Amidst all of these familiar covers, I began to notice that the most striking volumes were often much more recent ones, from tiny or barely existent presses, from the more interesting of our current crop of poets. The shelves quickly filled with a hotch-potch of different sized books, some reflecting on the work inside - wide pages, square covers chosen to fit in the internal content.
Its always been the way that far more than prose, poetry publishers have had to accomodate different line lengths, and different page designs as a result. The "long line" has challenged the uniform design of many a press. Yet without a broader page size a lot of contemporary poetry falters, feels cramped in a way that its not. Recent examples include "Sea Change" by Jorie Graham and "One Big Self" by C.D. Wright, the latter being testimonies from prisoners, and so having something of the verbatim of prose, those organised as poetry.
The importance of doing justice to the work is not a new thing. Ashbery's long poem "Flowchart" appears in a suitably large format hardback for instance. Even recent anthologies - such as the relaunched Penguin Modern Poets - and small format magazines such as Poetry, have tended to change the "direction" of wider poems, or have fold out pages.
In the background of all this are the wider changes in the publishing industry, where at the same time as major players reduce their lists of marginal sellers (poetry being one), the slack has been picked up by the ease in which a press can be set up and in a very short time established. Yet its also a sign of how open poets generally have been to producing work in a number of formats and for a number of publishers.
The pamphlet remains one of the entry-level routes into poetry. Pamphlet series such as the Salt Modern Voices one I was published in, as well as Faber's new poets, have been a good opening gambit for new poets. Yet, more established names have also found the pamphlet works as a perfect model for side projects. Cheap to produce, in limited runs, pamphlets tend to the ephemeral, and as a result we see some of the nicest examples of design - either because they are a one off, part of a generic series, or simply through the accident of materials and publishing method. Minimalism is employed to strong effect on the below examples from Rhys Trimble, Amy De'ath, Matthew Welton and J.T. Welsch - artisan covers offset the poems which are often presented in a very unadorned way, with little design beyond the use of white space. Things of simple beauty.
But the pamphlet is not just an occasional project, but a simple distribution mechanism, easy for poets to carry around, to sell at gigs, and short and cheap enough to encourage purchase. For just a few pounds you get to sample the poets work. In some ways the American term "chapbook" seems a better one - and some pamphlets are as long as "single collections" would have been thirty or forty years ago. In some cases, and with prolific presses such as Knives, Forks and Spoons, its hard to see where the gap between pamphlet and collection is. KFS have adopted - as did Salt with their Modern Voices, or Faber with its new poets pamphlets - a uniform design. This again cuts down on cost and production time but also creates a signature that is itself visually exciting, and perhaps even collectible. In the case of If P Then Q (Holly Pester below) the limitations of publishing platform Lulu encourage a more austere and minimalist design which has its own clarity to it.
For the bigger independent presses such as Bloodaxe and Carcanet their own "uniform" designs have perhaps begun to look a little overly familiar over the years despite their excellence. Stephen Raw's Carcanet covers have themselves been highly influential, and still have gravitas (see the 30th anniversary Ashbery below) but we've seen recent books from the publisher, from James Davies and Matthew Welton with a new aesthetic, from designer Luke Allan, which also reflects the particular nature of these poets, experimental, sequential. Similarly, take Bloodaxe and put an artist-poet on their roster and a new look appears, as with the Heather Phillipson below, designed by Phillipson and fellow poet-artist Ed Atkins.
Yet its not just an outward aesthetic that new poetry design is reflecting but a range of artistic decisions to do with what we consider a poem at all. The willingness of ZimZalla, Knives, Forks and Spoons and others to put the time and resource into creating more complex creations such as Leanne Bridgewater and Philip Davenport's books below, reflects the hybrid nature of the contents. The books themselves are art objects. Slightly out of scope for here, but ZimZalla has pioneered a range of different presentations of poetry, often as far from a book as you can imagine. Bridgewater and Davenport are both artist-writers and so the works have a coherence. The latter oversaw a major anthology and exhibition of visual poetry.
The thriving avant garde scene in Manchester means that quite a number of these presses are local, and attached to the now ended reading season "The Other Room." A book table was always available there. This year, a newer press ran and independent book fair in Manchester - and Dostoevsky Wannabe will be repeating this in early February. Their own books are another small press aesthetic - echoing old Penguin/Pelican designs - and again, using print on demand, in this case the much improved Amazon CreateSpace to create their books. The two books Richard Barrett has put out with them - "u make me laugh in a different way" and "The Acts", with Steve Hanson - cover a range of literary styles, prose, poetry, hybrid work, but the shared cover aesthetic makes all of their books desirable. If DW are using the new technologies, another local designer Lucy Wilkinson is using older techniques to create unique and highly desirable little booklets and books - again crossing over between text, poetry, prose and visual art. Her Death of Workers Whilst Building Skyscrapers imprint is politically charged but aesthetically driven.
Over the last few years Tom Chivers' Penned in the Margins has become an imprint of excellence, and their design has grown to match. His own 2nd collection was radically white text on black background from Test Centre in 2015, so design is clearly at the heart of his own practice. Penned in the Margins books are always attractive such as "Spacecraft" below from John McCullough, but their most effective one to date was Luke Kennard's brilliant "Cain" where the last part of the book - has two texts running side by side and the design is critical to the literary aesthetic.
Such aesthetic considerations are also at the heart of Amy McCauley's recent sold out collection "Oedipa", from Guillemot. Incorporating design on every page, like the Kennard book, such an ambitious layout might have been difficult to do at a reasonable cost a few years ago, but luckily the advances in print technology and digital design mean that even small presses can be highly ambitious.
Aesthetic considerations are also behind Chris McCabe's "Shad Thames" from a few years ago, which appears in a box, with an envelope of detritus. Just through my door is the new collection from Richard Barrett under the Happy Books imprint, which comes as a glorious yellow square, with each page as vibrant as the inner sleeve of a record cover. This "Face Book" is a great way to end 2018. Barrett has been published by a few of the presses here - and there does seem a wonderfully collaborative nature to the scene in Manchester - and further afield, that is beginning to show great work, but also make it attractive and relevant.
Clearly I've become attracted to the special edition, the odd work, the vibrant design. Most of these are single author collections - but its clear that representative anthologies of the future will need to be clever in how they present work given the wide range of original sources as to how it appears. Photography, design, collage as well as words are part of this renaissance in book design in contemporary poetry. Your bookshelves aren't designed to hold all of these of course, and there's something both ephemeral and to be cherished about such small run works, which is at one with the vibrancy of the writers who are producing this work.
The number of poets who are also designers, artists, musicians or performers means that there is always going to be a fluidity beyond the single volume. Some of the best anthologies reflect this, others - like the Herbert/Price "Contraflow on the Super Highway" from last century or this "Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives" anthology from a few years back - are coming from the same D.I.Y. aspect.
I limited myself in this article to books that I own, but there's clearly lots more out there - and I hope even the bigger presses are taking note - and they probably are - such as the larger footprint of the Danez Smith collection below. Like Shearsman's Lisa Robertson selection the larger cover creates a sense of permanence I think.
I wanted to finish this survey with a few other favourites that don't fit into a particular category but showcase that in good poetry you can judge a book by its cover. First, the uniform C.B. Editions design, in this case D. Nurkse, covering beautifully presented books, both fiction and poetry. And then striking designs from Christian Bok, Warsan Shire, Keston Sutherland, Agnes Lehoczky and Chris McCabe. If you're buying a poetry book this Christmas look out for any of these - the content and the cover won't disappoint.