What makes a book work?

Thinking of submitting your poetry manuscript to Brick Books? Our acquisitions editors reveal what they look for in a book while reading through the submissions pile.

Nick Thran

I’d be lying if I said I was somehow looking for books like awâsis – kinky and dishevelled, or Dream of No One but Myself. They always hit me sideways, and I get a bit shaky. The luxury of the two-tiered process—two acquisitions editors shortlisting fifteen manuscripts for a discussion among four collective members for seven spots—is that some of what guides my contributions to the curation of a shortlist is the anticipation of a ground-level conversation among my peers: is this manuscript going to incite a lively debate among five different people passionate about poetry (and does it fulfill at least some of the mandates of the press)? Poems can challenge in their quietude, their conception, their abstractions, their antagonisms—so while I might lean personally in a few different stylistic or aesthetic directions, I don’t try to impose my personality too much on the process (though being human, a bit of that’s inevitable). Instead, I prefer to be guided by something Stan Dragland once said about a young person’s manuscript: “I don’t think that this can be anything other than what it is.” Further edits and improvements aside, that’s the feeling I get when I encounter a manuscript I want to push forward, “you are what you are.”

Sonnet L’Abbé

One of my favourite things about poetry on the page is its capacity to make radical tracings of the relational workings of the poet’s body-mind. Poetry, like prose, can immerse us in beautifully constructed scenes or perform a public confession of very intimate thoughts, but there’s a coherence to most prose that can smooth out the non-linear, contradictory, and simultaneous nature of multiple truths existing at once. Poetry allows for thought that doesn’t cohere into story. It has the capacity to challenge our very ideas of the relationship of language to our brains and senses, and to foreground language as a technology of breath and sound that originates in our bodies’ speaking relationships. In an era of deliberate misinformation, tech-driven learning and the accessibility of AI-assisted writing, poems that explore our trust in written expression feel crucial. In an era of destabilized ecologies, cherishing the body as the seat of language feels like an act of refuge and greening. I look for work that architects new constellations of feeling and relation; work that honours poetic traditions but draws me into new emotional experiences within them; work that lives in spaces between and at the edges of identities; work that disrupts colonial time; work that somehow, using type and space on a two-dimensional page, pulls me into my senses, and makes me feel I share this moment on Earth with like-minded language listeners.

River Halen

An exciting thing about poetry is its capacity to chart kinds of experience that go beyond and around understanding. I mean feeling, blur, dream states, non-linear narratives, memory, connection between realms of thinking that don’t normally go together, things just past the edge of the senses.

Also related to what some people might call the “difficulty” of poetry, I think about how poems can say things that are not safe to speak directly, for fear of being understood too well by the wrong people. Queer experiences have been and continue to be documented in poetry in environments where “saying it straight” is both dangerous and does an injustice to the nature of the experience. All kinds of non-normative and marginalized experiences find a home in poetry. Poetry is this wild technology that allows political resistance to gain coherence right under the noses of the ones in charge, without their necessarily having a clue, and for lived realities to make it into the archive that the archive meant to erase. People teaching poetry to students often emphasize that poetry isn’t just some code to crack, but in situations where secret code is called for, poetry can be it.

And then, conversely, sometimes poetry consists of the most plainspoken, direct statement ever. In these cases it’s often because the poet wasn’t supposed to say that thing. It’s too revelatory or politically dangerous or obvious or emotional to bear speaking, but it was said, and something broke.

All of this to say, when I read through a pile of manuscripts, I’m not looking to Understand them with a capital U. What I’m looking for is fluency in one or more, maybe even all, of these languages I’ve been talking about—dream speech, coded speech, breaking things, speaking from a position presumed impossible—and, especially, a sense that the poet understands the full potential of these modes in relation to who they are in the world and isn’t using them haphazardly. Is the dream really the dream? Do the coded messages get delivered to the right place, for good reasons? Are the right things being broken? I’m not the real authority on any of this, and I know that not all codes are for me to crack or even perceive at work, but I take my best guesses.

The acquisitions period at Brick Books is open from February 1 to May 31, 2023. Please read and follow the guidelines carefully before sending a query or submitting your manuscript to acquisitions@brickbooks.ca.

While You’re Here…

Brick Writing Craft BundleCheck out our Writing Craft Bundle.