Lesson No. 2: Content and “Theme” in Chapbooks

Fig. 1: Some sample chapbooks. From the covers and titles, can you get an idea of what themes they might have?

Where Do We Start?

Going into thinking about creating a chapbook, it’s important to do some personal reflection first. In the discussion below, I’d love for you to respond to these questions:

  • What are you writing about right now?
  • What themes do you see emerging in your work?
  • What ideas haunt you?
  • Are there certain specific commonalities in your poems right now that you can describe?
  • Can you see your poems as a unit instead of individual works? What would make them a unit?

It’s important to be aware of what you already write. As I began putting together my early chapbook manuscripts, I noticed that I wrote a lot about my travels. So I made a manuscript based on all my China poems, and another based on all my poems living with a Japanese host family.

Fig. 1: An example of my Chinese themed poems, "A Week with Beijing"
Fig. 2: An example of my Chinese themed poems, “A Week with Beijing”

For me right now, I can say I’m writing a lot about the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. I’m very interested in the testimonies of survivors, but also in a more general concept of water in Japanese history and mythology. The water of the tsunami has brought me to exploring water in mythology: as the gateway to death, as a physical sustainer of life, as well as the “water trade” , a term for promiscuous careers. I’ve found that as I looked at my poems, they had this uniting string of water.

This isn’t something that necessarily came to me right away. I’ve been writing about Japan for years—starting with my own personal experiences there. Over time, this transitioned into responding to testimonies of others. As I continue to write, the theme may transform even more, but I am aware of what I’m writing, and always thinking about what matters to me in my current work and why. It’s important to not force any theme, but more to be aware of what you’re naturally doing on the page.

These are just examples. I tend to use very direct, content-heavy themes. However, some chapbooks have less explicit themes. That, or the poems are tied together by something other than theme. The end-all goal is to have cohesion between your poems, and this can be achieved in a variety of ways. Many chapbooks are united by a similar style, voice, format, or context. For example, Sarah Chavez’s All Day Talking has the poems united by all being letters addressed to one person. Some chapbooks have multiple specific ideas, all united by a central theme. To delineate between ideas, they use different sections. This is particularly common in full length manuscripts (See Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard)

Fig. 3: Sarah Chavez's chapbook "All Day, Talking"
Fig. 3: Sarah Chavez’s chapbook “All Day, Talking”

As you develop your chapbook, it’s good to think about your “elevator pitch” for it. If someone asked you to describe your chapbook, how would you explain it in one or two sentences? This is obviously something you don’t need right away—you might not even have it until the chapbook is finished and published. But sometimes if you’re struggling on defining what your work is, practicing an elevator pitch can help you find a vision for your work. It can help you figure out what ideas or aesthetics really matter to you.


Selecting Poems:

In my experience, sometimes I know the theme of the chapbook before I have the poems. In other cases, I choose the theme based on my poems. That is, I take a look at what I consider my “strongest poems” and I ask myself, “What do they all have in common?” You’ll find your own method, but I do have a couple things I want to say about selecting poems.

First of all, the poems need to work together, so this means that the poems’ mutual compatibility is the highest priority when putting together your book. This might mean that your poem that was published in The New Yorker (because we all totally have that poem, right? :P) may not necessarily be a good fit just because it was published in The New Yorker. I have a tendency to give a heavier weight to my poems that have been published in places that I consider more prestigious. However, remember that the cohesion is what will make a healthy manuscript, and that we’re focusing on ideas, not what has the best publication.

That said, I strongly recommend that as you put your manuscript together, you start sending out poems you think will be included. It’s good to have some publications listed in the acknowledgements of your chapbook. It gives your poems the longevity of being published more than once, and it also shows that these poems have been leading up to something: that they have been carefully crafted to eventually create this chapbook manuscript. While it’s important to not get too caught up in the publishing aspect, it is something you want to be working on the back-burner of your mind.



I’ve included some samples from my old chapbooks. I’d like you to take a look and see what themes you notice. (synopses as well so they can see what theme I was going for?) Also feel free to look at some of last week’s chapbooks that you might not have looked at to see what common themes you can find, and how they’re implemented.

The Girl Who Came Back

A Week With Beijing

Rotary Phones and Facebook



In the forum, please post 5-7 poems that you think represent a common theme in your work. Please include a brief explanation of why and how you think they work together.

After you post this, please look at and respond to at least one of your peer’s submissions. Think about what themes you see surfacing in their work. What unites the poems? Please comment on their submission with your thoughts on themes and connections between the poems. Feel free to do this for more than one person.



Use this space to respond to some of the questions I mentioned at the beginning of the lesson:

  • What are you writing about right now?
  • What themes do you see emerging in your work?
  • What ideas haunt you?
  • Are there certain specific commonalities in your poems right now that you can describe?
  • Can you see your poems as a unit instead of individual works? What would make them a unit?

They don’t need to be direct answers—just reflect on the ideas behind these questions in whatever way is most natural to you.


Meg Eden, FacultyMeg 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.