The word chapbook goes back to the early nineteenth century, and referred to little pamphlets carried around and hawked by itinerant peddlars who were often called chapmen. (The word chapman is far older, going back to about the ninth century) Some chapbooks were political or religious tracts, others were the works of cranks and would-be poets; "Jack the Giant Killer" got into circulation as one of these little books. My own first two "books" (which shall go nameless here) were chapbooks that I "published" when I was just past the age of about twenty. I worked with a printer (that is to say, a human being, not a company) to pick the paper, set the type, make the cover art, and hand assemble each copy. I sent one or the other to all sorts of folks who naturally ignored them, thank goodness, because although they looked pretty good, the poems were terrible. Some people wrote back polite notes, or kind ones; others fired back rude ones. My favorite response was from Hayden Carruth who wrote me, on the back of an official-looking Atlantic Monthly note card, to say that he would read the one I'd sent him as soon as he could find the time - I think it had a grand total of about six short poems in it!
Chapbooks are wonderful things, and I'm glad that after seeming to have vanished for a while, they've made a big comeback. Everybody should know the thrill of making, in every sense of the word, a book - even a small one. At the time of the above, I was pretty poor, making $8000 a year working in the back room of a library - but I wanted to print up my own poems, so I put my money where my mouth, so to speak, was. When you're paying a printer to set every word, to trim and print on each page, you have to think hard about how to edit yourself. It was the best part of my education in poetry because it taught me - literally - what a book was: I'd never thought about gatherings and signatures and bindings and trim size before... never even heard of such things.
One of the most unique kinds of chapbooks we have these days is the electronic kind - some are downloadable, some use page-turning features, and on and on. Boy, that's a long way from my stuffing envelopes and mailing out tiny pamphlets as if they were bottle-messages in dozens of postal oceans! There are many presses - Ugly Duckling is surely the best, bless them - that do things the grand old-fashioned way: long may they live! I'm pretty darn sure that such folks are going to keep the print culture of poetry going when the last corporate behemoth has breathed its heavy last. But I've been thrilled lately, too, with Andrew Lundwall's ingenious Scantily Clad Press. SCP books are tons of fun to flip through, and Andrew has a keen eye for what makes a chapbook, well, chap. The lineup already includes Tomaz Salamun, Brian Henry, Tony Triglio, Brooklyn Copeland, W.B. Keckler, Steven D. Schroeder, among others, and now, I'm thrilled to say, me!
Click here or on the snark for... The Traumatophile. (Warning: no flarf or conceptual content!)
As for those chapbooks I made as a young sprout - I got my hands on every copy I could get back and, well, they're now reincarnated as post-consumer recycled products. The bad thing about print and ink is... there's no delete key.