I first met Sara Northerner when I began my coursework in the PhD in Humanities program at the University of Louisville in August 2008. Sara was in her fourth year of the program at that time, having already completed coursework and nearing completion of her comprehensive exams. Since we were both graduate teaching fellows, I shared a lively office environment with Sara and a number of our colleagues, and I knew from our interactions that Sara was a serious, self-motivated scholar and a diligent artist. Though I cannot recall seeing any of her artwork during that first year, I can recall hearing her speak about art and watching her interact with students from her Creativity & the Arts and art theory classes. I recognized that she spoke, not only as a teacher committed to the study and appreciation of art, but as a practitioner—a practicing artist.
In May 2009, at the end of my first year as a doctoral student, my first book—a collection of lyric essays called Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures—won the Colgate University Press Nonfiction Book Award. Almost as soon as I received the news, I was encouraged to begin thinking about cover art. As seems to be typical in the publishing industry, Colgate University Press retained the last word for accepting or rejecting a work of art for the cover, but they actively encouraged me to seek out something I found representative of my book. On a hunch, I turned to Sara.
Though we were at this time only casual friends, the experience of working together to select a cover for my book helped to grow and solidify our friendship. Sara asked to read my book in manuscript form to help her get a feel for the kinds of images she might select from her own extensive catalogue. After twenty-five years as an artist, she understandably had a lot to choose from. She also told me, “If I don’t have anything, I know a lot of artists. I will help you find something that will work.”
Sara tells me now that her initial thought, just from hearing me talk about the formally experimental nature of the lyric essay and its reliance on fractured, braided narratives, was that the cover should be something abstract or perhaps something specifically illustrative of the book’s motifs, something like a wishbone itself. That was until she read the book. In reading, she took detailed notes and concluded that the cover needed a much more ethereal image that connected recurring images from the text, images like water and the body. She went through her own catalogue of photographs and selected some that seemed to have a quality that resonated with my prose. One of these was a color photograph of a rock formation in the middle of the sea that Sara had taken off the coast of Portugal in 2000. She thought it was an image I might like but didn’t tell me about her own hunch when we first met to look at images.
During the initial slide show of Sara’s art, I realized I liked everything I saw. I discovered, sitting in that cool coffee shop on a hot Louisville summer afternoon, that I was more than just a fan of Sara’s attitude about art. I was a fan of Sara’s art. When the photograph of the rock formation passed over the screen, I asked her to stop. “What’s that?” I asked. “And why is it so striking to me?”
A light came into Sara’s eyes as she told me about taking the photograph nearly a decade before from a cliff above the misty blue Portugal waters. Everything about the colors, the perspective, and the juxtaposition of water and land spoke to me instantly, viscerally. She smiled and said mysteriously, “I might have the right piece for you.”
What I didn’t know yet was that Sara had transformed this photograph into a compelling work of installation art that she kept in her home. The image was enlarged, printed digitally in several sections on a Japanese woven printmaking paper, then hand-stitched together. Sara’s stitching was visible to the viewer in a way I recognized as similar to my own practice of calling attention to the writing process in the midst of a lyric essay. For my readers also, my own seams are often showing.
And then of course, there were the eyes. For both Sara and me, the pair of eyes that recurred throughout the piece like a visual refrain suggested the eye-opening nature of art and the element of personal and sexual awakening that appears as a dominant theme in Wishbone. Sara later remarked, “The eyes have a certain meaning for me that they don’t for anyone else.” They are her mother’s eyes.
As much as I was taken with the original photograph, I was that much more enthralled by the work of art that Sara had created from it. Originally, for Sara, the art she had created from the photograph had been a transitional piece. She was working on a new process that combined an attention to bodies and landscapes. To prepare to share with my editors at Colgate, Sara photographed the final image many different ways, lighting it from the front, from behind, playing with its translucent quality. In this process, as her artwork evolved once again—this time into the cover of a book—Sara recounts that she was invigorated by seeing her visual art become part of another artist’s literary journey. The image, as she says, “took on a new meaning” as it began to relate to the words in my book.
The photographs of Sara’s mother’s eyes were from an earlier project, and Sara hadn’t yet told her mother that she had incorporated her eyes into this image. When she shared the image with her mother and asked her permission to use it, eyes included, as part of a book cover, her mother was receptive to the idea. She became our third collaborator, remarking to Sara, “Then, the eyes are universal. They aren’t necessarily mine.”
