By Bob Kosturko
Prior to the announcement that Beacon Press would be publishing a collection of James Baldwin’s poems titled Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, I had no idea Baldwin even wrote poetry. I knew Baldwin as an essayist—Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name—and a novelist—Go Tell It on the Mountain and Another Country. After the book was launched, I eagerly read his poems and found his voice to be real and raw and darkly humorous too. This was a special project. One that required a different sort of cover treatment than most poetry books.
While searching for inspiration for the Jimmy’s Blues cover I felt the need to familiarize myself with the way Baldwin spoke. I find poetry a pleasure to read, but it really lives and breathes when it’s read aloud, preferably by the author. But where to find audio recordings of Baldwin? Thank goodness for YouTube. There I discovered a treasure trove of filmed appearances of James Baldwin debating, lecturing, and being interviewed. I did not find any clips of Baldwin reading poetry, but the cadence of his speech was full of rhythm and musicality. I found it hypnotic.
It’s worth noting that in these appearances—almost all of them from the 1960s—Baldwin was usually impeccably dressed in a stylish suit and tie. He struck me as a literary Miles Davis. That was my “aha!” moment. My cover for Jimmy’s Blues would pay homage to Baldwin through the lens of the great Jazz LP covers designed by Reid Miles during his tenure at Blue Note Records.
The next step was reverse engineering some of the iconic Blue Note LP sleeves. Commonly used typefaces included Clarendon, Trade Gothic, and Akzidenz Grotesk. The color palette was often limited to solid cyan, magenta, yellow, and black—the building blocks of 4-color offset printing. The aesthetic was clean and minimal, often with a strong black and white photograph anchoring the design.
Several photographs of James Baldwin were secured and I created a handful of cover comps using cyan and black as the sole colors. A couple of early versions were rejected, and rightly so. Baldwin looked lost in the full bleed urban street scene as seen in version A. Version B was much stronger compositionally. It more closely captured the typographic and stylistic essence of a Blue Note LP design, but a few things still seemed “off.” James Baldwin’s name was changed from a sans serif font to a serif font to add more visual interest. The photo of Baldwin was revised as well. In version B he is pictured smoking a cigarette, which looked “cool” for the period in which the photo was taken, but ultimately seemed insensitive considering Baldwin succumbed to cancer at 63.
The final version shows Baldwin looking young and hip with a touch of vulnerability. I think it’s a fitting tribute for a literary figure—and poet—of his stature.
Bob Kosturko is the creative director of Beacon Press.