Annette Dauphin Simon, SPINE POEMS: An Eclectic Collection of Found Verse for Book Lovers

Annette Dauphin Simon, SPINE POEMS: An Eclectic Collection of Found Verse for Book Lovers

Zibby speaks to creative director and former bookseller Annette Dauphin Simon about her charming, clever, and beautifully-illustrated new book Spine Poems: An Eclectic Collection of Found Verse for Book Lovers, which was inspired by a rainy day at a bookstore in Neptune Beach, Florida, where randomly stacked books formed funny poems. Annette discusses her love of found verse, her career in graphic design and advertising, and the stunning photography in her book. Then, she talks about the beautiful children’s book she wrote with her son Jack in 2002, after the death of his little sister.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Annette. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Spine Poems: An Eclectic Collection of Found Verse.

Annette Dauphin Simon: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: I am obsessed with this book, this cover, this idea, the creativity. It’s just the coolest thing. For listeners who can’t see what I’m holding, can you explain a little bit about your book and how you thought of this whole concept?

Annette: A spine poem is when you stack books one on top of each other so that when you read the poems from top to bottom, read the titles, it tells a poem, or a poem-ish. I’m not exactly sure that they can all be called poetry. I got the idea — originally, I was a bookseller in a lovely little independent bookstore in Florida.

Zibby: Which bookstore?

Annette: It’s called The BookMark in Neptune Beach, Florida. They’re fabulous. Shout-out to all them. They’re great. It was a Sunday afternoon. Typically, our Sundays are not the busiest times. This was a rainy day. Another colleague and I were the only two there. We had a rush that we weren’t expecting, but it’s fun. It’s always fun. People come in. They talk about books. You help them. When it finally ended, we turned around, and there were just books everywhere. We were punchy. We started laughing because we noticed the picture books mixed with cookbooks and histories with mysteries. Their titles said things — as we read them top to bottom, we thought, this is just funny. Not to be outdone by coincidence, we made our own arrangements. That’s where it started. I did come to find out later that — we thought we made a game. We called it found verse because we found these titles together. Found poetry is a real thing. It has roots that go back at least as far as Dadaism and surrealism art movements. It’s fun. It’s just been fun.

Zibby: It’s one thing to joke around with a stack of books that you put together late at night. It’s quite another to turn it into this book, which is, A, gorgeous and, B, really gorgeous. I don’t even know what the B was. It’s just really gorgeous. It feels very official. It’s beautiful. It’s not too big. It’s not coffee-table size, but it could be a coffee table book. It’s horizontally oriented with spines going across. What happened from that night to this book that I’m holding now?

Annette: A whole lot of nothing in between, except I would make spine poems wherever I went, like in libraries or bookstores or just waiting in a restaurant, in hotel lobbies. We were in Seattle visiting our daughter. They have books as decoration, as style. I, of course, start to play. That happened. The book began during the pandemic when I was just looking around at my bookshelves. My oldest son, who’s now thirty-three, which is amazing, kept saying, “You know, Mom –” He has encouraged me for a long time to do this. He goes, “I think you got to do this.” I was like, maybe. I have a wonderful agent, Brenda Bowen. She’s fabulous. She said, “You’d have fun with this. Why don’t you try this?” I did. The team at Harper Design was just amazing, from designers, everybody there. I have to shout out to them.

Zibby: Just to pick a few of these wonderful poems, this one — some of these books, I’ve had on my podcast. I love seeing Eric Thomas’s book, Here for It, and everything. You have one that says, “Pretending. Here for It. To Tell You the Truth. Sometimes I Lie.” I love that.

Annette: Opening to the fiction section. I decided to organize it like a bookstore, so you can dip in and out of sections as you like.

Zibby: You start with, “Bibliophile. You Are A Badass. I Wrote This for You,” which is perfect. Your table of contents has fiction, poetry, nonfiction, parenting, philosophy. Here, let’s flip to parenting since we’re talking about our kids, per usual. “Say What You Will. Children Make Terrible Pets.” This is so great. It’s just so cool. “You Are Here. Home at Last. Our Story Begins.” I’m not going to read this whole book, I promise, but it’s so cool. “While You Were Napping. The Bear Ate Your Sandwich. It Wasn’t Me. Dragons Love Tacos.” So cool. The photography piece of it, how did that happen? Where did the books come from? It looks photographic, but maybe it’s not.

Annette: Photographed.

Zibby: It is, right?

Annette: I took all the photos.

Zibby: You took all the photos? Oh, my gosh.

