The presenting of poetry in beautifully laid-out flat prints — often accompanied with artwork or produced using the letterpress process — is a time-honored tradition. The broadside emphasizes the way that a poem navigates visual space and draws out the reader’s sensual experience of a poem beyond the metaphorical or imagined and into the realm of physical touch, color, line, and shape. The production of broadsides also provides opportunities for collaborative conversation between poets and the people who deal intimately with the physical production and setting of their work: book artists/printers, painters and illustrators. In recent years (especially with the advent of internet technology), the broadside also has taken on new importance as a means by which to make poetry more familiar, more affordable, and more culturally accessible to the public. The Poetry Foundation’s free downloadable “refrigerator” broadsides and the Broadsided project — which publishes printable electronic broadsides and encourages their free distribution in public places — are two examples of projects that seek to expand the scope of the dialogues taking place around poetry while still maintaining a value for stunning visual presentation. I’m particularly drawn to the idea of both kinds of broadsides — those which, by their small-scale production (often by hand), ensure that the poems printed on them will continue to be treasured as objects of quality and great cultural importance, and those which, by their widespread availability, ensure that poetry can continue to grow outside of itself, to evoke new conversations in unusual places so that the consumption of beautiful art need not be reserved for those with money.
Here is a short roundup of some broadsides I found that feature Asian American poetry:
Last week in our series “The Page Transformed: Part II – The Page as Canvas,” we spoke to poet Craig Santos Perez about his strategic use of visual elements like typesetting and illustrations in his poetry. In this post, we’ll be focusing on his small press, Achiote, in order to learn how decisions about developing the nuts-and-bolts aspects of a book’s visual impact — like cover art and book design — are made.
Achiote Press, a Berkeley-based press edited by Craig Santos Perez and Jennifer Reimer, publishes poetry and art in a range of print formats, including chapbooks, perfect-bound books, anthologies, and art books. Each season, they put out limited-run editions of two single-author chapbooks and an issue of their unique publication, Achiote Seeds, which their blog describes as a “multi-author chap-journal.” Browsing through the beautiful covers on Achiote’s web site, one gets a sense of just how thoughtfully the design of each book has been selected in order to complement the work contained within. That Achiote has a dedicated Art Director, Jason Buchholz, is even more indicative of just how important the idea of a book as a physical art object is to the press.
We asked Jason to talk to us about Achiote’s aesthetic vision and his role as the decisionmaker behind Achiote’s “look”. Here’s what he had to say about his process:
“I allow our overall aesthetic to emerge from the works themselves. I read each manuscript carefully, in search of two things: recurring visual imagery, and a distilled sense of the overall emotionality of the work. In other words, I try to experience a manuscript as if it were a visual work, translating movement, change, and the other temporal qualities of writing into a single impression. I then look for an image that will match that impression, as well as the title. The role of the title here can’t be understated – it’s the interplay of image and title that not only gives the book its initial impact,
but also creates an inescapable psychological context for reading the words inside. My primary goal with each cover is to ensure that this context remains true to the writer’s intentions. If I’m working on an anthology, I’ll try to match the unifying theme, rather than specific images or feelings. In those rare cases that we publish collections without strong themes, I simply use the opportunity to showcase a great piece of work I want the world (or at least our readership) to
see. Our overall aesthetic, then, is the sum total of all these book covers, plus my personal contributions of a simple logo and a dash of orange.
In the future I hope to produce more works that place art and writing on equal footing. Just this week we released Her Many Feathered Bones, which sees an artist and a poet on equal footing, in a slow and deliberate dialogue in which neither art form is given precedence. To me this represents the beginning of a new aesthetic that emerges almost entirely from our artists and their work. In such cases, I will have very few decisions to make. My role will be that of front-row observer, part-time quality assurer, and occasional matchmaker.”
Thanks very much to Jason for taking the time to offer his thoughts to us, and to Craig Perez for passing our questions on to him. Please do take the time to visit Achiote’s web site and browse through the covers from their current list and archives — they are truly gorgeous, and are testament to the love, taste, and meticulous attention that goes into each of Jason’s design choices.
Jason Buchholz is an artist, writer, and editor living in El Cerrito, CA. Someday his work will be available at jasonbuchholz.com.
In keeping with our investigation of “The Page As Canvas,” we recently sought the opportunity to speak with Mr. Perez about his strategic use of typography, visual arrangement of words, and maps in his first book, from unincorporated territory [hacha]. Ever gracious, he offered us the insights that follow.
LR: How did the idea for the project that is from unincorporated territory come about?
CP: My multi-book project, from unincorporated territory, formed through my study of the “long poem”: Pound’s Cantos, Williams’ Paterson, H.D.’s Trilogy, Zukofsky’s “A,” and Olson’s Maximus. I loved how these books were able to attain a breadth and depth of vision and voice. So I began to imagine each book from my own project as a book-length excerpt of a larger project. One difference between my project and other “long poems” is that my long poem will always contain the “from,” always eluding the closure of completion.
I also became intrigued by how certain poets write trans-book poems: such as Duncan’s “Passages” and Mackey’s “Songs of the Andoumboulou.” I employ this kind of trans-book threading in my own work as poems change and continue across books (for example, excerpts from the poems “from tidelands” and “from aerial roots” appear in both my first and second books). These threaded poems differ from Duncan and Mackey’s work because I resist the linearity of numbering that their work employs.
LR: Your first book, from unincorporated territory [hacha], is unique in that it makes use of strategic typography, diagrams, maps, illustrations, and other aspects of its visual design to put forth both its politics and its poetics. What was your process like in developing this visual vocabulary and drafting your writing into its framework?
