Chapbook Madness

At the end of each semester I have my poetry students create a way to share their work publicly, either as a blog or as a chapbook. First we look at scads of groovy chapbooks that I have collected over the years, old and new, made by artist-bookmakers and by fellow students, well-known examples of the book-maker’s art and kitchen-table specials. We look at first-edition T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost; we look at last semester’s poetry students; we look at early efforts by the writers we have studied in the course. I show them numerous examples of chapbooks that evolved later into full-length books. We pass around chapbooks that unfold like puzzles; that can be read from either end; that incorporate visual art, that include CDs, that are bound with leather, cardboard, cloth, tin, tyvek, bark; that cost $10,ooo to produce or that cost, pretty much, nothing.

Luckily for us, the angelic staff running the behmoth at the campus copy center can format a manuscript into a saddle-stapled booklet, and the student only has to choose font, arrange page layout, print the ms, and present a simple cover design. Some students (once they’ve seen the rusty staples on the older chapbooks) opt to saddle stitch with linen thread. Some create elaborate covers and we have the copy center produce just the text booklet. While we only create enough for the class and a couple of friends, students leave knowing that any Kinkos or Staples can enlarge the print-run.

But we also look at the blog as a way to share work. Students can quickly brainstorm the pros and cons. On the downside, suddenly anyone in the world can see (and possibly steal) your work. On the upside, anyone in the world can see (and possibly appreciate and even respond to) your work. Speed, cheapness, ease, and “never go out of print” are other advantages that students notice.

I don’t introduce the blog option until I am sure everyone has fallen in love with chapbooks, and thus we reenact the movement in publishing of the last 20 years: some remain fiercely loyal to the actual pages in their actual hands, while others of the poetry-loving community realize that there is, oh yes, a magic to sharing your work online. Accessible to anyone, from anywhere in the world? To a writer who by the very nature of the beast works in such solitude, the idea of connecting beyond the backyard or the workshop is intoxicating. One of my students this fall shared that his blog had been visited by someone in Germany only an hour after he had created it. He had a reader! A stranger!

But one of the most moving things for me is watching them truly fall in love with the book as an object. Maybe it takes having someone assign you the task of sharing your work publicly, having then to imagine your own words inside a book, but very quickly they feel it: the cover, the page, the sequence, the binding, the table of contents, the titles, the page breaks, the proofreading, the font… These each take on an identity. A weight. Meaning. Beauty. The Book.

I am pretty sure that as long as there are poets around, the book cannot die.

1 Comment

Filed under Making Books Happen, Teaching Creative Writing, Uncategorized

One response to “Chapbook Madness

  1. dgreenleaf

    I do a lot of graphic work as part of my job, and also have a very small chapbook publishing company on the side, so I really enjoyed reading this post. Working with my poet friends, even the more seasoned ones, I can see their excitement build as they see their words come to life on the page in a new way, not just a piece of paper with a poem on it, but a carefully organized, graphically enhanced embodiment of their words. For a student, this experience must be a real eye opener.

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