Newfoundland, and Lorri Neilsen Glenn from Halifax. I said, “Are you interested in visiting other poets laureate across the country?” Because you know, I network. I had met these people or at least been in touch with them. So we got the grant, and then the poets said “You don’t suppose we could go up north, do you?” Well, I had no contacts up there, but one of our authors had been to the Whitehorse Poetry Festival (www.whitehorsepoetry.com), so I got that person’s contact and we went north. We went to Edmonton, Yellowknife, Whitehorse – I went with them to those three – then Saskatoon, Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria. So that was the kind of thing we were proposing in those days.
Then the OMDC grant added funding for digital projects. I wanted a project that was going to raise our visibility and discoverability. I knew someone in Toronto who was really good at social media, Julie Wilson. I told her “I’d like to talk to you sometime, but I don’t want to just talk to you and get advice and then buzz off and do it. I want to talk to you, and then I want to hire you.”
We’re a poetry publisher. We’re not looking for fireworks. We’re solid, we believe in what we do, and we believe in quality. I felt that she would understand who we were. And what she came up with is podcasts. We’ve done the whole history of Brick Books. We have books that we published in 1975, and I’ve now got three of the books from Fall 2014 already recorded. We’ve got almost a thousand poems recorded now.
We launched the podcast in Poetry Month one year, then created the YouTube channel. We do about six poems from each book, just to give a taste. On the YouTube channel we put those together and that’s a single podcast. I think the authors really like it. We’re including everybody. We’re not excluding you just because we published you in the 1990s – you’re still part of it.
Of all the things you do to connect readers to the poetry, which do you think are the most effective?
We just keep chugging away. Every year when you’re doing a new grant, you trot out your numbers. So the views on the YouTube channel are increasing, the number of podcast poems is increasing. We have more followers on Twitter. Facebook has become really hard now because they’re only showing 30 per cent of your people. That’s unfortunate, because that was a really good method. We’re still using it.
The Literary Press Group is creating an online bookstore which will be launched in the next few months, so that’s going to be the Canadian place to go. It includes Canadian literary presses – I think there are 35 publishers on board now. We do sell books from our own website, but people are looking for the author, not Brick Books.
I’m constantly networking with reading series . . . Then you have something like Victoria’s Planet Earth Poetry reading series. They do that too, but there are more spaces, so that flexibility is great. Planet Earth is definitely my go-to place.
I know Brick Books is interested in emerging poets as well. Is that a policy?
Don and Stan were teachers, right? If we wanted to publish just established authors, we could, but that’s not where their hearts are. We do seven books a year, so we don’t say “Okay, three need to be first books.” It just happens. We don’t publish a first book just because. We read submissions between the first of January and the end of April every year. We get an average of a hundred submissions, and we have enough money to do seven books. So the manuscript kind of has to sparkle to rise above the others. Those ones will go into the finals. There might be anywhere from eight to 15 that we have to choose those seven out of and that’s hard because there’s not a lot of difference of quality between them. They’ll be strong in different ways. We do about 60 per cent first and second books and then 40 per cent third and up. I’ve been keeping the statistics.
The thing that’s nice about Brick Books is that we only do poetry, so it’s very easy to treat everybody the same way. If you do fiction, you’re probably going to devote a little more time to the fiction because it might make more money and help you afford to do the poetry. We do seven books and everybody gets treated the same way. It suits my temperament, like being inclusive with the podcasts and the ebooks – we just include everybody.
We are trying to run a business and we are trying to be fiscally responsible. But – as Don says – we have the hearts of peasants. We believe in people. We believe in writing. We believe in treating people with respect. Once you’re a Brick author you’re always a Brick author.
(In addition to Lewis’ recent award, on February 23rd Brick Books received the first Publishers’ Award from the Galiano Literary Festival.)