In If These Covers Could Talk, poets interview the visual artists whose works grace their book covers. The result is an engaging discussion of process, vision, and projects. This series is a celebration of collaboration—here, we champion the fruitful conversations taking place both on and behind the cover.
This month, poet Dorothy Chan talked to designer Zoë S. Donald about the cover of BABE (Diode Editions, 2021).
A Conversation Between Dorothy Chan and Zoë S. Donald
Unedited audio included above. The interview below has been condensed for clarity. Access the unedited transcript here.
Dorothy Chan (she/they): Zoë, I’m so happy to be having this conversation with you today about BABE. I love her so much. I always say all my books are she/her pronouns. I love the cover, like, a million times infinity. I remember when I saw it, especially with the honey dripping and the candy, it just made me want to cry. And I feel like this cover really encapsulates the meaning behind the book, the ethos of the book, the forms, and the content, and the joy, and sex of the book. What’s beautiful, too, is that it also captures the essence of Honey Literary Inc., which is one of my many editorial passions in life.
[Note: They ended up talking about the full trajectory from Dorothy’s books going from she/her to she/they. That was a very special moment.]
I wanted to start out with a general question. I’m wondering if we could talk about the inspiration behind the cover. I know, that’s really general, but I think that’s a fun place to start.
Zoë S. Donald (they/them): Okay, well, you were the inspiration for the cover. The book was, I mean, and also, I was looking at your cover ideas, and the honey bear was one of them—number 2.
I focused on this honey bear because it has this really iconic shape and really rich material. All of BABE itself and your other work has a lot to do with different types of tastes and auras. It’s really imbued with what a lot of Americans might say is a brand. It’s associations and feelings and experiences that we’ve had when we’re ingesting pop culture.
You mention a lot in the poems about eating burgers and shakes and I have a lot of experiences that are in Fuddruckers. That was where I had romantic experiences in Qatar, where I lived before—in Fuddruckers of all places. These burgers and shakes connect us, right?
[In BABE] I really enjoyed these really big metaphors for tastes and experiences. And so, I worked with the honey bear image for a long time. And actually, I should probably back up, sorry. I’m looking at my images and I’m like, where do I need to start? Okay, so I grabbed some image references.
DC: I’m excited.
ZD: I started looking at and working with references.
DC: Yeah. Yeah, that’s so cool. That’s a Valentine. It’s such coincidental timing. [The interview took place a day before Valentine’s Day.]
ZD: Yeah, it was from this really kitsch advertisement for General Motors’ Motorama. I had this image and another with a woman floating around, trying out all these cars and stuff like that, but it took place in Las Vegas. So I was trying to connect, first of all, to a place in BABE. There are a lot of places in BABE, but one of the main iconic places like this honey bear—I’m thinking of other icons and things like that—is Las Vegas. And so, I was thinking also of your fascination with Liberace…
ZD: So… you’ve got this, like, “over-the-top” showmanship. But I do believe in Liberace’s sincerity…A lot of people take it like, you know—they laugh at this queerness, right? That’s what it is, like—
Zoë: And I adore it. This is the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign. It was designed by the Las Vegas signmaker Betty Willis.
She died a couple of years ago. I think that her inspiration must have been Liberace. I mean, how could it not have been? I was looking at his sequins—their reflections in the limelight—and it looks like a North Star.
DC: Oh my god, I think that this is just so smart. You’re completely right. So many people who don’t get it laugh at this queerness or they try to fetishize it. But there was a reason why he was such a big showman. You think about all the outfits he had. This one [in the picture] is so signature. He also had these coats that were all fur and over the top with sequins and rhinestones, and he’d bring a candelabra on stage. So absolutely… I find that even today, with all the amazing contemporary architecture in Vegas, there’s this interesting mix of that plus kitschy-ness. In many odd ways, you know, Liberace is kind of in all of that, I think…
I remember taking a pop culture class back in my undergrad days at Cornell, which was when this fascination [with Liberace] started and, oddly enough, that was also when I was starting to develop my own queerness without being fully aware, right, of my identity or sexuality—but that’s what college is for. And I remember my professor, Glenn Altschuler—a brilliant scholar of American pop culture and history—told us that every single week, Liberace would get love notes and marriage proposals from all these women. And that’s the funny part. I subconsciously feel like he did that to also just kind of rub in in people’s faces like Oh, hey, I’m queer.
