Very Literary: A community blog

Small press book reviews and local author interviews

On Chapbooks, Part Two

Written by Kari Larsen, Community blogger | Jul 17, 2012 12:09 AM

I have not amassed chapbboks bindly: my love of them developed between graduating from college and looking for a job. Even though a part of the attraction is their comparable cheapness, the chapbooks in my possession came to me on their own individual terms. Each one I accumulate demonstrates another facet of my affection for books as physical objects. In the last (proper) installment of Very Literary, I discussed my introduction to chapbooks, and here I would like to maneuver the spotlight onto more titles that have cemented my love of the form.

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Joanna Howard's In the Colorless Round, with illustrations by Rikki Ducornet, was a 2006 release from Noemi Press. Squat and bolted, ten tiny episodes of Howard's dapper horrors are accompanied by illustrations by Ducornet with the same unsettling blend of the vague and the exaggerated.

Paradigm Press' 2000 print of Rosmarie Waldrop's Shorter American Memory came to my attention in a Poetry Foundation podcast for which I am very grateful - there's scant information about it online (my primary means of becoming aware of anything) but there is this excerpt - "Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence" - on the Poetry Foundation's website. This modest, saddle-stitched chapbook with a uniform stamp at the top of each poem enticed me to purchase it because I had encountered a great deal of chapbooks by budding writers, amassing pieces into larger work or casting a spotlight on an ongoing project to promote its forthcoming publication. Rosmarie Walrop is a very accomplished poet, and for one with such a staggering ouevre, a slim selection focused on a single - and singularly handled - theme was the perfect proper introduction to her work.

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Before I read the Cabinet of What You Don't See by Tantra Bensko, from ISMs Press, 2011, I contacted Tantra about attending a conference in San Diego, &Now: Tomorrowland Forever! Between our planning the trip and meeting up in California, I became an Assistant Editor with ISMs, having also been an author of editor Rachel Kendall's via her journal, Sein und Werden. Tantra's Cabinet is an assortment, an appropriate term for a lot of chabooks, which serve - if they are not necessarily intended - to be a sampling of work, since its components are to small and do not last for such a duration as to become immersive. But even in the glints, which are surreal not in the way of existing in a loosely defined reality, but warped by the force of the telling, even in their smallness, the warmth of Tantra's voice pervades, and each outrageous observation is borne of a wisdom that comes from love, which is totally inimitable.

The Belladonna* Collaborative's 2011 release, its hundred and twenty-seventh, of Bhanu Kapil's (a poem essay, or precursor: NOTES: for a novel: Ban en Banlieues) is a pamphlet-like promotional tool for a PROSE EVENT, curated by Kate Zambreno for the Collaborative. Belladonna* promotes the work of women writers, and their "chaplets" are under $5. Thanks to this - and their irresistable catalog - I own several, but I want to call attention to Kapil's because I love her relentless interrogation of process. All her work is so intimate, even as it experiences so much ambivalence within itself, and the image around which "Ban" is based - an Indian girl, lying down on the sidewalk, a race riot coming up fast - is arresting. In my eagerness for the whole book, I devoured this pamphlet.

E! Entertainment by Kate Durbin, which came out on Insert Press in 2011, of which I have number 8 of 50, has a blurb from a reality TV star and a section on Anna Nicole Smith, and if I wasn't a serious fan of Durbin's - whose observation about chapbooks can be read in the previous installment of Very Literary - I would have to have this little book. Saddle-stitched, white, it is deceptively simple-looking, and I appreciate nothing interfering with the text. To have Durbin's stern eyes and intense, level voice present in the experience of the work, at least in the mind, adds to E! not as a piece of writing but as a text that is a layer of reality, with its source and its audience as important as its content.

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Joyelle McSweeney's the Necropastoral, from Spork Press, 2011, was bound with "gloom, goth, ghosts, smoke, & trees" and now relies on my embrace for its structural integrity. The design of this book and the contents of this book are bandying a call-and-response about their own brilliance that I am lucky to happen to see. McSweeney is another writer, like Waldrop, whose work I admired but wanted to be introduced to in some form that would not struggle against the profound weariness I generate like a little cyclone throwing myself very hard into work and very hard into rest.

The Pastoral, like the occult, has always been a fraud, a counterfeit, an invention, an anachronism. However, as with the occult, and as with Art itself, the fraudulence of the pastoral is in direct proportion to its uncanny powers.


I could say the book is made of a small essay, a sequence of poems, and an effigy. I could say the back is debossed. No mere description captures this book that omits the Warholesque Eazy E pattern on the inside covers: a stroke of total genius.

In this heat, even an unassuming chapbook might be too much to handle, but that doesn't mean one should foresake good writing in order to avoid sunstroke. In the next installment of Very Literary, I will be navigating literary Twitter feeds because the Internet constantly has to be written.

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