HIJ is a brand-new house reading series in the Junction, headed up by Jay and Hazel Millar. Predominantly known for their publishing house, BookThug, the Millars have always been involved in creating new facets of literary community with their new reading series, a discussion-based speak-easy, The Toronto New School, chapbook publishing, and BookThug. I met up with these community builders in their Junction home in the west end of Toronto to chat about their various projects and find out more about one of Toronto’s newest series.
Jay and Hazel Millar, founders of BookThug and HIJ
The lure of a creative writing community was one of the things that first drew the Millars to Toronto. “We both moved to Toronto in ’92,” Jay Millar told me on his back porch. “We both grew up in London, Ontario. I had just started publishing, just before I met Hazel, and I wooed her with my first publication ever.” When Hazel decided to attend York University for their dance program, Jay Millar decided that York University was also the school for him, since they had a creative writing program where one of his current writing professors at Western, Chris Dewdney, had taught. At York, the Millars would become exposed to peers they would want to publish with their first chapbook press, Boondoggle Books, and within their journal, HIJ.
HIJ was put out every two weeks and, like a chapbook, was all handmade. “Every two weeks we had to find the writers, get the material,” Hazel Millar explained.
“A lot of people we were meeting through the writing program at York. We’re still friends with Shannon Bramer, and I think she’s in all five issues!” Jay Millar added. “She started a little magazine afterwards called Deep Red, which was doing a similar sort of thing: a photocopied journal that was hand put together. We only ever issued HIJ in enough copies to give everybody one, plus one for our archives, so it was super rare. It had to do with that community thing. Work we were interested in.” After five issues, HIJ was put on hold, but considered by the couple to be a project they would one day return to. It ended up taking them twenty years to revamp HIJ, which now publishes the readers of the HIJ Monthly House Reading Series.
Other than York University writers, The Millars started to meet people in the small press community by going out to reading series and small press book fairs, like the Toronto Small Press Book Fair (now Meet the Presses). When Jay Millar walked into his first small press fair in Toronto, he was shocked with the community he found there. “I walked into the room and there were all these people I had found in the library [at Western while looking for chapbooks]. Stuart Ross was there, Kevin Connolly was there, Paul Dutton was there with Underwhich Editions … It was really a kind of weird thing for me to experience. Very exciting. A lot of these people who had done all this stuff that I had found as artifacts, they were still there, at the tables.”
The Millars knew they wanted to contribute to this community and began publishing work by Jay Millar and his friends under Boondoggle Books, which eventually transformed into BookThug. “We claim right now that we’re in our tenth year of adventures in literary publishing because 2004 was the year we started publishing books with spines,” Hazel Millar explained.
Jay told me that it was an encounter with Danish writers that allowed BookThug to venture into trade publications, an IFOA project called Super Danish! Hazel went on to explain that
“they were looking for publishers who would be willing to publish literature in translation because all these Danish authors were scheduled to appear at IFOA and none of them had English translations available of their work. So it was this really quick project that needed to happen, and there was money from the Danish government available which would help offset it all. For the authors, it meant they had an international calling card essentially in hand. With an English book, they could go on and do a lot more with their work. When Jay got the call at Coach House, it was presented as ‘Is Coach House interested in taking this on?’ and they were not, but [Jay] was like, ‘Well, would you guys be ok if I took this on?’”
Their first trade publication was a translation of selected poems by Niels Lyngsø called Pencil of Rays and Spiked Mace. Since this time, BookThug has continued to publish one Danish book in translation a year and is considered one of the biggest publishers of Danish literature in English translation.
BookThug has also kept up a connection with their chapbook roots, a decision that has perhaps led to them being labelled an experimental publisher. The Millars feel that their press is really about engaging with different styles of literature and creating a dialogue across borders, rather than sticking to any one stylistic tradition. “The milieu that BookThug comes out of is the late ’90s and early 2000s, and there’s this famous argument that was going on at the time after Christian Bok won the Griffin. Carmine Starnino had his famous response review to Eunoia, ‘Vowel Movements.’ There was this very curious thing that was going on where people were choosing whether something was good or not based on style.
“So you had the experimental poets over here saying these people were wrong because they were doing what they were doing and then there were the New Formalists … There was The New Canon which Starnino edited and there was Shift and Switch which was edited by Beaulieu and Christie and Rawlings,” Jay Millar told me. “There was this mad grab of defining that was going on, but it had to do with camps. What I was interested in was that poetry is a very vast spectrum between these things, and I don’t think that just because something has a stylistic experimental thing or a stylistic New Formalist thing, that it is better than the other things. There’s good examples of both and there’s a really interesting place in the middle. That’s the most fascinating. The good examples of things on the extremes are also fascinating, for different reasons. That’s kind of the aesthetic that I was interested in curating at BookThug. The discussion between things is much more interesting to me than what everything is, which is why I set up the press the way that I have.”
HIJ hosts monthly house reading series
While the HIJ reading series has not been set up to serve as a platform for BookThug authors, it is informed by similar concerns: the series allows the Millars to engage with the work of writers they may not otherwise have a chance to work with, and also to open discussion and dialogue between works positioned within a multitude of aesthetic territories. Featured writers are male and female, established and emerging; they work with both poetry and prose and they come from differing stylistic traditions. For their next reading on May 25th, the couple will host Boston-based writer, Jessica Bozek, and BookThug author, Julie Joosten.
As well as drawing on types of community building that were important to the Millars, the HIJ reading series, along with its print offering, was “an opportunity to bring the journal back.” Hazel Millar thought, “Why don’t we combine the reading with the journal and for every reading have this new publication available, a brand new work from the two writers that have been invited to read.” This was a way to set the series apart, to have series-specific publications available, along with pie and beverages, and to draw people to the west end of the city. The series is designed to be an intimate atmosphere where intelligent discussion about poetry can be fostered in the times before readings and during the Q and A period after the readings. This move towards discussion and away from argument was also what informed a speak-easy series the Millars ran at This Ain’t the Rosedale Library where two people would have a casual discussion about something that interested them. HIJ is also an opportunity to host writers from outside of Toronto, which has also been a concern of Jay Millar’s Toronto New School.
Of the current climate of the Toronto literary community, Hazel and Jay Millar are only complimentary. Jay told me, “One of our friends relocated to L.A. for six months, and he said he’s been to one literary event because he can’t figure out where they are. I see what’s happening in Toronto as being super vibrant.”
HIJ House Readings #5 is this Sunday, May 25th featuring Jessica Bozek and Julie Joosten and HIJ House Readings #6 will be Sunday, June 22nd featuring Jimmy McInnes and Stevie Howell at Jay and Hazel Millar’s house. Email or message the couple through Facebook for details and invite. HIJ will break for July and August.