Friday, July 15, 2011

Generally Speaking: Author Photos as Cover Art

A blow-dried bouffant. An Eartha Kitt stare. A shirt unbuttoned halfway to Acapulco. Thirty years ago, it wasn't entirely unusual to pick up a slim volume of contemporary verse and find a towering author portrait gazing majestically from the cover. Today, that treatment is reserved almost exclusively for collecteds. Do contemporary poets deserve more than a thumbnail snapshot on the back cover -- like a neglected child staring desperately out a station wagon's tailgate window at a world that's already drifted past? Did poetry lose something the day it declared the look-at-me cover unfashionable?

Our guests:

John Colburn is a co-editor and publisher at Spout Press, a publishing collective; a member of the improvised music group Astronaut Cooper's Parade (a collective); and co-founder of the Center for Visionary Poetics, based in Minneapolis and well on its way to becoming a collective. Through his work as a teacher he is trying to turn your children into feral Marxists. And he just took this goddamn picture right now.

Ed Bok Lee is the author of Real Karaoke People (New Rivers Press, PEN Open Book Award) and Whorled (Coffee House Press, forthcoming September 2011). He lives in Minneapolis.

Ready, set, crossfire!

John Colburn: First off, I just want to say that it's ok for poets to be sexy and I find John Ashbery almost unbearably sexy on this cover (Get up I feel like being a poet!) and I find absolutely NOTHING wrong with putting authors' photos (dead or alive) on the covers of their books a la Richard Brautigan or even Hannah Weiner. Remember Prince's Lovesexy cover (fig 1. below). Mmm-hmm. Now imagine the Ed Bok Lee version. Oh yeah. Because this whole headshot marketing Poets & Writers celebrity academic bullshit culture movement is NOT revolutionary, so we might as well play with it a little. Why do poets become brands? Sure we can construct a glamorous other on the book cover, just as one is constructed on the page and maybe it's tacky, yes, all the more reason to embrace it and be more honest about the ego's involvement in this poetry that's trying to be "important" but screw that, I want a poetry that creates no economic debt for anyone involved, that exploits no hierarchy and creates no dominance, a poetry that can live anywhere and is against wages (slavery) and there's probably a word limit to this soundbite but FUCK WORD LIMITS no one can keep me down all power to the people the 'free market' is not my father figure.

Ed Bok Lee: I’ve never found a book of poems (or outfit from the ‘70s) at Savers or Goodwill that I didn’t love. . . just for surviving the fires of style.

Because isn't that also one of poetry's objectives: to get everyone to share everyone else’s face and dreams and body oils simultaneously for all of time?

So, it's more a kind of sacrifice. Yeah, my vote: all poets should show as much skin on every page and cover and billboard and myelin sheath as they can!


fig. 1. Prince, Lovesexy cover (1988)


  1. Because John's picture is so very scary, I mean sexy, I want it for my Facebook profile, if not my next author photo! Will pay top dollar!

  2. How did I find myself on this page with two of my favorite people (not Prince...--John and Ed)? Oh right, Facebook. Great debate. Definitely fair and balanced.