Under the Cover: The More is more - Ronna Bloom and Beth Follett in Conversation

September 27, 2017

The relationship between author and publisher is a special one, and that of Ronna Bloom, author of poetry collection  The More, and its publisher, Beth Follett of Pedlar Press, is no exception. In this literal "under the cover," Beth and Ronna chat about how the cover for The More – specifically, the use of the Rothko painting “Yellow Over Purple, 1956” – came about, as well as that author-publisher relationship on the eve of Pedlar's last book with Ronna.

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Beth Follett:  The More is your fifth collection with Pedlar Press, and the first to find its title in latter writing stages. Am I right to think also that you did not bring forward an image for any previous book’s cover? What is it about Mark Rothko’s “Yellow Over Purple, 1956” that speaks to you so strongly as an accompaniment for The More, and was the inspiration there even when the collection was differently titled? 

Ronna Bloom: Yes this is the first time I've had an image for the cover. Even though the title of the book changed, the poems said "yellow." I never had a colour arrive before! A pulsing, low down, vibrating yellow. And then in my mind I saw Rothko. His work has been with me for a long time. The painting’s edgelessness too feels like what the poems (and the title) are pushing for…

 

BF: When you told me you dreamed of having “Yellow Over Purple” on your cover, you sent me to a Permissions site. How did you think my search for permission of a Rothko painting might play out? 

RB: I had no idea. I know you can be dogged when you are after something—or as I said to you in another note, chutzpah and perseverance is all you, so I was excited just by asking you to ask. You were also clear that it was unlikely, or at least not to get my hopes up, so we went with what felt like an openness grounded in reality. When you told me you had to write directly to Christopher Rothko, I understood we might not hear back, or might find it was too expensive, or some other prohibitive thing. When I told Phil Hall that you had to write to CR he said, "Oh, isn't it terrific that Rothko has a son who can be contacted, it feels as if we are touching one of his dad's canvases without any alarms going off!"

 

BF: I was quite silent about my efforts to gain permission. We weren’t in production yet, but still: what did you think was going on vis-a-vis your cover?

RB: A long time passed and I didn't hear anything so I began to let it go. You and Phil suggested other cover images. Nothing felt right. I was about to leave town for two weeks and knew that when I came back we’d be down to the wire, so I was feeling heavy-hearted. I wrote to you saying I’d keep looking for covers but would you mind asking again. I had no idea what was coming! The next day, this gorgeous gorgeous cover you had been making with Mark Byk arrives. Gobsmacked and delighted. You did it!  So tell me, what was going on for you?

 

BF: I had Googled Mark Rothko and found articles on both his children, which revealed some of their difficulties following Mark’s death. It was clear, from my reading of various things, that Christopher had taken on the primary responsibility for the Rothko estate. Lucky, then, to discover in one article a reference to where he lived, and by Googling that place—surprise—I found an address. I wrote him an old-fashioned letter, plain talk about what I wanted, and sent it off. I think at least a month went by when—another surprise!—I received an email note from Christopher asking for details about Pedlar, you, the book. I sent him three poems and a bald statement about the Canadian poetry market. And generous man that it turns out he is, he gave his permission and worked with us all the way through production. 

RB: Wow. First time I'm hearing this. I love this story!

 

BF: Did Christopher Rothko’s kind willingness to be a part of the book surprise you, or rattle in any way your general expectations of famous people’s children?

RB: When you did the big reveal I asked "how?! what happened?!" You told me that he wrote back, agreeing in theory, but he would need to approve the cover mockup. Perhaps one of the better questions I've been asked in my life was, "Would you like to send a Thank You note to Mr. Rothko?” Um, yes.

His notes to you were so clear about the way the painting could be used, its proportions, layout, and also he was hugely generous, enthusiastic, participating in the process all the way to the printers. When you sent on my thanks, I attached an old poem of mine mainly to reference my long-standing love of Rothko's paintings, and he wrote back: "And thank Ronna for sharing her Rothko poem. . . I loved [her phrase] “unspeaking it,” which so beautifully captures how these works exist outside language, capturing (like music) those things we can’t express through words.  With apologies, I will undoubtedly borrow this phrase in some future Rothko talk.”

What a gift. That we could have this exchange certainly interrupted any ideas about "famous people.” When you reached out to him, he reached back. I'm still amazed there is a Mark Rothko painting on the cover of this book, the first thing people see.

 

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BF: We were asked by Christopher Rothko to abide by certain usage restraints. What do you think of Mark Byk’s design of your cover? Had you something (else) in mind?

RB: I love this cover. (Wave of panic: I'm writing this without having seen the book itself, only the final PDF, so breath held.) It is the luminous yellow (CR’s word “luminous”), the heat, the warmth on the heart, with the almost painful red/purple below, the searing, soothing combination, and the edgelessness of the work itself. And how Mark Byk placed it with the title and my name, the colours in the title echoing the painting. It just stands there. Grateful to all of you.

 

BF: You are making more of a concerted effort to promote this new collection. Can you say something about why you want to move this book into new markets, to find new audiences? What feelings does self-promotion engender in you?

RB: Yes this book feels different. (Don’t writers always say that?) This one has much to do with working in the hospital, and in the streets, giving poems to people in response to whatever is needed in the moment. Because it comes out of engaging people who aren’t necessarily poets, people who work in hospitals, who are suffering, who are just living. Could this book reach those people, any people, who might need them? At the same time, they are not all “service poems.” Many are written in response to circumstances as experienced over the last few years—personal, spiritual, physical, social—but somehow with the lens on living, dying, tenderness, anger, spontaneity and surprise, meditation, and letting go of everything. Including a self.

The word “self-promotion” makes me cringe. Of course there are parts of me that cling, that want attention. But whoever it is that writes those poems in the Spontaneous Poetry Booth, or prescribes them, is from a wider place and has little to do with me. To promote the work, to let it wave out there: hello. poems here. That is the place I want to enter and offer, to hang out with people. Anyone who looks back.

What responses have you already had to the cover?

 

BF: Lots of people like Pedlar book covers, lots of people comment on their beauty. No one has yet recognized the painting, no one has asked, How the hell did Pedlar afford permission for a Mark Rothko?

RB: People’s eyes open wide. They clap their hands on their hearts. (Unless I send it via email, then I can’t see. Better to be in person.)

Some people know it is Rothko. But no one asked about money. Even I haven't till now. Are you saying he waived the fee, or was there a fee? Was it pure generosity? How the hell did Pedlar afford it?

BF: That must remain confidential.

This is our final book together. Any last words? 

RB: Oh gosh. I read this question first and got a gulp in my throat. Is that a word?

I cannot even imagine it. You and I have worked together on five books over eighteen years — eighteen in Hebrew means Life. How can you see beyond that? It's a rare thing for a poet to have a champion of her work as you have been of mine all these years. So thank you. Thank you. I won't know what it feels like until it actually happens. 

And you, who've worked with me and with a whole group of us Pedlar Press siblings and our books: any final words?

BF: No. Not yet. I can say that you and other Pedlar poets sweated the small stuff of poetry, over and over, and I feel liberated because of the deep love and commitment to poetry that we all share. Thank you.

 

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Thanks so much to Beth and Ronna for this candid interview (and to Christopher Rothko, by extension, for being so kind to Canadian publishing!). For more Under the Cover stories behind your favourite stories, click here.


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