Sunday, June 12, 2011

Chapbooks & Starbucks

A flare from the publisher this week: Poems from the Boatyard is next up in the printer’s queue! Inching forward…

In the meantime, how about a little history on the humble and darling chapbook?

Chapbooks have a long and illustrious career in poetry-dom. Records go as far back as 1553 of “a man offering a scurrilous ballad ‘maistres mass’ at an alehouse, and a pedlar selling ‘lytle books’ to people, including a patcher of old clothes...”

These peddlers—or “chapmen,” from whom the term “chapbook” is derived—were itinerant in England and Scotland. Traveling from town to town, they peddled their small books—pamphlets, political and religious tracts, penny songs, nursery rhymes, poetry, folk tales, children’s literature and almanacs—in bars, by-ways and street corners, for a few pence each. Some of our most culturally embedded stories began life as a chapbook: Tom Thumb, Mother Hubbard, and Jack the Giant Killer. Abridged forms of Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe circulated.

The chapbooks were simply constructed, and might have been just a single page, or a multi-page fold-over, up to a 24-page booklet, usually with a woodcut design on the cover. Obviously they didn’t last long in that ephemeral state, and because paper was expensive, they might have ended up as wrapping paper, for baking, or, um, "bum fodder" (i.e., toilet paper).

Chapbooks were traditionally illustrated with crude woodcuts, and they captured the imagination from the 16th C. right up until now, with poetry become more popularized through poetry slams and indie publishing. Chapbook publishers, contests, and grants support this popular form, as cozy and comfortable as the coffeehouses they are more likely to be found in than the big box store. I can’t believe Starbucks isn’t on this. Hmmm…

Today, chapbooks can be hand-made, self-published, a low-cost limited edition press run (like mine), or expensive, special edition works of art. They seem to inspire the artist in each poet, and come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, saddle-stitched, stapled, or silkscreened, very often with a woodcut, but just as likely to have some original artwork from the poet or a friend.

I say we mobilize and harass Starbucks to get on the ball! Click here and tell 'em you want to see poetry chapbooks! You might have to create an account, but that’s cool—you'll get a free cup of coffee on your birthday...and, if they bite, you can take pride in knowing that you have helped launch a cultural phenonmenon!

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