Meghan Brinson is the author of two chapbooks, including Fragrant Inferno.
Chapbooks: Pocket-Sized Powerhouses
by Meghan Brinson
The literary chapbook is a strange thing, struggling with legitimacy and tightrope walking between artistic freedom and out-of-the-loop pathos. The form’s roots lie in the need to produce cheap copies of tracts, songs, and children’s stories for the masses; collectors struggle to find rare copies because these little pamphlets were most likely used for toilet paper.
And yet literary chapbooks have become a real phenomenon. The modernists used them in the early part of the 20th century, the counterculture of the 60’s relied on them, including Allen Ginsberg to publish Howl, and as the poetry establishment teetered toward (and past) Y2K such luminaries as C.D. Wright and Frank Bidart have participated in the democratic art form. Bidart’s chapbook Music Like Dust was even nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
It’s true that anybody with a few bucks and a Kinko’s can put out a chapbook. And yet a little side publishing industry has sprouted up to support emerging poets and concept books that are struggling, for a number of reasons, to find a place among the super-competitive first book contests and the slush piles of underfunded literary presses. What are created by these chapbook contests and micro-presses are strange hybrids of traditionally vetted books and the full range of devil-may-care to super hand-crafted booklets that self-published chapbooks have long represented.
Chapbooks have become the venue of debut collections and interesting side projects. It’s an over-boiling pot of creative tidbits and new ideas, the experiments of established writers and the first buds of newbies. For example, C.D. Wright first featured a chapbook-length long poem, Deepstep Come Shining, in Black Warrior Review before the full-length book of the same title was published. Tony Hoagland has Hard Rain through the Hollyridge Press Chapbook Series, and Sarabande’s Quarternote Chapbook Series has published such poets as James Tate, Louis Gluck, Robert Pinske, and Jean Valentine, among others equally famous and fabulous.
Writer’s Digest and Blackbird have both taken up the subject of chapbooks. Blackbird, upon launching its mission to review chapbooks, offered a note of introduction by Susan Suttlemyre Williams
which mentions the organizational lessons chapbook collections have for those still struggling to finish/place that first elusive book manuscript. At the Writer’s Digest blog, Poetic Asides, Robert Lee Brewer poses the question “What makes a good chapbook,” and responses focused on the concept book, comparing it to a really great mix tape or a concept album. One poet, Cati Porter, describes her chapbook, a collection of prose poems about fruit.
These are the two roads that get most people into chapbook publishing, why most readers of chapbooks are fans, and what the poets get out of it even when they are well past the first book. One kind of chapbook is the mini-collection, the distillation of the (most-often) bookless poets. One of my chapbooks participates in this emerging (fine and blossoming) tradition, following happily in the footsteps of poets such as Denise Duhamel and Rita Dove who published chapbooks before their first books. I collected Broken Plums on the Sidewalk out of what I considered the best of my book-length manuscript, Mystery School, which I had sent out to a number of contests and managed to be a finalist in one. I picked poems that had been published and built up a nice acknowledgments page. I edited the collection toward a narrative arc, and although this interior, hard core of my much fluffier and happier master’s thesis depressed me, it rang with a clarity and brokenness that my larger manuscript had managed to mask, like the polite lie offered when a stranger asks “How are you,” on the day your grandma dies. This is the gift of the chapbook, a lesson contained in 20 or so pages as the poet sweats to whittle her work into a cohesive group. For me, Broken Plums on the Sidewalk offered me a new way to look at the whole collection, what it wanted to be and where it needed to go, and offered me a chance to truly edit the much gone-over manuscript into new life.
The second path, the concept book, is perhaps the most fun. The idea of writing a bunch of prose poems about fruit, or the equivalent, is a little transgressive, a little kooky. It has a built-in cohesiveness and, best of all, the project lends itself to generating writing quickly. My first concept chapbook was a final project for a modernism class. I wrote about 18 pages of poetry in two weeks. Fragrant Inferno is a response to the work of women poets who had rewritten myth, or written poems (like H.D) filled with alternative religious traditions. I had been reading the apocryphal Book of Enoch and found the idea of angels and humans interbreeding—and the idea that this transgression was the catalyst for civilization—totally intriguing. So I began the work of a totally perverse Genesis—God and Adam have no voice, only Eve, Lillith, the angels, and those who follow in their footsteps.
It was to the concept book that I turned when the editor at Puddinghouse asked me to send her a third manuscript to consider. In a month, I wrote 12 prose poems about monster movies and folklore. While the Puddinghouse editor ended up not accepting any of my manuscripts, they went on to win the 2009 Anabiosis Press Chapbook Contest and the 2009 Mississippi Valley Chapbook Competition, and the third manuscript-in-progress managed to get me three poems accepted in Copper Nickel.
I love chapbooks. They’re short enough not to get boring, they’re cheap, they’re either super-competitive, beautifully hand-crafted, or obscure. There’s a sense of counter-culture-ness about them that is invigorating, even when the poets are famous and established academics. Reading them, I’ve been inspired to participate, and each project, whether completed or simply tried out, has helped me write dozens more poems than I would have otherwise.
Meghan Brinson is from Charleston, SC. She holds an MFA in poetry from Arizona State University, where she was a teaching fellow to the University of Singapore and served as poetry editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. She has poems appearing or forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Puerto del Sol, The Greensboro Review, Bone Bouquet, and Copper Nickel. Her chapbooks, Broken Plums on the Sidewalk and Fragrant Inferno, will be available in January 2010. She is the editor of journal MisFit: A Journal of Long and Short Poems www.misfitlitmag.com, and MisFit blog, www.misfitlitmag.blogspot.com. She lives in Georgia with her husband and son. For more information, visit her website: www.meghanbrinson.com