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 Mira Rosenthal talked to editorial director Alex Wolfe about the cover of Territorial, forthcoming from University of Pittsburgh Press in November 2022.
A Conversation Between Mira Rosenthal and Alex Wolfe
Mira Rosenthal: When I received your cover design, I was stunned by how striking it was and how well it captured the essence of the book in an utterly perfect but completely unexpected way. Can you tell us about your process?
Alex Wolfe: Let me start by saying that I absolutely LOVE this book. I read the whole thing before starting on the design and another time as I typeset it. My first reading of Territorial was unsettling but rewarding for the way that it exposes the patterns of abuse we inflict upon one another and the places we live; more specifically, I was taken by how it explores the lives girls and women live while under the constant threat of violence from boys and men on a planet facing ecological ruin. Undeniably dark, but through that darkness comes wisdom, clarity, and a need to discover and rediscover the self in relation to and in the absence of others and the world.
I focused on specific imagery and themes in the book and then studied your cover design questionnaire. I knew that you wanted the cover to address repetition, hiding, exposure, proximity to violence and trauma, vulnerability vs. strength, and resistance vs. giving in. The covers you like that you shared really gave me a sense of the tone you wanted: edgy and dark. I also looked at your previous books. I often find that to be a helpful exercise, as it gives me a sense of what the author may like—or at least what they have accepted.
MR: Indeed, at least what they have accepted. The experience of designing the cover for my first book was rather fraught and filled with a lot of misunderstandings. I wanted things to be different this time around. On my end, I tried to give you a lot of ideas to work with. But I didn’t want to suggest anything too specific or influence you too much—to give you a sense of freedom of vision and ownership. The fact that you clearly connected to the book really put me at ease. And I never in a million years would have come up with a Polyfoto. How did you hit on that idea?
AW: My first designs revolved around the Chaparral landscapes of California, long exposures of bodies in motion, and I even tried to work with Alfred Stieglitz’s image The Net Mender that you mention in the book. None of these designs felt right. I considered early motion photography and photo booth portraits, as you get repetition and a grid structure that lends itself to design. From there I encountered British Polyfotos—a portrait service offered from the 1930s and 1940s in British department stores. A person could sit in front of a Polyfoto camera and have a series of forty-eight images taken in rapid succession. What you would get were contact sheets with the images, and then you could pick an image or two to have enlarged.
MR: I think it’s also really interesting that, since the Polyfoto camera came into use shortly before WWII, the small photos were popular keepsakes for soldiers. The subtle invocation of war feels important to the themes of the book. As Gloria Steinem has pointed out over and over, a society’s willingness to go to war is not determined by poverty or access to resources, or even religious or political conviction; rather, it’s how pervasive violence against women is within that society.
AW: I also think that the tone of the imagery of the defaced and faced woman connects with your focus on the accumulation of gender-based aggression—but in a manner that’s not direct or overly graphic.
MR: I did a double-take the first time I saw it. Only on second look did I realize that the woman’s facial features were missing in some of the portraits. We never get a full glimpse—and neither does she, peeking out as she is from behind the defensive block lettering of the title. How did you come up with that alteration?
AW: Once I found a particular set of Polyfotos to use, the design itself quickly came to me, but I realized that simply obscuring the unidentified British woman’s face with the letters of the title was not quite enough—it didn’t have the tone you wanted. That’s when I decided to leave most of the faces blank—the imagery of the defaced and faced woman, hiding behind the “I” and “O,” connects with the idea of vulnerability vs. strength, exposure and hiding, and with the book’s focus on gender-based aggression and violence in a way that is not overtly triggering.
MR: The nuance and sensitivity of the design work so well! I also find myself thinking about how the Polyfotos we still have out of each sheet of 48 are the “rejects,” those not given away. They’re the ones, I like to imagine, where the woman is less posed or poised, more vulnerable and real, in possession of herself. I only wish we could trace this particular woman’s story and share it. Is there any hope of that?
AW: I, too, wish it were possible to know who this woman was. But, alas, I have not been able to find any more information. It’s a found photo circa 1930–1940, that much is certain, and I am even now still trying to track down anyone who may know more. If I ever happen to get more information, I’ll certainly share it.
MR: You started out in university press publishing when you were an undergraduate creative writing major and had an internship at Carnegie Mellon University (where you also got a Masters in Rhetoric). How did you transition from a focus on writing to the design side of things?
AW: As a kid I loved drawing, painting, and working with clay, and I did pursue an artistic track through middle school and high school, attending the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities for visual arts during several summers. So, I did have a background in art and basic design principles, but nothing like a university-educated background. At CMU, I found my home in the Creative Writing Program, mainly focusing on fiction and screenwriting, but my love of making art never went away. After finishing my masters, I knew I needed a break from academia and the incredible volume of reading and writing.
I was lucky enough to find a local opening at the University of Pittsburgh Press, being hired as a production assistant, working with printers, designers, and authors, and doing a little design work when needed. I ended up moving to the manuscript editorial side of things, working with many of our poets, and then, through a series of people leaving, retirements, and promotions, I became the director of our manuscript editorial and production department, finally being able to fully pursue what I thought were my talents in cover and book design.
I guess I don’t see it as a clean transition from one thing to another but more of a winding path toward combining all the things I loved—art, reading, writing—and somehow being able to turn it into a career in publishing. I’ve been extremely lucky.
MR: I’m enamored by and drawn to so many of your covers: Little Pharma by Laura Kolbe, Blessing the Exoskeleton by Andrew Hemmert, Banana  by Paul Hlava Ceballos, Gumbo Ya Ya by Aurielle Marie, to name just a few recent ones. How would you characterize your style, or what do you think makes an Alex Wolfe cover recognizable?
AW: Thank you so much, Mira, for highlighting and praising some of the other recent covers I’ve done! I loved working on all the covers you mentioned, and each one of those authors is an amazing person. I honestly don’t know if my covers have a recognizable visual style to them, as I’ve never thought about any kind of personal style when it comes to cover design. I will say that the process I outlined above for your cover is the same process I follow for every cover that I work on: close reading, taking notes, consulting a design questionnaire if possible, seeing what covers they like, what covers they have had designed for previous books, and then pursuing many different possibilities simultaneously. Perhaps keeping my process similar is a sort of style. Admittedly, I’m clearly pursuing designs that interest and satisfy me, but it’s always in the context of best serving the book that someone else wrote.
MR: Thank you so much for giving me a cover that I’m proud to flaunt!
AW: And thank you for being so gracious in your immediate love of it.
Alex Wolfe is the Editorial and Production Director at the University of Pittsburgh Press. He enjoys working with authors and colleagues to design books that showcase outstanding literary and poetic artistry and scholarship. You can find more of his work via his Instagram, @hey_mom_i_mean_dad.