ZD: Yeah, right? Whew. Anyway . . . I also wanted to match your excesses and the maximalisms of BABE and I had really high aims with that. [laughs] I realized that I had to set the stage. I tend to fixate on really small details. And I mean, you can even see that in the reflections in BABE:
That’s a window, reflecting in the honey. I zoomed in really closely to change the lines and make them a bit straighter in places. And then I realized, that is so much detail in and of itself that it needed space to just breathe. And then that’s where I finished. But before that, I also traveled through all these other maximal ideas…
Oh, and I made a list of all the food mentioned in BABE.
DC: [laughs] Oh, this makes me so happy. Oh, dang, there’s that many. I didn’t realize it was that many.
ZD: I loved it. The food aspect, the taste, the colors of BABE were something that I really wanted to highlight. Now, I want to show you all the bears.
DC: The bear is also so queer, so this is so fitting.
ZD: Yeah, actually, I didn’t consider that until now because they’re like, so cute. They’re not big at all.
DC: So pretty. Oh my god. That’s so pretty.
ZD: So there’s this bear shape, right… I wanted to showcase it that way. But then I started to realize, you know, it’s very, maybe too iconic, too linear. It would have to sit in the middle of the composition, right? So when I was trying to work out a cover, I cropped it. I kept fiddling with it. I felt like, well, I need to get into the actual honey of it, the actual medium… [I went through] two font iterations.
So this one is a serif font, and it obviously doesn’t work. The ligatures are too thin, and it didn’t really hold the medium very well. So I needed something fat, and I found this typeface called Intro. It’s versatile. For this, it worked out perfectly because the medium could expand beyond the limits of the character and still be somewhat legible.
DC: Oh, wow.
ZD: So honey has this really orange look in the bottle. It’s got this really rich color, but then when you spread it out it just loses it. I needed something to reinforce that. So I figured I’d have to photograph it on a colored background…
I went through iterations. I ended up using this orange.
DC: I think it’s also neat because I know after the cover reveal, a lot of people online said that it looks like a lollipop, or candy, and the whole process reminds me of candy-making. I love hearing how sensory your process was. I think the color combination, too, exudes the ethos and the spirit of the book.
ZD: Right? I wanted it to be tart, something surprising. Because honey has this really, like deep and sometimes subtle sweetness and I felt like BABE often gives a one-two punch, and then it comes back for round two or three… I didn’t know if honey could carry that much energy. So, I wanted to play that up with color.
DC: Yeah, it was really funny because I was thinking about the pinks of the book, you know, because I kind of love an aesthetic that’s also super feminine or femme, I guess in my case, but, after going on the Pantone website I’ve been like figuring out which exact magenta or magentas is it gonna like, lie between, I looked back and I was like, Wait, the one that you just pulled up is actually very, very similar to Barbie’s magenta, and I didn’t even like realize that.
Then I Googled it, because I’m always interested to see what colors other brands or products use, and one of the Google matches that came up was Barbie’s magenta, and then like, oh, wait, that actually makes sense.
ZD: I remember that I played around with Barbie, too, especially with this D:
DC: These cherries remind me a lot of a dress that Barbie wore but then they also remind me a lot about the wardrobe from Sex and the City back in its heyday. These cherries remind me of some of what Patricia Field—who was the stylist or designer for that show—would gravitate towards.
It’s something that’s very unabashedly feminine but in this very kitschy type of way… so, yeah, it was really funny seeing these cherries, because I’m just like, Oh, I feel all these references. Something that I think about a lot is the meaning of American pop culture to kids of immigrants, and a lot of BABE is kind of this ‘child of immigrants’ story. That always runs through my work. But I think that there’s this deep understanding that a lot of kids of immigrants have with how they grasp American popular culture. And oftentimes, I feel like these kids, especially as they get older, point to problematic things within this culture. Yet there is still this kind of interesting sentimentality and memory that they hold on to because it’s basically this idea of Oh, my parents worked really hard so I could have access to all these things. So let me rewrite the story.
DC: Something that was really important to me when we were talking about the creation of BABE was accessibility. Early on, I remember you telling me Oh, this font is accessible. Could talk a bit more about that? Accessibility is something that I’m continuously learning, especially with heading a lit mag.
