THERMOS had occasion this past spring to ask this question (and others) of two-time contributor, Rescue Press editor, and all-around phenomenon Caryl Pagel. We liked the results of that casual query so much that we decided to offer them here, for general consideration.
1. Chapbooks prioritize art and design.
In my experience, chapbook presses are often more concerned with the aesthetics of the object of the book than many other types of presses, even small book presses. Publishers of chapbooks start not just with a passion for poetry and art, but also with visions of dynamic covers, exotic fonts, experimental stitching, and intense paper quality dancing in their imagination. For example, one might look at the gorgeous covers and production language on Press Press Press. The books on this site are not all chapbooks, but most are, and most take pride in explaining the care that went into producing a limited amount of copies of the object that presents the poems: “thread-bound,” “letter-pressed,” “hand sewn,” “vellum inlay,” “archival quality,” etc. The care implies a commitment to the work, and to the time and struggle of creating a book.
(Also, see DIAGRAM’s comments about a chapbook as an art form.)
A few years ago, when I published a chapbook with Factory Hollow Press, the editors encouraged author involvement in the look of the book. They let me choose the image and design the cover. This level of participation might not have mattered much to everyone, but it did to me. Often poets have an image in mind, or a vision of colors, or at least a vague notion of the kind of visual experience they hope their readers to have. At many larger publishing houses the author signs away any right to what their book looks like. The cover of my chapbook, Visions, Crisis Apparitions, and Other Exceptional Experiences, is a photograph from the University of Iowa archives. The photo shows an operating theater at the turn of the last century; full theater, empty table. The image is spooky, haunting, and incredibly compelling to me on many levels that (I think, I hope) relate to the experimental and emotive forces behind the poems. Also, the theater was what existed in the building (Seashore Hall, Iowa City) where I’ve worked every summer for five years, and where I wrote many of the poems that appear in the chapbook. It was important to me at the time to associate what I was writing with the history of the place where I was writing it.
Other beautiful chapbooks presses:
2. Chapbooks are quiet, intimate, private.
The first chapbook I ever bought was The Genuine Negro Hero, by Thomas Sayers Ellis, published by the Wick Poetry Chapbook Series in 2001. It is 32 pages long with 14 poems. It was my first introduction to Thomas Sayers Ellis’ poetry. There was something about the minimalism of the design, the care in arrangement, and the utter simplicity of production that made what happened on the inside seem (even before I read the poems) of utmost importance. Stripped of image, or any sort of accompanying marketing, I felt as if it was just my mind and the verse (which is, I suppose, how one should always feel while reading poetry), and as if my reading of those poems could/would change one of our lives, which it did (mine). I read the chapbook once and immediately read it again. I memorized lines, thought about music, and studied specific line breaks, turns, images. This is not to say that I would not have loved Sayers Ellis’ work if my first encounter had been with a full-length collection—but I know that at that point in my life it was more manageable, more magical, more memorable to carry a few poems with me than to attempt to fully comprehend four times the amount of starts and stops. Reading poetry can be, for me, utterly exhausting. Why not start/stay small? Learn specific sounds? Commit a few poems to heart? Why not step into the vision of the author completely—live in/with less, more? Chapbooks encourage one to think about size and mode and process of publication. Emily Dickinson famously shared her work by gifting tiny collections of poems in letters—she stitched her pieces in fascicles, kept her gatherings small. Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III (a “full length” book) is only 50 pages with 10 poems, and could certainly have been closer to 30 pages if the design was not as spaced out. What is a chapbook? Is it defined by cost, process, length, distribution? I don’t know. These people have a sort-of definition.
Other examples of chapbooks that I continue to think about more often—and with a greater sense of intimacy—than larger collections are: Elizabeth Whitehead’s “a pilgrim’s traveling kit” (Cosa Nostra Editions), Nick Twemlow’s “Your Mouth Is Everywhere” (Racquetball Tournament Press), and John Taggart’s “Unveiling/Marianne Moore” (Atticus/Finch).
Also, another interesting aspect of chapbooks and chapbook presses is that often the work is solicited. This is not always the case, but when it is—as with Factory Hollow—the press slowly develops an aesthetic personality, hopefully one that is curious, wide-ranging, and idiosyncratic; one that acts as the personal library of a few exploratory readers.
3. Chapbooks (because they are not created with large sales/audiences in mind) can be chaotic, experimental, multi-genre, hybrid, and strange.
4. Chapbooks are “local.”
Chapbook presses often prioritize specific communities and coteries over a single selection from a large slush-pile of books. They remain “local” in spirit, small in size (although often nationally read and appreciated). I personally do not think that one of these processes is better than the other. We need both Springsteen and Bon Iver. I guess that much of what I have to say about chapbooks could be interchangeable with small presses, independent journals, and local reading series in general. It’s exciting to think about all of these groups that try to engage with local communities, and that can be found everywhere: New Orleans, Chicago, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Omaha, Cincinnati, etc. Not just New York. Independent chapbook presses and authors are not bound by the same fiscal and marketing concerns of larger institutions. That’s a big reason for my personal enthusiasm for publishing a chapbook. I can’t say that I was thinking as much about theme or selection, or publishing format while I was writing the poems, but when the opportunity to publish with Factory Hollow came along I couldn’t have been more excited to give my work to a small, loving, innovative, group of smart readers and writers. I also enjoyed choosing 12 poems that weren’t necessarily thematically linked originally—and noticing the strange themes and echoes and obsessions that inevitably exist within one’s work at any given time. Putting it together felt like curating a small show, or making a mix tape: I attempted to pay close attention to order and arrangement, to tiny patterns of language and sound, to formal similarities, and tonal shifts. I don’t know if it was successful at every turn, but certainly an exciting act of gathering.
Rescue Press has recently published their first chapbook, Shane McCrae’s In Canaan. Here are the details:
“In Shane McCrae’s astonishing second chapbook, In Canaan, he inhabits the personae of the escaped slave Margaret Garner, who, in the mid-1800s, murdered one of her daughters in order to keep her from returning to slavery. “I couldn’t stop/Hurting her because it hurt,” writes McCrae in the voice of Garner, “Before that night I never had the chance to love / Anyone/ she was the first person I loved.” McCrae composes in broken forms and shattered fragments, retelling a harrowing historical story through the imagined first-person point of view of its tortured and terrified heroine.”
Rescue Press publishes work by activists, artists, craftsmen, entrepreneurs,list-makers, philosophers, poets, scientists, writers, and creative thinkers of all kinds. They are interested in small collections of artwork, comics, compositions, essays, experiments, how-tos, interrogations, lectures, lists, manifestos, notes, outlines, poetry, procedures, questions, reviews, sketches, stories, technical prose, textbooks, travel writing, and anything else that transforms them. Rescue Press is a library of chaotic and investigative work.