A Word on Wednesday: Chapbook

A few chapbooks in my collection by Wisconsin poets:
Jean Biegun, LaMoine MacLaughlin, and Stephen P. Mickey.

The noun chapbook was coined in the early Nineteenth Century by combining the words chapman and book. This small paperback book, oftentimes just a mere pamphlet, is likely as old as print itself.

Historically, it contained tales, ballads, or tracts sold by peddlers or merchants. Later, its content was narrowed to selections of short fiction or poems. The publication and its distribution fell out of favor.

Today, few prose writers create chapbooks.

Poets, however, remain drawn to the form as a vehicle to publish.

Typically, chapbooks are independently published. Although, there are imprints, such as Black Lawrence Press, that publish the peripheral collections.

The selection of poems is generally tied to a theme or a poetic form. Yet, there are no hard rules or guidelines. Some include illustrations; others don’t. Length varies from as few as fifteen to as many as thirty. The process of creating a chapbook allows a poet to think about the organization and merit of her verse.

Most writers were first poets — composing frenzied lines of free verse to purge an emotion or, more favorably, deliberately playing with language to capture a moment of truth.

Left raw, these drafts remain the practice of an amateur. Left alone, they lack context and purpose. Individual poems fall short of significance.

Working on a chapbook makes way for clarity by forcing discovery of a reason for the practice of writing at all. Each poem must be examined for precision and clarity. Tied with a unifying thread, chapbooks brand a poet’s observations and construction of thought.

Chapbooks indulge the poet’s audacity, allowing her to print her name on the cover and own the lines inside. These, inexpensive stapled sheets of paper, are bids for attention to a writer.

“See me. Notice me. Give my work a look.”

The peddler, cloaked in the smug light of literary culture, whispers politely those desperate pleas.

Disclosure: My first chapbook, “A Stop Along the Way,” will be released in early 2017.

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