On Chapbooks

On Chapbooks

Gwynn Scheltema

Covid messed with my creative mind back in April, bringing work on my mystery novel to a grinding halt. But the old adage of “when one window closes, another opens” proved to be creatively true for me. I dove back into poetry, which had been languishing somewhere in the back of the closet for some time.

Perhaps this short form was less overwhelming, or poetry was manageable in smaller chunks of time, but I suspect that it was more a case of emotions running higher than usual, and poetry being able to capture that state and be productive. Whatever the reason, the result is a file of 100 finished poems and a second file of about 60 poems in progress. Yay me!

My mission this year is to get an organized submission plan in play while I put together a full-length poetry collection ms. In my researching of current poetry markets, I was surprised at the number of presses that considered chapbooks. Hmmm… a chapbook would be quicker, but how would putting out a chapbook affect my ultimate goal of a full-length collection?

First Book Status

In poetry circles, you only get one “debut” book and there are contests and prizes that “debut” poetry collections qualify for. Fortunately, because chapbooks are considered not-quite-books by the publishing world, they don’t affect this status. Your first full -length collection is considered your debut book.

What makes a chapbook?

One Ticket Five Rides – anthology

Depending on the publisher, the general length runs from 15 to 30 pages of poems. Full manuscripts by comparison run on average between 40 to 80 pages of poems, but can be much longer. Full collections carry an ISBN and are marketed like any other trade book. Chapbooks can be trade books too, but often are part of the zine world, micro presses and self-published. As such, they seldom make it into the usual distribution channels.

Why publish a chapbook?

  • For the unpublished poet, it’s a chance to get publishing creds.
  • The process will prepare you for putting together a full collection.
  • A chapbook is a “safe” way to publish, because the work is not lost. You can publish it again in your collection.
  • You can take risks with a chapbook – give a chance to a new publisher, publish it yourself, create an artpiece.
  • A chapbook can keep you in the public eye in the time between publishing full poetry collections.
  • You need a home for perfectly good orphan poems that didn’t make it into a collection.

What goes into a chapbook?

If you think of a full collection as a bracelet of pea-sized red glass beads, a chapbook is not a ring-sized circle of miniature red beads; a chapbook is one magnificent red glass bead in all its glory, an orb of refracting light admired for its own beauty, whether or not it becomes part of a bracelet another time.

One poet friend embarked on a full-length collection project about a relationship in a particular Ontario locale. Although each poem stands alone, when read in order they tell the story of a summer and the growth and demise of the relationship. However, for a chapbook, she has extracted 15 poems that don’t focus on the relationship and don’t tell the relationship story, but which shed a spotlight on the geographic locale instead.

Another friend entered a chapbook suite in a contest and placed. Subsequently, he included the chapbook suite as one long poem in his full-length collection.

Yet another friend put together a chapbook of poems to raise money to help with her mother’s medical expenses. She wrote in her forward “I thought this chapbook was about my mom. It wasn’t until I put nearly everything together that I realized … it‘s about my experience of mourning the loss of my mother.”

A work of art

Given their small size and tight focus, chapbooks also lend themselves to becoming works of physical art. The chapbook I mentioned earlier about mourning the loss of a mother contained family photos, original artwork by the poet and was handstitched with red thread.

Container Books produce amazingly unique chapbooks that represent the contents: chapbooks as a View-Master reel and viewer toy, as a series of cross-stitch pillow kits, as tincture bottles with the text on the bottle labels. Other publishers offer special papers and bindings as varied and beautiful as the poems themselves.

Small but mighty

I’ve gained a new respect for chapbooks. I always thought of them as a trailer for the main event, but they are an event unto themselves. I think I’ll give it a try.