As the publisher of Terrapin Books, I like to ask each of my poets what they have in mind for a cover. Although I reserve the right to turn down suggested artwork, so far that hasn’t happened and each Terrapin poet has had input on their cover art. For example, Neil Carpathios’ cover for Confessions of a Captured Angel was done by his wife, a graphic designer. Christine Stewart-Nunez’s cover for Bluewords Greening was designed by her former student. Patricia Clark’s cover art for The Canopy was contributed by her husband, a painter. Hayden Saunier festooned her own black coat with greens from her yard and a set of antlers, then hung the coat on a wall and took a photo of it. I extracted the background and replaced it with a solid blue background. The result is a cover much like a piece of surrealistic art.
Lewis Mark Grimes. I sent several images to Gerry and asked what she thought of them. Following is a discussion of what transpired from that point on in our search for the perfect cover.
Diane: Tell us what the word “aileron” means and why your first thought for your cover art was a farmhouse?
Gerry: An aileron is a small hinged surface—a flap—on an airplane wing, used to control balance.
It was difficult for me to think of a way to incorporate that technical concept into a concrete image for the book cover. Airy images are hard to translate into solid pictures.
A photo of an airplane wing didn’t seem quite right because the reader might see only the wing and not see or understand where the small flap was and what it meant to the flight of the plane.
The main theme of Aileron is the loss of a cherished family farm to a large company and how to deal with that emotional loss, to rise above it. So that’s why I thought a photo of a farmhouse might work. I spent a couple of days looking through stock photos of farmhouses, but something was always wrong, the setting, the color of the barn, the crops in the field were not quite right. And I couldn’t find a photo of our particular farm, so I felt a little frustrated.
After weeks of obsessing over commas, capitals, misspellings, spacing issues, the acknowledgments page, the title page, the author’s page, all of a sudden when you asked what I had in mind for a book cover, I was kind of panicked. Vague thoughts of airplane wings and photos of farmhouses were floating in my mind, but I was actually floored. I knew that I really liked the Terrapin covers I’d seen, so I hoped you might be helpful there, and thankfully you were!
Diane: When I sent you the pieces of feather art, you wrote back that you’d stick with the farmhouse or a barn. Why?
Gerry: When you first sent ideas for cover art, I think there were seven images, five pieces with feathers plus one barn and one abstract painting. Seeing all seven together confused me a little because they were so different, so I clung to the idea of something that was an exact representation of a farm, which was a farmhouse or a barn. And the barn had happy associations for me, of safety and security. When I looked out the windows of our farmhouse, that’s what I often looked at, the big white barn and the silo next to it, the fields beyond. As a child, I loved the soft hay, the smell of the bales and oilcans and the animals, the texture of the old beams and the wood floor, the patterns of light and shadow. So yes, I clung to the idea of the farmhouse or barn. But I’m glad we found something more upbeat and visually exciting.
Diane: A few days later you emailed and said that one of the pieces was “haunting” you. What was responsible for that haunting?
Gerry: When I again looked over the seven art pieces that you’d sent in one file, I could see that the barn was, in fact, boring. You sent a print of one single feather, a couple of images of dream catchers (those nets with trailing feathers) and at the very bottom, two pieces of artwork done with molted feathers by Lewis Mark Grimes. I liked those two pieces best because they seemed unique, but I still had the barn idea fixed firmly in my head. I spent another day looking at stock photos of barns and feeling less and less satisfied with that idea. I looked at all of the images again that evening and decided, as they say, “to sleep on it.”
I woke up the next morning with the image in my mind of the white feathers exploding from a sea of blue dots. If it was strong enough to wake me, I thought, that’s a good sign. All day the image stayed with me. It “haunted” me in a very good way, so I decided to seriously consider it. The covers of my three previous books were lovely, but very conservative and representational. I thought a departure to something more abstract and mysterious might be refreshing. I showed the image to my husband and he loved it too. “Feathers,” he said, “which remind me of flight, of wings, of airplane wings, that’s perfect.” And when I looked at it metaphorically, I saw in that explosion of wings, a suggestion of Hiroshima, a tragedy, which suited the theme of losing the farm to a mining company.
Diane: I was similarly haunted, so I tracked down the artist to find out if we could get permission to use the piece. He said yes! While Lewis and I then worked out the licensing agreement, I did a sample front cover layout, that white feather image shaped like a fan against a black background. What was your first response to the initial design? Did we make any changes to it?
Gerry: The background was black and I’ve always liked black covers with a brighter color for the images and typeface. When you isolated that image and did a sample first cover, I was convinced that the image was perfect. Not representational, and so radiant and striking. Everyone I showed it to had strong positive reactions. Comments about the cover included words like “mysterious,” “vivid,” “engaging,” “spectacular.” I felt more and more sure that it was the right decision, and I was very happy that the artist gave us permission to use the piece.
The only change I suggested was making the print of the title a little larger. There was no doubt in my mind that this was exactly the right mood and message that I wanted to convey about my book. The design was so compelling and so suitable that very little change was necessary.
Diane: The cover we ended up with isn’t even remotely similar to the initial idea of a farmhouse, yet it strikes me as metaphorically perfect for your book. How do you see this cover as fitting your book?
Gerry: Sometimes your first ideas are your best ideas. Sometimes, they’re your worst. I trusted myself on an intuitive level with the decision to use the feather art and, after my initial reluctance, it turned out extremely well.
The elements of air rule this collection: birds, wings, trees. The central metaphor of the aileron on an airplane wing, which controls balance, suggests the importance of not surrendering to sadness but finding new direction, staying aloft above the blue dots which suggest sadness so that the white feathers lifting upward as in a fan connect with the theme beautifully. A lot of the book is about staying in balance even amidst trouble and an immense sense of loss. It was important to me that the final poem lift upward. When we discussed the ordering of the poems, there was thought given to ending the book with a poem that contains the image of a horse pulling freight into midnight’s darkness, but that seemed entirely wrong. The decision to end on a pleasing memory of a swing from my childhood that elevates the mood up and out into the world seemed fitting.
The collection is firmly rooted in the natural world, the landscapes of a Pennsylvania childhood, of Montana summers and a move to the Sonoran Desert which offers a strange but healing landscape, a mixture of oddness and wonder that, in fact, Lewis Mark Grimes’ work of art also conveys. It was a beautiful synchronicity and I couldn’t be happier with the cover. So much time is put into crafting the poems, revising them, arranging them in the best way for an effective narrative, but so little thought is given until the very last moment about the cover which is, of course, the reader’s first impression of the book. I like the idea of the reader being introduced to my book with this beautiful and original design. Thank you, Diane, for helping me find the way to it.
Geraldine Connolly is a native of western Pennsylvania and the author of three previous poetry collections: Food for the Winter (Purdue University Press), Province of Fire (Iris Press), and Hand of the Wind (Iris Press) as well as a chapbook, The Red Room (Heatherstone Press). She is the recipient of two NEA creative writing fellowships in poetry, a Maryland Arts Council fellowship, and the W.B. Yeats Society of New York Poetry Prize. She was the Margaret Bridgman Fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and has had residencies at Yaddo, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Chautauqua Institute. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Georgia Review, and Shenandoah. Her work has also been featured on The Writer’s Almanac and anthologized in Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, Sweeping Beauty: Poems About Housework, and The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Gerry’s book, Aileron, will be released on March 1. It is now available for Pre-orders.