Interview with Lee Jiaying

The cover artwork of Red Pulse II is such a pick-me-up. Bright and punchy, it seems to pulsate with activity. Flat design in dual-tones, it’s neat, yet also intricate in a playful way. So much is going on in seemingly so little. We catch up with the artist—Lee Jiaying—behind this eye catching artwork and pick her brains regarding her work, as well as its relationship to the content.

How do you configure the content & themes of Red Pulse II into your artwork?

The editors and I had agreed upon three expectations for Red Pulse II’s aesthetic: it had to be youthful and energetic, subtly Singaporean, and intimate. It’s difficult to generalise poetry – especially a collection that peers into the diverse and varied worlds of 22 different poets – but I do hope that these qualities fairly represent the poetry inRed Pulse II. The vivid colours, the interplay of cultural and urban iconography, the chaotic composition, all point to the energy and individuality just pulsing within the collection.

For me, Red Pulse II addresses many post-colonial literary motivations felt by Singaporeans today: is Singlish English? Does an original Singaporean identity exist? Can and should local poetry escape or embrace our political histories?

As a nod to underlying post-colonialist attitudes, I decided to parody the covers of ornate British storybooks of old. In place of stock English motifs are ornaments from diverse cultures – including a Malay Batik flower and a Chinese cloud motif – wildly remixed with urban iconography of street lamps and concrete buildings. What remains is very eclectic and weirdly Singaporean. Like the poems, each visual element resists categorisation, protruding wildly into space.

Is there something peculiar to the artwork that we might miss on first glance?

There’s a little Singapore-shaped cloud at the top of the cover; it also marks the different sections in the collection. I like to think that it’s the Singaporean equivalent of the American Dream. Is it an uplifting symbol of progress? Or an idealistic, poofy pipe dream? I leave that up to you.

I’ve also paid tribute to the writing process. Right below the giant Roman numeral, forgotten drafts of badly-conceived poems have drifted into a miserable pile. Writing is extremely, nauseatingly difficult – let’s not forget the poems that didn’t escape the delete button. On the other hand, let’s celebrate the poems that do escape unscathed, that fly like paper planes into the air!

What were some difficulties faced when coming up with the cover design?

I think it’s critical that a book cover represents a book’s content. I know that seems like an obvious requirement, but I feel that many covers produced today are literal interpretations of book titles, rather than considered representations of a book’s content. Perhaps some designers don’t always have the time to read the books they design for. Or maybe they think it’s better to not let their opinion of the book’s content colour their design. In any case, I still think it’s very helpful to have a good read before designing.

Because the poems in Red Pulse II cover a wide array of themes, from family to belonging to cultural identity, it’s quite a feat to represent all poems in a way that seems fair. Drawing imagery from specific poems meant featuring those poems as being more important than others. Ultimately, I decided to highlight only universal motifs that were able to communicate multiple themes, rather than feature specific images from poems. This kept the design flexible, allowing it to remain relevant should the collection change in the future.

In one word, describe your artwork!

Eclectic, I think!

What do you hope people will ultimately see or feel when they first see your artwork?

I’m hoping they feel intrigued. I’ve always wanted this cover to feel somewhat enigmatic. I think the visual elements are peculiar enough that a potential reader may feel curious enough to pick it up, maybe even browse through it for clues. In any case, the cover only represents a sliver of the imagery inside it. I’d love for people to pick it up and read it for its poetry – this stuff is gold!

Red Pulse II is available for purchase at BooksActually, Booktique, Books Kinokuniya, MPH, and here.