Here’s some Not-News-To-Anyone: poetry doesn’t sell itself. Successful first books, in particular, depend on a poet’s overall visibility online, a real-world group of friends and friends-of-friends to assist in writing and publishing reviews, the poet’s willingness to go on a thankless monetary sinkhole of a cross-country “tour” with several other poets packed in the back of a beat-up 1997 Honda Civic with no a/c, and last but not least: the artwork and design of the book itself. Is it pretty? Would it look good on your pillow?
As we move into an e-book future, poetry might be one of the last battlegrounds for bibliophiles. Most poets still love the thingness of a book: the color of the paper, the smell of the glue (take a good sniff of FSG’s hardcovers sometime… amazing). Fiction-lovers might disagree, but I think poets are also more likely to return to a particularly beloved collection five, ten, twenty or fifty times, giving the thingness of a poetry collection an almost totem-like quality that novels and even story collections tend not to share.
Moreover, e-readers have been slow to figure out what to do with line breaks (or so I’m told), and seem geared much more toward linear reading habits than their made-of-paper predecessors, which is a problem when it comes to poetry… most of us don’t read a poetry collection from front to back, at least not after the first go-through. All this is to say that attractive, long-lasting and innovative design is more important than ever in the poetry world, and will likely only become moreimportant in the next five or ten years. (After that we’ll all be cyborgs and will download books directly to our brains).
Unfortunately, poetry publishers have been slow to privilege innovative design. So here’s a list of the ten best-designed poetry publishers out there right now—the presses that have set the bar for what a poetry collection can look and feel like. I want to be clear: even the lower-ranking presses on this list are important publishers whom I respect deeply… pretty-looking but otherwise not-very-good/important presses simply aren’t included here, nor are good presses who employ less-than-adequate designers.
#1, #2, & #3: Wave Books,Ahsahta Press, andFlood Editions, in that order. All three presses publish consistently gorgeous books, regardless of the designer behind the curtain, but the best-designed books from all three are done by the same person: Jeff Clark, akaQuemadura Design. Once you’ve seen a handful of Clark’s covers, you’ll be able to spot them immediately, which is something of a curse and a blessing, since part of being a good designer is letting the content speak louder than the design—or rather, to make the design feel like an extension of the content itself. Still, Clark’s the best there is right now; he knows how to bring all the essentials of poetry to the design table, making the smallest details speak volumes through smart and contemporary but non-flashy type choices and stark, minimalist layouts. Many of his more recent books have taken that minimalism to a new level, relying almost entirely on black ink and white or off-white paper, and getting away from some of Clark’s signature typefaces (ahem: is that Eurostile Extended? Whatever it is, maybe you should lay off it for a while, Jeff) to let the work speak more fully for itself.
#4: Caketrain. This press deserves a lot more attention, in general, than it has received up to now, both for the quality of work it publishes and the overall marketing savvy of its publishers. What puts them at number four on this list, though, is their diversity of good-looking book covers, from Ben Mirov’s aggressively minimal Ghost Machineto the textured, collagey cover of Sara Levine’sShort Dark Oracles. They’ve yet to publish even a single hideous book, and their author list includes some of the best-networked emerging poets and fiction writers. It’s a press we should all watch.
#5: Ugly Duckling Presse ranks fifth largely for its distinctive branding. There’s something a little olde-tymey about the design of many of Ugly Duckling’s books, which befits the extra “e” on “Presse.” They pay a lot of attention to the paper stock of their covers, which is barely a concern for most other presses (Wave Books being a notable exception), and many of their covers are letter-pressed. The designs often possess a sort of Soviet or pseudo-Futurist quality, which blends well with the aesthetics and influences of many of Ugly Duckling’s poets.
#6 & #7: Black Oceanand Octopus Bookshave a lot of similarities: they’ve got some crossover both in their personnel and the poetics of their authors, and both presses do a whole lot with very little in terms of design: bright, contrasty color choices that scream from the shelf, and a consistency of look and feel from book to book that is important for the branding of any emerging small press. The risk with this kind of consistency and minimalism is making your press look like a book-factory: tooconsistent. Black Ocean’s type choices have longevity but risk boringness (sometimes I wish that Helvetica documentary had never been made), whereas Octopus’s type choices sometimes look to be pulled from open-source online databases (see Heather Christle’s The Difficult Farm) populated by amateur typographers whose fonts are guaranteed to look dated very quickly. All in all, though: good-looking books and smart branding!
