Comparing cover to content: Andrei Codrescu’s The Poetry Lesson

A goatskin dream notebook. Hypnosis. Cable TV. These are all objects listed as “Tools of Poetry” in The Poetry Lesson, the latest work by celebrated writer and former teacher, Andrei Codrescu. Neither a memoir nor a novel, but a mixture of both, the book takes readers through the first day of a creative writing course taught by a quirky poet and English professor embarking upon his final semester of teaching before retirement. Along the way, he introduces students to The Tools of Poetry, The Ten Muses of Poetry, and assigns them “Ghost-Companion” poets, all the while regaling them with wild stories from his poetic coming of age in the 1960s and 70s.

The book’s cover, with its pleading skeleton, unyielding title, and otherwise Spartan design, at first seems to contradict its funny, irreverent content. After talking to Book Designer Jason Alejandro, however, it becomes clear that the cover only contributes to the sense of irony and whimsy that pervades The Poetry Lesson. The hint of mystique rising from the apparent contradiction between cover and content inspires readers to pick up the book and start reading–as any well-conceived cover design should do!–and motivated us to ask Jason a few questions about the work that went into this book’s cover design. Click to read the Q&A with Book Designer Jason Alejandro about The Poetry Lesson‘s cover.

The cover of The Poetry Lesson first struck me as grim and almost macabre, with the skeleton on its knees in a supplicatory position. Yet according to the book’s inside flap, The Poetry Lesson is a “hilarious account of the first day of a creative writing course.” What is the relationship between the book’s cover and its content?

I think skeletons are funny-looking. Generally, so are college students.

How do we interpret the cover — is it meant to be ironic, thought-provoking, attention grabbing…?

I’m not convinced that any interpretation is necessary. I believe that a praying skeleton says all that needs to be said about this book.

Where did you find the image for the cover?

The National Library of Medicine’s Historical Anatomies archive via the Internet.

Were there other versions of the book jacket design that you considered before choosing this one?

Indeed there were. The first one was quite literally taking the author’s own description of the book and transposing it onto the cover. He thought there should be “a hand holding a gun, or maybe a baguette.” As we are all well aware, baguettes are simply too passé so I opted for the pistol. The second design makes use of a variety of historical snake oil and curious ointment labels arranged into a collage of sorts. The last one used another historical anatomy illustration, this time in a more contemporary and colorful scheme.

Why and how did you ultimately settle on this design?

It seemed to be everyone’s favorite out of the bunch.

Did the idea for this design come to you easily, or was designing this cover a more challenging process?

The process behind this cover was both challenging and amusing. I was intrigued (and somehow disgusted) by the author’s mention of certain topics or buzz-words in the book description and I used those as a jumping off point for the extensive image research I conducted. Some of those findings ended up in the other proposed covers I created. I had saved this one particular illustration from a few years ago because I wanted to use it on an indie folk music album cover for a friend of mine. Since that never materialized I decided to see what it would look like on a cover.

Did you get Andrei Codrescu’s input while developing the design?

If I remember correctly, we sent Andrei what we felt was the best choice, and he loved it, so we thanked our lucky stars and called it a day.

Finally, what’s your take on the age-old saying, “Never judge a book by its cover?” Should The Poetry Lesson’s cover only be considered in conjunction with the book’s content, or is it able to stand on its own?

Is that really an old saying? I can’t say I’ve heard of it before. In any case, I suppose it can go both ways. When I’ve read a good book, I rarely consider the impact the cover had on me in selecting it. The cover doesn’t change the story or the content within. On the other hand, the specific intent behind book covers is so that the public, the consumer (whether online or in a store), will be attracted to it and make some immediate connection to it, coaxing them to the purchase and (hopefully) read it, right? Of course, I rarely think about this myself when I’m designing. As far as the cover for The Poetry Lesson, I’d like to think that the cover adds some sort of visual interest or mystique to the book. It was after all my job to do that. However, both the book and the cover are able to stand entirely on their own.

As Jason explains, it is not always so important for book’s covers to relate directly to their content. What is important is that they some sort of interest or mystique that reflects the spirit of the story–and represents the collaborative vision of both the author and the book designer. Many thanks to Jason for this cover, and for answering our questions about its design!

Interested in The Poetry Lesson? Want to add your own 2 cents about the cover? Visit the book’s Facebook Page and become a fan!