The Chapbook Aesthetic



In preparation for making my own chapbook-length collection of poems, I have been reading chapbooks online and in print. Chapbooks are a rather provocative receptacle for poetry: they have a more DIY (read: indie) look to them and are often innovative in design: some fold out, some are tucked into neat little envelopes, the binding can be hand-sown, they are often small enough to fit in your pocket. You can trade them with friends like Pokémon, and you can feel cool for having the most powerful collection. The most relevant idea behind the chapbook, I think, is their relative ease in terms of publication. In our hypothetical world of economic recession, the chapbook might be a formidable way for emerging poets to reach a very small but better-than-nothing audience.

After all, the resurgence of the chapbook as we know them now found its “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,” according to Noah Eli Gordon. The chapbook is capable of making a revolution in modern poetics learn to walk, although the implicit argument is that anyone who had enough money and drive to staple a sheaf of paper together could “publish” their poetry (think back to Mere’s concerns about Scribd and internet self-publishing).

But the cool thing about the chapbook, especially if we still consider what it might do if all big industries were to strangle the printing of contemporary poetry while smaller presses like Ugly Duckling go under, is that they are small and provocative enough to get passed around if they appeal to a wide variety of people. It is a form of networking, I think, which is more tender an act than Scribd or Cafepress, especially if the artist is willing to charge only what it costs him to make it. The idea here is to keep poetry in circulation. It takes more thought and care to hand-make a bunch of chapbooks then it does to upload your poetry onto a blog or a self-publishing site, and that is motivation for people to give more care in reading or preserving the form.


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