I remember opening the design mockup for my first collection. There I was, my giant face on the back cover. The front cover was a minimalist red plane. I wondered if the design was uncompromising or too bold. Or, and this is probably the truth, that people would think I was too bold. Later, reviewer Tim Upperton said, ‘The back cover is a photographic portrait of the author, with what might be a smile, and a level, challenging gaze. It’s a visual analogue of the effect of these unsettling poems.’
Early on I realised that my publisher Chloe Lane and designer Duncan Forbes see Hue & Cry Press publications as art objects. The design, the paper stock, the typeface, the modern margins: they might not be as important as the words on the page, but they add layers and meaning to the reading experience. The influence of design is obvious for a book such as Here by Richard McGuire (Random House), which is almost entirely illustration, yet poetry also relies on visual elements. Think about All Patients Report Here by Rachel Bush and Alan Knowles, where Bush’s poems about premature babies are in the tiniest of type, and Knowles’ sepia photographs of Wellington hospital remind me of spilt iodine. Or the manilla and red cover of Steven Toussaint’s Fiddlehead which makes me think of the folders my father, a geographer, once used, and in between the covers Toussaint plots his own geography.
Design can magnify the elements and themes of a text. Nearly all of the poems in WORK use typographical arrangement to convey emotion and transformation; the poems often switch from free verse to prose and then to concrete poetry. This meant the inside of WORK went through seven painstaking revisions.
The cover, though, was perfect first time. Duncan told me he wanted the design to echo my first collection so on a shelf they would look related. This was insightful because the poetry in WORK continues the obsessions of my first collection. A Man Runs into a Woman is about collisions and how they change a person’s life; WORK is about how people move on from those collisions and find their way back to normal. When Duncan asked what colour range I wanted for the cover I suggested yellow as it’s both a colour of hope and of warning.
In writing this, I think I’ve begun to disagree with myself. The best poetry design is more than a ‘visual analogue’ or a way to magnify a text: it is inseparable from the text. WORK is not simply my words, but the book as object. In the best way, WORK is a collaboration and one that I’m grateful for. Yet, there are analogies. The yellow slice makes me think of a hill, the metaphorical one that my characters have to climb. The type is bold — ‘Much bolder than your first,’ Duncan warned — which is, I’d say, how a second collection should be. Here are the two covers together.