Beyond Creativity Hubbub: Inspiration from Poetry Chapbook Publishers


At a busy intersection in Midtown, a man well over six feet tall with long wavy hair, tired eyes, a languid French accent, and a lavender suede jacket stuttered to two Asian women. “Oh, you want a DVD Blue Ray?” one of the women said. “Yes, yes, a blue ray, yes, that’s it,” he said as he continued to stutter in what struck me as intentionally broken English. I smelled a con and kept walking toward 34th Street to find CUNY’s Chapbook Festival.

I was curious if we creatives and enterprisers might learn a thing or two from a group you won’t read about in most books on creativity or creative enterprising – small publishers of poetry chapbooks. It seemed like as good a place as any to track wonder.

Not a block later, a guy plopped a CD on my chest. IT’S A GANGSTA MENAGE by C-BOY. My hand reached out for it before my rational processor could stop it.

“Yo, you want me to sign it for you,” said a smiling young man donning a puffy black jacket, wool cap, and Sharpie.

“What?” I said.

“Wait a minute! You a movie star or something? Should you be signing this for me?” he grinned.

Ah, New York City sidewalk flatterers. That I even stopped to engage him must have signaled I’m not hustling to and from work.

“Sure, sign it,” I said, knowing what was coming next.

His buddy strolled up and handed me “volume 2.” “We just two guys from Queens. Trying to live out our dreams. Whatever you can spare, whatever you dare, just give it up. Give us your house. Give us your car. Give us your boat. Or just give us a hundred.”

“I only have four houses,” I said, “and I can’t spare any of them.” They laughed. I gave them a five and two ones. “Peace!” they both said.

Not far from Midtown’s Times Square/Broadway booms and bangs, a few hundred poets and writers gathered for CUNY’s three-day chapbook festival.

Poetic language startles us out of our workaday stupor. Like a strange magnet, it attracts heart particles into new combinations. And small poetry publishers? Well, they’re strange magnets themselves. After all, three days to celebrate what is arguably the most populist literary form that is, I think, the early prototype of blogging, self-publishing, and all forms of alternative publishing. That’s remarkable by itself. TED Talks this is not.

The Chapbook? As Toadlily Press defines it, “a small but substantial collection of poems, ample enough to give a sense of a poet’s range and skill, concentrated enough for maximum effect.” But, really, the chapbook three hundred years ago might have included ballads and songs or political treatises.

For a couple of hours, I hovered around each of the 60 or so small publishers’ tables stationed mostly by people much younger, hipper, and quirkier than I. Still, I found what I was looking for: inspiration from an unlikely lot on how we can approach projects in fresh, authentic ways.

Sample (a.k.a. Steal with Attribution & Flair)

Among the den of grim-faced grad student-types behind the publishing tables, bug-eyed and ascot-wearing and Alice Cooper long-haired Joseph stood out. He waxed on his experimental digital projects, including an online project designed to be the equivalent of a publishing commons. On the website he’s creating, anyone can have published any previously published work that then can be used for mash-up, cut-up, remixing. No questions asked. (Imagine this article “cut up” into rearranged phrases and remixed in someone else’s poetry, and you get the gist.)

By necessity, by proclivity and by delight, we all quote. It is as difficult to appropriate the thoughts of others as it is to invent. That comment, or quotation (without the eyelash marks), comes from David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto – and Shields is quoting Emerson.

In his critique of 17th-century English dramatist Philip Massinger, T.S. Eliot writes, “One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”

I suspect by Eliot’s standards I’m a bad poet on many counts, but nonetheless Joseph reminded me benignly of the chapbooks’ namesake: Chapmen were 17-century rogues who often sold inexpensively made booklets. Give them a few cents, and they might pick your pocket. I dropped two bucks for a small book and secured my wallet.

So, steal. Or, rather, “re-mix” good work. But attribute.

Really: Could one of you write a blog post composed entirely of sections and quotations from other people’s blog articles? I dare you.

Honor the Material

A Greying Ghost book

Chapbook publishers love books. One-of-a-kind books. The book’s form itself often matters as much as the content. “This book felt spacious,” one publisher told me, “so we felt this book should be small and reflect that sensibility.” And indeed the book was about four inches by four inches in dimension with about four lines per page. Another book loomed with large comic book-sized print for the title. They like to call themselves “book makers” more than “publishers.”

