SUSAN SETTLEMYRE WILLIAMS
So What's With All These Chapbook Reviews?
This issue inaugurates what we hope will become an ongoing project for Blackbird: short reviews of a substantial stack of chapbooks from various presses, appearing perhaps every two or three issues. This time we are offering fifteen reviews, five apiece by Anna Journey, Jennifer Merrifield, and me. So why are we doing this, you ask, and what’s a chapbook anyway?
My own seat-of-the-pants definition for a chapbook is a collection about half the length of a “full-fledged” poetry book. Given that a full-length collection is usually only forty-eight to eighty pages, then chapbooks are small indeed . . . and, in other ways, easily overlooked. If poetry books, in terms of visibility, availability, and, especially, sales, are the poor relations of novels, then chapbooks are their redheaded stepchildren. Usually fastened with staples, seldom heavily promoted by their publishers, almost never afforded shelf space in bookstores, chapbooks have the reputation of being “training-wheel” publications, put together by poets who haven’t yet published a full-length collection.
These perceptions are increasingly out-of-date and have always been only half-true at best. While the books were originally sold by street vendors, or “chapmen” (the word “chapbook” is cognate with “cheap”), another strain also runs in their bloodline, that of the fine letterpresses whose small books were in fact crafted to be works of visual as well as literary art, and this tradition continues in today’s books. The production values of many contemporary chapbooks are at least as high as those of longer books; those of Tupelo Press, for instance, are perfect-bound like larger books, although binding a book of thirty-two pages or less requires a heavier grade of paper. The covers of Poetry Society of America chapbooks resemble William Morris prints. Finishing Line Press describes its products, which come with bookmark ribbons and expensive endpapers, as “limited collector’s editions.” Some chapbooks, far from being stapled together, do not exist at all except in the virtual world of e-publishing.
Nor are all chapbooks written by so-called emerging poets. Sarabande Books publishes a highly successful series of invitation-only chapbooks by “masters,” including James Tate, Louise Glück, Charles Wright, and Frank Bidart, whose Music Like Dirt was nominated for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize. Remember, too, that City Lights Books published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, as well as many other works of the 1950s and ’60s counter-culture, in chapbook form. (For a more comprehensive look at the history and current variations of the form, see “A Pulitzer Prize for a Chapbook?” by Elaine Sexton, in the May/Summer, 2006 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle.)
As to why Blackbird is taking an interest, I began thinking hard about chapbooks a year or so ago when a couple of my friends had succeeded in placing their manuscripts with publishers. Publication was a well-deserved validation of their talent and hard work, but what did it mean to have a book few readers would ever come across on their own? My question was perhaps a bit more pointed than that: A few years earlier, I had rather hurriedly assembled a chapbook manuscript and entered it in a few contests. When the results began to come back and I realized that there was as much competition for these prizes (often consisting mostly of copies and little, if any, cash) as for full-length first-book contests, I decided to concentrate my efforts (and entry fees) on trying to place my longer manuscript.
Yet, clearly, my friends and the thousands of others who enter chapbook contests saw real value in the shorter form, even if it flew below the radar of the poetry-reading public. Two further questions emerged: What did they know that I didn’t? (Lots, of course, and not just about chapbooks.) And what could I, in my role as book review editor, do to raise the visibility of chapbooks a little?
In trying to find out what I was missing, I thought this time, not about the point (or pointlessness) of writing and publishing something so obscure, but about the unique virtues of this shorter form, what you could do aesthetically with a chapbook that you couldn’t with a full-length book. Partly to get first-hand experience of these differences, I put together a second chapbook manuscript of my own, paying closer attention to the process this time, and found that, yes, compiling a chapbook can teach you a lot about organization and focus, about seeing the manuscript as a whole and integrated work. (I must have learned something this time around. Finishing Line Press selected my manuscript for publication in 2007, and I am about to learn more about the other aspect of my inquiry: promotion and selling of the book. Chapbook authors are typically expected to generate most of their own sales.)
As for what Blackbird could do to enhance the visibility of chapbooks, the answers were obvious. Aside from the Sarabande series, very few of even the best chapbooks get reviewed in mainstream journals, although blogs are beginning to take up the slack a bit. Since Blackbird is not bound by the space limitations of print journals, we have the opportunity to run, not just an occasional single review, but reviews of multiple books (we’re referring to these fifteen as a “mega-omnibus” review). In fact, when I first broached the subject to the senior editors, they were not merely encouraging. As Greg Donovan put it, “It’s not a question of whether we would consider reviewing chapbooks. We have an obligation to review them.”
So here are our first offerings. We received review copies from a range of publishers, including many winners of well-respected contests. Authors, hearing of the project, sent copies of their own. In John Allman’s case, what we received was a link to the Mudlark series of online chapbooks. The range is startling: lyric poetry, narrative poetry, prose poem collections, books of place, books of season, personal and family history, meditations on myth and philosophy, postmodern poetry, mainstream free verse. The poets are academics and outsiders; some have written several other books; for others, this is their first (although none of them can fairly be called a beginner, for their craft is readily apparent). We hope you will take as much pleasure in finding out about these lovely, moving, powerful, thoughtful, and just plain fun little books as we have.