Monday, April 27, 2015

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger Nicole Rollender

Thanks to Nicole Rollender for bringing our attention to poetry chapbooks: how to write, organize and order them. 

Nicole Rollender is assistant poetry editor at Minerva Rising Literary Journal and editor of Stitches. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, Radar Poetry, Salt Hill Journal, THRUSH Poetry Journal, and others. Her first full-length poetry collection, Little Deaths, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications. She is the author of the chapbooks Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio), Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications) and Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest. She’s the recipient of poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Ruminate Magazine and Princemere Journal. Find her online at

5 Ways to Look at Your Chapbook

When I held my first published poetry chapbook seven years ago, I grinned like a fool at the ISBN number and traced the title, Arrangement of Desire, on the cover. A first, second or third chapbook publication is a big deal. It’s important for emerging writers to start publishing small, tight collections. It’s a step or two or three toward launching a first full-length collection into the world. Even for an established writer, a poetry chapbook is a fine way to put a small, tightly wound group of poems into circulation.

Three years ago, I was sending my second chapbook out over and over with no success – almost to the point where I questioned myself as a writer. I decided to take action: I started workshopping with other poets and read everything I could about assembling a chapbook. Then, I started over. I wrote two new chapbooks, using some revised poems from the original chapbooks; now they’re both forthcoming later this year. Plus, this past winter I read nearly 70 chapbook manuscripts for Minerva Rising Literary Journal’s annual contest to cull them down to 10 finalists.

Here, I’d like to share some of my insights for writing a stellar chapbook. I’ve also asked some chapbook publishers, journal editors and consultants to weigh in on what makes or breaks a manuscript for them.

1. Make the reader feel something. A chapbook isn’t just 15 or 20 of your best poems. They are, but together they must do something – adhere to a theme or follow a narrative arc; but most of all, the poems must evoke something powerful and lasting in an editor and a reader. When an editor is reading 80 or more manuscripts, the ones that make us note down the title are the collections that make us feel strong emotions and connect us to the writer.

“A chapbook that resonates with me is one I fall in love with as a reader; it’s one that I can return to again and again and find something new each time,” says Ariana D. Den Bleyker, publisher at ELJ Publications. “I deeply want poems that resonate in the memory, a set of solid poems with an identifiable arc, a compelling theme, visible threads which tie the pieces together, and a sense of momentum taking the reader on a journey. Above all, I look for passion and voice, succinct, beautiful images that linger long after I close the book.”

2. Yes, follow your arc. A chapbook is often read in one sitting. The poems need to be thematically tight or have a narrative arc. “As a chapbook consultant, I’d say the motifs that tie a chapbook together are usually tighter than in a book,” says Sandra Marchetti, author of Confluence. “This is a good thing, in my opinion. Chapbooks that are really disparate seem a bit off to me.”

What does this really mean? You need to know what holds your chapbook together. Imagine blurbing your own collection. Can you sum it up in three or four powerful sentences? “If you’re not sure if your chapbook has that glue, read through it again,” says Emily Shearer, poetry editor at Minerva Rising Literary Journal. Add lines here. Find threads there and tie them up in knots. Your knots may be as subtle as spider web gossamer or as obvious as an anchor on a moored ship, but find them and make them steadfast, seaworthy, unslippable. As you look, you may surprise yourself, finding more knots than you realized while you were writing the damn thing. But if you can’t find them, your editors and chapbook judges sure as heck won’t be able to.”

3. Keep the book tight, tight, tight. There seemed to be a magic number for me when reading others’ chapbooks: 24 pages. When the collection extended beyond that, it felt too long. Sometimes, I lost interest. That’s not to say that you can’t write a stellar 6-page micro-chap or a 32-pager. However, when I talked with chapbook publishers and readers, the 16-to-24-page-window seemed to be their magic range, too.

Their collective advice is to get your chapbook as small as you can (as it remains true to its arc) and meet the publisher’s required minimum or maximum. Your manuscript shouldn’t feel bloated; there’s no room in a chapbook for filler poems. Each poem in the collection needs to powerfully push the reader toward the conclusion. One final tip from Margaret Bashaar, publisher of Hyacinth Girl Press: “Once a press has accepted your manuscript, don’t take it as a green light to tack on five more pages” that you originally took out.

4. The title is a big thing. For me as a chapbook reader, especially, I saw the importance of a title. That’s the book’s first impression on a reader. If it’s trite (like Broken Hearts) or the same title as a lesser poem in the collection, it’s a sign to me the writer hasn’t thought it through. Tip: Write 10 or 20 titles (you can take them from poem titles or poem lines). Ask people what titles resonate with them. The title is the collection’s handshake – it needs to be strong and decisive, and say, “Come, dance with me.”

Ariana D. Den Bleyker, publisher at ELJ Publications, also looks to titles as a sign of what’s to come in a chapbook: “If I had to pick just one thing that turns me off when reading a chapbook, it would be a title that doesn’t resonate before I begin reading,” she says. “For me, a title is the biggest selling feature as to whether or not I’m intrigued enough to open the book. Though the title is the main hook for me, once I open the chapbook, the overall organization and thematic arc must deliver that title’s promise, and if it doesn’t I’m often left disappointed.”

5. Form and final proofing matter. Read what the publisher is asking for: two title pages, no identifying information in the manuscript, no acknowledgements page within the manuscript you submit. A certain font, no double spacing, whatever it is. If you expect a publisher to give your work the consideration time it deserves, consider what the publisher wants to see from serious writers.

Also, proofread. Well. I hired a proofreader to read my final manuscripts. Not because I can’t use spell check, but because I had been immersed with the work for so long, and I needed a fresh pair of eyes, someone who knows grammar, the nuances of commas and so forth. Someone who will take her merciless red pen to my work and shine it up. It’s worth it. You don’t want an editor to be turned off by grammatical and punctuation errors. We’re all writers, people.

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