Juliet Cook on the chapbook as ephemera, accolades, and the flock and fold of popularity

How do you define “chapbook”? And what is your sense of the history of the chapbook, its evolution, its current place in the poetry community, and its future iterations?

I think of chapbooks as being considerably shorter than full-length books – in the 10-40 page realm (15-30 page my ideal). I can’t remember exactly how and when I first became familiar with chapbooks, but probably back in my college days, when I was getting my BFA in Creative Writing. I know when I was younger, I was thrilled by ‘zines and I am still a fan of them, but to an extent I think that ‘zines have been semi-replicated in these bloggy-style days, because online access makes it easier for creative dash offs almost any time.

For me, chapbooks differ from ‘zines, because instead of being quick journal-eque dash offs, they are more like artsy, hand-designed small books with well executed, well written poetic innards. Rather than creative journal entries or rants, the content of chapbooks takes more time and effort and intensity to write and revise – and then create and design into chapbook format and make creatively alive/available.

For years, we’ve been hearing that online books are going to take over print books, but I don’t think that will ever fully happen, especially not when it comes to chapbooks, because there are so many different, unique entities in chapbook land. Yes, there’s online chapbooks – but with print chapbooks, there are so many different styles in terms of size, shape, color, texture, font, cover art, and innards. How they’re formatted, how they’re folded, how they’re stapled or ribbon bound or glossed. How and where they’re promoted, sold, traded or given away.

One good creative source through which I found out more about how stylistically diverse chapbooks can be is the Dusie Kollektiv, with which I became involved in 2008 (thanks to Susana Gardner for inviting me in). It’s a poetry group of 50-100 poets in which you create another member’s chapbook or your own chapbook (the details vary a bit each year) and then trade that chapbook with everyone else in the group. I was involved with chapbook trades with the Dusie Kollektiv in 2009, 2010, and 2011 and sure received a creative plethora of poetic content and poetry chapbook design styles.

In Wayne Miller’s essay “Chapbooks: Democratic Ephemera” he argues that chapbooks began reappearing with the Beats “as an affordable way to broaden the poetic playing field” (4) and then articulates four categories of chapbooks: 1) the experimental; 2) the collection by a poet “who is in the process of trying to refined and publish a first full-length book” (6); 3) a cohesive work that is chapbook length; and 4) “bad work that can’t find any other place to be published” (6). Miller also notes that chapbooks are “ephemera” (6) and we “shouldn’t think that a chapbook is a real book publication” (6). I’m wondering if you agree with Miller’s categories or if you would add others? As a chapbook publisher yourself, do you think chapbooks are real publications or imaginary ones?

I definitely think chapbooks are real publications. How could they be imaginary? Millions of them exist in many locations and many styles.

I don’t view poetry as a “playing field” nor do I try to narrow down its definitions into a few set categories, so I think Wayne Miller and I have very different styles of perception. I don’t like to perceive or explain poetry stuff into set groupings. Poetic styles and approaches have so many different varieties – and what is the deal with trying to define millions of different poets into four categories? Such narrowed down perceptions don’t make a great deal of sense to me.

I guess all of his categories exit on some level, but the only one that I relate to is the “cohesive work that is chapbook length”.

I personally very much disagree with “bad work that couldn’t find any other place to be published”. That doesn’t make sense to me, because it’s not as if chapbooks are easily accepted for publication. Granted, one can choose to publish her own chapbook – but one can also choose to self-publish a full-length.

I also personally disagree with the chapbook being categorized as a “collection by a poet who is in the process of trying to refine and publish a first full-length book”. Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone, so maybe some people think of them that way – but I know of lots of poets who continue creating/submitting/publishing chapbooks after they’ve had a full-length book published. I had my first full-length book published in late 2008; had some chapbooks of mine that I had self-published through my Blood Pudding and some chapbooks published by other small presses prior to that – but then following my first full-length book being published, I specifically chose to focus solely on chapbooks for a few years after that. I didn’t even start thinking about assembling my second full-length manuscript until late 2010.

I also disagree with the first definition, because even though chapbooks might be experimental to some, I think that usually relates primarily to their poetic content and/or design style; not experimenting with publishing/being published and then moving into the full-length realm, because now you’re better or more important than chapbook land.

It is true that shorter length collections can be more affordable (to make and to purchase), but that doesn’t mean they’re easier or quicker to create. In fact, many chapbooks are more uniquely, specifically, creatively hand-designed than most standard full-length books. Hand-crafted art is not simply a dreamy little experiment before moving forward to something bigger. Bigger does not automatically equal better or more important or more in-depth.

As far as ephemera goes, I don’t think chapbooks are specifically created to only be useful/important for a short time. Granted, since they’re shorter than full-length books, they tend to be a quicker read than full-length books – but other than that, I don’t think there’s much of a difference about how some books will be read once and that’s it, whereas other will be read and re-read and kept in the readers head for a very long time. I think whether or not reading material is ephemeras is more based on the reader’s style – not on whether it’s a chapbook or a full-length.

There are tons of different styles of chapbooks; some are very personal and/or in-depth and/or intense and I don’t see how that equates to quick ephemeral dash off, rip out, pitch – but perhaps it could relate to the sort of ephemera where those artistic innards help create artistic expressions in the readers mind, which then lead towards another creation of unique art.

I like thinking of poetry ephemera that way. Art that mentally leads towards other art.

