Getting the cover right
Arriving at the right cover for Selfie with Waterlilies (Paper Swans Press, 2017) came about through an extended dialogue and a process of visual exploration for me, Sarah (the publisher) and Jill (the judge) in July and August. I thought I’d look back at our discussions and the exchange of emails to see how we came up with that sumptuous dark green cover with violet type, using a detail from a Claude Monet oil painting.
When I decided on the title of the pamphlet, I was very much thinking about those dark and moody, textured reflections in the water of Monet’s waterlilies. I had the panels at the Orangerie in mind given that the poem of the title was inspired by my visit just a week after the Paris attacks in November 2015. Two and half years earlier, in May 2013, I had paid a visit to the pond at Giverny for real. As I wrote to Sarah some time later:
“What I particularly love about Monet’s panels of waterlilies are the vibrant colours, the deep blues, indigos and aquamarines, the emeralds and bottle greens, the mauves, violets and purples. I much prefer them to those with a lighter palette reflecting clouds. My favourites are the particularly abstract panels, where there is nothing of the sky, just the depths of dark water, and where you can zoom in on the waterlilies and see them actually as just a few slapdash brushstrokes – I love seeing the texture, movement and physicality of the actual brushstroke itself.”
At this early stage, having just found out I’d won the competition, I hadn’t talked about my ideas for the cover. Sarah read my manuscript through and could see clearly some of the key themes running through the poems: parental loss, my father, food, driving, the family home, France, literature, learning and, of course, waterlilies. So I was touched and impressed when she first sent me an initial concept for the cover that combined the portrait of an elderly man with the waterlily layered over the face. It reflected a close reading of the poems as an entire unit and drew closely on the themes contained within. The idea of the flower placed over the eye was clever and powerful, very ‘visual’.
As I wrote to Sarah: “I admire the idea behind the watermark of the man and it is well done with the eye in the centre of a flower, but I do find it creepy and unsettling. I can see the intention of portraying a ghost [I have a poem called ‘The Do’s and Don’ts of Ghosts’] but I ask myself who is the old man? It is certainly not my father so for me it would feel uncomfortable to have this photo of a random person on the front.”
I wasn’t so keen on the use of a photo and felt that this striking image might be better suited to fiction than poetry. I had looked at other Paper Swans Press books and pamphlets before submitting my poems to the competition and really liked the use of pen and ink illustrations and watercolour, such as The Jellyfish Society by Lydia Popwich. And of course, I also had in mind Liz Sennitt Clough‘s compelling debut pamphlet, Glass, which won the Saboteur Award in 2017 for best pamphlet.
Even if my poems are immediate and accessible, I felt that to retain a sense of ambiguity, the cover needed artwork to set a particular tone, and that we should be able to stare into poems on multiple readings, just as we stare into the dark depths of a pond. As I explained to Sarah, I couldn’t stop thinking about that striking visual imagery of the flower over the eye and wondered if we might not develop that idea further as it might have a strong and rather unsettling symbolism. An ‘eye-flower’ could be quite simple but graphically very resonant. I looked at some Monets up close for inspiration:
In the absence of felt tips, I started messing about with the few fluorescent pens I had close by. I wondered if a professional illustrator might be able to explore the idea further based on these very rushed sketches. There was something rather uncomfortable about these lilies in bud with a human eye. Did this have potential to be taken further?
While surfing the internet to find photo images of waterlilies from which to draw, I came across the Monets and realised, thanks to Wikipedia, that quite a few of the canvases are under ‘creative commons’, meaning that they do not have copyright and can actually be used freely in the public domain. There was a healthy choice of canvases from among which I had my favourites: the dark abstractswith the sky and horizon completely blocked out, so that we are peering into the depths of the pond. In later life, as Monet’s eyesight deteriorated and he saw everything tinged in blue, the waterlilies themselves become looser, more impressionistic, mere suggestions of flowers from a few seemingly slapdash brushstrokes.
I sent a few hyperlinks to Sarah and she came back to me very quickly with a possible cover. I thought it would be good for the word ‘Selfie’ to jump out from the cover for it is a not a word that hesitates or has any restraint. As she wrote: “Grasping 5 minutes peace and have flung this together…is this the sort of thing you mean? I like the way the white lilies cascade down the front cover and there is just about enough darkness on the back to add a quote…” It was!
A relief to arrive at a cover that was sumptuous and enticing, a cover that you’d most definitely want to pick up (yes, I do judge a book by its cover). We lived with the cover for a few days and I think we thought we were done. Beautiful colours, rich, and layered. Bright yellow/orange end papers, picking up the accent from the centre of the waterlily would look great. As Jill said: “I’m really liking this latest cover from Sarah – lilac and purple my favourite colours. I would go for orange/red end papers if possible to add to the richness”.
As much as I thought we’d got the visual sense of the cover and title right, my only thoughts were that some might consider it a bit ‘chocolate boxy’, and that the bright colours (even if they correspond to the Turkish Delight and the beetroot of the poems!) might suggest a different tone to the small collectioon. Remember those posters from Athena? And the whole merchandising around Monet that can be a bit saccharine. Also, Sarah felt that the title didn’t jump out as well as it could. Maybe something darker, more sombre might be more in keeping with the sadness and melancholy of some of the poems.
I sent Sarah a detail from a different, darker painting and she write back: “Attached is the mock up with the darker cover. I like both and, despite being more sedate, I actually think the darker cover makes more impact and with a splash of colour in endpapers, it could retain its visual impact.” I knew too, instinctively, that this second version was right, and could imagine the pamphlet with the dark green of the cover complemented/complimented by yellow/lemon or violet end papers. In the end, because the paper is a cream colour, and the printers did not have a light paper in violet, Sarah opted for a sky blue, which I think works really well.
The final image leaves space for the ‘Selfie’ to shout out from the murky depths, with a healthy covering of waterlilies on the back, behind the endorsements. There is something sombre and foreboding but at the same time inviting. I think it achieves a luxurious balance between the classical and the contemporary. My thanks to Maggie Sawkins, Susan Castillo Street, Wendy Pratt and Roy Marshall for their very generous and beautifully worded endorsements, which reflect their close and considered reading of my poems before they had any notion of what the final cover would be.