A ‘BEAUTIFUL BOOK’ (4)

The more I look at the sketches for the special edition of my book, the happier I am with them. They’re beautifully coloured, fresh and engaging.

Oliver has drawn on his own memories and experiences of travel in Europe, but there are links and similarities of tone to my poems, so the images feel as if they fit. And they add an intriguing narrative of their own.

So far, though, I’ve only seen them duplicated on screens. I haven’t seen the real drawings.

On the day that I’m able to get to Sydney for a proper viewing, Oliver’s in Japan– so it’s just John and Linsay Knight, plus Martin, with me at Pitt Street Poetry.

Laid out on the coffee table, the sketches do look much the same as on our TV at home – but on the heavy white drawing paper the clear colours have an even zingier freshness. I’m as startled as if I am seeing them for the first time. I love their lightness of touch, their openness and immediacy.

Yes, I’m more than happy with the six drawings which will go inside the book. The cover, though, is still unsettled.

Oliver’s original proposal for the cover was an image of Charles de Gaulle airport. In its own right, it’s a striking picture – geometric and rather bare, with a chute-like structure through the centre which looks like a void you’d enter before being blasted into outer space. It reminds me very much of the real place, with its spanking white tiled corridors and endless escalators – and of the horror of airport terminals everywhere, that strange in-transit space … but is it right for a cover?

Oliver has obligingly provided a couple more options. One is of a long-haired blonde woman, trundling her small suitcase through an airport; the other is a highly coloured, endearing sketch of two friends.

The cover will be devoted to one small picture. The title (and my name?) will go on the spine.

So, although the images inside will be the same size as the pages for text, this one will be quite reduced. When we look at Oliver’s originals, we have to do some mental gymnastics, shrinking the pictures.

John does like the Charles de Gaulle airport (he’s fascinated by the space-age architecture, he says), but Linsay, like me, worries that it’s too subtle for a cover.

The woman with the suitcase has a bag on her back with a landscape drawn on it. Again, shrunk down, it would be hard to see the mountains sketched on her bag, so would it then look like just another generic traveller? Inside a book, Linsay suggests, a picture of someone walking away means the end of the story (although, on a poetry book’s cover, perhaps it could also signal “Follow me!”).

We put that one aside as well. That leaves the cheery bright image of two friends. It’s a seductive drawing, but is there enough of a link to the book? No, as a cover, it doesn’t really work for any of us.

There is one other wild card, which both John and I have thought of. Oliver has done a sketch of flamingos inside a building. It is a beautifully delicate fantasy, and probably the one which I think comes closest to the character of my poems.

Could this be used somehow? With more focus on the birds, perhaps, and more colour (just a touch?) so that it’s immediately striking …

This is the idea for the cover which we all feel happiest with. Oliver will be in Japan for a little while yet, celebrating his brother’s wedding and enjoying cherry blossom time – so we will have to wait until he comes home again for further developments.

More patience, more decisions lie ahead. But the drawings in reality are even more beautiful than their emailed versions encouraged me to expect, so I’m very pleased.

From my experiences mentoring other poets I know how tricky it is, trying to help creative people with their work. You can intervene and offer corrective advice or suggestions for development – and the results may be fine, but not surprising.

Alternatively, you can try to do a little nudging of the artist toward some change – and with luck, he or she will go away and work alone to produce something quite different from anything you could have predicted (or done yourself). That is when it is most rewarding.

I’m expecting that this is what will happen with Oliver. It’s scary, though, because I have no idea what he’ll come up with.

The question of whose book this is now, startles me. Mostly, it’s mine – I think.

But in fact, what’s happening, I suspect, is that it’s turning into something more than a collection of poems. Something more, even, than a collection of poems, with artwork.

Matisse insisted that he have total control when he did ‘his’ poetry books. He did all the design – even wrote out the poems by hand so that their appearance didn’t clash with his art.

Oliver won’t have that degree of inclusion, but there is another voice in those Travelling pages now. This special edition is Oliver’s book, too.

As well, it’s Pitt Street Poetry’s – if John Knight hadn’t proposed this collaboration, there’d be no ‘beautiful book’.

And when finally it’s printed and launched into the world? Then, in a mysterious way, I think it will belong to none of us. What Oliver calls its ‘bookishness’ will take over, and it will have a life of its own. That is what I hope for.