Welcome to “The Poetry Chapbook” course! I’m excited for us to explore what makes a chapbook, and how to think about our work in collections. Everyone may be starting in different places—some of you might have a manuscript already and want to learn how to fine-tune it, while others of you might be thinking “I do poetry, and chapbooks sound cool, but I’m not sure what it is or how to approach making one.” I hope that the information in this course will be helpful for you no matter where you are in your journey. In the discussion below, I’d love for you to introduce yourself: who you are, where you are or what your goals are when it comes to this course and chapbooks, and if you’d like to take a sentence or two to describe common themes or characteristics in your work that’d be great too. Use the space to introduce yourself however you feel most comfortable doing so.
In this first lesson, we’re really going to focus on what a chapbook is, and how to read chapbooks to see what we like and don’t like. This is not just for us to help figure out how to put our chapbooks together, but also to be thinking about the aesthetics and approaches different presses bring—and how the publisher of a chapbook is almost as much of an aesthetic choice for the chapbook as is the writing itself.
So What is it?
“A chapbook is a small collection of poetry, generally no more than 40 pages, that often centers on a specific theme, such as exotic foods or wild animals or Justin Bieber. It’s typically saddle-stitched (like a pamphlet or magazine) and is a format well suited to smaller print-runs.”
-Writer’s Digest (Check out the whole article here)
A chapbook is:
- typically 16-40 pgs (unlike a full length manu, which is usually 60-90 pgs)
- typically themed in content
- typically hand-stitched, though also online and perfect bound (or other forms as well)
- an art object: because they’re in such small print runs, there’s often a great emphasis put on the type of paper, the weight and texture of that paper, as well as screen printing or some sort of visual element. This aesthetic value varies in weight between presses. But as you’ll see in some chapbooks, the visual elements continue on from the cover into the pages themselves. The binding and cover material can be as vital to “telling the story” of a chapbook as the writing itself.
- Unlike full-length books, chapbooks are relatively cheap to print. They are also in smaller print runs, so there’s less risk to you and less risk to the press to make them.
- Chapbooks are a great way to get your name out there and build up your bio.
- They’re also a great way to physically share your work (You can even trade chapbooks with writers you love!).
- Putting together a chapbook teaches the principles behind building a full-length manuscript. Advertising and selling it is also great practice for selling a book later on.
- The chapbook’s focus on one specific theme makes writing and completing one often a great way to process an event, or to create personal closure. For me, writing and publishing a chapbook about my relationship with my father was a great way to process my experiences and remove bitterness I harbored.
- While they aren’t huge money-makers, some chapbook presses provide royalties to their authors.
- When you have readings or other events, it’s great to have chapbooks for sale as a way for your readers to continue connecting with your work.
Anatomy of a Chapbook
If you’ve taken my litmag course (also available through the Dr. TJ Eckleburg Review), you’ll remember that I talk about the anatomy of a litmag. The anatomy of a chapbook has similar components—they’re both books, after all. With a literary magazine, I have students use the components of a litmag to help them figure out the specific style and world view represented, and if that’s a good home for your work.
When it comes to looking for a press for your chapbook, this same exercise is valuable. But right now, our focus is more on gleaning how others have created chapbooks and what we can learn from them. If your manuscript is more in development, and you want to be thinking about a future press, feel free to do that as well.
As I’ve mentioned above, a chapbook is not only a collection of writing, but it’s also an art object. Every choice in a chapbook’s production says something about it’s aesthetic priorities. As you look at the sample chapbooks here, think about what aesthetics matter to you—do you want your chapbook to be a physical, textured object? Or does the content matter more for you?
- Binding: Is the chapbook hand-stitched? Perfect-bound? Or is it electronic? Maybe it’s in a less traditional format, like index cards in a box, or a series of broadsides. How does the binding prepare you for the content as a reader? How does it influence your reading experience?
- Cover and Title: Does it draw you in? What about it draws you in? Or turns you off? Does the art overtake the cover, or is it just a contribution? What does the art style say about the aesthetic values of the chapbook? What about the title?
- Content: Is it in a style that you write or appreciate (e.g., narrative? lyrical? experimental?)? Does it engage you? What is engaging, and what isn’t? What patterns do you see, and what unifying themes do you find as you read? Is there a narrative (this can be abstract or literal)?
- Ordering: Did the poet use sections? Or is the chapbook one long poem? How did they utilize (or not utilize) titles? What function do titles or organization play in the experience of reading the poems?
- Acknowledgements: Where else did this poet publish beforehand? Are those journals you like/dislike, have been published in/not? How many publications did they have before publishing their work? (This can vary so much between chapbooks but it’s an interesting thing to think about)
Final verdict: Did you like it? Enjoy it? Appreciate some element of it? Why or why not? What worked and what didn’t?
For those of you thinking about press (we’ll talk more about this later in the course), do you think the product was high quality? Did the production of the chapbook as an object help or hinder the written content? Which presses would you want to work with, and which ones would you not want to?
Some amazing poets and presses have generously donated sample chapbooks, which I have for you to look at online. I strongly recommend that you also check out the listed chapbook presses and buy one. While the online ones are great for looking at content, we can’t talk as much about the physical aesthetics of a chapbook: the paper, the texture, the weight, the stitching. Chapbooks are very cheap, so please consider contributing toward a press and buying one…or two. I’ve listed a few presses I recommend below if you want to check out their deals. Dancing Girl Press (and probably others as well) even do bundle deals.
As you look at your chapbooks, ask yourself what you like and don’t like. What can you learn from these chapbooks, and how do they inspire you for creating your own chapbook? Please look at at least three chapbooks, and write a reflection on your readings. This can take whatever form is most beneficial for you—if you want bullet points, or paragraphs, or charts, or whatever—this reflection is to help you process what you are reading. Please post this reflection in the forum. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask!
(You may want to reference this list throughout the course)
No Silence in the Fields by Rachel Mennies
Portage by Sarah Ann Winn (More Sundress chapbooks available for FREE at: sundresspublications.com)
Chapbooks from Massachusetts Review
(Excerpts of) The Fifteenth Station by E. K. Mortenson
(Excerpts of) Burnings by Ocean Vuong
Fireworks, and My City is Ashes by Lisa Levin
(Excerpts of) All Day, Talking by Sarah Chavez
Casey Shay Press: Mary Ballard Poetry Prize
As a writing prompt, or even a reflection, take one of your favorite pieces from one of these chapbooks and imitate it. What is it you like about it? How can you implement what you like into your own work? Feel free to post your imitation piece in the forum as well.
Meg Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, Eleven Eleven, and Rock & Sling. Her work received second place in the 2014 Ian MacMillan Fiction contest. Her collections include Your Son (The Florence Kahn Memorial Award), Rotary Phones and Facebook (Dancing Girl Press) and The Girl Who Came Back (Red Bird Chapbooks). She teaches at the University of Maryland. Check out her work at megedenbooks.com.