Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Splodgy marks on coloured paper: a review

I bought an Australian poetry and literature magazine yesterday in Sticky - I'm not saying which one it was, because it's not fair to single it out. As I left I started leafing through the pages, and I suddenly realised that the magazine looked too much like Art. I didn't like that at all. It felt like I was holding an item in an exhibition, not a book or a magazine.

Every page was carefully prepared and decorated and full of vague images in dull colours that symbolised intangible spiritual entities. The pages were huge, and the poems would appear as small splodges of words, right in the middle of them. It seemed like an incredibly uneconomical way of using all those vast pages - I kept on longing for a bunch of ads to fill in some of the gaps. Other poems would appear superimposed on the top of, or even below, images that covered the whole page - very confusing, because everything became like a varying shade of grey: the words were a very dark grey, the image was a medium grey, sometimes changing to a whitish grey. It's a bit like trying to see a ash-white cat in a cloud of smog during a foggy morning.

Now look, the poems and the writing were all right. But the whole magazine gave me the impression that it was trying to be Important. It was trying to appeal to my pretensions. It was as if I was supposed to feel Better about buying it , while not necessarily feeling better about it.

Even worse - I realised today that I do some of the same things in my latest zine. I'll have to try very, very hard to avoid this sort of thing next time I do one!


Ed Yates said...

I also experience a cringe when I read something that annoys me and discover the reason it annoys me is that I have done the same thing elsewhere!

It has been especially irksome in the past when I've been marking a student's essay and commenting about how they should probably not do something on the page, only to realize that I committed the same sin recently.

TimT said...

"Let he who hath not sinned cast the first stone," and all that.

What I was thinking of in my zine was the way I would occasionally use a single page for just one, short poem (usually four lines or so). It's hard to get the balance right in these things - I think in a publication, space should be used economically, but also clearly.

Some of my essays at uni must have been appalling, but I've been having fun recently writing mock-student essays now. Must do something with them.

Ampersand Duck said...

Ah, Tim, welcome to the world of contemporary designing, where more is more is more! I'm firmly convinced this is a by-product of the growing illiteracy of society, as image is constantly privileged over text, and text is seen to be merely a visual element rather than something people actually want to read and understand.

I realise that simplicity is hopelessly outdated, but I like it, so I encourage anyone else who tends towards it :)

Ampersand Duck said...

And, for the record, a single poem per page is the mark of a classy poetry book, in which the publisher isn't trying to get more bang for their buck. It also gives the poem room to breathe (unless it's a long poem, that should be over a page or two, and someone tries to squeeze it on a single sheet!)

TimT said...

I don't know how good designers do it - when I pick up a magazine that is essentially three or four columns of text per page with almost nothing by way of visual relief except a well-placed illustration, or title, or caption, and yet it somehow still looks interesting and readable, I marvel.

I think a lot of designers who don't know how to do this throw everything on the page and hope something will stick.

TimT said...

I like the idea of putting poetry in columns or setting it alongside other pieces on the same page. With some exceptions - free verse can be very hard to format because of the variability of line length, for instance.

But generally I don't like poetry that is set aside completely from other texts - I like the formatting to be involved and to look interesting. I think my ideal publications are comic books and magazines and illustrated children's books rather than art portfolios or the like.

Ampersand Duck said...

You're right; I like reading a magazine and coming across a poem in a corner of the page, or in the next column. The setting of the poem is sometimes as refreshing as if an image had been placed there. That's why I like The New Yorker, and why I'm sad for The Monthly, which seems a bit bereft without poems, even though it has excellent articles,

TimT said...

I have a book of Tennyson poems, most of the important ones in fact that was published in the late 19th/early 20th century. It has a column neatly inked down the middle of each page, with poems on either side.

I rather like the idea of books like this, with as many poems as you can get in an affordable volume. Trouble is...

The lines in Tennyson's poems don't
quite fit
Into the column and so tend to run
Breaking up the natural rhythm of the
And making it quite difficult and disjointed to

It's not a good look. Poems do need room to breathe, you're right.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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