Tag Archives: Poetry

The Ends of the Earth

A poetic guide for the apocalypse. Jacqueline Turner’s work touches on technological disasters, environmental nightmares, and broken relationships.

She sent along some photos, taken with her phone, of an earth as seen through an urban grid. (This particular globe is in the lobby of the Fairmont hotel in Vancouver.) I tried to conceptualize this using a fish eye lens, a topographical map, and some grid paper, but wasn’t happy with the result which felt really flat despite the curvature.

My next turn played up the technology theme with unravelling loops of wire. Still wasn’t thrilled at this point.

Because the collection juxtaposes urban settings with deserted islands, I set out looking for a windswept, double exposed photo for use on the cover. Here is one of the passages from the “Castaway Series” in the collection that influenced the look and feel of the cover:

“dear sailor every night the stars speak of you. the north star seems particularly infatuated with your image and whispers adagio as salty spray hits your worn back. a moment here is eternity light folds into waves and this world is rebuilt second by second, an ephemeral mirage. the tissue of our connection floats on the wind, a lost kite that may some day be returned to its flyer. i have cast out many strands, dear sailor, i have told the stars this story.”


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Letter From Brooklyn

The cover of Jacob Scheier’s last collection, More to Keep Us Warm, featured an illustration by Jason Kieffer. He generously provided some great sketches for consideration and I jumped in with some concepts of my own as well.

Instead of a Brooklyn street scene, I thought a view from the street, looking up, might be less conventional and better matched to the author’s voice. I was inspired by the line “how Brooklyn makes me nostalgic for the moment I am walking inside of” and the way Scheier contrasts the bridge on the skyline and tree branches bent over the streets. A busy scene with lots of traffic wouldn’t achieve the same sense of loneliness.

I was trying to veer away from imagery of the Brooklyn bridge, but I think it becomes quite interesting when abstracted as a pattern. When turned on its side, the bridge cables look like telephone wires, connecting people on the left and right.

Then there’s my “letterhead” idea, which I don’t believe anyone liked.


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The Lays of Marie de France

The author introduced this collection with the following words:

Marie’s subjects are the charms and difficulties of love of various kinds and the way goodness and wickedness are rewarded and punished in a complicated world. But it would be a disservice to her and to the poems to try to extract a philosophical or political “position” from pieces that are, I think, written as entertainments and deliberately mixed in approach and attitude. One might think of these poems as toys for adults, for they are decorous variations on themes from fairy tales and Märchen.

And then he sent along a fantastical picture of a werewolf for use on the cover.

Using futuristic folklore imagery on the cover seemed incongruous with the lyrical translations of twelfth-century french lais inside. I wanted to describe a creature of fable in a style that doesn’t contradict the era quite so loudly. So I roughed out a tail with some ink, leaving the face of the beast to the imagination, and paired it with the most geriatric typeface I could find (though it’s still a few hundred years younger than the High Middle Ages) Bruce Rogers’s calligraphic Centaur.


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Restless White Fields

Barbara Langhorst’s unsentimental collection of poetry revisits a violent personal tragedy. Over the course of the book, we learn that the author’s father shot and killed her mother, then committed suicide.

Treading lightly around such difficult emotional territory, it was a challenge to determine the right marketing approach for the book and how much information to reveal about the traumatic subject matter. 

My initial idea, a few wispy pieces of Kleenex, was fuelled by a line from the collection: “your steps corner the bed your living death fades forgotten in tissue paper slips.” It was considered too amorphous, not drawing a strong enough connection to grasses in a pasture like I intended.

The gunsight concept went too far the other direction: overly aggressive and emphatic. The author wanted to focus on the themes of healing and rebuilding, rather than the brutal event itself. The final cover removed the weapon reference, leaving just the cold, blanched field and some translucent type.

The typeface is Goudy’s lyrical Deepdene, with some very sexy ligatures.


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Geographies of a Lover

Finally, an occasion to work with erotic prose poetry.

This cover was taken out of my hands somewhat when I was supplied with a photo commissioned by the author. The client felt that the skin textures in Briar Craig’s photography evoked landscape. While in fact this is the cover we went with, I still think it communicates a different message. There is the visceral that conveys sensuality, deep emotion, and animal instincts (i.e., sex) and then there is visceral in terms of things looking like internal body organs. The image speaks to the latter for me.

I wanted to find a means to link wayfinding and sexuality without showing skin. I fought for this concept (below), pinpointing erogenous areas on a hand-drawn body, sketched like a map. But ultimately it was deemed too cold and flat.

The text-dominant back cover combines promotional blurbs with poetry from the interior and the contents page upholds the navigational theme with latitude and longitude references.


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I was asked to do the impossible: create an image that blends the author’s Cree/Ojibwe/Scottish/English heritage. Naomi McIlwraith’s new collection of poetry is written in both English and Plains Cree, and focuses on the concern of language loss.