#8: Fence Books. At the risk of alienating myself from this press entirely, the way I feel about Fence’s cover designs is roughly the way I feel about many of the poets they publish: they remain on the vanguard of a hipster aesthetic, but in a way that will probably seem quaint in five or six years—the press seems doomed to re-design and re-brand on a very fast cycle… they’ll continue to be successful, I think, and to stay on the vanguard, but only as long as they can maintain the energy of reinvention. Like Black Ocean and Octopus, most recently Fence has favored loud, two-or-three-color covers, and like Octopus sometimes I think their type choices are unfortunate. For instance, I do like Joyelle McSweeney, and I’m excited to read her new book, but that titling and those graffitiesque drips remind me a bit too much of Urban Outfitters.
#9: Slope Editions makes some sexy books, too. Unlike Jeff Clark or the CakeTrain designers, sometimes they mis-step in their type choices, but the overall composition is usually beautiful. These book covers probably won’t age well, but for now they’re pretty gorgeous.
#10: Sarabande might deserve a prize for most-improved design, which is why I’m including them here. They’re still in desperate need of a revamped logo, but take a minute to compare the cover of Kiki Petrosino’sFort Red Border to T. Fleischman’s Syzygy, Beauty or Gregory Orr’s The City of Poetry and you’ll see what I mean. Sarabande has been publishing terrific authors for a long time, but only in the past couple years have they taken strides to match that excellence externally. It’s too early to typify Sarabande’s new design, but whoever’s responsible for it deserves a stiff drink with Don Draper.
If You’re Feeling Inferior…
There are many publishers of good-looking poetry I haven’t mentioned here, partly because some of the best-designed presses aren’t actually very diverse or nuanced from book to book. Take the Poetry Society of America’s chapbook series, for instance: it’s the same basic design for every book in the series, but that design is stunning—it’s probably the best example of poetry-branding out there right now. The Library of America’s Poets Project similarly produced a series of Selected Poems that is brilliant and beautiful partly because the design of every book in that series is essentially the same. And that’s true of another of my favorite up-and-coming poetry publishers, Canarium, as well, which has managed to produce a series of smart-looking, no-frills covers that not only establish a secure brand but will continue to look good for at least a decade to come.
So, if you’re a publisher of bad-looking books (I could name some names, but would rather not commit career suicide… I’m still bookless, after all) think about this: you don’t need to hire a designer to churn out every book cover. All you need is one good, smart designer who is willing to build you a solid and versatile template that can be adapted for all your titles for several years. So: hire Jeff Clark? (Or, you know, me.)
Several years ago a colleague in the studio art department and I team-taught a course we called “The Matrix,” an experiment in bringing together eight advanced printmaking students and eight advanced poets to make new work, including several high and low-end collective books. A matrix, in the printmaking lexicon, refers to the plate—zinc, plate, copper—or other material (stone, collage) used in printing, but when we advertised the course we had a lot of interest from initially thrilled and then bitterly disappointed fans of the 1999 science fiction film of the same name, undergraduates who thought that it was high time that the cinema icon got the serious attention it deserved in the academy.
There was much enthusiasm among the young artists and poets as well, of course. , and our idea as instructors was to throw them (and ourselves) into the water, with the presumption that our disciplines—poetry writing and intaglio printmaking—were distinct enough to generate fruitful friction and close enough to allow for revelatory and empathetic artistic exchange.
This “throwing into the water” turned out to mean many things, perhaps chief among them the potentially dangerous fact that although half the class had never before set foot in a print shop (described by my art colleague as a “15th-century chemistry lab without the safety features”), we were almost immediately involved in processes using acids and other toxic substances. Most fumes emitted in poetry writing workshops tend to come from the ubiquitous coffee cups and from occasional traces of cigarette smoke brought into the room after breaks; by contrast, we regularly left the print shop with filthy hands and heads high as kites from our unaccustomed breathing in of acetone, inks, resins, and other substances in a myriad of containers marked with skulls and crossbones.
