Poets Helping Poets: What Makes a Great Chapbook?

In anticipation of the November PAD Challenge (which starts Saturday!), I threw out the above question to members of the Poetic Asides group on FaceBook: What makes a great chapbook?

Here’s what some of them had to say:

An interesting mix of poems on the same theme, not always by the same writer but with visable threads which tie each piece together or take the reader on a journey, turning the page again and again.


Sue Forde




I think that a great chapbook is written around a theme and its variations. That theme might be the subject, the place, the people in the poem, a primary metaphor.


The variations might even involve different forms, different rhythms–a different sense of momentum.


And the whole chapbook builds on an emotional arc (it may even build along a narrative arc, if that fits the theme).


Granted, neither of my chapbooks reflects that thinking, although parts of them do. But this is the way I’m writing and developing chapbooks now.


Joannie Stangeland




A chapbook is a universe, and the poet is the solar designer. The planets and moons, no matter how far out, need to follow their own laws of gravity. From the quark to the gravitational force, it needs to make sense to the poet or editor, even if it remains a mystery for the audience.


Jesse Loren




Consistency of vision: a motiff, a strong extended metaphor. Kinda like making a kick ass mix tape.


Scott Whitaker




Here are some thoughts:


1.) Excellent writing, whether for poetry or prose; 2.) a good editor who knows how to place individual pieces together which work in harmony and add cohesiveness to the project; 3.) having an understanding the audience of the chapbook and knowing whether the intent is to entertain, inform, enlighten and/or give some cause for pause.


It helps to have a nice cover too, to initially attract an audience, but the work has to stand on its own once the cover is opened.


Rj Clarken




A great chapbook: when the poems taken as a whole allow the book to function as the final poem of the collection. I think I’m plagarizing Robert Frost here.


Charlie Cote




I think with a chapbook you should either go the route of trying for as much variety as possible, to show your full range. The danger with this can be the tendency towards being uneven.


The other option is to go the total opposite and have a unifying theme, build it so it is more like a concept album with each poem exploring facets of a larger idea. This runs the risk of going in the total opposite and having everything too samey.


I think sort the framework out and then kind of forget about it and just concentrate on the individual poems.


Paul Grimsley




After having read dozens of chapbooks, and sent out numerous versions of chapbook manuscripts, some as sort of a variety pack, and some ordered so that there was a definitive narrative arc, I have determined that what works best and what most editors (and readers) seem to be looking for are collections that focus on a single theme.


Because they’re small, they are easily read in one sitting, so a series of linked poems — sonnets that explore the complicated relationship with the body, an abecedarian where each poem interrogates a single letter, a series of ekphrastic poems — is a great way to go.


My chapbook Small Fruit Songs is a series of poems written on a single theme in a single form: fruit-related prose poems. Once I had the concept in place, I wrote the whole thing in under a week, and the first publisher I sent it to accepted it within just a couple of days.


Cati Porter




A chapbook is an opportunity to focus, and every good chapbook I’ve read had a clear theme or stance, typically with an arc of development. As a small press publisher, I find that thematic development and careful arrangement is what makes a manuscript submission rise above, as opposed to the seemingly random compilation of a selection of one’s poems.


In journalism, feature articles (as opposed to hard news) often hang on a “news peg,” or something that connects the feature to current events in everyday life. It’s a hook, and functions just like the musical hook in a pop song. As long as it remains intelligent and avoids excess gimmickry, I think the concept of chapbook should do the same.


Nancy Pagh won the 2008 Floating Bridge Press chapbook contest with her collection After, with each poem being written “after” a particular poet. Each spread starts with the epigraph on a left-hand page, with the poem on the right, so the idea is abundantly clear. That’s the hook, the concept. In a way, it’s like an invented bucket (or drawer) that readers can categorize the book into, thus making the book more accessible. The real substance is deeper, of course, and in Nancy’s case it’s the emotional sway that underpins the poems in their darkness and fearless grit.


The art of chapbooks, of course, is the limitless pursuit of different ways to create an original theme, a hook, a stance, finding the right balance between intrigue and challenge while avoiding facile or cliched gimmickry. A good chapbook not only has solid poems, but often has an idea behind their assembly that makes me wonder “Why didn’t I think of that!”


Michael Dylan Welch




A great chapbook excerpts the general aesthetic of the author, while allowing a little leeway for them to explore either something new, like style or form, or topical that might not fill a book. I would argue it’s not a “teaser” or a “taste,” rather, a chapbook is a complete and individual, shorter work that may appear, in whole or in parts, in a larger body of work later.


