Exclusive Cover Reveal of Ross White’s “Charm Offensive”

The poet talks about the process behind the cover design

Electric Literature is pleased to reveal the cover for writer Ross White’s poetry collection, Charm Offensive, which will be published by Eyewear Publishing this July. White is the designer and author of Valley of Want, a finalist for Electric Lit’s Best Book Cover of 2022 contest.

Charm Offensive, Ross White’s debut poetry collection, explores the space between Dickinson’s directive to tell the truth slant and the universal reality of seeing the truth slant without knowing it. Charting the ways that tenderness can resolve into dissonance and uncertainty can resolve into transcendence, Charm Offensive crackles with the dangers of being alive and the joys of remaining defiant. At turns playful and surreal, exuberant and somber, these poems urge readers to find something new to trust in the world.

Opening with a cardiogram—White’s humiliation of his “white belly” and the jokes he shares with his wife over his aging body–and ending with a psychic’s prediction that his life will end at 52 (heart troubles)— White scours time, tenderness, and the mighty (godly) pleasures of overlooked things. 

Only White could convey the simple pleasures of a junk drawer, the small gods and tender votives they contain. Each tiny nuisance of our history, each fascinating button, leaking pen, soy sauce packet, screw driver. Charm Offensive reveals to readers his smitten seconds, laments, and casual, witty uncertainties on the afterlife. 

Here is the cover, designed by Edwin Smet.

Ross White: “For a while in my twenties, before I got serious about poems, I tried oil painting. I loved the tactile sensation of each brush stroke, I loved making a mess, but I’d stare at the empty canvas for hours, never conjuring a vision of what could fill it and never bold enough to just start throwing colors up there without a plan. I only finished three or four paintings during that time—none very good!—but the image I kept returning to was a shark in a suit. I know I was just recalling the shark lawyer character from Alan Moore’s Top Ten, so everything I painted was derivative, but I loved the idea that you might be able to dress up all that wildness.

By the time Eyewear awarded Charm Offensive the Sexton Prize for Poetry, I had begun designing books and had the astounding good fortune to design my third chapbook, Valley of Want, for Unicorn Press. I asked my editor at Eyewear if she wouldn’t mind if I took a stab at designing Charm Offensive and she said that while they preferred to work with the remarkable Edwin Smet, I’d be welcome to send in some mockups. I put together a couple of rough drafts—almost all of which centered around the idea of someone being covered up by fabric—and sent them over, certain that I’d nailed it and the press would take one of those covers. But my editor replied that they’d be moving ahead with Edwin.

A few months later, she emailed me to tell me that the book’s cover was done. I had a moment of panic as I opened the attachment. I hadn’t talked to Edwin to describe what I imagined for the book! I hadn’t seen any options during the process! But, as if he had reached in and dug around in the recesses of my visual storehouse, there it was: a shark in a tuxedo.

I’m still left wondering—how did he know? I hadn’t shared anything aquatic, anything elegant, anything even remotely associated with this concept. In retrospect, I’d only sent the press a visual catalog of my doubts about having a first full-length collection: that person being covered by fabric was always an analog for me. I hadn’t dared to let myself imagine a concept featuring my long-loved image—I mean, who would have the sheer audacity to put the shark in a suit, tweaking his bow tie as if to say, “I look good and I know it,” on a book of poems?

Here’s the thing, though: it suits the book. So many of the poems in Charm Offensive catalog the joys of being audacious in a world you never fully feel you belong to or before a god who doesn’t feel like yours. The book has so many moments where the absurdity of our daily lives and our struggle to recognize the wonder and danger around us takes physical form—a photo of somebody defiling a Ronald McDonald statue or the shining cupola of a state capital built over unmarked graves—that the shark readying for his gala seems to embody perfectly the poems’ linked and conflicting impulses. I’m dying to know which party he’s going to. I’m dying to know which of the guests he’ll devour.

In my design work, I’ve sometimes been struck at how the writer’s vision for the book can differ greatly from the ways the book will resonate with readers. But of course it does! The writer has, wrapped up in their concept of the completed object, a set of hopes and dreams and dreads for the book but nonetheless external to the book. A good design team sometimes has to clear those hopes and dreams and dreads away before the book is free to become its best self, independent of its maker. Edwin’s cover for Charm Offensive has liberated the book to become its sassiest, most dangerous self.”

Charm Offensive will be published by Eyewear Publishing on July 1st, and is available for preorder here.

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