Another learning curve for the poetry students was an initiation into the time commitment involved in the serious pursuit of studio art. The typical advanced poetry workshop meets for three hours once a week; print-making courses meet for two-and-a-quarter hours twice a week. Our particular course was scheduled in the mornings on Tuesdays and Thursdays, commencing at 9:30 a.m.; allowing poetry students to explore their consciousnesses before, say, noon was another gift of the collaboration. And while it is understood that the advanced poetry student commits a lot of out-of-workshop time to musing and writing independently, this activity can be done in coffee shops, bars, subways, or in the privacy of one’s bed or bathroom. Printmaking students also devote many, many hours outside of class to generating and completing projects, but this work must be done predominantly in the print shop. Another ambivalent plus, then, for the poets was the discovery of a new (and there aren’t many) 24/7 venue in Charlottesville.
Despite the fact that the studio art department had been relocated for the two years that we taught “The Matrix” to two ventilated, corrugated metal, temporary outposts while a new, state-of-the-art facility was being built, despite the early hour of our class, despite the time commitment and the extra work (my colleague and I both taught the course as an overload to our regular Departmental course commitments), the matrix experience was intensely rewarding. I found the printmaking students, who were used to experimentation and to thinking on their feet, to be exceptionally open to the making of poems, even though most of them had never attempted poetry writing before. Perhaps because intaglio printmaking is a “negative” art (what one etches shows up in reverse on paper; what’s etched away appears dark, and vice versa), “opposite” exercises (in which students “pull” new poems off of extant ones) yielded exciting new work; similarly, write-in, erasure, and strike-through exercises used techniques familiar to the printers, who were used to staining, gesso-ing, Chine-collé layering, and all manner of obscuring, illumination, and multi-valence. As part of the course, all of the students were engaged in semester-long, serial, “flood-subject” projects, both individual and collaborative. As printmaking is intrinsically serial, this aspect of the course also came naturally to the print-makers.
As the poets and printmakers collaborated over time, the poets became more comfortable with a fresh range of attitudes, vocabularies, processes, and energies. We became less anxious about “ownership” (while poets are sometimes fiercely territorial and proprietary about their productions, printmakers tend to seek ways to creatively sabotage, manipulate, and in other ways sample and become involved with each other’s work) and also more comfortable with foregrounding the processes of our drafts rather than privileging the final product. Often, for example, something marvelous would result from a “mistake” that a student might make along the way—an over-bitten plate, or an aberration caused by burring or over-inking. My colleague would point to the print (and here’s another exciting difference between poetry and printmaking workshops: In poetry classes, the works under discussion are passed around on discrete pieces of paper or viewed on laptop screens, while in the print shop all work on paper is posted vertically, tacked to the wall, for the community to see) and say, “Look, that’s amazing. Now figure out how to do that deliberately.”
We talked a lot, as we worked together, about “the stain” and about defacement, about the line, about the bleed. All of these printmaking phenomena, new to us poets, had exciting parallels and possibilities in poems. Crucially, we learned about and made paper. We also learned to create, stitch, and bind folios. We dyed endpapers, and covered and glued and pressed hardcovers. For one book project, we were privileged to work with a metal artist, who showed us how to use gilt and lapis to emboss a front cover. I doubt that any poet participating in the “Matrix” course now looks at or handles a book without thinking of its materiality and its making. Printmaking discourse also provided the poets with a trove of new words, all, again, with suggestive resonances in poems, as well, terms and phrases such as false bite, bon à tirer, burin, mezzotint, criblé, creeping bite, and retroussage.
Of the many gifts of the printmaking experience for poets in the “Matrix” class, perhaps chief among them was the reminder to writers working primarily in digital media (computer and other virtual type) that writing is, or can be, drawing. And lines drawn by hand, whether etched into a metal plate or scrawled across the blue staves of a Moleskine notebook—forays made into the matrix—possess an inimitable warmth and immediacy of expression and effect. Printmaking reminded us to attend to the ghost, to the mark, of what Keats called our “living hand” in our poetic efforts. The materiality of our techniques was revealed to us anew with each pull of a print, each dip of the plate into its acid bath, opening us up to the crucial connection, in all art, between idea and praxis, and, importantly, to the power of mistake, flaw, and the grace of a hand-made thing.
Lisa Russ Spaar is The Chronicle’s poetry blogger and a professor of English at the University of Virginia.
