The jacket design for the typical poetry book has long consisted of a single-colored background and a cropped painting in a box in the middle, with the title above, the author's name below. As a younger, hipper, more design-conscious generation takes the reins of the poetry establishment, poetry books are looking a little sleeker. At the forefront of this movement is Jeff Clark, a 36-year-old poet published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, whose one-man design shop, Quemadura, in Ypsilanti, Mich., was responsible for 30 books last year. Clark has become one of poetry's most prolific and influential book designers, whose distinctive treatments—characterized by spacious covers; hip, angular fonts; varied elements that elide into one another—a frequent poetry reader could recognize from a distance.
Clark's clients range from tiny independent publishers to trade houses. He's done covers and interiors of poetry, fiction and nonfiction for, among others, FSG, Wesleyan, Wake Forest University, Ahsahta, Dalkey Archive, Wave Books and Chicago's Flood Editions. Over the past several years, his work has been increasingly in demand. About three quarters of the books he designs are poetry, leaving a quarter for fiction and a few art catalogues.
Clark did an on-the-job apprenticeship. After completing an M.F.A. in poetry at the Iowa Writer's Workshop in 1995, he moved to San Francisco and in 1996 began working for Wilsted & Taylor, a design firm in Oakland; he stayed there for 10 years, learning his craft: “I started as a proofreader, then became a typesetter after the first year, then did a couple of years of purely typesetting. Then the last few years I worked as just a designer.” To make extra cash, Clark began freelancing, which led to his early work on poetry books. After moving to Michigan with his family, Clark telecommuted for the same firm, until a year ago, when he quit and went into business for himself, making a modest living just doing book design.
Clark thinks of his work poetically: “I want to communicate that a book cover isn't just like a television screen made out of paper. It's the surface of something, yet paradoxically it's the thing itself, the skin around the skull, not just a piece of advertising put on the top of the book.” At the same time, he's very practical, calling design a “production thing rather than an artistic thing—a craft or labor or work. Because I'm also a writer and a reader, if I read a manuscript well, I'll be guided toward giving it the skin that would really fit.” Focusing on poetry and literary fiction, he's able to avoid most commercial worries: “no poetry publisher that I work for is ever even thinking about sales.”
Clark prefers to work with small presses, and his ideal job involves doing both the jacket and the interior. He uses a three-tiered fee scale, with different rates for small presses, university presses and trade publishers. Clark's basic rates start at $500 for the exterior of a book and the same for the interior for small presses, going up to $1,500 per jacket for a trade publisher. His rate-sheet does make clear, however, that if an interested small press can't afford the lowest rate, Clark might be willing to negotiate.
Janet Holmes, editor of Ahsahta Press, all of whose covers are designed by Clark, calls him “the best designer out there. A Jeff Clark cover tends to work the way a wonderful title does: it makes the casual observer stop and want to know more. Why that artificial hand? Why those trembly, agitated lines [found on two of Ahsahta's covers]? Well, open the book and find out: they relate to the content absolutely, but not in a simplistic, descriptive way.”
Oddly enough, Clark is competing with his own potential clients for his living: small and university presses often do their own jacket and interior design in-house—with varying results. In a publishing landscape where big sales isn't the goal, hiring a professional designer can either seem like an extravagance or an expression of a publisher's love of books for their own sake, which is basically how Clark feels about it: “If I work well, I'll be helping the book itself.”