Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Dancing Seahorses

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The rain is falling outside my apartment window, and I am in my kitchen making toast out of red fife bread. In my kitchen is a small corkboard that reaches to me out of my childhood. When I was growing up, it was in fact in my parents' kitchen beside the old wall-mounted dial phone, cluttered with important messages and telephone numbers. Now, it hangs in my kitchen with some recent mementoes from my life, having become more a display board than a functional object. While my toast toasts, I find myself looking at the collection of things pinned onto its nubbly surface. There is an old apron that my nanny made for me in my childhood — red cotton with my name patiently embroidered by hand on the pocket, tickets from a Finnish opera, the business card of a native fish smoker and most prominently, the front of the manila envelope that housed the first copy I ever saw of my book, Orioles in the Oranges (Guernica Editions). The most recent addition to the board is a proof of Dane Swan’s new book, Bending the Continuum, which is the first of a series of new cover designs I have been working on for Guernica Editions.

Now, I am no graphic designer. Nothing about my history dictated that I would become involved in re-branding one of the most tenacious and long-standing presses in Toronto — especially the one that publishes me, but I couldn’t resist the ideas forming in my head.


One of the things that I love the most about Guernica covers is their deep co-relation with traditional European cover design. There is something so quaint and elegant about this aesthetic, and it reminds me of the many bookshops Michelange and I passed through in both Brussels and Paris last year, with their hundreds of books — their covers simple whites and creams set in traditional typefaces surrounded by neat little boxes. Michelange and I had many conversations about how Belgians in particular love to use neat, compartmentalized design in order to divide space and ideas. We discussed in great detail the comics that spring like endless wells from his region of Europe, along with the ways in which coffee was served on neat trays with little packages of sugar and chocolate, all neatly displayed. We even considered the way in which window dressings were treated in Belgium in order to create small and peaceful squares across a wall.

I felt that this European element of Guernica’s covers must stay, in order to give an amount of respect to the genesis of the aesthetic that Guernica has maintained over the decades. It seemed like a natural dovetailing to find a paper that further embraced this traditional look, and we began to comb through the possibilities of a more tactile and less glossy stock in order to find the proper aesthetic.

Once this foundation was laid, I began to conceptualize how to incorporate graphics that would speak to the new — something that would literally dance across the cover and become an evocation of the new energy that constantly breathes into Guernica by way of their First Poet’s series. It was important to me to find a balance in the design that both considered the tradition of Guernica while embracing and describing the exciting new energy coming into the press through the First Poet’s Series and the upcoming First Fiction Series.

It was also very important to me to actually converse with the authors and ask them what images they had dancing through their minds as they manifested in the manuscripts so that their vision was included in the process of discerning the elements of the cover. Dane Swan came to me with hair picks and graffiti for his new book, Bending the Continuum. Catherine Black immediately and decisively asked for seahorses to adorn her debut novel, A Hard Gold Thread. Liz Worth and I are working with the images of hearts and eyes for her upcoming book of poetry, Amphetamine Hearts (all Guernica Editions 2011).

Once I had these visions, I hooked up with long time friend and illustrator Krysti-Ly Green who illustrated Sean Stanley’s book, Etectera and Otherwise — A Lurid Odyessy (Tightrope Books), and also penned her own, Nits — Stories (Exile Editions). Together we united the authors' images with graphics that I then took and literally danced across the front and back of the new cover design. I think we are all pleased with the result. Dane Swan’s book, Bending the Continuum, is off the press and ready for his spring launch this June.

I look forward to watching the transformation of Guernica from this bird’s eye view. It has been a pleasure to explore a new relationship with the book as an object and with the press that championed me and gave breath to my own words. I have grown used to penning a book, and this opportunity has given me a more faceted sense of what a book is, and what it means in our world, not to mention how many hands touch this object to make it real.


I leave you with a short interview with Micheal Mirolla who, along with Connie McParland, presides over Guernica.

How is it that you came to acquire Guernica?

It was fairly serendipitous as I wasn't out to get myself a publishing house. Antonio D'Alfonso had expressed an interest in divesting himself of the press after more than three decades, and he offered it to my partner, Connie McParland, and me. We decided to take a chance on it.