Javier Sicilia: Can a poet overcome a state of lawlessness and corruption to bring peace to Mexico? (Photo: Mark Karlin)This is the fifth article in Truthout's series looking at US immigration and Mexican border policies through a social justice lens. Mark Karlin, editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout, visited the border region recently to file these reports.
The Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity in Mexico
It is this that you must know about Javier Sicilia: if he has only five hours of hope left, he will use them to try and bring peace with justice and dignity to Mexico.
Sicilia, 55, is a poet, a journalist, a novelist, a professor - a man of letters in the European model. The son of a poet, he considers his foremost passion that most ethereal of arts, the distillation of words and images into revelations. Mexico recognized him with the coveted Aguascalientes National Award in Poetry in 2009.
What Sicilia did not anticipate was that he would stop writing - that his poetry would turn to silence - when his 24-year-old son, Juan Francisco, was killed and became collateral damage in the US-backed war on drugs in Mexico. But the silence that fell upon Sicilia's poems was replaced with his leadership of a movement that began as We Have Had It (Estamos Hasta La Madre in Spanish) and has evolved into a populist movement, The Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity (Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad in Spanish).
Not long after the killing of his son, Sicilia led a march from Cuernavaca, where he is a professor of literature, to the Zócalo, the historical central plaza in Mexico City. It began with hundreds of Mexicans calling for an end to the onslaught of killing and crime that began when Felipe Calderón became president in 2006 and jumped on board a so-called war on drug cartels. The trek for peace, which became known as the peace caravan, grew to between about 150,000 and 200,000 people when it reached the capital of the nation of around 113 million people.
In its wake, the drug war has led to at least 50,000 dead, more than 10,000 persons disappeared and unaccounted for, some 160,000 individuals displaced, and thousands more tortured, kidnapped and wounded. No accurate numbers are available for these victims of violence and forced homelessness, but these figures are most likely on the low side.
Sicilia Spoke at the Historic Hull House, Which Helped Immigrants to the United States and Championed Peace Across Borders
On a tour of the United States to awaken Americans to their nation's role in the devastation in Mexico, Sicilia spoke at the original Jane Addam's Hull House (now a museum) in Chicago on April 17th. He explained his five hours of hope with a parable about Jesus, whom he called a poet. Jesus was planting a tree in a garden, Sicilia imagined, when a man approached Jesus and asked if he would still plant the tree if the world were to end in five hours. Yes, Jesus responded, according to Sicilia's allegory. "Why would you do that if the world were going to end in five hours?" the man inquired. "Because it would be five hours of hope," Jesus responded.
Sicilia's liberal Catholic commitment to help create a positive impact in Mexico persists amidst a deep pessimism about the near future of his nation, where - in some areas - fewer than 1 percent of murders are resolved and very few are even investigated. When asked after his remarks at Hull House if the upcoming presidential election would change things for the better, Sicilia responded: "I think it will get worse."
Is the Mexican Government Targeting the Anti-Drug-War Peace Movement?
Sicilia told Truthout that he fears the Mexican government is spying on the growing Movement for Peace, a concern that seemed realized when personal information and phone numbers of the leadership, including Sicilia, were leaked to the media. Sicilia also warns - reflecting concerns of many Americans regarding the Patriot Act and increasing warrantless surveillance powers and the suspension of habeas corpus rights in certain circumstances - that the war on drug cartels will be used to expand national security powers to allow more extensive spying on groups concerned about civil rights and peace. "In Mexico," he said, "no one needs to read Kafka, because that is the reality in my country."
Calderón Government Charged With Multiple Violations of Human Rights
After all, the president of the nation, Calderón, has been personally charged with violations of human rights through the use of a military and federal police force that acts with relative impunity.
The National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), HRW [Human Rights Watch], and local and state human rights groups report major increases in forced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions, many allegedly perpetrated by Mexican security forces. There has been a 70 percent increase in complaints of human rights violations between 2010-2011 compared to the previous level, the majority of which were filed registered against security forces, especially the Federal Police and Army. The top categories are arbitrary arrest, torture, and extortion. On an official visit to Mexico, the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights, Navi Pillay, expressed grave concern over the militarization and expanded use of pre-trial house arrest; five U.N. bodies have recommended elimination of the practice as a violation of presumed innocence....