Annette: Yeah, I did. I’ll explain that in a second. When I offered the idea, submitted the idea to see if anybody would actually want to publish this, I had probably two hundred poems, various things. Of course, we went through them. Some are better than others. They’re not all great. That led to the division of the book by sections, trying to get my arms wrapped around it. Once I got the buy-off on a hundred poems, more or less, I was like, okay, that’s cutting a lot. Then once they were all approved, then I would get the books wherever I could find them, the library, little free libraries, my own shelves. I borrowed books. I bought more books. My husband’s like, “What are you doing?” He actually was great as far as photographing them. I thought originally, I was going to do it on my phone. My editor at the time said, “No, no, no. This has got to be real legit.” I bought a camera and a tripod. I had a career in advertising before. I thought, there’s a reason why photographers are young or have young assistants. I was shaking, hence the tripod. I felt like, can I focus? I’m not even sure I can see this. My husband found a little two-second delay. I used that on every single shot. I have this big table in my little studio area. My husband pulled one of those plastic shelving units from the garage. We put it upside down on the table. Then we made a backdrop of leftover — we had just done a vapor lock. We had an old house, hundred-year-old house. It’s not even a basement. It’s ground. It’s between the ground and the first floor. We had a leftover piece of that. One side is black. The other side is light gray. We duct taped that to the upside-down plastic shelving.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, wow. It looks incredibly professional and amazing. I’m so impressed. Wait, tell me about advertising and what you were doing there and then your other books that came out. When did all of this happen chronologically and everything?

Annette: Chronologically, I went to school for graphic design, University of Cincinnati, fabulous school, and then got a job. I always liked playing with words and pictures, so I was working in advertising and design, which was a natural fit. I worked at ad agencies, really stellar places, for a number of years. Then our family got an opportunity to move, and so I gave up agency life. We moved to Florida. That’s when I took the part-time job at The BookMark. I’d also been playing, in the meantime, with my own writing and illustrating picture books. One thing led to another. Then this was just really something I found while we were playing at the bookstore. That’s it.

Zibby: I worked in advertising for a little bit also. I worked at Ogilvy & Mather and Young & Rubicam. Where did you work? What role did you have there? What were you doing?

Annette: I was an art director and then became a creative director.

Zibby: That’s so great.

Annette: At the time, they called it finished artists. I go way back. We cut type — we’d send it to the typesetter — with an X-Acto — I could be a surgeon — with paper and rubber cement. It’s literally archaic now. It taught me to see spaces between letters and all that kind of stuff.

Zibby: Were there campaigns that you worked on that you’re really proud of even now?

Annette: My first TV campaign was for Royal Caribbean cruise lines. This was a really, really long ago. We had not a lot of money. We found stock footage of their ships. We put that to music. We just had lines. They were over the thing. That was really fun. That was when I was like, oh, I can do this. Then it’s adding the music, which is another fun element, to the words and pictures.

Zibby: Amazing. Then the children’s books, tell me more about those.

Annette: Listen, this is kind of interesting. I listened to — you had a guest last week who did the picture book about the garden.

Zibby: Sheila Heti?

Annette: Yeah. We had a daughter who was three and a half years old when she died. She was born with a severe rare disorder. This was when I was working at the ad agency in Raleigh, North Carolina. Our then five-year-old son, she died two days before he turned five. Family was all coming down. My parents picked up a ninja birthday cake. We did that. Then over the next year, he would say things to me that — I’d write it down. A diary gives it way too much discipline. I would just write things down over the course of a year. Usually, he wanted to talk at bedtime while we were reading a book and stuff. When we moved to Austin, in the meantime, I’d started this book with him. I said, “Are you sure you want to do this?” The people at the hospice were saying, “You need to get this out.” There wasn’t really anything for kids. The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, sorry, I apologize to anybody who loves that. It’s great, but when your five-year-old son puts his hand over the book and goes, “What does a tree have to do with my sister?”… I love Judith Viorst, but The Tenth Good Thing About Barney is that she’s helping flowers grow. It didn’t help us.

It’s very loose. It’s really his thoughts and questions. It was over the course of a year, so literally from the day he turned five until he was six. Put it away for a couple years. Brought it back out. I said, “Are you sure you want to do this?” He’s like, “Absolutely. We need to do this, Mom.” This is the same one who encouraged me with Spine Poems. We did. It’s Jack’s words. Every word is his. It’s a very long title. It’s since out of print, but you can probably find one for fifty cents online. It’s called This Book Is for All Kids, But Especially My Sister Libby. Libby Died. That was the first book that I illustrated. I had no idea. I’d wanted to play with children’s books my whole life. Had no clue that that would be the first one. It’s still used in hospices and groups across the country. That’s pretty cool. It was fun. I just did very simple colors. I’ll tell you — this is how old I am. I drew in this program called QuarkXPress, which doesn’t even exist anymore.

Zibby: I remember that.

