Saturday, September 29, 2012

Unrest: What is a Chapbook?

Unrest (no leather included)

A creative writing student asked me in class if “poetry chapbooks” were connected to “chaps.” She continued, “Sounds like you’ve written the sexiest book of poetry ever!”
I wouldn’t mind my poetry being sexy, but there’s no leather involved in this chapbook.

Poetry chapbooks are smaller, less expensive collections of poetry that are easily distributed. Unrest is twenty-four pages long (most of the poems fit on a single page; a few are longer poems.)

There’s a long history behind poetry chapbooks. Originally, their content wasn’t limited to poetry and the handmade books were distributed by traveling peddlers. Sam Riedel writes:

There is a considerable amount of contention over the true source of the word “chapbook.” Scholars of Anglo-Saxon history and language contend that the prefix “chap-” is derived from the ancient word “ceap,” while others maintain it is merely a corruption of “cheap;” however, most attribute the word’s popularity to the chapman—European peddler, reporter, and rogue-of-all-trades from the 16th to at least the 18th century. During the intervening years, the chapbook morphed in size and intention to its modern form: a slim, inexpensive poetry volume of interest to casual readers and avid collectors alike.

After printing presses and other technological advances have made it easier to distribute books, the form has shifted some. In regards to more recent history, Noah Eli Gordon writes:

Distanced from its historical roots, the form of the chapbook found new life in the burgeoning world of modern poetry, in which pamphlets from the international Dada movement and beautifully designed works of Russian avant-garde poets set a new standard. Continuing through Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, the mimeo revolution of the 60s, the advent of photocopying and desktop publishing, and the production of PDF files containing the online equivalent, the chapbook now thrives in the esoteric though open space of contemporary poetry. From work that is self-published and stapled to studiously letter-pressed and hand-stitched, and whether published in conjunction with a reading series, like those of Belladonna Books in New York City, as part of a subscription service, like the output of Ugly Duckling Presse, or as an offshoot of a larger publishing project, like Sarabande’s Quarternote Chapbooks or even Rain Taxi’s own Brainstorm Series, the chapbook constitutes a crucial nexus of the poetry community.

As a poetry chapbook author, I’m proud to be a part of such a tradition.  

Learn more about Unrest, my poetry chapbook forthcoming from Finishing Line Press and now available for pre-sale

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