As series editor of The
Best American Poetry, I get to have a say, sometimes a large
say, in the cover art we use each year. Early in the history of
the series we established some guidelines for ourselves. These can
be stated in a single sentence: the work of art that we reproduce
on the cover — whether a painting, drawing, collage, photograph,
or print — has to be by an American and has to be modern (defined
as anything after 1900). As I love looking at art, the need to produce
a new cover each year has given me an extra reason to frequent galleries
and museums. It's fun to be constantly on the watch for cover art.
It can change the way you look at a picture or add a new dimension
to the experience.
Choosing cover art is not a unilateral process: my editor at Scribner
(Erin Curler), others at Scribner such as the art director and the
publisher, and my literary agent (Glen
Hartley), are among those whose opinions matter.
For 2003 we selected “Jazz Musicians,” a 1948 painting
by Norman Lewis (1909-1979). Yusef Komunyakaa,
our guest editor for 2003, has a lively interest in the visual arts,
and it was on his recommendation that we looked at Lewis's work.
Lewis was the first major African-American artist to embrace Abstract
Expressionism, and his beautiful rendering of jazz musicians seemed
felicitous on several counts, since both Yusef and I love jazz as
well as abstract American art of the late 1940s. In Lewis's painting
a representational aim is achieved through abstract means, and the
same may be said for certain outstanding American poems of our time.