Annette: I still write in it too. It’s a predecessor to InDesign or whatever. I’m using very simple shapes by design, literally, because I’m coloring in photo boxes and text boxes. There was one page, it’s where Jack says, he’s talking about, “On earth, your body is like your master, and when you die, you’re set free.” He said, “This has to be a genie lamp.” I thought, how in the heck do I draw a genie lamp like this? I did and just overlapped circles and shapes and stuff. That was the first one. Even despite a career in advertising, he was one tough little client. Probably the toughest, actually. After that, had one called Mocking Birdies published and then two by Candlewick, Robot Zombie Frankenstein! and Robot Burp Head Smartypants! We’ll see. I’m still playing with picture books. We’ll see what comes next.

Zibby: I am so sorry about your daughter.

Annette: Thank you.

Zibby: A beautiful story. Way to take the heartbreak and help him through that too.

Annette: I know. I’m sorry. It’s just hard.

Zibby: No. Why are you sorry? I feel terrible. This is life. It’s okay. Everybody gets dealt their hand for whatever reason. It’s just terrible to hear knowing how much pain must be involved still and always has been and all of that. My heart goes out to you.

Annette: Thank you. I rarely start a conversation or just meeting somebody and saying, hey… I just spilled it to you. Our kids are amazing. They’re all different. As you know, they just come through us. I swear they’re born with the personalities that they have. Our youngest is the most stubborn in the world, but it has served her well.

Zibby: Do you have — how old —

Annette: — Our youngest, my daughter June, is twenty-eight.

Zibby: I am completely convinced that parenting has little to do — it’s almost just “do no harm” type of thing. They’re born who they are. I just have to keep them on the straight and narrow and teach them right from wrong. Everything else is sort of overblown, sense of influence, I think. I don’t know. Maybe I’m simplifying it. I totally agree with you, is all I’m saying.

Annette: I read something when I was going through the throes with our daughter, Libby. It just said, “We are all here to tend to the lilies in the field. We do the best we can.” That’s perfect. This book, bibliotherapy, I’m telling you, I’m a firm believer.

Zibby: Yes. Did it help? How did it feel actually being a bookseller? I’m opening a bookstore next month.

Annette: I know. Congratulations. I loved it. There’s never enough time to do the fun part. People think you get to sit and read all day. No. You’re doing everything but that. You’re reading at night or any spare moment just so you can do that. It’s so fun. You get to meet people. The community’s wonderful. Anybody who goes into a bookstore is there because they want to be there. It’s fun. Book people are just fabulous, all the way around, everybody from the publishers’ reps, everybody, the customers.

Zibby: What is your favorite genre? What types of books do you gravitate to? If you had all the time in the world, what would you be reading?

Annette: I love picture books, illustration. I love literary fiction. I’ve always loved reading cookbooks, the stories behind them, not just the photos. That’s fun. I like biographies. My husband’s really more of a nonfiction guy. He can get deep into the history of chess or the history of rum. You name it, he’s got it.

Zibby: What have you done with your camera since this project? I can’t imagine you just shoved it in a drawer.

Annette: That’s where it is right now, but it’s going to come out again. I’m playing with a version for kids, Spine Poems.

Zibby: Awesome. That’s really great.

Annette: I’m using all titles that are only kid-appropriate.

Zibby: That’s really cool.

Annette: From board books up to — I’m trying to do it just between the ages of, really, eight to ten or twelve. Middle-middle school starts to get — there’s just a big development gap there.

Zibby: It’s so creative and so cool. Do you have plans for related merch and things like that, like mugs and totes?

Annette: You know, I did that for Christmas. I made some mugs.

Zibby: You did?

Annette: I did, and coasters made. Also, for the booksellers when the book was launched, I gave them little magnets and stuff. We’ll see. They seemed to really like it. Nothing definite yet.

Zibby: That would be really cool, to do coasters related to drinking or parties. I would buy those. That would be so cute. You could do different colors, different color ways, different great poems.

Annette: They’re fun. It’s fun. Books are amazing to me, everything about them, the covers. Picture books, I like to take off the jackets and see what’s underneath.

Zibby: Me too. I completely agree. There’s so much there. Just to finish, “One Last Word. Mic Drop.” Then your book ends. It’s so perfect.

Annette: Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you for talking to me today. I love this book. I’m so impressed. I love hearing the backstory. Found Verse for Book Lovers, it’s so great. Thank you. Thank you for sharing your loss and all of that. I’m just so sorry.

Annette: Oh, gosh, my pleasure. Thank you for having me. It’s been a treat to talk with you. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you. You too. Have a great day.

Annette: Thank you. Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Annette Dauphin Simon, SPINE POEMS: An Eclectic Collection of Found Verse for Book Lovers

SPINE POEMS: An Eclectic Collection of Found Verse for Book Lovers by Annette Dauphin Simon

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