On Poetry Chapbooks
There’s an innate symbiosis between poetry and chapbooks. Both favour condensed language over protracted discourse, and both brandish ever-changing DNA—conditions that, when combined, stimulate artistic growth. Preeminent Canadian experimentalist bpNichol knew this, producing hundreds of ephemeral artefacts in forms conceived to best represent what he’d written. The latter includes the eight-line poem that’s set in cement on a sidewalk near the headquarters of Coach House Books in Toronto, which reads: “A / LAKE / A / LANE / A / LINE / A / LONE.” Originally published in an idiosyncratic novel called Extreme Positions, the piece functions like a line of code where a single letter is swapped out at each turn, creating an increasingly allusive cascade. That it ultimately became a concrete poem engraved in concrete itself seems like providence.
My own place in the literary ecosystem began to take root in elementary school in the 1980s. Regardless of subject, I’d mock up books on a few folded sheets of paper, always in editions of one. At the time, I was oblivious to the fact that I could contribute to a wider economy, something I would find in the mid-2000s when Ian Williams, Vicki Sloot, and I founded Misunderstandings Magazine. A lo-fi, zine-like publication dedicated to creating space for lesser-known Canadian poets, its pages became a place for conversation and collaboration, along with the likes of Jennifer LoveGrove’s Dig and Emily Pohl-Weary’s Kiss Machine. We made all copies of the magazine by hand (poking holes for staples with a push pin since no one owned a long stapler), and distributed them primarily at in-person events and launches.
Like many micropress endeavours, Misunderstandings Magazine eventually evolved into something else for those involved—in my case, an interest in chapbooks. After an internship at Cactus Press, I founded Anstruther Press in 2014, forming an editorial collective to scout manuscripts from poets across the country. Fast-forward to the present and Anstruther publishes upwards of fifteen to twenty poetry titles per year, while also printing broadsides and manifestos. Assembling books by hand has stuck with me, and one of the reasons I’ve been able to continue is that Anstruther titles are produced in much the same way as the books I made in elementary school—folded and stapled—only now with the aid of a printer and photocopier. These are the tools of the trade for those interested in micropress at a base level, a place where many poets learn their craft. But who chooses to stay small? And is there value in ephemeral, hand-distributed material in the digital age?
As a publisher who has put a lot of time into designing and disseminating small things, here are four principles that continue to guide my poetry-related ventures:
1. Chapbooks are the ideal unit of poetry
I’ve never read an entire book of poetry in a single sitting. That is, a full-length book of poetry as defined by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Reinforcing literary bureaucracy—which in Canada mostly involves publishing subsidies—the standard definition of a poetry collection is a book that’s forty-eight pages or longer. For an art as dense and intricate as poetry, that’s a lot of reading. It’s also a lot of writing, introducing additional poems needed to pad out a collection, which ultimately distracts from placing the best words in their best order.
Randall Jarrell famously said that “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times.” Even if one believes that good poets produce good poems at a higher rate than Jarrell’s estimate, it’s evident that they’re not easy to write. I expect that’s why many Modernists published collections that would amount to chapbooks in today’s poetry economy. Earle Birney’s Governor General’s Award-winning David and Other Poems? A chapbook. P K Page’s debut, As Ten As Twenty? Also too slim to be a full-length book by UNESCO (and Canada Council) standards.
Could there be other reasons why those publishing in the early twentieth century chose to forsake the one-hundred-plus-page tomes that we see poets publishing every four to five years today (see: Ken Babstock’s 128-page Swivelmount or Margaret Atwood’s equally enormous Dearly)? Besides diluting first-rate poems with less successful experiments, a smaller book allows for tighter organizational flow and increased readability. At the micropress level, such objects also spur unconventional design, and can be constructed to let poems breathe.
2. There’s value in keeping books small
If every literary press had the infrastructure of Penguin Random House, or even Harbour Publishing, there would be far fewer volumes of poetry available on a national level. This would presumably elicit a cheer from those like Michael Lista, who lamented the “frivolousness with which we publish poetry” in the National Post in 2014. Scarcity would cut a certain amount of the rabble, but this kind of change would also limit the number of great books being written. After all, how are poets supposed to develop without seeing themselves in print?
For many, micropress is essential to learning their craft. The ephemerality of chapbooks allows for mistakes and encourages creativity—when stakes are low, possibility is legion. A good example is Ben Ladouceur, who published ten chapbooks before his Gerald Lampert Award-winning full-length debut, Otter. During this time, Ladouceur’s wrote in many different poetic styles, or, as he explained to rob mclennan, chapbooks permitted him to “try new things—going darker, or more descriptive, or more research-based, or more ecopoetic, or higher-concept.”
This process isn’t exclusive to page poets; slam poets also workshop material in front of small audiences to gauge their reaction. Despite the fact that many publications in the slam genre are actually recordings, slam poetry still offers a good example of how art can be refined on a small scale until it’s ready for a larger room.
3. Chapbooks are democratic
While gatekeepers are important at the highest levels of the publishing industry, anyone can start a zine or self-publish a chapbook. The DIY nature of this process makes micropress the most equitable form of publishing, allowing individuals to contribute to the literary economy regardless of social standing or bias. Can’t find the writing you’re looking to read? Fold and distribute something new; generate the change you want to see.
In The Little Magazine in Canada, 1925–1980, Ken Norris writes that small presses “serve as an alternative outlet for literature, usually for the purpose of attacking conventional modes of expression and of bringing into the open new and unorthodox literary theories and practices.” Micropress offers this kind of opportunity because it isn’t limited by commercial expectation. At the level of the page, bookmakers have the option of making material as economically or as extravagantly as they choose. The heading of this section could even be rendered mathematically, showing that publishing becomes more equitable the less expensive it gets.
That doesn’t mean that all who publish chapbooks opt to be frugal. Go to a Canadian book fair and you’ll see presses like above / ground (which takes a no-frills approach to photocopying and binding small books) sitting alongside those like Frog Hollow (which produces deluxe editions that often run in the 30-40 page range).
Though chapbooks vary in scale and scope, they compete on a similar playing field because of the relative absence of industry prizes. Beyond the annual bpNichol chapbook award, non-commercial book objects in Canada receive very little hype, allowing the spotlight to shine on what’s being published rather than who’s being anointed. This distinction makes producing chapbooks an even-handed pursuit in relation to trade publications, which have come to rely on awards like the Griffin Poetry Prize to sell books. It also provides a platform for creators looking to challenge the literary orthodoxy that Norris describes above.
4. Large presses depend on small presses to survive
The literary ecosystem is a microcosm of the global economy in the way different levels of the publishing industry depend on one another. Readers usually find small presses after large presses, simply by virtue of visibility. By the same token, large presses farm talent that’s been developed in chapbooks and small magazines.
In Canada, Karen Solie is a prime example of a poet who plied her craft on a small scale before hitting it big. After producing stapled publications like Eating Dirt (Smoking Lung Press, 1998) and The Shooter’s Bible (Junction Books, 2004), Solie used the Griffin Poetry Prize to catapult her work into some of the world’s most prestigious magazines. While her first trade book was an instant hit, her transition from national to international publishing platforms was ultimately born of patience and practice.
Still, if I had to choose, I’d stay small. When bpNichol said “small press is the guardian of literary culture and free speech,” he was invoking the unique, primordial spirit of independent publishing. The legacy of those who fold and staple might not show up directly on bestseller lists, but they still leave a lasting cultural impression, particularly on those looking to publish outside of traditional institutional channels.
—From CNQ 111 (Spring/Summer 2022)
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