Chapbooks are just short books—these days around 15 to 40 pages long. Inside can be any genre of literature (poetry, fiction, nonfiction…), but chapbooks are particularly popular in the poetry world today. Since poems are often much shorter than stories or essays, collecting poems into a shorter volume is just easier to do.
So what’s the value of a short book when we already have full-length books? Here I like to think about Edgar Allan Poe’s concept of the “unity of impression.”
In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe argues:
“If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed…. It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art—the limit of a single sitting….”
A piece of art that can be consumed in its entirety in one sitting is essentially different from one that requires more time. A poem, a painting, a ballet, a song, a movie—these all possess what Poe calls “unity of impression.” Chapbooks can also easily be read in one sitting.
So why does this matter? It has to do with, as Poe says, how “the affairs of the world interfere.” If you get up from the art you’re enjoying before it’s over, the spell breaks. The rules change. You’re rudely returned to a world of bills and to-do lists, of sickness and traffic, of what-am-I-going-to-eat-for-lunch-for-the-rest-of-my-life. (Not, of course, that art can’t touch on any of those things, but you see what I mean.)
Chapbooks, then, are a spell. They are a world unto themselves. They’re designed with a single sitting in mind.
I’ve also published two chapbooks. My first chapbook, Pulse, was published by Ghost City Press in 2018 and is available for free online here. My second and most recent chapbook, Facing the Mirror: An Essay, will be published in early July by independent press Coast|noCoast. Preorder your copy here!
A brief history
Chapbooks first rose in popularity because they were cheap and portable. For centuries in Europe, books had been accessible only for the most elite members of society, but in the late 1500s, the cost of printing was decreasing as literacy rates rose across Europe. The chapbook at this time was no more than a piece of paper or two folded small and stitched together, coverless, usually printed with folk songs or stories and even several artistic woodcut images.
The nonprofit Poets House has a terrific article from Kyle Waugh titled “History of the Chapbook” on the topic: “Etymologically speaking, ‘chap’ is related to ‘cheap’—from OE ceap, meaning ‘trade’—but most agree ‘chapbook’ is specifically derived from ‘chapman,’ the itinerant merchant who peddled like items across Europe, Britain, and North America from the 16th through the mid-19th centuries.” Eventually industrialization and laws against peddling would lead to the peddlers’ demise, but at the time, chapbooks were an important means of disseminating information as well as a fun pastime for many.
Chapbooks saw a resurgence in popularity in the 20th century through poetry, when they became a beloved form for modernists, Dadaists, and the avant-garde. Today, the legacy of the chapbook lives on not just in creative writing chapbooks, but in comics and zines as well.
A few tips if you’re interested in writing a chapbook
If you’re considering putting together a poetry chapbook, congratulations! Seeing your poems begin to interact with one another in a collective way is an exciting and hard-earned place to be.
If you haven’t already begun to do so, start reading some poetry chapbooks. Chapbooks are their own form, and they have a different kind of emotional arc than an individual poem or full-length collection does. Free poetry chapbooks are available online through Ghost City Press and Sundress Publications.
Two recent blog posts I like that give more information about how to assemble a chapbook are “How to Write a Badass Poetry Chapbook in 3 Steps” by Caitlin Scarano and “Crafting a Small Poetry Collection: How to Select Poems for a Chapbook” by Holly Lyn Walrath.
If you’re ready to submit your chapbook for publication and want to find good chapbook publishers, there are already good Twitter threads on this topic, like this one started by poet Aimee Nezhukumatathill. Poet Trish Hopkinson, whose blog is amazing if you haven’t checked it out already, published a post a few years ago on no-fee chapbook publishers that’s slightly outdated but still useful. One of my favorite resources for getting published generally is Entropy Mag‘s “Where to Submit” page, which is updated every quarter so the information posted is always current. The page is split into sections, one of which is chapbooks. Here’s the June-July-August 2021 page.
Let me know if you have a question about chapbooks that I didn’t address here. I hope this has been helpful for you! Happy reading.