The Making and Loving of Chapbooks

Let's get back to our regularly scheduled program -- back to the marvelous little gems I refer to as chappies.

Let me first begin by saying I am, by no means, an expert on this particular form of writing. I've written three chapbook manuscripts, have two out by Mouthfeel Press, but I still REALLY feel like I've got a lot to learn about the making and loving of chappies. There's really quite a range of them, yeah? That's what I'm noticing in my recent "research" ok ok ok ok not library nose-to-the-book type of research, but more of Katie reading her friends' books, googling chapbook presses and publishers, and going for long, contemplative walks.

So what is a chapbook?

My understanding is that a chapbook is, more or less, half the size of your standard full length manuscript. That would take us to, probably, an average of about twenty-four pages, yeah? I've seen chappies as small as twelve pages, and some really verging on full length collections (I'd say up to forty, maybe?). But there's something more to these little critters than just their compressed length... I actually enjoy reading chapbooks BECAUSE they can be read in one sitting, and then perhaps meditated on and returned to later. There's this wonderful "hand held" quality to them that's absolutely intimate.

Chapbooks tend to be a particularly fitting form for poetry, though some publishers DO put out some pretty awesome fiction chapbooks, too, which maybe include just a handful of short stories, or maybe one longer story.

While they kind of carry the connotation of being cheap (is it a coinkidink that chapbook sounds kind of like "cheapbook"???), some presses are putting out limited edition chapbooks that are hand-sewn and really elegant. While most are saddle-stitched (read, bound with a handy stapler), some are perfect-bound, meaning they have a spine.

Chapbooks by Gold Line Press have sturdy spines, glossy covers, and professional layout

Dancing Girl Press features handmade chapbooks, each one a work of art

Mouthfeel Press saddle stitches their chapbooks

Wordrunner publishes e-chapbooks, which I find particularly fascinating

So as you can see, there's quite a range in what goes into a chapbook and also how it's presented and put together.

As you probably know, my chappies have all come from Mouthfeel Press. Both Among the Mariposas and The Garden of Dresses are soft cover, saddle-stitched. ATM was 24 pages, GOD 32.  My latest script, What Plagues the Goddess, is 24 pages of POEMS, but will likely puff out a bit with other content once it finds a publisher (someday!).

 Now, what goes into a chapbook? How is it different from, say, a regular book?

I guess that depends on the author. Here are some cool quotes I found:

 I found that putting together a chapbook really taught me a lot about seeing the arc of a book that has since informed how I’ve most recently revised the full-length manuscript, because it’s of such a size that you can manage the arc.  You can see it so much more easily than in a manuscript of, you know, forty-eight to fifty-two pages, something around there. 

Dan  Albergotti, Author of Charon's Manifest 

The chapbook makes a writer really consider what pieces work when pressed against each other, which usually results in a stronger, more potent little book.

 Letitia Trent, Author of Splice (Blue Hour Press)

...chapbooks are a playground to try things

J. Hope Stein, author of Talking Doll (Dancing Girl Press)

I love that quote, by the way, "chapbooks are a playground to try things"

For me, hmm... good question...

Among the Mariposas was my first baby, and lemmie be straight up with you -- I had no idea what the heck I was doing. I just... put together my poems! They were all on a theme, finding home, so the thematic focus was really tight. They were poems of culture and place about the Rio Grande Valley.

The Garden of Dresses I think is a bit looser in theme, but tighter in other ways. You see, my second "born" had more time in the making, more time to sift, mature, ripen. This book actually came into being and centered around its title poem. All of them are musings on feminine sensuality, and this chappie I put together almost simultaneously with my thesis.

What Plagues the Goddess is COMPLETELY different. This little girl I actually wrote to be a chapbook. Whereas with my other two, it was more, "ok, pile of poems, let's assemble them" sort of thing, I actually set out to write twelve poems recasting the Twelve Plagues of Egypt in the Biblical Exodus. But, they've kind of evolved into something else entirely, which has been a really cool experience. This chappie has been an interesting project to say the least.

But I think what's essential to creating a chapbook, what makes it different and in some cases better than a full lengther is that potential for focus. That's what I find from my experience, and from poking around on the net.

Anyway, one last musing: Chapbook Distribution

Ah hah, so getting your chapbook out into the world is a bit trickier than a full lengther. Perhaps because they're usually spineless, most book stores don't really carry them. There are few review venues for a chapbook. As a result, many poets have to take promotion into their own hands, which... is a bit exciting!

I think most poets sell their chapbooks through their own readings and word of mouth. That's how I've done it, anyway. Again, chappies have this really intimate quality to them. Hand made, small, usually limited edition, small print runs, sold by the poet herself -- I think that's actually essential to the experience of both creating and enjoying/appreciating a chapbook.


Let me leave you with a few particularly useful links I found:

Interview with Liz Ahl on DIY chapbooks and other interesting things

I read this interview a few months back, and it popped into my mind as a good resource for just musing on what makes a chappie a chappie. And then I hunted it down again...

Superstition Review Interviews Letitia Trent on her recent chapbook experiences
 This is actually very recent! What a coincidence!

Blackbird interviews three chapbook authors

This was really interesting, too, even though it was from back in 2006, about the vival of chapbooks as a respected and unique avenue for publishing

Ok loyal readers, I'm signing off for the night. But I'll be back tomorrow with some news on The Garden Uprooted...! And then we'll get back to musing on chappies, promise!