Very Literary: A community blog

Small press book reviews and local author interviews

On Chapbooks

Written by Kari Larsen, Community blogger | May 22, 2012 1:22 AM

Alissa Nutting: Aside from (I assume, perhaps incorrectly) length, what do you feel like the other boundaries of the chapbook are? And let’s make this a double-header ending and engage that second part as well: is there a way a 400-page document would be more chapbook than not, could retain the essence-ness of a chapbook?

Kate Durbin: I think a chapbook’s restrictions are mostly related to length, number, and distribution, as well as how seriously the form is taken (not as seriously as perfect bound books, which of course have their own hierarchy depending on publishers, etc). Writing something as ephemeral as a chapbook can give you enormous freedom to play and experiment. I think it’s possible to create a 400-page document that has the essence of playfulness in a chapbook. Forms are just things we made up to help us categorize the world, anyway. You really can do whatever you want.

- from Alissa Nutting's conversation with Kate Durbin during Chapbook Week at the Offending Adam

(Featured photo from the wonderful Hyacinth Girl Press)

When I was in college, a friend of mine was contacted about an internship with a small press. He was too busy, but he recommended me, and it's one of my favorite things that ever happened to me. Ron Mohring was adjuncting at the college I attended and endeavoring to kick his small press, Seven Kitchens, into production schedule overdrive with the help of some committed interns. I was not familiar at the time with what a small press constituted or what exactly we were making. Chapbooks are small, handmade books (handsewn in the case of 7K), roughly a quarter of the length of most conventional books. Occasionally they are, that is, and that is what Seven Kitchens makes.

Inland Sea by Erin Bertram

Erin Bertram's chapbook, Inland Sea, was the first one I was in charge with from beginning to end. The cover photo is by Kris Sanford, whose photography inspired the poems. Bertram had also used a photo of Sanford's on the cover of her previous chapbook, Alluvium, published by Dancing Girl Press in 2007. After reading Ron's copy of Alluvium, I looked Dancing Girl Press up online and decided if I was ever going to amble down poetry's alleyway, this is where I would like to end up: in the company of Bertram, Kate Durbin, and the vast number of incredible women Kristy Bowen has published with remarkable consideration for their individual voices since 2004.

Chicago, IL's Dancing Girl Press - open to submissions as we speak! - puts out annually a sizable number of little saddle-stitched (that is, stapled) books of poetry by women, between twelve and thirty-two pages per manuscript. Among my favorite of her titles has been 2011's Trollops in Love by Gina Abelkop. Twenty-one poems of loathing those closest to you, navigating the begrudging solidarity between girls when one humiliates the other, fan worship, and all the weird shapes ardent young-womanhood takes - at seven dollars, this fine little object gives the reader the perfect impression of everything Gina Abelkop is capable of, leaving you prone to the shock that she has accomplished that much more in the poetry she has written and the force that she is in bringing brilliant new writing to the attention of others with her own press, Birds of Lace.

Based in Berkeley, CA, Birds of Lace adheres to whims and not to any strict production schedule, allowing Abelkop to focus fully on whatever project demands her attention. The chapbooks this discernment yields, by writers so individually powerful I have to name them, such is my admiration for Christine Vi-Van Nguyen, Niina Pollari, Rohin Guha, Jackie Wang, Kristina Marie Darling, Leon Baham, and Carrie Murphy, are so distinct and visually fetching, not only are they vessels of some of the best poetry being published to day (definitely, absolutely the most fun) they were also the subject of a post on the ModCloth Blog (along with Dancing Girl Press and Blood Pudding Press). Perhaps a Girl Elsewhere by Adam Strauss, a title from 2011, is saddle-stitched and slim at twenty pages - an easily assembled little book, you might say, but between the vibrant green pages and elegant typography, individually stamped inside cover, and - as ever - the sheer quality of the poems within, the consideration of this little book as an object of value is unmissable.

At the end of 2010, Ron and I went to Pittsburgh's annual Small Press Festival to have our minds blown by all that passion concentrated on two unbearably humid floors of an artspace in October. There I had the delirious and ill-contained pleasure of "meeting" the editors of Greying Ghost Press and Caketrain Press (bumbled is a more honest description), two of my favorite things happening in the world. They are also two excellent examples of what disparate directions one can take chapbook production.

Among the many Caketrain titles I was swayed by, afterpastures by Claire Hero was the one reinforced by a recommendation from Ron, whose editorial eye I trust. Caketrain's chapbooks are released according to annual contests that alternate fiction and poetry every other year. 2007's prize went to Hero's poetry. Caketrain's titles are perfectly bound - the variety of binding most people are used to, with neatly folded stacks of paper pressed into each other, belying the wild images within. This method of binding enables Caketrain chapbooks to span forty to eighty pages.

I wish I could remember what I traded in order to own the Tornado is Not a Surrealist by Brian Foley, from Greying Ghost Press. From 2008, number eleven of seventy-five is mine, and the poem "Ahem" is committed to memory. Although it isn't as representative of the paper ephemera that makes Greying Ghost titles so relentlessly stunning, it reinforces that beneath the special moves allowed by cheapness of production and the intimacy of a run of only seventy-five, publications of any sort are about being a vessel.

Once I was fully opened to the phenomenon of the chapbook, my affection for the "form" has intensified, and it is the tiny books that stand out to me as stars that I will discuss in the next installment of Very Literary.

Published in Very Literary: A community blog

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