Todd Dillard




I’ve just become Co-director of Flarestack Poets, a new incarnation of Flarestack Publishing which has a reputation for producing some of the best chapbooks (or pamphlets as we tend to call them in the UK) in Britain. Here’s the statement we put together that explains what we think makes a great chapbook:


We’re looking for poetry that dares outside current trends, even against the grain… collections that aren’t bus queues or greatest hits albums from poets who are forging their own linguistic connections with the root-ball of experience.


Jacqui Rowe




Content (especially poems or prose pieces that work together to form a whole) coupled with design. A chapbook should feel good in the palm of your hand, should look good sitting on the edge of your desk.


Corey Mesler




This is an interesting question since I will soon be judging a chapbook contest for Rosemetal Press. I’m interested in reading your summary post to get some insights.


The challenge I faced in putting together my own chapbook manuscript (I Call This Flirting, Flume Press 04) was fighting against the brevity of the form. My first stabs at ordering the short-shorts (it’s flash fiction, not poetry) made the book read like running water. You just zipped right through with no stopping points. In this way, the early drafts seemed neutral as a whole. I was trying too hard to make it “flow.” It didn’t work.


I decided to break it up into sections–putting in resting points as it were. The section break pages each quote a made-up fortune cookie fortune… The sections are thematic but not obviously so. After I did this, the chapbook seemed longer and fuller. I also frontloaded it with the most powerful work (in my opinion, of course) leading the chapbook.


Unlike a novel or a full-length collection of poetry or stories, I think with a chapbook you have less time to build momentum. So your challenge is to artificially create the kind of depth a reader experiences with a longer work. A chapbook invites an all-in-one-sitting reading so I guess that ups the reader expectation in a way…


When I love a chapbook, there’s a kind of resonance and completion when I hit the last page. It makes me want to look the whole little book over again, amazed that it’s so short but seems long. I want to think about it, and then pick and choose favorites as I reread–not in order–the second time.


Sherrie Flick




A great chapbook, to me, connects in some kind of way. It doesn’t have to be a theme, but something weaves them together. Maybe it can be a chapbook about, say, a relative, and all the poems mention that relative and it can be titled after that relative. Also, chapbooks should be short (like 10-20 pages) and consist of the BEST poems, no fillers. Not poems that can’t stand on their own.


Melissa McEwen




Stature: If it has the stature of a book, it is a great chapbook.


Sally Evans



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7 thoughts on “Poets Helping Poets: What Makes a Great Chapbook?

  1. Jim Knowles

    I do see themed books that keep things rolling,
    provide some drive and consistency.
    A theme is a lot less likely to get overused
    in a chap than in a full-sized. That’s a
    good measure…love what you’re doing. If
    you get lost in it, someone else may too.
    I suppose in a large total collection you
    can discover themes that have followed you
    around. Finding and following one theme around
    could be great.

  2. Steve LaVoie

    Yeah I guess randomness could be a theme in itself. 🙂 One of the reasons I chose to write poetry is because I feel it allows me to explore many topics. But hey, if other poets enjoy having a theme in mind when they make a chapbook then thats perfectly fine. As long as you enjoy and love what you’re doing then you’re doing right is what I believe.

  3. Jim Knowles

    Interesting. The "Magnum Opus in 24 pages" idea.
    Consider the challenge, given variations in likes.
    I thought about what I like as a collector, as
    an actual buyer, rather than as a writer, and
    it came out different. More personal, quirky,
    and enjoyable. To each there own. The ones
    with personality will stand out all the more.
    Just a thought about putting one’s self on the
    other side of the couch for a change.
    The "greatest hits" might actually achieve some of
    that, Cati, if you go by live audience response.
    Readings or open mics tend to strongly prefer
    individual flavor and character. I shall consider that.
    Pilot readers are very valuable too.

  4. Cati Porter

    Hi Robert,

    Thanks for including my thoughts in your post today! I’d like to take just a moment more to address a concern brought up by Steve.

    Steve, speaking only for myself in regards to my comment above, I didn’t mean to imply that a chapbook should lack variation; I think you can have a multitude of takes on the same subject, and each of those takes could be shaped in entirely new and different ways. As poets, I think we all tend to obsess over one thing or another and write until we’ve burned through it. Compiling all those takes into one chapbook can show the trajectory of an exploration of a theme.

    However, I do think the "greatest hits" approach can be a good way to go if you have a set of poems that you regularly read and get a good audience response from; it can show your range as a poet.

    But that, too, is a sort of theme, isn’t it? 😉

  5. Steve LaVoie

    Personally I”m not a supporter of having one theme across a whole chapbook. Now granted we all write about how we truly feel about life or whatever else and it will also pop in whatever we write somewhere, but I don’t see why one should limit oneself to trying to purposely tie 20 poems together. We should all strive for at least a little variation in our work. Leave it up to the reader to use his/her brain to piece them all together if they want to. That’s just my two cents.


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