I’m a poet myself, so I took my first job designing a cover for a book of poems very seriously. After reading the book (no charge), I tried to create a design for it that would reflect the tone and themes of the work and help set it apart in the general visual din of the bookstore.
The title poem of Stephen Cushman’s wonderful Heart Island refers to a real island of the coast of Maine, a prominent feature in the seascape of his childhood memories. He claims in the opening line that it is “no metaphor,” but of course it is. We talked about depicting an island on the cover, but that seemed perhaps a little too literal. I decided to make the title of the book into the island, placing the text along the horizon line, because it is like a mirror image of the subtle joke in the title poem. (It is too a metaphor.)
The cover illustration is based on a photograph that I took of two small boys on the beach (my cousins). I’d always loved the gestures of the two kids, the contrast between their motions — one running along the shore with his eyes to the ground, the other standing with arms wide as if in awe of far horizon. Stephen and I decided that the kids were symbolic of his childhood self (or selves), and he suggested that I make them translucent like ghosts, or super-imposed photographs. It was a nice idea, but the effect was lost in the general impressionistic feel of the illustration. It didn’t really “read.” But then I hit on the solution of differentiating them with colors, and this also helped establish the overall palette for the design — warm gold sand, cool blue sea — another classic contrast.
The book is also structured around the calendar, with poems titled after the months of the year slipped in among the rest to give the work as a whole a subtle relationship to time and season. To allude to this aspect of the book, I put a very faint palimpsest of an antique zodiac in the sky behind the island. The zodiac is turned to Leo as a reference to the poem “August.” If you want to understand why, go read the book.