Little Red Corvette; or, In Praise of the Chapbook

“Cheap” book or “chap”ter-sized, whatever the origin of the word “chapbook,” it requires some ‘splainin’ to the non-poetry world, during which I invariably feel apologetic and defensive. “It is a book…sort of…I mean, it’s short, shorter than…well…it’s like….”

But I lament the short shrift given the chapbook, poor spineless thing with a funny name, shunned by bookstores, its pale staples lost on a shelf amid its bulkier brethren shouldering each other with their fancy colors and sideways words.

Not infrequently I find myself reading through a full length collection and think, hm, this one is filler, that one seems like it wandered in from another author, these aren’t half as good as the half dozen before, and other musings that take me away from the collection as a whole, and conclude that the volume I have in my hand would have made a damn fine chapbook.

A good chapbook packs a punch. It’s tidy, compelling, digestible. A good chapbook is a joy and inspiration, and leaves one wanting more…but just as happy not to have it. A good chapbook invites a second read.

Look at Nickole Brown’s fantastic To Those Who Were Our First Gods. When I say it’s a page-turner, I don’t mean I was eager to turn the page, but rather, I was eager to linger, and then to find out what the next page had to offer.

A chapbook by Frank Bidart was a finalist for the Pulitzer. But that was back in the early 2000s. I’m not sure any other chapbooks have received that much industry love.

In fact, calls for manuscripts are specifying longer and longer page counts. What a mistake! Maybe that’s for discerning editors to have some leeway to fling some poems out, which seems a wrong-headed, backwards way to find a good collection of poems to print. I cannot imagine any other reason for such a crazy notion, except that the poetry world seems intent on shooting itself in its own foot.

When barely comprehensible poems and poets are touted as the next big thing, it narrows and narrows the number of people who actually want to open a book of poetry, much less pay an increasing sum of money to buy a volume. (On the other hand, witness the rise of heart-on-the-sleeve stuff of slam and Instagram.)

The savvy publisher (thank you, Bright Hill Press, for example) is wise to reduce the dimensions of a chapbook, thereby increasing its page count, enabling the book producer to do a perfect-binding, that is, a binding that shows on the shelf, that proudly hails the title and author and the publishing house name.

In this time of short attention spans, isn’t the chapbook just the right thing — a subway ride, a coffee cup, and, if it’s the right size, shoved into the other back pocket where the cell phone isn’t. Plus a small size would make the book feel inviting even to the poetry-shy. Such a cunning little thing, this book of poems, approachable, nibble-able, something you can cup in your hands, a butterfly, a bird.

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