A chapbook is a short (10–30 poems) collection of poems with a unifying principle, theme, question, or experience. A chapbook can be a site for a poet’s obsessions. It can be their calling card, connect them with others, grant them legitimacy, and even serve as a stepping stone to a full-length collection.
What began as a cheap, DIY way of sharing (often political or revolutionary) ideas defined by its ability to be quickly produced and distributed has grown into a unique form of book art, often involving letterpress, high-quality paper, hand or saddle-stitched binding, limited print runs, and other design elements and details not often seen in traditional-length books.
Here is a mini-roadmap to creating your own chapbook!
1. Become a student of the chapbook.
If you’re serious about writing a chapbook, now is the time to get serious about reading them. Take notes while you read on choices the writer makes, especially repeated choices and choices that surprise you. Pay attention to both micro-level choices (language, tone, line length, use of white space, etc) and macro-level choices (section titles, overall order, emotional trajectory, tone and style shifts, moments of tension, etc).
Besides its shorter length, what makes a collection of poems a chapbook and not something else? What makes a chapbook compelling? You want to develop your own theory in response to these questions.
A good place to start? Entropy curates a list every three months of places to submit, including a robust list of chapbook presses and contests. This is not only a useful tool to help you find places to submit your chapbook when it’s ready, but you can also use this list to FIND chapbooks previously published by these venues. Trish Hopkinson also compiled a list of chapbook publishers, which you can find here.
2. Listen to what you’re already saying to the world.
I’ve heard a number of writers say that they want to write a chapbook but they aren’t sure what the theme should be. As writers, we’re all already haunted by certain themes and obsessions.
To begin, gather together the most recent 20–30 poems you’ve written. Read all of them in chronological order. Take notes on repeated images, metaphors, characters, words, themes, etc. Mix them up in a random order. Read them again. Next, map out the mythology you’ve already been creating, noticing where there are gaps that you could fill in with new poems.
Finally, don’t let the theme suffocate surprise. The ordering concept around a chapbook doesn’t have to be literal or strict. Emotion can theme a chapbook. Much like a poem itself, the chapbook should unfold as it is being composed. Surprise and challenge yourself, as well as your future readers.
3. Pretend you’re making your crush a mixtape.
This is my favorite part about creating a chapbook: arrangement. And it is serious business.
Now that you have all these poems, print them out. Place them on the floor of your bedroom. Move them around. Start with the strongest poem. As in, start with the one that kicks down the door, as Jeanann Verlee once said to me. Then create an emotional trajectory, as if you’re making a mixtape for your sixteen year old crush (hey, Tim).
What is the journey? Where do we start? Where do we end? How do we get there? Don’t be afraid to kick out your boring poems, even if they’re your personal darlings. A chapbook is distilled intensity.
As for the ending, pick the poem that will leave the mixtape listener crying in their parked car in the rain as the playlist comes to an end.
Want more? Sign up for Caitlin’s six-session Write a Chapbook course, which starts February 9.
Caitlin Scarano is a poet based in Washington state. She is a PhD candidate in English/Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She was recently selected as a participant in the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists & Writers Program, and deployed to McMurdo Station in Antarctica in Fall 2018. Her debut collection of poems, Do Not Bring Him Water, was released in Fall 2017 by Write Bloody Publishing. Caitlin has an MA in College Student Personnel from Bowling Green State University and an MFA in Poetry from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She has two poetry chapbooks: The White Dog Year (dancing girl press, 2015) and The Salt and Shadow Coiled (Zoo Cake Press, 2015). Her recent work can be found in Granta, Crazyhorse, and Ninth Letter.