From there, with remarkable ease, the book came together. My editors at Colgate loved it, and to this day, the cover is one of the most remarked-upon aspects of Wishbone. When the book cover was projected on the enormous screen at the Lambda Literary Awards in May 2011, there was an audible gasp in the room. The image was that striking. I wished, in fact, that Sara had been there to hear it.
Mary Peterson Moore, who coordinated the layout for Wishbone, arranged to have Sara’s image wrap around the front cover onto the back and also into the French flaps of the book itself. Further, she added to our collaborative process by including a small, black-and-white reproduction of the image at the beginning of each of the book’s five sections, something neither Sara nor I had expected, though we both found it a wonderful addition. And now, nearly a year and a half since the book’s debut, the cover still collaborates with the content on its own all the time. Whenever I give a reading, I find myself drawing new connections between my words and Sara’s image, which I can only imagine is happening for other readers of the book as well.
Only a month or so into our initial collaboration on Wishbone, I received the good news that my second collection of lyric essays, then titled In Lieu of Flowers, had been chosen as the 2009 selection for the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature by Sarabande Books. I learned that the book would be published in Fall 2011, and so once again, I turned to Sara as a collaborator on this project. I had no specific idea in mind for what I wanted the cover to be, only a sense of a light pink color that I associated with the phrase In Lieu of Flowers. Sara also knew that I had an unworn wedding dress that I had kept for many years—ever since I chose, at the last possible moment, not to elope with my fiancé back in 2002. My partner Angie and I had been talking for years about using the dress for some artistic purpose, but not being visual artists ourselves, we weren’t sure what to do with it. Instead, we carted the dress with us through residency in four different states, always leaving it to hang in the closet until our next move.
Sara, excited to take this second collaboration to the next level, began to consider making an image from scratch, designed specifically with my book in mind. As is her way, she read the manuscript and took meticulous notes. She began to plan out the entire image in her mind. “I remember thinking movement,” she says, “and water again,” which is a resident motif in all my work. She was also thinking about my wedding dress and how she might create the blurry image of movement in the water using the full skirt of the dress. Since flowers are also a salient motif in the book, we went looking for roses at all the local flower shops, trying to find the color I connected with my title. Sara said she could adjust the color, and her use of a longer overexposure in photographing the image would contribute to that adjustment. After finding no trace of the right roses at any boutique flower store, we stopped in at the local Kroger, and there they were—a six-dollar bouquet of sterling roses that matched exactly what I envisioned when thinking of my book!
From there, more people were involved in our collaboration. A friend of Sara’s and a practicing artist and professor at the University of Louisville, Mary Carothers, agreed to let us use her in-ground swimming pool for the photo shoot, and Sara asked Angie, my partner, if she would be our model. Sara is quick to point out that, like her mother’s eyes on the first cover, Angie in the wedding dress was meant to be a universalized image, not a representative of a specific person from my life. Even as the book itself references my love story with Angie, we never intended a viewer of the cover image to be able to recognize her. Instead, Angie’s pale skin, toned arms, and dark tattoo reflected Sara’s vision of a body in motion in the water. In October 2010, on one of the last agreeable days of sunny autumn, Angie donned the wedding dress, stepped into Mary Carothers’ chilly pool, and allowed Sara to direct her in a productive photo shoot that resulted in some amazing images, one of which I believed would become the cover for In Lieu of Flowers.
But then something unforeseen happened, as often does in the publishing world, and in collaboration of any kind, for that matter. I learned from my editors at Sarabande that they wanted the book title to be changed. Due to the funereal connotations of the phrase “in lieu of flowers,” they were concerned that the title seemed overly mournful. Since I had always thought of the book by this title, it was initially quite challenging to imagine another title that would serve the same content as well. The essays are, after all, elegiac, and so it never occurred to me that the title didn’t reflect my authorial intentions well—perfectly even. But, as committed to the work as ever, I went back to the text itself and began to search for a new title.
At the time, my opening epigraph was an excerpt from Jorie Graham’s poem, “Self-Portrait as Demeter and Persephone,” which also used flowers as a central image. At the end of the book, I had included a closing epigraph from Rick Barot’s poem, “Blue Hours,” which included the phrase “the small fires of everything gone.” After spending several weeks stumped for a new title, I got the idea to reverse the epigraphs. What if I began with a reference to the small fires of everything gone and ended with the image of the young woman in the field, surrounded by flowers? Fire is a much less salient image in the book than flowers, literally speaking, but metaphorically, it is an image that also serves the content well. I suggested the new title, Small Fires, to the folks at Sarabande, and they were immediately receptive. The challenge then was finding—or creating—a cover image that served this new title well.
