Designing a Poem Book

Chiba Chiba's picture

What would you suggest as good reference on designing poem books?

Miss Tiffany's picture

I don't know of any books specifically about poetry book typography. But, I'd actually go to a bookstore and look through the poetry books. Find a few that you think have good typography and then decide what it is that makes them good.

You could also find sites of book artists such as Jason DeWintz at Greenboathouse Press and observe what they are doing.

Other than that Bringhurst is always a good start.

Justin_Ch's picture

In the UK Faber, Penguin, Picador and Cape all do poetry very well. Also the small hardback series by Everyman which I think might be from the US. Unfortunately a lot of the things I see from specialist poetry publishers such as Carcanet are not especially well designed.

oprion's picture

Here's one from master Bringhurst himself :)

Personal Art and Design Portal of Ivan Gulkov

kentlew's picture

Copper Canyon Press does a nice job with poetry books.

merkri's picture

The Minnesota Center for Book Arts is a great resource, but I'm not sure how you would make use of it if you're not in the Minneapolis area.

paulstonier's picture

Hermann Zapf's work and Jan Tschichold's later work lends itself quite nicely to poetry.

Chiba Chiba's picture

@ Tiff: Thank you. I posted this a while after coming back from the bookstore. :) I happen to have a couple Bringhurst books and will definitely search for Jason DeWintz's work.

@ Justin: I have access to Penguin, but I'm not sure I can find those other brands here in Brasil. I'll try.

@ Oprium: Thanks for the samples. Those do look good!

@ Kent: Those look beautiful. Thank you

@ Mekri: Minnesota is a little out of my way. Hehe, but I did find a nice book for sale over there. It's called "The Book as Art"

@ Paul: I would love to see those. Will try to find any.

Tiff and Kent, I might bring a copy of this book to Atlanta and you can see how it turned out. :)
Thank you all for the great tips!

kentlew's picture

Look forward to seeing it. -- K.

will powers's picture

Tiffany's right: One good way to think about designing poetry books is to go to a library or a bookstore and look at lots of poetry books. See what you can figure out about the relation of the design to the actual texts. Some questions: What do you know about the poets? Do the poems demand extra special design considerations? When were the poems written? When were the books published? Who published the books? How much importance do you think the publishers place on design?

It is especially helpful to look at poetry anthologies. In those you will be faced with many styles of poetry, requiring some complex design decisions.

I'm not sure exactly what help the Minnesota Center for Book Arts would be, unless one were designing and printing an artist book or limited edition. But we do have presses here in Minnesota that publish poetry, often in well-designed editions: Graywolf Press, New Rivers Press, Holy Cow! Press, Milkweed Editions, Coffee House Press among them. They may be hard to find in Brazil.

From one who has designed many a poetry book. have fun; good luck.


charles ellertson's picture

I don't at all mean to be facetious, but the poetry itself is the "best reference."

Long lines? Indented lines? If lines turn, will they conflict with the indented lines? But if there are also short lines, does it all get lost with too long a measure?

How about titles, will they center, or look odd that way?

Are there subtitles? Do some poems have a dedication?

And so on. Poetry is usually graphic, so the design has to accommodate what is there.

BTW the story Bringhurst told (at least, at one time), was that his start in printing came about when he was a member of a group of poets. They decided that one of them had to learn about printing, and he drew the short straw.

paragraph's picture

I do not know whether my two cents are relevant here, but respecting the poet's intentions should be the overriding principle: not the page width or depth. My first job in poetry was a big fat anthology, so many of the poems were printed already. The number of instances where the editors of all levels left line turns as introduced by the previous typesetter for reasons of column width alone was astonishing.

will powers's picture

paragraph wrote about "respecting the poet’s intentions." Here's a tale about that.

When a publisher brought me a poetry ms a few years ago, there was the instruction to "maintain all the poet's line breaks." Looking for line breaks that might give trouble, I found one really long line, too long for the publisher's requested trim. But the publisher wanted graphic proof, so I set the poem with that long line, as well as a poem made up primarily of very short lines, and showed sample pages. To fit that long line (this poem was centered; not all others were) I had to set the sample in something like 7.75/10 and take that line far too close to the bind. Then, going beyond the call of duty and budget, I redesigned the whole book for a larger trim to fit that one poem, set at a better (larger) type size. I showed both samples and the publisher chose the larger trim. I set the whole book. It was sent out to the poet in page proofs.

When page proofs came back, the poet had asked for that whole damn line to be deleted. Not shortened through editing, but deleted. I got on my high horse and told the publisher the line was NOT going to be deleted. I was not going to have all my work disrespected like that. Besides, the line meant to much to the poem, at least to my reading of it.

