Saturday, October 25, 2014
Visual Histories of African American poetry volumes
About 7 or 8 years ago, I was beginning to think a little more seriously about the development of my collection of contemporary volumes of poetry. I had previously been concentrating largely on my 1960s and 1970s collections as my primary research area was the Black Arts Movement. One day, I was trying to decide on how to organize and later write about a few of the books, so I laid the volumes on the floor. I was struck by the aesthetic beauty and diversity of the covers.
I'm aware that we can't judge a book by its cover. Or can we? Certainly, there's something to be said, or more can be said about the covers and the blurbs and the stickers announcing awards and the arrangements of the contents.
Often, when scholars concentrate on book history, they focus on books from the distant past. However, I've been inclined to consider the histories of contemporary books, particularly volumes of poetry published since 2000. Many of the books that I have collected over the years are enjoyable to read, and at the same time, the physical books themselves offer ways of thinking about visual art, the packaging of poems, modes of production and circulation, and the nature of promotion.
For the past few years, I posted lists of volumes of poetry that I own. Those were list bibliographies. Now I'm wondering what visual bibliographies featuring volumes of poetry would look like. And how might these visual bibliographies shift how readers and viewers engage and experience poetry?
One consequence of conversations about the rise of digital books and online reading has been more considerations about the preservation of physical books. People worried that books might fade away are likely doing more to think about their collections. In addition, online used bookstores make it easier than ever for collectors to acquire rare books at reasonable prices.
I've acquired several of my volumes via online sellers. I've acquired some of the volumes at bookstores while traveling, and I've acquired several of the books directly from authors who were selling them at readings and conferences. I suppose, at some point, I'll need to produce a tally of the costs of acquiring a few hundred volumes of poetry.
For now, I'll continue collecting and noting aspects of the covers and designs of the books. Over time, perhaps, I'll produce some kind of visual history of African American poetry volumes.
• A Notebook on Book History