Because of her work with a former student, Sara had experience photographing things on fire. When I approached her about making art for the new title, she was once again receptive and flexible, eager to rise to the occasion. First, we discussed some different ideas, and then I remember she asked if we could destroy my wedding dress. Trusting her artistic vision implicitly by this point, I said yes without hesitation. Sara knew she needed to be able to destroy the dress in order to create the art she was envisioning, and she also knew the polyester fabric of the bodice and skirt created certain restrictions. By soaking the dress with carburetor cleaner, however, she would be able to generate an enduring flame rather than just melting the dress.
In addition to torching the dress, we toyed with other ideas. Sara took the bodice of the dress, which was separate from the skirt and stitched with little pearl flowers on long, twisted vines, to a parking lot outside the city limits of Bowling Green, Kentucky. She went through two different packs of black cat firecrackers, laying them across the white pearl flowers on the bodice like a kind of dark corseting. The image was visually striking to begin with, and even more so when she lit the match. This was her attempt to honor the role of both flowers and fire in text itself.
Excerpt from Small Fires when it was still titled In Lieu of Flowers:
When I was small and wanted to feel close to her–to the woman in the window with the kerchief
on her head, dark hair sheaved with cotton–I would wander in this garden, sampling her flowers,
biting in, chewing hard, swallowing: her marigolds, her peonies, her sweet hibiscus and bachelor buttons.
How many calories in a rose? I wonder. I half-believe it might be possible: that the red rose, once ingested,
will bleed through against my white skin, transofrming me into some version of what we had read
in class: Shakespeare’s sonnet with those roses “damask’d, red and white.”
So I am in her garden now–as I must be–quietly, characteristically, feeding at the trough of roses.
Then, we gathered with some friends for the burning of the bodice itself, which Sara also photographed. I had always dreamed my dress would come to a dramatic and artistic end, and in this way, I was not disappointed. Unfortunately, my publishers were not receptive to any of the images Sara had produced and ended up selecting a very different image to visually represent the book. While I like the new cover and have heard positive feedback from others about its visual “pop” as well as its striking contrast with the Wishbone cover, Sara’s images—for both titles—remain my preferred way of picturing In Lieu of Flowers/ Small Fires in my mind. Sara understood not only how to make a visually appealing cover, which the final cover of Small Fires certainly is, but how to make a cover inspired by the text itself. In some ways, I think Sara understands my vision and process as a lyric essayist better than almost anyone else—not because she is a writer herself, but because there is something intuitive and analogous about our approaches to our respective art forms.
IN THE WORKS
In late 2010, just as Sara and I were finishing work on the In Lieu of Flowers and Small Fires cover images, I received the astounding news that my first full-length collection of poems, Postage Due, had won the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and would be published in early 2013 by White Pine Press. Of course, once again, I turned to Sara to begin brainstorming on a new collaborative project. Since then, she has read the text of the book and has already begun envisioning a cover. For our first collaboration, I contributed no tangible materials to the process, and for our second, I contributed only the wedding dress. This time Sara’s attentive tracking of images and artifacts that recur throughout the book has led me back to my own stash of childhood and adolescent souvenirs, helping to select the materials that will ultimately figure in this vivid, experimental cover to match a collection of what I hope are truly vivid, experimental poems. I suspect this is going to be our most complex and perhaps our most exciting collaboration yet.
Sara J. Northerner has a BFA from Washington University and a MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art. In December 2010, she graduated from the University of Louisville with her doctorate in Interdisciplinary Humanities. To pursue her interest in combining phenomenological aesthetics and contemporary art, she maintains a studio practice in Louisville, Kentucky. Currently, Dr. Northerner is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Western Kentucky University.
Julie Marie Wade completed a Master of Arts in English at Western Washington University in 2003 and a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh in 2006. She is the author of 2 collections of lyric nonfiction, Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Colgate University Press, 2010) and Small Fires (Sarabande Books, 2011), as well as 2 collections of poetry, Without (Finishing Line Press, 2010) and Postage Due (White Pine Press, 2013). Julie lives with her partner Angie Griffin in the Bluegrass State, where she is a doctoral candidate and graduate teaching fellow in the Humanities program at the University of Louisville. Most recently, she has received an Al Smith Individual Artist Grant from the Kentucky Arts Council (2010) and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir (2011). Julie’s new projects include her creative dissertation for the PhD in Humanities at the University of Louisville, an essay collection titled The Missing Sister & Other Stories: A Coming of Age, as well as a two more experimental projects, Catechism: A Love Story (lyric essays) and Conversation Piece (a book-length poem).