Posted by: noelwilliams | August 10, 2013

Image and imagination

A few days ago I had the exciting task of approving a cover for my upcoming collection. It hadn’t occurred to me that this would be a difficult task. However, if I’d thought about the continual debate Rosemary and I have about images for Antiphon, I’d have been better prepared. It turned out to need quite a bit of consideration, as the book cover has to stand out without being brash, give some idea of the contents without being too literal, fit, in this case, Cinnamon Press’s idea of what their lists area all about, be visually interesting in itself and, ideally, reflect the book’s title in some way. As well as being an image that both I and my editor like.

Antiphon’s appearance always depends on a similar juggling act. Readers seem to like how it looks, and much of this is down to the images we’ve chosen to escort the poems. To be fair, the bulk of the design work has been Rosemary’s, though I’ve occasionally had useful ideas and between us we’ve come up with some good images that, we hope, add to the poems without distracting from them. The key purpose of Antiphon is to publish poetry. We’re not a photographic or art magazine. But the page-with-only-words can be a little dull. Online, particularly, people tend to expect visually crafted pages, where a well chosen image supports the words, even though I expect if they saw the same thing in print, they’d feel it was over the top.

But such images need some thinking about. If they are too obvious or too literal, they will distort the words. For example, if you’ve a poem about love on the rocks, and illustrate it with a picture of a rock, what does that tell you about love? And don’t we know what a rock looks like, in any case? (If we don’t, then the imagery in the poem won’t work in the first place.) The image that sits by a poem shouldn’t interpret the poem. Nor conflict with it. Nor distract from it. Nor undermine it with some complex meanings of its own. The images in Antiphon are more like marginalia or graffiti, pictures we’ve chosen which we think have their own visual interest, but which are not so demanding that they draw the reader away from the poem. And they can safely be ignored by those who only want to attend to the words.

We also use our images to create visual unity through the magazine. Again, we don’t want to do that in a heavy-handed way. So far we’ve avoided grandiose nature panoramas or close-ups of different writing instruments or dramatic waterfalls and seascapes. (Perhaps by the time we get to issue #100 we’ll be reaching for these tired resources, but it’s not happened yet). Instead, we’re looking for a bit of style, a bit of intimacy, a bit of quirk – the sorts of things that we tend to find in the poems we publish.

They’ve mainly come from our own cameras, some taken with Antiphon in mind, others accidentally captured during some trip or other. I’m rather fond of the seventeenth century sundial used for Issue #4 (photographed in Paris) because it might say something about time and transience, about light, about stone – but actually, it’s simply an interesting set of lines, shapes and textures. I also like Rosemary’s intriguing combination of ammonite and musical score we used in issue #2, because it’s slightly odd, raises some questions (what is this piece of music, exactly?) and yet as an image is quintessentially itself, a specific image that readers might now remember as something like an icon of the magazine: slightly odd, but studied, cultured, meaningful, aesthetic, unusual, crafted, a hint of nature, a dash of skill.

Good poems, we feel, can work in the same sort of way. They can offer somethings which have shape and texture, which are uniquely themselves, unique objects or experiences made from words, and, whilst they don’t need to be histrionic or to call attention to themselves flamboyantly, they’ll nevertheless use images, and language, which is special, different, original, striking to the mind’s eye and hopefully resting there in memory for a long time after the first encounter. Issue #8 looks like it’ll have it’s fair share of these: though there’s still time to submit your masterpiece to join them.

(If you’d like to see the cover of my book, Out of Breath – and, yes, this is a rather obvious plug, but the book isn’t out till March – it’s on my blog at: )



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