The chapbook, an abbreviated print format that originated with cheap, mass-produced pamphlets hawked by itinerant salesmen in the sixteenth century, is a staple of the modern-day poetry world. Like their historical predecessors, contemporary chapbooks are slim, portable objects, often affordably printed and produced, and devoted to shorter texts. But in part due to renewed cultural interest in bookmaking and in print as art, today’s chapbooks are no longer designed to be disposable penny affairs. Rather, they’ve evolved into a unique art form that has taken on a life of its own. Appearance-wise, chapbooks range widely. Most are saddle-bound, comprised of letter-sized sheets of paper folded into a single signature and stapled at the spine. But there are also perfect-bound chapbooks with machine-glued spines as well as painstakingly handmade editions that experiment with unusual trim sizes, letterpressed or screen-printed covers, and hand-stitched bindings. Modern chapbooks are available in multiple genres, but in today’s literary landscape, they’re perhaps most closely associated with poetry.
Within the world of contemporary poetry, chapbooks function a bit like short films do in cinema. They may sometimes serve as a preview of a longer work that is to come (especially for emerging poets who have yet to publish a full-length book), but they just as often serve as a unique space in which poets can experiment with new ideas, collaborate with one another, or create work in nontraditional or hybrid formats that would not fit well within the confines of a more traditional, full-length poetry book. What’s more, thanks to their petite size and short length, chapbooks can be wonderfully accessible points of entry for readers who are discovering contemporary poetry for the first time.
At Lantern Review, we love chapbooks. And because our mission is to highlight Asian American poetry, we are always on the lookout for great chapbooks by Asian American poets to share with our readers. In the spirit of our collaboration with the Bookbinders Museum this month, we’ve gathered together four titles that we enjoy as much for their physical beauty and attention to visual detail as for the captivating poetry within. If you’re looking for a short but excellent read this National Poetry Month, look no further, and if you attended the reading that Lantern Review co-hosted with the museum on the sixteenth, you’ll already be familiar with some of the names below!
Travel and Risk by Monica Mody (2010 | Wheelchair Party Press)
This lovely handmade chap has an edgy, ragtag vibe to it, as befits the DIY/underground spirit of the micropress that produced it. Its covers are bright and hard to miss, having been individually screen printed (using screens created with hand-cut stencils) in electric yellow ink on purple stock, and the text block itself has been trimmed into small, nearly pocket-sized squares and bound with staples. A cheeky romp in the conditional (nearly every line begins with “if”), the long poem that comprises Travel and Risk explores notions of agency, risk, and migration. Mody writes with skill and great attention to the music of her lines, rendering poetry that is imagistically sharp and sonically expansive. Travel and Risk is currently out of print, but an electronic edition is still available to Issuu subscribers here.
For the City that Nearly Broke Me by Barbara Jane Reyes (2012 | Aztlan Libre Press)
We were lucky enough to publish a sample of the project that became Barbara Jane Reyes’s For the City that Nearly Broke Me in the first issue of Lantern Review, and in 2012 our staff writer Jai Arun Ravine also had the opportunity to interview Reyes and to write a review of the published chapbook for our blog. A love song for two cities (Oakland and Manila) that simultaneously grapples with the legacies of colonialism and diaspora, this slim, incantational powerhouse of a volume features a gorgeous mixed-media illustration on its cover with text overlaid in a graffiti-style font, echoing the concerns of the poems within and nodding to the similar graffiti/tattoo-inspired design of Reyes’s previous full-length collection Diwata (BOA, 2010).
You Know Where You’ve Been By Where You End Up by Candy Shue (2011 | Rabbit Press)
Featuring a beautifully textured letterpressed jacket that comes in a variety of colors, dove-gray endpapers dotted with little flecks of metallic gold and silver, lush pages printed on ivory, watermarked paper, and a handsewn binding, this chapbook was designed, hand-pressed, and bound by the poet herself at the San Francisco Center for the Book. The cover art by Shue’s daughter, featuring a silhouette of a large, black bird beneath a tree hung with mirrors, nods to the theme of reflection/refraction/perception that runs throughout the chapbook and wonderfully complements the spare, sharply rendered poems enclosed therein.
Handmade Rabbit Society by Debbie Yee (2012 | Self Published)
Debbie Yee’s own description of this beautiful little chapbook says it all: Handmade Rabbit Society features “Bunny-sized meditations on pregnancy, birth and parenthood in a screenprinted, handbound volume.” In addition to being a crackerjack poet, Yee is a talented print artist who often works with Gocco screen printing, and her devotion to bookmaking and to the chapbook form itself shines in this volume. Featuring a rabbit-shaped shadow puppet illustration on its pale pink cover, Handmade Rabbit Society was designed to be distributed as a part of an exchange/pay-it-forward program to help promote awareness of other chapbooks by emerging writers. Yee obtained funding from the SF Arts Commission to print Handmade Rabbit Society in a limited run of 100 copies and was thus able to offer them not for traditional sale, but in exchange for postage and information from the potential reader about a chapbook by an emerging poet that they had purchased in the last eighteen months. She has since compiled the running list of information that she’s gathered into an evolving bibliography resource on her website: a perfect place to start for those who would like to get better acquainted with the chapbook form.
Want to find out more about the authors behind some of these chapbooks and their work? The Bookbinders Museum will feature more work by Monica Mody, Barbara Jane Reyes, Candy Shue, and Debbie Yee, along with poems by Jason Bayani and Brynn Saito, tomorrow, April 21st, during its National Poetry Month Third Thursday event. We hope you’ll come out and mingle with Lantern Review and ABM staff, view the poems on display in the gallery (two of which were directly inspired by the museum itself), ask questions, and share your thoughts with us in person and online. You’ll even have the chance to write, construct, and bind your own mini poetry chapbook to take home as a keepsake.
For more information on chapbooks by Asian American poets, please check out the Lantern Review blog. Our archives are full of reviews of chapbooks and interviews with chapbook authors, and we’ll be continuing the chapbook theme there next week with an interview with two-time chapbook authors Margaret Rhee and Chen Chen. In the meantime, we’d like to offer our thanks again to the American Bookbinders Museum for inviting us to contribute this roundup to their blog. We hope you’ll enjoy looking up some of the chapbooks that we’ve listed above and would love to hear about your own experiences with the chapbook form, as well as your recommendations for your own favorite chapbooks. Please visit us online at www.lanternreview.com and leave us a comment on our blog, or Tweet at Lantern Review (@LanternReview) and the Bookbinders Museum (@BkBindersMuseum) using the hashtag #LRatABM. Help us spread the chapbook love across the internet this National Poetry Month, one comment at a time!
Further Resources on the History of the Chapbook
Gordon, Noah Eli, “Considering Chapbooks: A Brief History of the Little Book,” from Jacket
Richardson, Ruth, “Chapbooks,” from the British Library website
Riedel, Sam, “Chapbooks: A Short History of the Short Book,” THEthe Poetry
Author bio: Iris A. Law is the editor of the online literary journal and blog Lantern Review, whose mission is to celebrate and highlight Asian American poetry. The author of a poetry chapbook, Periodicity, she lives, writes, and works in the South Bay.