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Celebrating the Chapbook: Postcard From New York City

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Online Only, posted 4.29.09

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While many of the books were single-author collections, some featured the work of several authors, much like literary journals. Wakida talked a bit about how the chapbook—in its early incarnations, dating to the seventeen hundreds—often functioned as a forum for all kinds of work: some essentially a hodgepodge of songs, stories, history, and visual elements, kind of like zines. She also discussed distribution, a topic that arose again in the panel discussion that followed, with poet Kimiko Hahn and others in the group adding their thoughts. Since the chapbook's inception, when they were circulated by door-to-door peddlers known as chapmen, chapbooks have been distributed most efficiently by hand, person to person. (Poet Tan Lin mentioned during the panel that chapbooks "function in a gift economy," where their value is expressed not in monetary terms, but determined by something more personal: the value of the human exchange.)

The discussion closed with those in the group, which was comprised of Asian American history students, a book collector, two publishers—one commercial, one book-arts—and poets, stating briefly what drew each of them to the event that afternoon. One participant said she was inspired to create chapbooks of her friends' work, poet Bushra Rehman showed us her own handmade book and described the experience of making it, and another poet mentioned that she was drawn to the chapbook as a form for her work because she couldn't yet envision her poems making up a larger collection.

A similar question opened the panel with Dawn Lundy Martin, Tan Lin, and Rehman, which was moderated by Wakida, who asked each poet what brought them to the world of the chapbook. Rehman said that she chose to produce her own little books (laid out in QuarkXPress and printed at Kinko's) because she was performing a lot and wanted to have "a little work of art" to give to people, and her do-it-yourself method seemed the fastest way to get that gift into the hands of others.

Lundy Martin, who lightheartedly said she fell into chapbook publication because she didn’t have enough poems for a book-length collection, won the 2003 PSA New York City Chapbook Fellowship. Her chapbook, The Morning Hour, was selected by C. D. Wright. She also talked about the longevity and mutability of chapbook poems, which have the capacity to live on in a larger collection, and how that offers the appealing opportunity for their continued revision. Lundy Martin echoed Rehman’s remark that chapbooks are a fast way to get your words into the world. She mentioned another type of chapbook she’d produced that was born out of her involvement in the Black Took Collective, a group of "young Black post-theorists who perform and write in hybrid experimental forms." The collective published their manifesto, "Call for Dissonance," as a chapbook-pamphlet that included a blank "participatory last page" for readers' ruminations, and distributed it at performances. (The document was also printed in Fence in 2002 and will appear in A Best of Fence: The First Nine Years, forthcoming in July.)

For Lin, the publication of a chapbook came only after he had published the full-length books Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe (Sun & Moon Press, 1996) and BlipSoak01 (Atelos, 2003). Seeking a space where he could experiment "below the legal radar" with photographs and text by multiple authors, culled from blogs, text messages, Twitter feeds, and news stories related to the death in 2008 of actor Heath Ledger (a sort of "post book reading environment"), Lin first printed his chapbook Heath (Plagiarism/Outsource) using the self-publishing platform Lulu. DIY publishing proved a fast way to establish a body of work, and the product was "careless in an interesting way," Lin said. The edition of the chapbook that was sold at the event, published by Zasterle Press in January, was slimmer than the Lulu edition he was carrying—with many items excised in the interest of efficiency and reprint permissions.

After the panel, the AAWW hosted an informal reception, and I had a chance to talk to Wakida, Rehman, and others about forthcoming books and chapbooks, project ideas, upcoming events, and literary travels. A poet distributed flyers promoting his book, and fellows from the AAWW enthusiastically sold packs of postcards featuring artwork and poetry produced by participants in one of the center’s workshops. The chapbook, an accessible, grassroots, treasured form for not only poetry but also fiction and art and manifesto and essay, invites community—and as the afternoon grew balmy and guests lounged and conversed, free wine in hand, the relevance and value of the little book was more evident than ever.

Reader Comments

  • Motherscribe says...

    I loved this post. You give us a taste of what it was like to be there, in the room, celebrating the chapbook in all of its fine forms! I've been debating over whether to create a chapbook for my poems, and your post really inspires me to do so. How delicious it all sounds, meeting other poets, and reveling in the chapbook as appealing today in our tough economic times (where we crave art!) as it was hundreds of years ago. Thanks for a great post!

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