Let’s talk Chapbooks!

Words by Benjamin Solah

‘Chapbook’ was a term I first heard amongst the poetry scene after arriving at a poetry gig in Melbourne a few years back, probably when Michael Reynolds gave some away as part of his raffle to help pay the wonderful poets at Passionate Tongues. At first, it confused me as I’d associated it with ‘chapter books’ and poetry ‘chapbooks’ rarely have chapters, but whether you call them zines or chapbooks, the petite size, accessibility and DIY nature of many chapbooks is appealing, and for me, one of my favourite ways of reading poets work after seeing them live on stage.

Last year, I’d say, we had a bit of a boom with chapbooks in Melbourne, and self-publishing of poetry books in general. Well, not just books, but CDs and albums as well. I’d always loved that about Melbourne poetry. The grassroots nature of poets themselves – running gigs for each other and the communal nature of writing poetry and performing it – fits well with things like chapbooks as a way of getting your writing out there, especially inside of Melbourne.

I produced a chapbook, broken bodies shortly after Carrie Hagan released her chapbook, Charcoal and Red Lipstick. We did it in similar ways, both printing them in bulk at a local printers with soft(ish) covers and the best bit was they were relatively easy to sell. Going around to gigs, doing features, reading on the open stages, is pretty conducive to selling books, unlike my previous experiments with self-publishing which involved reaching out to the daunting and easy to be ignored world of the internet, where anyone can put something out there and hope someone buys it, but the audiences of poetry gigs often love to take something more home with them after seeing a local poet or touring poet perform on stage.

Jacky T’s chapbook, Things I See Around Brunswick was a light and fun take on the chapbook, printed at home, and containing freestyle poems, totally untouched, and given to us raw.

And before all that, Koraly Dimitriadis’ chapbook, Love and Fuck Poems led to it becoming a book. Before 2013, and certainly into 2014, chapbooks will hopefully remain a way to access poetry easily and cheaply. I’ve heard from poets who’ve been around for much longer than me that’s chapbooks are an ongoing tradition and even seen some of the series of the Melbourne Poets Union have produced. I would love to hear more about how that tradition came to be, and some of the ways in which they sold their chapbooks.

In the past, Melbourne Spoken Word have tried to sell a range of poets’ work as a whole at various literary festivals around Melbourne, with varying degrees of success, but we hope some spirit of collaboration can continue into 2014 and we’d encourage poets to produce chapbooks, nice samples of what we have to offer, into 2014.

Our advice on how to approach it would to not feel the need to make it too grand, a few poems, definitely no more than 20, will do, and it doesn’t need to look all professionally printed. You can get creative or out there if you like, but some people just want to read a little bit of poetry. Let’s give it to them!

Annie Solah