Mexico ratified the International Criminal Court's (ICC) Rome Statute on October 28, 2005. The ICC can accept cases if the State accused of crimes against humanity is deemed inactive, unwilling or unable to prosecute. On November 25, 2011, a case against the Calderón administration claiming crimes against humanity under the current security policy was presented with more than 23,000 signatures - a record-breaking number for the ICC. The case documents 470 instances of "crimes against humanity" including assassination, forced disappearance, torture and recruitment of minors.
One of the Leading Cartels Was Started by Mexican Ex-Soldiers
Some reformist advocates have criticized Sicilia for taking part in two high-profile meetings with Calderón, which critics say gave the president of Mexico an opportunity to look sympathetic to the movement for peace and the call for an end to state corruption. But Sicilia has said that he saw the meetings as necessary because the state controls the current crisis, particularly the deployment of the military and the federal police, as well as the integral flaws within and ongoing collapse of the legal system.
The main point of conflict has been that Felipe Calderón refuses to change, and continues to follow his strategy of war, a strategy that is producing all these victims that the proposed law of victims and the new prosecutor's office will have to attend to. And this war strategy is now creating a dynamic in support of a law of national security, which this war perspective requires and which would be terrible for the nation....
The Zetas [one of the major cartels] exist because of the tacit approval of the government. I have always requested during the meetings and talks we have had with Felipe Calderón, that he review what's happening to his army: How is the army being trained? I can understand how someone might desert from the army. What I can't understand is how so many troops could become criminals, Kaibiles [the Guatemalan military's special operations forces, which committed many of the human rights abuses during that country's civil war]. The truth is that the Zetas come from the army. So there is something serious being constructed. The army is not building human beings. It is building assassins. So we have to know, how is the army being trained?
Is the US Government an Enabler of the Corruption and Death Toll in Mexico?
Sicilia doesn't go easy on Obama, either. In response to a question by Truthout, he told the audience at Hull House that the US president has done nothing about the shattered system and the drug war that leaves no recourse for victims in Mexico: "I have heard President Obama has said that he couldn't do anything about it [the lawlessness and judicial breakdown in Mexico]. But it's just that he doesn't want to do anything about it."
Perhaps that is why, this autumn, Sicilia and the Movement for Peace is going to conduct a caravan across the United States. In its letter of invitation to US citizens to join the San Diego to Washington DC, trek, Sicilia writes: "This initiative seeks to promote dialogue with American civil society and its government regarding the following themes: the need to stop gun trafficking; the need to debate alternatives to drug prohibition; the need for better tools to combat money laundering; and the need to promote bilateral cooperation in human rights and human security in two priority areas: promotion of civil society and safety, as well as protection and safety for migrants."
Can the Mexican Movement for Peace curtain the destructive US policies toward drug trafficking in Mexico, which are ripping the nation apart? Sicilia is counting on righteousness triumphing over political cynicism, perhaps, at the current moment, as monumental a task in Washington as in Mexico City.
Sicilia's Poetry Lapses Into Silence Until There Is Justice
And to Sicilia, a nation that has been torn asunder is one that forgets even the names of its dead and its disappeared. Death is the killing of a person and the person's name. It is a violation of life and language. That is why he told those listening to him at Hull House in Chicago that his poetry, for now, has been silenced. "The word lapses into silence until there is justice," he says.
On The Movement for Peace web site, Sicilia writes:
Frente al dolor hemos caminado, hemos abrazado y llorado, ello con la dignidad que nos habita, que nos hace buscar, que nos hace luchar y que nos hace convertir el dolor en amor. Las cifras de esta guerra tienen rostro en cada una de nosotras y nosotros. Pedimos paz, pedimos justicia y dignidad."
Translation: Confronting pain we have walked, we have embraced and cried - with the dignity that lives within us that makes us seek out, that makes us struggle and that makes us convert our pain into love. The toll of this war is carried within each one of us. We ask for peace, we ask for justice and dignity.
Sicilia is now silent as a poet, but he still believes that poetry is a faith, and he would like to believe in it again. But in a society where language is corrupt and the dead and disappeared are forgotten, that desire must wait for a reformed nation - without the pressure of US interests - that values life and language. For now, his work is with The Movement for Peace. It is akin to his planting a tree, even with only five hours of hope left on his watch.