The Best American Poetry Series

by John Ashbery
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by David Lehman, Series Editor


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 is 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: Alexis Gargagliano, my editor at Scribner, others at Scribner, including the art director and the publisher, and my literary agent (Glen Hartley), are among those whose opinions matter.

The cover art for The Best American Poetry 2009 is a detail from John Ashbery's 1972 collage "Acrobats," which I saw at New York's Tibor de Nagy Gallery in September 2008. It was Ashbery's first show as a visual artist though his collage-making habit goes back to his days as a Harvard undergraduate. Ashbery let the practice lie fallow for many years but found himself inspired by Joe Brainard's example in the early 1970s. "Acrobats" depicts a young person peacefully seated atop a high bar over a modern cityscape. The figure is suspended in a contraption in which, diminished in the perspective, are two other acrobats. The conception is playful, and the disjunction in colors — between the red polka-dotted shirt of the most prominent acrobat and the skyline awash in a light green light — is as cheerful as the Edwardian-era illustrations to which Ashbery is drawn. This is the third time that the cover art for an edition of The Best American Poetry has come from a poet: we chose Elizabeth Bishop's "Sleeping Figure" for the cover of the 1997 edition; a year later Joe Brainard's "Whippoorwill" (1974) graced our cover.

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