Below is my preliminary pencil crayon sketch for the title block. Root imagery not only pops up often in the text, but is a fitting way to represent McIlwraith’s intricate lineage. Her work talks about language being rooted in the land, the multiple definitions of Seneca root, and the structure/roots of words.


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Animal Husbandry Today

I recently traveled to Toronto to network heckle Chip Kidd and frequent the Umbra store. Somewhere between this and this, I convinced ECW Press to give me a shot at a book cover.

Next thing I know, a brief arrives in my inbox and the author, Jamie Sharpe, is listing Julie Morstad as inspiration for imagery. Her aesthetic oozes the same anachronistic yet slightly sinister feel as the book. I quickly realize the bar is set high and start to panic.

The following Saturday night, after a few inadequate mockups involving aprons (“husbandry”) and antlers (“animal”) have materialized, I’m out socializing drinking scotch on a pal’s living room floor and I realize there’s a framed print hanging on her wall that seems to have been crafted specifically for one of the poems in the collection. So I deciphered a few initials in the illegible signature and set out to stalk the recent ACAD grad who made it.

Just short of Facebooking a total stranger and/or going to the mall to surprise him at his part-time retail job, I found Reagan Cole McLean.

Here is the aforementioned stanza, from the poem entitled The Dundreary-Arts:

“What is the parable of the whale?  He floats wall-less,
Without history, secure in his girth like a slumbering god.
Awake: for we have a silver dollar with your name.”

The second runner-up uses artwork from the interior. I was drawn to the graphic nature of the piece and the obscure assortment of imagery: a dead bird, a hammer, a timepiece, a torso, and a screaming mouth. Good mix.

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An examination of New York’s distant/not-so-distant history of violence.

The poems in Andy Weaver’s collection were composed somewhat mechanically, by cutting up, warping, and adapting existing texts. The title piece is chance-generated poetry inspired by the classic turn-of-the-century criminal study, The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury. Weaver took the first and last line of each page, typed them out as a series of couplets, and then whittled the poem down to its current state. I emulated Weaver’s writing technique on the cover — piecing together touristy photos from my visits to NYC, some burlap, and an old Draft Riot illustration — until I ended up with this


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The Dust of Just Beginning

Don and Don: poems by Mr. Kerr, painting by Mr. Proch.

(artwork titled “Asessippi Valley, 2006”)

A hit of colour on the interior:

I developed a “unicase” style for headers, eradicating ascenders and descenders everywhere. And the interior was set entirely in a sanserif typeface, tradition be damned.

From the back of the jacket:
“Don Kerr knows prairie culture better than most — he knows it from the inside out. He has made us aware of ourselves through his numerous volumes of poetry, his fiction, his many plays, his histories, and his interest in heritage. In this mature, accomplished collection, we can once again admire his unique prairie voice — minimalist, self-effacing, direct yet subtle and nuanced, immersed in his love of the vernacular language of this place.”

And for your enjoyment, the best (non)author bio I’ve come across.

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I am running out of interesting ways to put paintings on book covers.

I usually try to talk the publisher out of it. The original artwork is produced at a specific scale and isn’t meant to be experienced as a thumbnail. There are usually strict rules set in place by the museum or artist that prohibit cropping, bleeding, or adding type, which severely dampens creative freedom. The proportions rarely fill a 6 x 9 cover, so the designer is forced to set it against a bland flood of colour. The texture of the paint, brushstrokes, and canvas is lost. Modern digital printing technology can’t replicate the colour properly. (Just to name a few reasons…)

My first time tackling an art cover demanded several mock-ups until I found a way to use the prominent art piece in a dynamic but still respectful way.

My next attempt was for Dreamwork, Jonathan Locke Hart’s latest book of poetry. To make things even more challenging, the watercolour on the table was painted by the author’s mother. (No talking anybody out of that one.) Fortunately Hart values graphic design and art equally, so I proposed some alternative ways to display the piece. 

But how many times have you seen a picture frame or a page turn on a book cover?

So I took an abstract approach instead by magnifying an area of the landscape with great light, and printed the jacket on a textured paper that mimicks the surface of canvas and augments the stippled brush work. The full painting was revealed following the last poem in the book.

(American artist Titus Kaphar might be heading in the right direction by obscuring and shredding the paintings…)

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Here Is Where We Disembark

Clea Roberts is a poet from Whitehorse and this forthcoming collection focuses on the North, incorporating historical threads and ecological concerns. We came to a consensus that the cover should be sparse, cold, speak to both the past and present, and possibly incorporate landscape or water.

While reading the manuscript, I recalled a black + white photo series I did a few years ago with my old Pentax SLR. It must have been mid-November and I was lucky enough to witness (and capture on film) a lake freezing over. I set up a tripod on the dock and took a new shot every couple of hours over the course of two days. The water was still open on the first night (really cold…) and by morning, the surface had started to ice over.