Here’s a typical description from Greying Ghost Press’s website: “5.5 x 8 chapbook with cover folds. Each cover has been individually hand–stamped in four–color inks. Artwork wraps around the first fold. End papers are from an old 1950’s bookkeeper’s notebook. Printed, assembled, and bound in an edition of 90.”

Several of these publishers involve authors in every stage of the publishing – from choosing the paper, the font, the size.

I admire their care for material.

Books matter, the paper kind. One bookstore – Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop – is devoted entirely to independent, small, and chapbook publishers.

When was the last time you paid attention to the form of what you’re creating and how you’re creating it? Not just what you’re creating? Design involves so much more than color and shape and image alone. Designers like poets love lines and material for the sake of the material. Some of us could stand some of that abstracted love for non-materialistic material.

Love Language and its Limitations 

Many publishers lean toward the difficult, the sort of poetry that pisses off non-poets. Here’s a description of Jenny Husk’s book Vocalizes by Upset Press: “In the poems of Jenny Husk the world is a membrane words bounce against and poke into, skating on the scrim then delving below in quick sharp digs of fragment, image, and gut-punch. This work is ‘river dialogue.’…”

Still, in our word-frenzied world of blogging where clichés and hyperbole pass as truth, perhaps we occasionally need a Zen koan or a poet to rankle our tongues from thought-globules.  

It’s common wisdom among bloggers and online enterprisers not to fret about “perfection.” But that’s not a license to be careless or frivolous with how we use words.

Are you recognizing your material’s limits? Your words’ boundaries? Your proclivity for the pat?

Sing in a Quartet

Writing can be a lonely endeavor. But chapbook publishers love to collaborate and to get others to collaborate. Cooper Dillon Books put a comic illustrator to work for Clay Matthews’ playful sonnet sequence Pretty, Rooster (not officially a “chapbook”).

Artists who love words and writers who love art might find a home for another outlet among chapbook publishers.

Toadlily Press creates chapbook quartets. Each book presents four chapbooks in one. The press’s mission – through these quartets, readings, panels, and more – is to create community, collaboration, and conversation.

Argos Books focuses especially on bridging people of different cultures through collaboration and translation projects.

Many tribal authors tout their self-publishing wares. You might take inspiration to collaborate, create your own press with other creatives, or develop not-for-profit co-publishing endeavors. (Or you might take inspiration for a hugely profitable not-for-profit collaborative project from this creative fellow.)

Do What You Love (and forget whether the money follows)

It’s useful to step out of your normal way of writing and of thinking – and even useful to step away from your typical tribe and visit a new one. I found it utterly refreshing to spend a couple of hours at a conference where no one was exchanging business cards or making pitches about “what they do” or “who they serve.” And even for a group of poets, it was refreshing that no one seemed to be posturing or dropping names. The poetry world – like the marketing world, like the blogging world, like any world – can be incredibly small in every sense.

These people attended the festival because they loved language, loved books, and loved the material. And they wanted to meet and see other people who do likewise.

It’s true, after all, that burglary beats poetry when it comes to making money. I wish I had said that. But I must attribute it duly: Garrison Keillor.

Creative Rogues, All of Us

I left CUNY’s Graduate Center building and headed for the subway. At another Midtown intersection, the same tall French guy walked and talked and stuttered to another woman: “I am lookeeng fur eh, eh, eh, how you say, eh DVD player. Perhaps you ken help me.

I suppose we’re all trying to get by with a little help from our friends or strangers. And word! That’s what most of us employ to connect.

Long live the chapmen.

I think most of us need jolts from standard ways of thinking and of engaging language. And poets are primo lingo-jolters. It’s National Poetry Month in the United States, by the way. Tell us what poets you’re reading (or wish you had more time to read) these days and why. We’ll gather a list here at the Hut. And if you have some favorite small publishers, let us know that, too.

Poets I’m reading:
Clay Matthews, Pretty Rooster (Cooper Dillon Books)
Frances McCue, The Bled (Factory Hollow Press)
Matt Shears, 10,000 Wallpapers (Brooklyn Arts Press)
Lauren Russell, Dream-Clung, Gone (Brooklyn Arts Press)
D.M. Gordon, Nightly, at the Institute of the Possible (Hedgerow Books)
Tara Mohr, Your Other Names (Keep a look out for an upcoming interview with Tara.)

See you in the woods,

The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing (Monkfish 2008; Penguin Putnam 2004)
Tracking Wonder Blog at Psychology Today
Twitter Feed on creative momentum, wonder, & more: JeffreyDavis108




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