What Makes a Great Chapbook?
The following text, slightly edited here, first appeared in Robert Lee Brewer’s “Poetic Asides” blog for Writer’s Digest magazine on 30 October 2008. My contribution was written in response to Robert’s question, “What makes a great chapbook?” See also the new postscript at the end.
A chapbook is an opportunity to focus, and every good chapbook I’ve read had a clear theme or stance, typically with an arc of development. As a small press publisher, I find that thematic development and careful arrangement is what makes a manuscript submission rise above, as opposed to the seemingly random compilation of a selection of one’s poems.
In journalism, feature articles (as opposed to hard news) often hang on a “news peg,” or something that connects the feature to current events in everyday life. It’s a hook, and functions just like the musical hook in a pop song. As long as it remains intelligent and avoids excess gimmickry, I think the concept of chapbook should do the same.
Nancy Pagh won the 2008 Floating Bridge Press chapbook contest with her collection After, with each poem being written “after” a particular poet. Each two-page spread starts with an epigraph on each left-hand page (quoting the source poem), opposite each new poem on the right, so the idea is abundantly clear. That’s the hook, the concept. In a way, it’s like an invented bucket (or drawer) that readers can categorize the book into, thus making the book more accessible. The real substance is deeper, of course, and in Nancy’s case it’s the emotional sway that underpins the poems in their darkness and fearless grit.
The art of chapbooks, of course, is the limitless pursuit of different ways to create an original theme, a hook, a stance, finding the right balance between intrigue and challenge while avoiding facile or clichéd gimmickry. A good chapbook not only has solid poems, but often has an idea behind their assembly that makes me wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that!”
Among the chapbooks my press has published, Starship Earth by Adele Kenny focused on the four elements in grouping its poems. Abandoned Farmhouse by Edward J. Rielly featured a sequence of haiku about the abandoned farmhouse of his Midwest childhood. And my own book Tremors centered on earthquake haiku. In other cases, the theme or hook might be more subtle, perhaps even psychological, or perhaps narrative. Not every chapbook needs to have a theme (the lack of a theme may occasionally be the point), but it often makes for a more rewarding reader experience if the poems in a chapbook hang together in some obvious or not immediately obvious way. The point is to make a cohesive reader experience where the sum of the poems is greater than just the poems, where each poem is like a puzzle piece, contributing to a larger mosaic.
—3 January 2021