The Unexpected Poetry of Book Spines

October 27, 2022 | 5 books mentioned 3 min read

I confess: I haunt bookstores. I lurk in libraries. I meander in museums and stalk beloved book spaces, losing time, and myself, in the stacks. I’ll never read all I’d like, but I’ll give it a try, because books—tangible objects of imagination and wonder—speak to me.

With a book in one hand and a crayon in the other, I have played with words and pictures for as long as I can remember. Advertising and design was a natural fit, and I enjoyed a career as a creative director with respected national clients. An opportunity for our family eventually prompted a move, and I left agency life for freelance work and more time with my kids. I also began to write and illustrate picture books, and in early 2011, I became a bookseller in a storied independent bookshop in Neptune Beach, Florida. One rainy Sunday afternoon, in a lull that followed an especially strong rush of customers and friends, a colleague and I surveyed the resultant disarray. Small stacks seemed to cover every square inch of the shop. Books waited to be gift wrapped, to be mailed, to be returned to the shelves, to be reordered, or to be sorted for returns. Advance copies from publishers balanced on boxes, pending a spot on the cart. Everywhere, genres mingled together: science fiction mixed with business, histories with mysteries, and so on—and we laughed as we read titles in their random arrangements.

We were punchy, but we’d discovered a game. Not to be outdone by coincidence, we began our own rearrangements. Considering their titles, we pulled one book from here, topped it with another from there. Before we knew it, we’d composed verses to the universe and collaged notes to our pals. Since our constructions of other people’s words appeared almost poem-like, we called them “found verses” and cracked ourselves up. Creating these pieces was fun, partly because the combining of words and images to draw a smile or a sigh reminded me of my work in advertising, finding a new way to see the everyday. And partly because, in their various colors and typefaces and textures and weights, the words in the poems resembled Pop Art.

covercoverI was hooked. I started bringing my camera to the bookstore to document the ephemera. My colleagues endured poems at every occasion, including the ordering of lunch (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins) and a favorite sandwich (I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore).  I turned some poems into greeting cards and shared a few on social media. By March 2013, my play had become an obsession, and I challenged myself to post more in April in celebration of National Poetry Month.

covercoverOf course, I soon learned that found poetry is a recognized form of writing, with roots extending at least as far back as the 1920s art movements Dadaism and Surrealism. One of Dada’s founders, Romanian poet Tristan Tzara, wrote directions for composing a poem with words cut out of the newspaper and pulled from a hat. Later, artists and poets like William S. Burroughs, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams also played with chance and juxtaposition, and reordered existing texts to say something new. Contemporary poet George Ella Lyon creates poems from snippets of letters and diaries or overheard conversations. Austin Kleon and Mary Ruefle create found blackout and whiteout poems using newspapers and old books. Kate Baer’s 2021 title, I Hope This Finds You Well, gathers erasure poems made on her phone from notes from her supporters and detractors, and in 2013, Nina Katchadourian published a book of spine poems, Sorted Books, on the twentieth anniversary of her longstanding and ongoing project.

The website of the Found Poetry Review quotes author Annie Dillard

“By entering a found text as a poem, the poet doubles its context. The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles. The poet adds, or at any rate increases, the element of delight.”

The process sure is delightful, and I’ve continued to make spine poems over the years. Books still yammer from the corners of every library and bookstore I have the privilege to visit. They call from my own loaded shelves. One day, my son suggested I might have enough poems for a tangible object of imagination and wonder—here it is. Perhaps you’ll hear a title or two or ten calling your name, or feel inspired to create better, smarter spine poems of your own. I confess: I hope you do.

From Spine Poems: An Eclectic Collection of Found Verse for Book Lovers by Annette Dauphin Simon. Used with permission of Harper Design. Copyright © 2022 by Annette Dauphin Simon.

, a former award-winning creative director and bookseller, is the author-illustrator of several books for children, among them Mocking Birdies and Robot Zombie Frankenstein. To research this book, she spent countless hours lost in the stacks, and has rearranged more titles than she is prepared to admit. She lives with her family in Southport, North Carolina.

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