In the end we kept the long line, all the poet's other line breaks mirrored her ms, and we used the larger trim size.

Sometimes a typographer knows a poet's intentions better than the poet does.


Chiba Chiba's picture

Hey Will, Paragraph and Charles, thanks for the tips and stories. I really appreciated.
I did not receive the poems yet, so I do not know what I'll be facing. Of course the poem itself is the best reference. I just felt like doing some "homework" before getting to it.

Clarice Lispector was a big brasilian writer. (actually she was born in Russia, but moved down here pretty young). This is a letter she wrote to her linotypist at the time:

"I'm sorry if I've been making too many typing mistakes. First, I burnt my right hand. Second, I really don't know why. Now, may I ask you a favor: do not correct me. Punctuation is the phrase's breath, and my phrases breath like this. If you find it weird, respect that too. Even I was obliged to get used to myself. Writing is a curse."


will powers's picture

That's great; thanks. I'm going to keep this around. Just what one would expect from Lispector. Where do you find that? In a book about her? or a book of her letters? I have my own quirks of punctuation; I dislike when they get "corrected."

To add to Charles' comment: There is a pretty large number of people who came to printing and typography when they were trying to get their poetry printed the way they wanted to see it. Or because they liked the all-in-oneness of printing their own poems. Clifford Burke, Kim Merker, Phil Gallo, William Everson would be among them.


kentlew's picture

> There is a pretty large number of people who came to printing and typography when they were trying to get their poetry printed the way they wanted to see it.

And don't forget Dan Carr, who went one better and taught himself to cut punches in order to capture the right voice for his poems from start to finish.

Quincunx's picture

With poetry you usually cannot take alot of liberty with regards to typographic embellishments; e.g. indents, tabs, line breaks and whatnot. Adding such things might completely alter the meaning of the poem, which isn't desirable.

When I typeset poetry -- which I do quite alot -- it's usually a case of typesetting it the way the poet wrote it. I have to decide what typeface, pointsize, leading, how many empty lines between the title and the first line and between the last line and the poets name, etc.

If problems arise, for example if a line doesn't fit the width of the page, care must be taken with the solution, usually by asking the poet what he thinks would be acceptable.

enne_son's picture

For an award-winning long poem by the Canadian poet John Terpstra published by the Netherlandic Press and printed by The Porcupine’s Quill, I took the approach of having the longest line determine the width of the page; the number of lines in the longest section determine the height of the book, and the number of sections determine the length of the book. I used Monotype Sabon and one of Jan Tschichold’s methods of 'non-arbitrarily’ determining the positioning of the textblock and the margins. Furthermore, rather than clothes-lining the lines in each section from the top of the text-block, I anchored every section to the bottom of the text-block. Only one section went the distance. Because John sectioned the poem so that sometimes there was only one or two lines to the section, several pages have only a line or two, again anchored to the bottom of the text-block. In one instance a verso contains only one word and the facing recto, two.

It worked wondefully. The lines appear to well up from below, and the pacing is great.

I believe I was immersed in the book-design practives of the Dutch graphic designer Henk Krijger at the time. He pioneered a ‘gestural’ approach to formatting text, positioning type, especially standing heads, running heads, folios and the like as well as orchestrating pages.

Chiba Chiba's picture

Peter, that sounded great. Do you think you can place a couple pages here? I'd love to see them.

Will, that quote is from one of here books called " A descoberta do mundo", which has a lot of tiny texts, letters and different material she compelled. I'm not sure there is an english version.

Thank you all for the great tips and comments.

will powers's picture

An experience such as Peter had designing that book for Netherlandic Press does not come along very often. Such clients are rare. Most often a publisher decides trim size and desired number of pages. Then it is up to the designer to make sure everything fits. Often by either setting things very tightly or very loosely to meet those design guides. Even presses noted for design excellence (such as Graywolf) rarely move a book beyond those bounds.

Paper and presses come in standard sizes which yield a few standard book sizes. Bookstores have pretty standard size shelves, and marketing people have standard expectations about what books should look like.

In the instance of the book I noted above, for which I changed the page size, that only happened because the production manager at the design shop and I were good friends with the managing editor at the publisher. We prepared estimates showing how much the oversize book would cost against the standard size, showing that there'd be little cost difference. That sealed the deal.

Kudos to Netherlandic for letting the designer exercise some muscle and thought.

An article about designing poetry from the Canadian magazine "Devil's Artisan" is available here:

you need to scroll down a ways to find the link to get the PDF.


Quincunx's picture

Very true aboutthe standard book sizes and such. Most poetry books I designed had these limitatons as well. Although usually not on the number of pages, since this really depends on a number of different things. Plus they're usually perfect bound paperbacks (no sections but loose leaves), so a few more or less pages doesn't really matter.

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