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Portland Poet and Book Designer Drew Scott Swenhaugen

Portland Poet and Book Designer Drew Scott Swenhaugen

Photo by Scott McHale
Photo by Scott McHale

There’s a certain way that words pop off the cover and grab your attention when scanning the myriad aisles of books at Powell’s, or even scrolling down a page online. Cover design is a vital part of conveying the language within, setting the tone for what lies ahead. “Judge a book by it’s cover” says Drew Scott Swenhaugen, Design Director for Octopus Books, where he handles the type setting and the general makeup of each book. They recently published Sorrow Arrow, by Emily Kendal Frey, who just took home the Oregon Book Award for Poetry. Drew also co-curates the Bad Blood reading series, one of the most highly anticipated literary events in town. He also teaches book design and at Marylhurst University, and is a self proclaimed Powell’s “lifer.” With seemingly all of his hours taken up, Drew still writes and gets to as many local events as possible. I caught up with the cleanly shaven Drew Scott Swenhaugen, back in town after representing Octopus Books at the Association of Writers and Publishers Conference in his home city of Minneapolis.

ELEVEN: What is your font philosophy, or your typography style?
Drew Scott Swenhaugen: We’re moving into all-type covers. Working with color and the same font. I’m a true believer in basic basic basic. Aesthetically it’s my favorite look.

11: There are some bad fonts out there.

DSS: There are some horrible fonts. And I am a font junkie. I’m constantly researching. I’m stealing, I’m buying, I’m doing as much as I can. Zach Schomburg and I, we found one that we wanted and over the last year, we’ve been creating not necessarily a brand, but making Octopus look like a specific press, our look. That comes with the website, and ephemera (swag and books) that we use, we’re using that font. Once our library is a little bigger with that design… I gravitate towards good looking poetry books.

11: How do you decide what look to go for? Does it depend on the mood of the poetry? Do you collaborate with the poet?

DSS: The greatest thing about Octopus is that it is completely democratic. it’s a really great open conversation between editor, designer, and author. So our email threads are just all over the place. But it is a real democratic vote, we’re constantly collaborating. Which means as a designer you’re mocking up so many cover versions, which can be a little tedious. Our ethos is, though, that it’s everybody’s book. It’s the presses book, it’s the author’s book, it’s the designer’s book. Which is completely different from big house publishing; they just decide, and [the author] just deals with it. I also set the pace on how the book is going to look. I’ve learned how, within that democratic process, to kind of strong-hand my general idea. It’s nice being a poet and a designer, because I have to voraciously like the manuscript that I’m working on. I make a ton of notes, even though I’m not using images, I’m making a lot of sketches and drawings. I’m thinking of general literary facets like time, setting, objects, images. Things that are going on in the book. Then I kind of relay that to type, space and margins. The thing about type-only design is that you’re strangely setting an image-based pace for the book itself, by accurately setting and moving the letters around. It’s fascinating how a narrative can be offered just by having a color for your stock and the specific font and the font size and placement. Also by having the Octopus look, all the books are kind of communicating with each other too.

11: Tell me about Bad Blood.

DDS: I started with Joseph Mains and Zachary Schomburg five years ago. Back then, much different than 2015, we saw something was missing in town, in terms of a series. We wanted to get some of our favorite national poets in, who probably wouldn’t have come here otherwise. I remember going to an Eileen Myles reading in 2009, and twenty people were there. It was a travesty. So we wanted to kind of throw parties for our friends and poets who were coming into town. And invite a bunch of people into town too, and just have a bash. That’s kind of our only dynamic. It’s always free. We design pamphlets and chapbooks for each reading. We try to offer the writers as much money as possible, and we try to kind of push their books. But it’s been, dare I say, kind of a punk rock endeavor where we’re doing this thing, it’s commerce free, there’s a tip jar but that’s it. You just show up and we take care of you.

11: What are some of your favorite readings around town?

DSS: I think the If Not For Kidnap series started a lot, back in ‘07-‘08. Before that, in my opinion there was not a ton going on. Granted I don’t want to say there was nothing going on, there’s a lot of great history in this town. But Kidnap was the place where people were just showing up, I was meeting all these young poets coming into town. I was just starting my poetry career. I have a ton of respect for Kidnap. I really like everything that’s happening at Mother Foucault’s right now. They’re doing some great dynamic stuff. There are plans to do a lot more too, in terms of readings and possibly a lecture series that focuses on poetics. So those are kind of my anchors.

11: What is your job at Powell’s?

DSS: I run the poetry section and the literature section, and I’m a used book buyer, and I do the rare book archiving. So it’s a good gig, I get to do the stuff there that I really want to do. It’s a very civic job too. It’s nice designing and running a press, going to readings, but it’s also nice to have those people come into Powell’s, which is our institution.

11: Can you tell me about your writing background?

DSS: I got an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, I graduated in 2013. I didn’t go to Undergrad for writing. I was kind of bookish growing up, but I really didn’t start… I fell in love with poetry when I was twenty-four, and it was a quick love affair. I want to eliminate this binary of writing and publishing. I love design, I love editing, and I love writing. And I love the actual intellectual study of poetics. But the secret is that these books that I’m designing, they’re my books too. I think that the goal as a poet is to be the curator, the designer, and the writer. It just so happened that I’m doing the curating right now, and the writing will come in. It’s also being part of the content mill. Being part of the publishing world, the small press world. People are just dying to get their books out. All these young kids are just dying to get their books out. And they are, and it’s great…but for some reason my instinct is to just chill the fuck out. Keep listening, keep reading, and when the time is right, shoot my way in.

11: Can you speak on the decision making process for your publishing certain writers?

DSS: One of the other reasons I love Octopus so much is that there is an open submission period. So we are taking books from people that we don’t know, we’re soliciting a little bit. We don’t really have a style, I think a lot of the books are all over the place. We just want, and I’m not trying to be cliché, but young creative voices that maybe other presses, or other parts of the publishing world are lacking.

11: Do you think that Portland is a mecca for those young writers right now, as opposed to Brooklyn, or the Bay area?

DSS: I was in New York recently, and I think that we’re still young, in terms of size, but it is amazing in what’s happened over the past five years. In terms of both quality and quantity of people here that are doing great work, and reading series that are popping up, and presses that are popping up. So fuck yeah, it’s a mecca. It’s Brooklyn, it’s Portland, it’s the Bay. The cool thing about Portland, though, is that we have PSU, and other great universities here, but this kind of mecca aspect started on a community level. Which is kind of rare. You know Denver has a great poetic scene, but it’s because there are great universities around. Where here, it’s [not MFA students] it’s really welcoming. And speaking towards Bad Blood too, one of our goals is to make it as not intimidating at all. Throw a big bash, and have it be fun, and get major writers, but it’s open to everybody. »

– Scott McHale