A contact sheet for one of the (many) rolls of film:

I made two covers using these negatives:

Some blatant product pushing for Kodak:

They both represent the book nicely. The reader is first greeted with an environment that is unknown, isolated, and a bit haunting. The publisher picked the first, more simplistic cover. (Reinforcing a typical industry standard: When presented with multiple options, the client will almost always pick the designer’s least favourite design. So don’t show anybody anything you aren’t completely happy with, exclamation point.)

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This past weekend, the author of Aphelion and NeWest’s GM joined me with glue-sticks in hand to make bands which will wrap around review copies of the book. The line “cross the pond” playfully obscures the title and reinforces the continental drift scene I tried to orchestrate with the stones:

“Aphelion” is the point in the orbit of a planet, asteroid, or comet at which it is furthest from the sun. The poems encompass the idea of physical/emotional distance and contrast the human and natural world. Each poem is grounded in the landscape of either Europe or Canada, depending on where she was writing at the time.

To achieve the high contrast lighting in the photo, I placed the stones in their groups on blue tissue paper inside my bathtub, using the contained area and white fiberglass walls to control the depth and direction of the shadow.

The stones in my cover photo was inspired in particular by two consecutive poems in the collection called “Petroglyph Trail” and “Letter to Nancy”:

“light catches the stone
just     so
revealing hairline fractures
small imperfections

dusk breaking
across marble
your absence”

I paired Gill’s Joanna with Barnbrook’s Priori sans and serif.


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Windfall Apples

“little windfall apples / green cherry bombs / each with unlit fuse”

(From one of Richard Stevenson’s poems.)

I think the imagery that these lines evoke is really interesting. However the publisher felt my apple-bomb was a little enigmatic and could be mistaken for a Christmas ornament.

I possess a natural aptitude for taking out of focus photographs, which actually worked in my favor here. The lack of focus obscures the object, but the imagery is still too direct.

My first two photographic attempts were abandoned for an illustrative approach that suits Stevenson’s work better. The square format (5 x 5″) provides symmetry and generous white space around each of the five-line poems.

On the back: “The venerable tanka and her upstart cousin kyoka mingle with Kerouac’s American pop haiku in five-liner imagist poems and linked sequences. In Windfall Apples,Richard Stevenson mixes East and West with backyard barbecue and rueful reflection.”

It was a two colour job using orange and brown ink on yellow paper (mohawk via) with a linen finish. The interior includes a few colour pages. I lifted the orange/yellow hues from the original photos and then placed the colour back on top of greyscale versions, resulting in sort-of-duotones.

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14 Tractors

John Deere inspired.

Low bow to Gerry Hill and NeWest Press for snaring the Poetry Award at the Saskatchewan Book Awards last night.

The word “tractors” in the title block was hand-drawn. The rest of the 14 tractors appear on the back of the jacket.

The interior is full of visual material pilfered from vintage tractor manuals and photographs taken by Shelley Sopher.

I was originally aiming for an understated prairie poetry feel with the cover, but playing with the visual aesthetic of the retro John Deere manuals was so much more fun. The end result is unavoidable on the shelf.

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The Collected Works of Pat Lowther

NeWest Press is publishing a comprehensive collection of poetry by the late Pat Lowther (1935–1975). Compiled by Chris Wiesenthal, the book revives Lowther’s out-of-print pieces and unveils never before collected and unpublished ones.

Featuring: a cerlox-inspired spine, some dated floral wallpaper, a little Paul Renner, and 2 spot colours on green paper. (Click for more detail.)

For the design, it was a struggle to capture the strictly mediated way that Lowther and her lifetime of work can be known by us now so many years later. The style of the cover stems from archived photos of Lowther’s notepads from the 1960/70’s. The imagery promotes both her natural and urban perspectives with retro floral wallpaper and black & white slide film shots of old office buildings. The composition strives for a balance between a dated and progressive aesthetic, as Pat Lowther was definitely forward-thinking for her time.

Printed with much care and attention by Transcon, this piece couldn’t have turned out better. The jacket stock is 80# Mohawk Via Smooth in Willow, an uncoated paper. The fly leaf is 80# Rainbow from Coast paper in Maroon, embossed with a texture. Following the fly leaf is a full bleed photo of Pat Lowther.

The text face is Trump Mediäval designed by Georg Trump in ’54. The sans is the anachronistic Futura, a geometric sans serif designed by Paul Renner in ’24-ish. The typewritten letters that appear on the section title pages and the typographic ornaments in “The Age of the Bird” are scans from P.L.’s original manuscripts.

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The cover concept stems from a visual poem by Jesse Patrick Ferguson called “mama” that merges visual art with the written word.

My cover illustration incorporates elements from Jesse’s visual poem called “mama” from the interior. The page numbers run vertically in the outer margins and switch direction in the second part the book. This orientation reflects the structure of the collection, where poems are grouped into pairs and appear at equal intervals in the two halves of the book. The first half contains the Fundamental Tones and the second holds the Overtones. The jacket is a 3-colour job with a spot UV gloss over the title, author name and outlines of the illustration.

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