Little Dead Rabbit: playful poetry book finds new ways to balance text and design
Described in part as a fairy tale for adults, Little Dead Rabbit is as much a meditation on healing and joy as it is on death. And thanks to the unique opportunities poetry presents as a “non-linear” medium, according to Astrid, it was the perfect project for the two creatives to come together and explore how syntax could translate into image.
“A poem is a ‘thoughtscape’, that is, an assemblage of sounds, images and implicit actions that separate and converge towards different possibilities”, explains Astrid. “Zigmunds and I discussed how to ‘just ignore the text,’ and over time we came to understand that meant disconnecting the poem from this top-down left-to-right reading.”
Zigmunds adds that the structure and order of the various story elements were free to mix and match as they saw fit. “Background elements in the image could switch with foreground elements, and then the whole thing could read differently. We would also draw parallels between negative space in an image and music. Just a Conversation really geeky.”
Above all, Little Dead Rabbit was not a conventional book of poetry accompanied by illustrations. According to Zigmunds, Astrid’s “121st draft” was emailed to him as a starting point, and from there he began to offer sketches as they both explained how the text and the design could work together as equal forces.
“I did not envision the poem to be a calligram – think of Apollinaire and his Eiffel Tower, or the Occupied City of Paul van Ostayen, poets who used typeface and the spatial arrangement of words on the page to play the role of meaning as much as the words themselves”, explains Astrid.
Just as poems don’t arrive with a written memoir from the muse, Little Dead Rabbit didn’t start with a clear idea of what it should be. Zigmunds began by responding visually to Astrid’s poem, and early attempts saw them experimenting with graphic text elements such as dashes, brackets, and dots, which gave the text more visual structure and rhythm.
“During the process, I had the idea of putting a diagram on the text, and I thought there was a possibility to group words using shapes and change the direction of reading “, explains Zigmunds. “So it wouldn’t just read from left to right, but also from top to bottom, diagonally. So in that sense, it has a similar principle to a crossword puzzle.”
The process of creating the stencil images in the book was mostly analog and involved a lot of drawing, cutting, scalpels and “painful fingers”. Zigmunds would print the poem first. Then he would create extra space between the words and use a light box to place another sheet of paper on top of it. From there, shapes were drawn with a brush, connecting the words on a page in a non-reading direction.
“The same shapes also became illustrations,” he says. “Thus, the cutouts had to function both as a matrix for reading the poem and as an image.”
Once a few dummies were made, the couple had to figure out if they could produce the book using a commercial print shop. “We clearly didn’t want to produce some sort of unaffordable limited edition book,” Zigmunds reveals. “We received quite a bit of apprehension from printers given the complexity of the job.
“The ‘Jelgavas tipogrāfija’ printing house in Latvia agreed to work with us despite all their problems. They brought their experience to it and designed it beautifully. Alexey Murashko, my colleague from Riga, also gave me several insightful tips on the impression of which he is a fan of.”
And just as words influenced design, stencils also impacted text. “Some cuts required things to be rewritten, repeated, cut or added,” explains Astrid. “The spaces and shapes showed me where the poem needed to go. Above all, the images influence the text now. The cut-out shapes open up different ways of reading the poem and allow the reader’s eyes to move back and forth, constructing different text versions.”
Zigmunds adds that the shapes are in free association with the text. “The black and blue colors were chosen to make it look like it’s happening at night and have a bit of a dramatic quality, a play of shadows. Hopefully the process and the sense of surprise translates into the book.”
Astrid agrees that Little Dead Rabbit is as much about the bizarre absurdities of everyday life as it is about death. And the praise of the elastic extremities of language is linked to this pleasure. “Words play at being images, and images play at being words, it’s a dance!
The little dead rabbit is available now from Prototype.