What is a Chapbook?


ext month, the good people over at Finishing Line Press are putting out a chapbook of my poems, called Lunatic, about which you can read more here. I thought it a natural moment to say a few things about the form thereof. 

Chapbooks have a long history in English literature, and have nearly always been associated with poetry.  "Broadside Ballads" used to circulate for a penny, (also called "penny-ballads," and thereafter "penny-dreadfuls," when the form was taken over by throw-away adventure stories, the equivalent of airport reading like John Grisham or 50 Shades now). 

Anymore, chapbooks are mainly the purview of poets. Since presses are reluctant to put significant investment into an unknown author, they'll often put out a chapbook first, which is a (usually saddle-stapled) short-form of a book, no more than 45 pages, with which to test the likelihood of a poet's success in a full-legnth. Some poets put out several chapbooks: they're cheaper to buy, and can be more coherent as works since they're shorter. I have a friend, the terrific poet Matthew Nienow, who has three chapbooks out so far; the form works for him, and works well. 

As major publishers move away from publishing poetry in an economic era that rewards risk less than it might, small presses are stepping in and publishing smart, tight, little books in editions of 500-1000; they trade a smaller print run for a few more authors on the roster and make up the difference that way, or they focus on the book as a thing, which I had occasion to discuss in this review, and count on discerning customers' appreciation of the object as much as its contents to create a following.  Floating Bridge Press, Ugly Duckling Press, and Codhill Press are the best-known publishers of this smaller type, and probably make the prettiest books. 

Think about it like a band's putting out an e.p. before a full-length album. Sometimes it's because these are songs that don't fit in with the tone of the full-length somehow; sometimes they haven't written enough material to make a record, and sometimes the label isn't springing for the contract yet. Sometimes, these e.p.'s are extraordinary artworks in themselves: think of the great musical acheivements on e.p.'s proper or split 7" records: Pedro the Lion's Whole, Bloomsday e.p., The Gloria Record e.p., or the entire set of mailings from Postmarked Stamps.  

My little book is coming out soon on Finishing Line, for reasons you can read more about here. I designed the cover myself, but that is as far as my hand in the production reaches, so I'm waiting with baited breath to see how it turns out.  The poems were written over the last ten years or so, mostly following the completion of the M.F.A. at the University of Washington, and are part of a larger work from which I thought this sample representative, but which I think works on its own as well.

You can pre-order it here, should you find yourself possessed of a soul, $12.00, curiosity, sympathy for struggling artists, or any of the above.