This week and next, we’ll feature The New Census: an Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, a lovely new book edited by Lauren Shapiro & Kevin A. Gonzalez, and published by Rescue Press. You can purchase the anthology here. Today’s discussion is with Sevy Perez, book designer for Rescue.
Phrases about The New Census from an Online Chat (Continued):
…aesthetic statements here are confined to the action of the poems, the prevalence of modes which haven’t really yet been theorized…what would an 18-year-old reader find in this anthology, especially if they want to write…(to be continued)…
1. Tell us about the design process for The New Census. I imagine some of its elements (multiple authors, illustrations, the desire to be substantial without being overwhelming) presented distinct challenges.
Well I’ve never before designed an anthology. In the beginning, I pulled a few from bookshelves to get an idea — whenever you’re creating something there’s a neurosis to know what everyone else is doing, but what I saw was endemically boring and stuffy. We know we wanted to do something traditional in a modern way, something sincere in a fun way. Rescue specializes, in my opinion, in good, weird stuff. It’s always a task to make substantiation digestible, but there are a lot of elements in this collection that work to ease the pain: whether it’s the illustrations, polls, use of black or the typeset itself — as a designer, there are certain typefaces that just yawn academia, so we don’t even use those — so it was built from the ground-up to be just the right amount of weird without being unrecognizable. It’s black because black is always in. It’s natural paper because it’s easiest to read.
I’ve set hundreds or writers’ work, and this anthology has maybe the top ten most difficult pieces I’ve ever encountered. This is good, though. Most poets, whether they know it or not, are constrained by the tab or enter keys, but there’s a lot of variety in these pages. Some poems I just turned sideways to fit true. Others had to break some rules. The most distinct challenge in any book is making the typeset true to form: sometimes your pages aren’t the same proportions as an 8.5 x 11 or you have more space between lines, &c. And since poetry is what it is, I can’t have a reader mistaking a typesetting anomaly into some type of authorial intent. Yes, we have graphs and illustrations and things, but just being honest to the work is always the most challenging and rewarding.
2. One of the first things people will notice about the book are its “census” graphics, which represent contributors’ responses to questions including “what is your shoe size” and “do you eat meat.” Which of these graphics is your favorite? Which one do you think reveals the most about contemporary poetry?
I think the question what genre do you read the most is my favorite. It’s relevant and humbling, with answers like email, job advertisements, the genre of the dark-yet-fancily-dressed.
I don’t know a thing about contemporary poetry, but I think there’s something representative in what contemporary poets are reading. I wrote one poem once. That’s the extent of my poetry knowledge.
3. You’ve designed other books for Rescue. How would you describe the overall aesthetic of your work? What are some publishers/designers you look to for inspiration?
I’m pretty formulaic. I think rules are what separate design from art. Most of my work for Rescue is consistent without being predictable, which I think is always the name of the game. You’ll always see the logos in the same spots, same general layout, but with something attuned to the work. You always read the thing first, and you never make your part in the final product obvious. E.g., for one of our most recent books, Jonathan Blum’s Last Word, I created this canvas painting from crushed witch hazel pigment because witch hazel is a recurring symbol in the work and Blum’s surname etymology is the German blume, or flower. So you never want to make it so obvious because you don’t want to risk misleading the reader by prepping them to encounter a certain symbol or image. I think the best covers are bespoke, yet open to interpretation, yet easily identifiable as part of an overall brand. So it’s always a triangulation.
As far as other designers or publishers, I think Knopf and Wave are putting out interesting visual stuff. Knopf tailors its brand to each work, and I’m just kind of obsessed with the new Wave book aesthetic in an oogly, far-away way. Most small presses have this grungyish, DIY design style I don’t buy. Big press design tends to be hit or miss, though lately there have been more hits, partly because the whole e-reader revolution has done us all a favor in a way. It sounds silly but we have to think about what books are doing. Our anthology is a product, yes. But it’s a product meant to, depending on who you ask, either engage or disengage you into/from the so-called real world where most products move you along your basic like existence instead of interrupting it. Culturally books are the new vinyls: they’re extremely thoughtful things that lend themselves to sentimentality. It’s always nice to digitally detox with the printed word here and there. There aren’t a whole lot of commodified, functional art objects you can own nowadays. For a birthday once, a friend surprised me with a totally mint, original 1988 Paris Review (because there’s a David Foster Wallace story in it I love) that I totally cherish. You can go read that online — here, I’ll even link you. But it’s just not the same. I doubt anyone’s going to run off the story on their Epson and tuck it away to pass on to their kids or whatever. Sorry about ranting there.
4. Unlimited budget. Unlimited hours. You are designing a single-copy special edition of The New Census. What would you do?
You know, I’m sitting here up in Prairie Lights mulling over what this would look like. The truth is, disappointingly maybe, that I wouldn’t change a thing. Not because I think what we did already is perfect or whatever, but — especially with designing books — the designer should be invisible. My job is to pull you in and then make you forget I ever pulled you in in the first place. I don’t do ornamation. And from a brand perspective, you don’t want one thing in a line of things to be a mutation.
On the other hand, though, I do wonder what a solid gold book would look like.