What strides have you made in further establishing the press (funding, marketing, exposure etc)?

Well, it's early days yet, but we're working on all fronts to ensure that the Guernica name is out there. We've met personally with the funding officers at the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council; we've listened to advice on how to improve the look of the books; we've placed many Guernica writers in readings; we've had regular launches; we've given interviews about the change of ownership; we've received grants to shore up our administrative and business side, as well as help in the marketing and promotional side; we've placed our books on NetGalley, which serves as the equivalent of the old bound galley and gets the electronic versions out to reviewers, booksellers, academics, etc.; and we've hired a publicist to help promote the books. Oh yes, we've switched to the Literary Press Group sales force so that we can get more personalized service. And we've established a relationship with a US distributor (aside from our distribution through UTP in Canada and Gazelle in Europe).

How do you discern what to maintain and what to change when it comes to guiding the press during this transition?

It's a delicate balancing act. You don't want to strip everything away and thus risk stripping away the press's identity; at the same time, you can't stand still. So, what we've done is stuck by the guiding principles of the press (pluricultural and giving voice to marginalized writers), but we've slowly changed the look and feel of the books. As well, we're trying to establish a balance between poetry and fiction, while keeping the primary mandate of producing books by Quebecois writers in translation, as well as books by authors from around the world in translation.

What are your reflections on this past year as Guernica authors are nominated for/are receiving large Canadian awards?

It's always a good feeling when your authors are recognized. At the same time, we all realize that awards are very much dependent on the personalities and tastes of the judges. We think that every book we produce is worthy of a prize!

Explain the process of rebranding the first series?

The rebranding is a result of looking deep into the future and realizing that the traditional method of producing poetry books is becoming obsolete (in my opinion). Physical books as mass-market books will soon give way to ebooks as the mass-market books. Physical books will become more and more artifacts or objets d'art. So the idea for the First Poets and the new First Fictions is to create books that have a tactile quality to them. Ironically, this actually means going back in time. It's a gamble on our part (isn't everything?), but given the market flooding being done by ebooks it's a gamble that we felt we needed to take at this time.

What are your overall plans for improving/expanding Guernica?

Well, we want to see all the things we've put in place come to fruition. That alone would improve/expand Guernica. We want to revamp our website and create an e-commerce online store to sell both physical books and ebooks. We want to make more use of social networking tools. And we're always looking to partner up with other houses (either tactical or strategic) to increase the economies of scale. And naturally, we're always looking for more writers, especially the one who's going to win a Giller or a Griffin! But who knows maybe we already have that writer under contract!

Do you have a suggestion for a topic for Melanie for a future column? Send an email to with the subject line "Melanie Janisse."

Melanie Janisse is a native of Windsor, Ontario where she retains memories of old docks jutting out into the Detroit River and the smell of hops. Melanie began her education by leaving home early and wandering around the abandoned houses of inner city Detroit, and then the intense forests of the Canadian West Coast. Formally she holds degrees form Concordia University in Communications and Literature and from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Photography. Melanie has resided in Toronto for the past nine years, keeping active as a visual artist, poet, designer and shop owner. Her work has appeared in Luft Gallery, Common Ground Gallery, Artcite Gallery, Dojo Magazine, Pontiac Quarterly, The Scream Literary Festival, The Southernmost Review, The Northernmost Review and The Windsor Review. Her first poetry book, Orioles in the Oranges (Guernica Editions), tells the tale of on old Metis legend, allowing it to dovetail with Detroit's gritty modernity in an unforgettable series of prose poems. Melanie is happy to be a part of Open Book: Toronto ruminating about books and book-like things around Toronto.

Photos by Melanie Janisse. Click on a thumbnail to start the image gallery.

1 comment

I love the new cover look/feel for the Guernica First Poets Series, Melanie! Just saw Dane Swan's book the other day, and look forward to seeing Catherine Black's and Liz Worth's in the coming months. There are exciting changes happening at Guernica-- in no small part due to you! Of course Connie McParland and Michael Mirolla get big kudos for advancing the torch.

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