ZD: So, there are fonts that are more readable or legible in the body of a text and others are more suitable for titles or signage. Then there are fonts that are easier for people with Dyslexia to read. There’s another aspect of accessibility where you can listen to an audiobook. That, for some people, is way more accessible than holding a book in your hands. I have a couple of people with Dyslexia in my family and they’re into e-books and audiobooks. We’ve talked about how many books we’ve read and, you know, they’ve been listening to them, and I wonder if I even need to change the way I talk about reading…if we can think about reading in terms of listening. I have a lot of gripes with accessibility in terms of material culture. People say e-books are the cure as if they alone can solve a lot of issues. But e-books often use proprietary software, and you’re designing for a system that’s mostly owned by Jeff Bezos. They don’t break down as many barriers as people think they do.
Another aspect of accessibility within literature concerns zines and DIY culture. Chapbooks are awesome. Within chaps, within zines, I’ve seen a lot of people explore things that they haven’t or maybe wouldn’t really be able to think about or share in mainstream venues, in mainstream publishing, especially.
I have some good examples. I don’t know if this exactly answers your question, but when you were talking about accessibility I thought, well, that’s definitely zines, right?
DC: Right. I’d love to see what you have.
ZD: I have a small pamphlet of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It begins with a quote that says, “when asked about what she wanted to see happen to the books after death, I want them available. I want cheap paper editions of them. I want them to be continuously downloaded in forty different languages. I want them to be read. I want them to be argued about. I want people to cry over them. I want unreadable dissertations written about them. I want people to get angry with them. I want people to love them.” I thought that was this really great anti-capitalist sentiment.
DC: I love that so much. I think that talking about accessibility, creating texts, and selecting the right font is just another reason why I just love working with the entire Diode family, and why it’s been such a pleasure working with you, Zoë. And I think that’s something else that’s really important within this conversation. It’s about accessibility, but it’s also about readership, and bringing in more readers, and making sure that everything that’s created is accessible to those readers on multiple levels.
I also think that this goes back to these questions of community and I thought that within this interview it would be nice to celebrate all the great work that Diode is doing and all the amazing Diode authors and of course, all the work that you do, Zoë, along with Patty and Law, who are wonderful. Maybe we could talk a little about some fun upcoming projects that Diode is up to or what you’re excited about with the press.
ZD: Oh, definitely. Well, Patty is always first and foremost on my mind. Everything that I’ve been able to do, that the press is doing and has done, has begun with her energy and the love that she has for all of these books, and the vision she has for Diode. Her editorial example is one that I try to live by every day. Diode—and my experience of poetry—would not be the same without Patty. And, you know, all the authors are so awesome.
There are so many authors with different backgrounds and, to touch back on your question about accessibility, I also was thinking of people who come to Diode with a multilingual background as well. There are poems that are multilingual. And it’s really awesome to be able to find a typeface that caters to both languages. It’s really important for a voice to come through as one author’s voice. So, I think, in a couple of books, whether it’s Arabic and English or Korean and English, the typefaces should mirror each other in some way. Like, the Hangul shouldn’t assimilate into an English style or, you know, the Roman aesthetic. We can find a typeface that works for both. There aren’t a lot of typefaces out there that can accomplish that.
DC: Yeah, that’s such a major challenge. It’s why I really value the work that you do because something that irritates me is this old standard that some people unfortunately still have that, if, in a poem/short story/essay, you have words or phrases in a language other than English people are like, Oh, those should be italicized. No. You’re basically othering a language. It’s one thing if the word not in English is italicized because the character, let’s say, is emphasizing that word or shouting that word, you know. But if it’s plain-spoken, it should be in the same style or within the same realm. I think one of the many reasons why Diode is so great is because we have these certain design challenges but we work around them and create something that is authentic and respectful, and honors all the cultures and identities that are set forth, as well as the readers.
ZD: You’ve really touched on a huge design conversation, or series of conversations. One of my design texts talks about how footnotes have sort-of become a thing of the past. Footnotes themselves call back to this time when white people divided foot traffic between classes and between races in architecture. Part of the challenge in eliminating these barriers also falls on the writer. Why include a footnote as opposed to just putting everything in the text itself? Why create a hierarchy?
DC: Wow, that metaphor. I never knew that. That is an extremely strong metaphor of the hierarchy between the main text and the footnote. Wow.
ZD: Yeah. Margins. Marginalia. All of that, yeah. People think categories can be a good way to, I don’t know—instruct? That’s kind of what it comes down to. Like when you’re reading a book that’s really heavy on the glossary or a notes section and you have to keep flipping around, it can feel like an indoctrination at times.