CP: I imagine the blank page as an excerpted ocean filled with vast currents, islands of voices, and profound depths. I imagine the poem forming as a map of this excerpted ocean, tracing the topographies of story, memory, genealogy, and culture. So creating the visual vocabulary of my work is a process of both drafting these word maps and navigating their currents.
I use diagrams, maps, and illustrations as a way to foreground the relationship between storytelling, mapping, and navigation. Just as maps have used illustrations (sometimes visual, sometimes typographical), I believe poetry can both enhance and disrupt our visual literacy.
One incessant typographical presence throughout my work is the tilde (~). Besides resembling an ocean current and containing the word “tide” in its body, the tilde has many intriguing uses. In languages, the tilde is used to indicate a change of pronunciation. As you know, I use many different kinds of discourse in my work (historical, political, personal, etc) and the tilde is meant to indicate a shift in the discursive poetic frame. In mathematics, the tilde is used to show equivalence (i.e. x~y). Throughout my work, I want to show that personal or familial narratives have an equivalent importance to official historical and political discourses.
LR: Can you talk specifically about the importance of maps and mapping (topological, geographic, typographic) within the text? How would you describe the role of the actual maps (of flight plans, military bases, etc.) contained within the text with respect to the greater arc of the work? Do you see them as a genre of visual poem in and of themselves, or as illustrations to the text that surround them?
CP: Cartographic representations of the Pacific Ocean developed in Europe at the end of the 15th century, when the Americas were incorporated into maps: the Pacific became a wide empty space separating Asia and America. In European world maps, Europe is placed at the center and “Oceania” is divided into two opposite halves on the margins. As imperialism progressed, every new voyage incorporated new data into new maps.
As I mention in the preface to my first book, the invisibility of Guam on many maps—whether actual maps or the maps of history—has always haunted me, especially after I migrated with my family to the States in 1995. One hope for my poetry is to enact an emerging map of “Guam”—both as a place and as a signifier—into what Albert Wendt calls “new maps, new fusions and interweavings.”
The “actual maps” in my first book are, to me, both visual poems and illustrations of the rest of the work (they were created by designer Sumet (Ben) Viwatmanitsakul, based on maps that I included in my original manuscript). In my imagination, they function in two ways: first, they center “Guam,” a locating signifier often omitted from many maps. Secondly, the maps are meant to provide a counterpoint to the actual stories that are told throughout the book. While maps can locate, chart, and represent (and through this representation tell an abstracted story), they never show us the human voices of a place. I place this abstract, aerial view of “Guam” alongside the more embodied and rooted portraits of place and people (like in the poem “ta(la)ya,” which stories about my grandfather’s experience on Guam during World War II).
LR: Your second book, from unincorporated territory [saina],was recently published by Omnidawn. How was the process for the second book similar to, and different from, your process for the first?
CP: My second book continues the themes of culture, language, memory, family, and history that were launched in my first book. Like the first book, the second book explores various modes of storytelling, mapping, and navigation. I wrote my first book between 2004-2006, and my second book between 2006-2009. I hope that my craft has improved, sharpened, and expanded.
[Saina] more directly explores the themes of militarization and tourism. There’s also a 10-part poem that directly addresses navigation; more specifically, the poem contours the current cultural reclamation project of traditional canoe-building and navigational practices on Guam. [Saina] also contains my most ambitious poem to date, a 50-page work titled “from organic acts,” which stories my grandmother’s experience as a child during the war, her migration to the United States, and her aging in relation to the themes of religion and citizenship.
LR: What’s next on the horizon for you?
CP: I’ll be traveling for the second book in the next two months: New York this week, Guam after that, then Denver, Seattle, Portland, and Hawaii, with a few readings in the California Bay Area. In the fall, I’ll do an East Coast tour…and possibly make my way to Great Lake states. In terms of poetry, I am in the beginnings of the third book length excerpt of from unincorporated territory.
LR: Do you have any words of advice for younger poets?
CP: Keep reading, keep writing, keep submitting. One thing that helped me tremendously as a young poet is book reviewing. I couldn’t afford to buy contemporary poetry books, so reviewing allowed me to receive free books. Additionally, engaging with texts sharpened my critical / poetic thinking, which inevitably rubbed off on my creative work. Also, it’s a good way to build up your publication credits and to contribute to the critical discourse.
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Thanks very much to Craig Perez for sharing his thoughts with us. Look out for a post on Achiote Press’s visual aesthetic next week.
In this second installment of our March 2010 theme, “The Page Transformed: Intersections of Poetry & the Visual Arts,” we’ll be thinking about poetry which makes use of the visual elements of its form to create and enhance meaning. Although the term “concrete poetry” was not coined until the 1950’s, poets were using elements of design and typography long before then. George Herbert’s shaped poems (like “Easter Wings”) and Lewis Carroll’s “A Mouse’s Tail” are two particularly classic examples, while a more contemporary example might be the typographical experiments of e.e. cummings (as in his poem “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r“). Thinking of the page as a space by which to convey both verbal and visual meaning paved the way for surrealist experiments with exercises like cut-up technique, which employs elements of collage to create new poems by disassembling and rearranging existing words on the page (The Academy of American Poets’ Website has an interesting article on Futurism, Dada, and Concrete Poetry). Today, visual poetry is now a field unto itself (The Poetry Foundation has a wonderful article about the subject if you’re interested in exploring more).
As we think about The Page as Canvas, we’ll be looking not only at writers who employ strategic visual elements to put forth their poetics, but also at the importance of elements like book design, cover art, illustration, and print formats like broadsides, which really do turn text into pieces of visual art. As we move forward into the technical elements of producing the physical page, our explorations will turn us towards the third phase of our series, in which we’ll examine The Book as Object.