POETRY ON PAPER
Sometimes—though it’s not very often—I look at a design and think, I wish I’d done that. It’s not so much a feeling of envy; more an almost physical recognition of beauty and skill. Real admiration. Okay—envy, too. That’s what happened when I first saw the Poetry Society’s Chapbook series. Total love. On my way to meet the designer of the series, Gabriele Wilson, I decided that I must like her already, even though we’d never met before. How could someone who makes books that look charming, humorous, quirky, understated, stylish and intelligent not be likable? A few hours later, as I left her studio after our interview, all my prejudices were confirmed.
The endearing scrappiness of poetry
The Poetry Society was founded in 1910; its members have included the likes of W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, Ted Hughes, Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens. “In those days it was a group of editors, artists and poetry lovers who got together once a month to talk about poetry,” says the Society’s executive director, Alice Quinn. The first meeting was at the National Arts Club, and the club still houses the Society’s office. “It didn’t publish anything then, only a bulletin that chronicled the endearing scrappiness of poetry,” Quinn goes on.
Quinn has been with the society since 2001; until 2007 she was also the poetry editor at the New Yorker, where she’d been for 21 years. “Before that I was an editor at
The Chapbooks are very much the creation of Quinn and the Society’s managing director Brett Fletcher Lauer. “We started them in 2003,” Quinn says. “It’s a contest for emerging writers; we pick four poets a year—at least two of whom must live in New York, as requested by one of the funders—and none of whom have been published in book form before. There’s a modest fee to apply; we get around 600 or 700 manuscript submissions, which we have to edit down to about 40.” Even then, Quinn says she always reads through the pile not chosen, “just to check we haven’t missed anything.” The survivors are sent to a distinguished poet who makes the final selection. “The great thing about being selected by, for instance, Heather McHugh or Paul Muldoon is that it gives the young poet an immediate lift; it puts them on the map.”
The Chapbooks aren’t sold in bookstores—they’re only available through the Society—”but, ironically, it’s this limitation that gives the poets an advantage: our members are their built-in audience,” says Quinn. “We send Chapbooks out to members (who donate $100, or sometime more) and also to all the main libraries, which have subscriptions, so the poets know this set of books gets acknowledged,” says Quinn. Unlike other aspiring writers, poets don’t really have agents to get published. “Poetry is quite popular now, so some may need a booking agent as they get on, but this is different from other forms of publishing.”
It’s not guaranteed, either. “We’ve been fortunate in our support,” says Quinn, “but, sadly, the Greenwall Foundation is leaving the field of arts to concentrate on bioethics, so we’re going to have to look elsewhere for funding. “They’ve been with us from the beginning of the Chapbook series. The budget for printing is $5,500 to $7,000 for a print run of about 500, so we’re going to need some extra help.”
Gabriele Wilson won an award from the American Institute of Graphic Arts for distinguished design for the first set of Chapbooks. “There’s no question that the design has proved central to the success of the program,” says Quinn. For her part, Wilson is proud of the series and enthusiastic about the Poetry Society as a client. “They’re so trusting, really great, really easy,” she says. “I have a lot of freedom, and it’s lovely to work with illustrators and artists.” She loves that the Poetry Society work is not a commercial project: “They become more personal, more poetic. The small format is deliberately delicate and poetic, and looks fresher than many other classics.” Wilson had been working as a jacket designer for Knopf’s hardcovers for about four years when Quinn brought up the Chapbook series.
For centuries, chapbooks were printed ephemera (sold by peddlers, aka chapmen) that ranged from pamphlets of all kinds, including political and religious tracts, to nursery rhymes, folk tales, children’s literature, almanacs, short stories, penny songs and poems. What they had in common was that they were usually less than 40 pages long, simply bound or wrapped, sometimes illustrated, oftentimes not.
From the get-go, the idea for the look of the Poetry Society series was books that appeared to be hand-done. Editor and designer were in tune when it came to covers; Wilson wasn’t interested in literal design—”I think it ruins it for the reader to see a face on a poetry cover,” she says. “It has to be more imaginative”—and Quinn, who was interested in the idea of abstract patterns, brought in a book she loved that was full of them: Susan Meller and Joost Elffers’ Textile Designs: Two Hundred Years of European and American Patterns Organized by Motif, Style, Color, Layout, and Period. Perhaps that explains why Wilson still refers to the covers’ patterns as “textiles”; she particularly admires textile designers such as Florence Broadhurst
“To begin with, we used the little scraps of pattern from the book,” says Wilson, “but it was difficult. I had to expand the pattern, as the samples were so tiny.” It wasn’t surprising, Quinn says, that after using only a few, “Gabriele came back to me and very sweetly asked ‘Can we break out of this a bit?’” Wilson had found herself scanning all sorts of scraps—”Wallpaper, anything, really, that caught my eye. I collect stuff.”
