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Guest Post: Abigail Zimmer on chapbooks

One of my favorite things about the small press world is the creation of chapbooks. These are shorter books, usually between 15 and 40ish pages, and are often handmade and handbound. Whereas many full-length poetry books are a collection of poems, chapbooks frequently function as one long work: perhaps a continuous poem without breaks, or a narrative story told in poem form, or a fragmented lyric essay.

I love the DIY aesthetic chapbooks have, the limited editions they’re printed in, the idea of book as art object. And I love how a shorter form creates a constraint. There are limitations in writing and making a chapbook that don’t exist when writing a full-length book, but those challenges inspire more creative risks, more room to play.  

As a reader, I love that you can absorb a chapbook in one sitting, but that doesn’t mean they stay with you any less. One chapbook I’ve returned to often over the years is Hymn: An Ovulation by Mel Coyle and Jenn Marie Nunes. This long poem celebrates Hera, Greek goddess of women and marriage (she’s married to her brother) who’s supposed to be extremely jealous and vindictive, the first angry woman. In this piece, Hera is given the freedom to be loud, to tear up the city, to be unapologetic. “Hera swings her hysterectomy over her shoulder like a carpetbagger. hello world!” It’s funny and energetic with piercing moments of truth as even a goddess is not allowed to fully be who she is. After each line is the chorus “HUM < W > ME,” a chant inviting us into Hera’s “had enough” response. I first encountered this chapbook at a reading, where the two writers alternated lines and the audience joined in the continual chorus, inviting us all into the conversation of women’s anger as well as triumph in our own presence. I’m grateful this work is in the world (and while the beautiful handsewn copies of the chapbook are sold out, the work is still available online for free via Bloof Books).

In Nightshade, Elena Ailes attempts to “gather our collective attention.” She examines our perception of time, states of sleeping and wakefulness, and our intimacy with the human and non-human world. “To achieve this rupture in the perception of temporality, we will have to go to sleep,” she writes, “and to get to sleep we will talk gently of plants.” Here she delves into nightshades, vegetables and vegetativeness, the language of tomatoes and tobacco and toxins. Even the book itself is rooted in plantness. Made by Kastle Editions, the book’s cover is dyed in a bath of onion skins, then drizzled in beet dye, so that each cover blooms differently, all meant to fade over time.

m. forajter’s chapbook covera simple black box within a larger white boxechoes the interior, each page featuring a small box of text that runs ever on into the next page. In a first person internal monologue, White Deer explores a love affair, the question of shame and desire, knowledge of the body, the issue of control. Religion hangs over the speaker; the boxes on the page impose a rigid structure, but within them any thought/act/declaration is fair game as the speaker pursues love.

“i am terribly unhappy. should there be more shame in the declarative? who should be prettier? it is so hard to care. poor white boy on the train seems perturbed & boy is it hard not to cozy up to that chub. listen, if you are not a little bit sad you are not paying attention.”

Chapbooks are not just for poetry, of course. Rose Metal Press, publisher of hybrid works, released the winner of its 2017 flash fiction chapbook contest: The Passion of Woo and Isolde by Jennifer Tseng. These fictions are full of a strangeness and matter-of-factness reminiscent of Russell Edson’s and Francis Ponge’s prose poems. The title characters, Isolde, who saw a vision of the Virgin Mary as a child, and Woo, who reads poetry at every spare moment, are lovers who don’t speak the same language. The twenty-four pieces hang together as part of the same world, a world in which anything could and does happen: a woman wakes to find herself an old man, a mouse has a covenant with a lion, another woman’s life changes simply by crossing the street.

Anything can happen in a chapbook. I hope you find out.

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Abigail Zimmer is the author ogirls their tongues (Orange Monkey Publishing, 2017) and the chapbooks fearless as I seam (dancing girl press, 2014) and child in a winter house brightening (Tree Light Books, 2016), which received the Chicago Review of Books 2016 Poetry Award. She lives in Chicago where she is the poetry editor for The Lettered Streets Press. Her work has appeared in NightBlockGhost Ocean, The New Megaphone, and alice blue review, among others.