DC: It’s almost too encyclopedic in a way, and then for the reader, having to go back and forth like, I’m absorbing this part of the text but then I have to go back or I have to look down, or you know, next to it, to be like ok here—but then you think, why isn’t all of that within the main text? I guess you’re right, it also doesn’t make for the most pleasurable—or in many cases, like accessible—experience for the reader.
I am learning so much today, and I always treasure our time together. I’d love to ask you—what is one of your favorite fonts?
ZD: Oh my gosh. So, it is Baskerville, well—that is my favorite font for BABE, as you know, because I had to have—I had to see—the word “Queer” written with the Baskerville “Q”. I took this graphic design class for illustrators a really long time ago. My professor, Robert Meganck, he really changed my mind about design. He said that the most beautiful typeface is Baskerville and that always stuck with me because he said, it’s because of the Q. And I kept thinking about that “Q” literally for the rest of my life.
DC: [laughs] I’m so in love with this “Q” — this Queer Q!!
ZD: I agree, ever since he said that in class—and that’s also the time, as you said before, that you’re having these queer experiences, in college. Or, you’re becoming you in a way where you’re starting to see yourself, to mirror yourself, you know, and I didn’t become the Q, but I could see the Q.
DC: I have one final question for you! I want to talk a bit more about unity and I know that we’ve seen so many instances of unity here from being able to see the process of creating the honey words of BABE, thinking about the placement of the honey bears on the cover, and selecting fonts. I’m wondering, as a designer, how would you succinctly describe the ways in which the cover enhances the story of the book?
ZD: I think it relates a lot to tone. It’s strange—my thoughts come with a question: When you’re writing poetry, do you see an image, or do the words roll off your tongue? Like, how do these images—how do these words—get there? I’m more visual, so at least in my approach, I tend to summarize things visually. And so, that’s where the visual metaphor comes from, for me. I want to convey something that reminds me of the word, as a shorthand.
When I see covers out there, the ones that stick out to me, that I associate a lot of myself or a narrative with—it’s associative, it‘s in dialogue with something in my subconscious. And I’m aware that’s also a very biased read, right? I don’t want to exclude stories from my experience. I’m also thinking about what covers recently that I’ve seen that gave me that. Off the top of my head, I’m remembering Randall Mann’s A BETTER LIFE. It’s really well-designed.
These portraits on the front are from Blueboy magazine. The cover artist is Pacifico Silano and the graphic designer is Rita Lascaro. So when you see something like this, organized in this grid structure, you’re calling out newspapers and tabloids and these structures that already exist. And, before I saw the book, I was like, these images on the cover are kinda like centerfolds, like in a magazine, in their shared gaze and composition. In the design structure, inside the book, every poem is centered on the page, just as a classified ad would be if you excerpted it from the publication—it would be framed in that way. The design carries forward this visual metaphor of solicitation in order to play with the text.
I have also seen that in the covers for Ocean Vuong’s ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS and Garth Greenwell’s CLEANNESS. Those cover images—by Sam Contis and Jack Davison, respectively—remind me of Dorothea Lange and her survey of hardship, and feelings, and grief. All of those feelings are carried through those images and also throughout those works. And so, when I see a cover like that, I feel like I’m already connected to the story. That’s what I was trying to do with BABE.
DC: That makes sense since we’re talking about the unity of it all. The design elements, these visuals, these snippets of images that we see, they kind of bring forth, in the case of poetry—more. I always argue that the strongest poetry always goes back to the image. And the image doesn’t have to be this literal thing, though many times beautiful poetry has these literal images that can read like billboards or classifieds or something that’s just simply very sharp in our minds.
ZD: Definitely. I felt honored to be able to see these parts of BABE. The textures, the colors, it’s all really eye-opening and filled with wonder. It was a pleasure to design. It was a pleasure to work on the layout, specifically for the poems. They look really nice on the page. I thought I’d have more trouble getting everything to work, but it just—in the way that you or I would read through it—the words flow with such ease. So thank you for that opportunity, too.
DC: I can’t thank you enough. It’s just been such a wonderful time so far with you, Zoë, and with Patty and Law, and with Diode. I remember one of my favorite memories was when we got to meet at AWP in Portland. It was nice to get to see a good number of Diode authors—I think that we have such a beautiful, vibrant, and diverse poetry community. I can’t thank you enough. I’m just so touched that I was able to see your process today.
ZD: Thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure to talk about all this.
Zoë S Donald is a project manager and artist who lives and works in Richmond, VA, where they studied painting at Virginia Commonwealth University. They are managing editor of Diode Editions.