On the cover
When Wilson begins work on a series of Chapbooks she starts by reading the poets’ edited manuscripts right through. “As I read I make notes of visual references and themes,” she says. “When thinking about the covers and the design I never want to interrupt anyone’s writing. If I have a style, it’s that. Any time I can’t come up with a solution I go back to the writing.” The approach to sources has evolved. In the first few years of the series, she created the covers using copyright-free patterns—as with the Textile Designs examples—that she unearthed, copied, curated, expanded, and otherwise played with. The exception was one book in the 2005 series, Cecily Parks’ Cold Work, for which Wilson approached British wallpaper designer Neisha Crosland about using one of her designs, “the Hedgehog!” (which is the pattern’s actual name) she adds. In 2008, she turned to some of the hundreds of existing patterns created by the illustrator Leanne Shapton, and increasingly she’s been commissioning. “More recently,” she says, “we’d been creating the images for the covers from scratch. I explain the poetry to the artist or illustrator, and they see if they have anything in their collection that relates to the writing. Of course, they read the poems too.” In 2010, the covers for the collections by Hossannah Asuncion and Andrew Seguin were designed by Tamara Shopsin. “They’re made using wet, painted string stretched across paper. And the black squiggle and ginkgo leaf covers are by Joanna Andreasson, and about as abstract as we will probably get.”
The inside story
Besides finding and creating the cover images, Wilson also designs the label-look titles on the front and all the inside pages. “I don’t have a good answer as to why I used a label and one with a red outline,” she says. “I like stationery stores, so I suppose it’s something to do with that.” We agree that the easiest way to tell if someone’s a designer is to see if they can’t pass a stationery store without going inside.
The front-cover titles are all shunted somewhat to the left. “I don’t like perfectly centered things; I thought it would be more interesting to have the label be off-center, ” says Wilson. “It gives them a better sense of balance. A bit of error is more interesting, more human.” The titles are set in a font named Mrs Eaves (after Sarah Eaves, who became the wife of the legendary printer John Baskerville); the authors’ names are set in Rosewood Fill. The typography for the books’ pages repeats the use of these two fonts; the overall effect is understated and quiet. Wilson tries to reflect the original manuscript as much as possible. “I get the poets’ Word documents, and try to match what they wrote and how they wrote it, including the position of the words on the page,” says Wilson. The very similarity of the books’ design, paradoxically, helps to highlight the small differences between them. Paul Killebrew’s chapbook (2003) “is one long poem, so that’s a different feel right there,” she says. “Christopher Nelson wanted dots to divide his text, and they sort of match his cover, while Hossannah Asuncion (2010) wanted some of her poems to start lower down the page.”
The attention to detail carries right through to the printing process by Canadian company Westcan, which does general commercial work as well as a lot of printing for independent and university presses. “We’ve worked with the Poetry Society for a while now, so we have it pretty much nailed down,” says their rep Chris Young. “Files by Monday, proofs on Tuesday, Wednesday we print, Thursday we ship.” He’s clearly minutely involved with this client. “Small details are carefully thought out,” he explains. “The off-white no-color color inside the red outline of the cover labels matches the warm white color of the paper used for the inside pages. It’s a small thing, hardly noticeable unless it wasn’t that way.” The pages are 55-pound Rolland Inviro 100 percent natural stock (made from recycled paper!); “cost effective and very soft, which makes them suitable for literature,” Young adds. And a fun touch, Wilson says, are the inside covers: “They’re a great red—Pantone 485—though a bit more yellow is added just to be perfect. I’m so grateful to the Poetry Society for letting me do that!”
In future, Wilson says, she wants to open up the series and try to work with more artists, so that the Chapbooks become a statement both by the artist and the poet, “and so they follow the same spirit, colour and imagery.” It’s a labor of love, and not just on the poets’ part. “No one is paid to do the covers; they do it for the chance to make a beautiful book, and for the love of poetry, too.”—LUCY SISMAN