An Interview with Kitty Lewis and Barry Dempster of Brick Books

Sharon Caseburg: Brick must receive a considerable number of unsolicited poetry manuscripts each year. What process must a writer go through in order to be considered and ultimately published by Brick Books?

Barry Dempster: We receive over 110 manuscripts a year and, as senior editor, I give every one of these serious consideration. Those that stand out go on to a second stage, which sometimes includes conferring with another Brick editor to see if our opinions match. Then there’s the final decision making. Starting in 2007, Stan Dragland, Don McKay, and I will sit down and go over each of the final candidates, discussing them until we’re able to come to a consensus on the seven books we will publish two years hence. It’s a thorough process, each manuscript read carefully, often several times. But, being poets ourselves, we’re also sensitive to making the process as streamlined as possible so as not to hold on to manuscripts too long. We read from January 1st until April 30th every year, then we spend the next few months getting things to the final stage, with all decisions made by the end of the summer at the very latest.

Kitty Lewis: As Don McKay explained for a grant application, we are guided by the principle of reserving several spots for beginning poets. As the years have gone by, Brick Books has received more and more submissions from experienced poets, and it would be easy for us to publish only those with reputations already established. But our conviction that poetry is the meditative instrument we most need now—as individuals, and as a society—requires that we think in the widest terms and take into account what is best for poetry itself, and not only what would most profit us as publishers. It is increasingly hard for beginning poets to achieve book publication and we feel it is important that Brick Books, who has always been responsive to them (and aware of their value as presences in the culture at large), should keep the door open. Consequently, we make strenuous efforts to respond editorially with comments to all promising manuscripts to assist in their development.

SC: What do you look for when considering a manuscript? Where does Brick find their new authors?

KL: I’ll let Barry answer this—although I can say that because we have been around for 31 years, people know Brick Books and our work and seek us out. Longevity, editorial strength, sound distribution, marketing and promotion, and excellent production values have raised our profile very high.

BD: We look for excellence; we look for language that sizzles when it needs to sizzle and flows when it needs to flow; we listen for voices that combine honesty, artfulness, and energy. What keeps us going is the search for genuinely original, committed, intensely well-crafted poets. We depend somewhat on these poets tracking us down, although we do keep an eye on the literary magazines, etc. I’m always thinking about Brick when I attend a poetry reading or teach a workshop.

SC: Kitty, how profitable is selling poetry? How has Brick managed to make a go of it and survive publishing only poetry in a market that is often hostile to literature in general, but to poetry in particular?

KL: Selling poetry is not profitable but that has never been our goal. We have stayed focused on poetry because that’s where the editors involved with Brick Books have their expertise. Our main aim is to break even—we spend the money that comes in. Some years this is possible, other years not so much.

SC: Do you think that being located in Ontario has helped?

KL: We seek out any grants possible to support our publishing program. This includes block grants from Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council. Since our 2001–2002 fiscal year, we have participated in the Book Publishing Industry Development Program through the Department of Canadian Heritage.

The Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit through the Ontario Media Development Corporation has been very beneficial to us—we incorporated Brick Books in December 2000 to take advantage of this program in our 2001–2002 fiscal year. I think that’s the only advantage for us in being located in Ontario.

SC: What about in terms of being located close to Toronto, the publishing centre of Canada?

KL: I really don’t think that being close to Toronto has had any advantage in terms of media attention for our writers or having the books reviewed. This is poetry we are talking about and it is very difficult to get any attention paid to poetry. I think in general it is difficult for literary presses to get attention for their books from the media. We send our books promptly to the newspapers and literary magazines for review. In the last few years we seem to have had a bit more success having our books reviewed in the Globe, the Toronto Star, and other newspapers across the country—but I think that’s a reflection of our longevity and our increased profile.

This interview is excerpted from a longer piece published in CV2.