Bryon Brower argues in “Articles of Chap” that chapbooks are a building block or a tool as the poet professionalizes. He writes, “The chapbook is simply a tool for the poet, which ultimately becomes inconsequential if the poet fails.” I’m curious about failure and what constitutes failure in a poet’s career. I asked my introductory poetry students last week how many of them watched or read Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem. None of them had. One the first day of class, I asked them if they’d heard of or read some of the poets we were reading that term—Li-Young Lee, Sherman Alexie, Grace Bauer, Elizabeth Bishop, Natasha Trethewey. They hadn’t. Is that failure—not being known by young people in the same way as writers like E. L. James, Suzanne Collins, J. K. Rowling, Dr. Seuss (several of them named Dr. Seuss as a favorite poet). What constitutes failure? Are chapbooks not success? Are books not success? Is being asked to read the inaugural poem not success? Serving as poet laureate? Winning the Pulitzer? Having an Elementary School named after you (we have Kooser Elementary School here in Lincoln now)? As a poet, how do you see chapbooks as a tool for success (or failure) and how do poets ultimately succeed (or fail)?

Similarly to my response to the last question, I disagree with defining chapbooks as starting points (or “a building block or a tool” or “simply a tool”) towards professionalism – or any other simple, easily defined little thing. I think chapbooks can be personal successes whether or not they happen before or after a full-length – and even if they’re not followed by a more standardized book at all. Furthermore, what equals poetic professionalism anyway? If professionalism equates to poetry as a money making career, then I guess most poets who aren’t college teachers would be unprofessional by those standards – because for the most part, poetry does not tend to pay the bills unless you’re teaching it at the collegiate level.

I have no idea what equals successful poetry on a large scale or worldwide basis. I think poetic success or failure is more small scale and largely based on/decided upon by individual poets and what they are striving towards. Not every poet is aiming for academic accolades. Not every poet is aiming for publication after publication. Not every poet is aiming for popularity or mainstream success. Some poets are closer to the opposite of mainstream.

Personally, I’m sort of in between. I’m not aiming to fit into any particular flock or fold; I’m aiming to be me and poetically express myself as I choose to express myself. I’m not particularly academic or anti-academic. I don’t care all that much whether or not someone has a BFA and/or MFA or beyond, but I do think it’s important to read and write a lot of poetry, if you choose to define yourself as a poet. I get annoyed by poets who focus on and promote only themselves, but don’t seem to significantly care about other poets. I get even more annoyed by so-called poets who don’t even read much poetry at all.

I like reading and writing and being published (and publishing) and making my poetry available to be read by others, but I’m not going to tone down or purposely change my poetic content in order to make it more accessible or have more mainstream appeal or academic appeal or non-academic appeal. Other writers and readers and reviewers can perceive and describe my creative content whoever they choose to, but I have no desire to purposely place myself into any one particular category. Why should I? Why should anyone? Why do so many people want so badly to be part of a group? I think that might be largely based on feeling like you’re ‘not good enough’ if a lot of others don’t seem to relate to or appreciate you.

Even though I don’t think popularity equals success, occasionally I wish I was a little more popular, but that’s more of an insecurity-based mental issue rather than a genuine art-based issue. No way in heck would I purposely change my own artistic vision in an attempt to become more mainstream or popular. To me, that’s getting close to fakery and I hate fake. Toning myself down in order to fit into a fold better or suit other people’s preferences would cause me to feel like I was purposely turning myself into a living doll injection mold.

Purposely attempting to fit oneself into writing/art mainstream success reminds me of undergoing cosmetic surgery in order to make oneself look more appealing to others by changing the real you. Then again, cosmetic surgery could also be perceived as purposely choosing to revise one’s body – and as long as someone is choosing to do so for their own individual reasoning, then fine. As long as you’re working towards what you as in individual find appealing and attractive about your body, your mind, your art, your writing, then go for it. Try your best to be yourself and suit your own tastes – but don’t try to fit into molds or folds or mainstream sensibilities if you don’t.

As far as my personal writing and reading taste is concerned, I’ll admit that some mainstream popular writers are not my style at all – I don’t relate to their work, I don’t consider it very unique or in-depth or challenging or powerful enough to suit my personal stylistics – and sometimes it bums me out that’s the kind of work that so many people seem to like best and appreciate. But if that’s the kind of writing a lot of people relate to and enjoy, then that’s just how it is. I’m still going to read and write what I feel driven to read and write, and if that does not result in any mainstream, popular sort of success, then fine. Is mainstream popularity what I’m ultimately aiming for in life? No.

My reading and writing styles and tastes change over time but I don’t think that’s based on age so much as reading experience, writing experience and life experience. When I was younger (a teenager) and still at the beginning of discovering how many different styles of poetry there were (and didn’t know any other poets personally and didn’t have any publishing knowledge yet), I thought that anyone with a published book must be pretty well known and successful. Now that I am someone with a published book, I know that doesn’t equate to well known. But having my poems published, chapbooks published, and a full-length book published are extremely exciting and significant to me on a personal level – so in that respect, it definitely equals wonderful personal success.

As for young college students not being familiar with the poets that will be focused on in class, I’m not sure how high school English classes are these days, but back when I was in high school, we sure didn’t focus on contemporary poets – nor did we have much poetry at all in our small town library. I think it was towards the end of high school that I stumbled upon a Marge Piercy book at a book store, had never even heard of her before, but started flipping through the pages and loved it. I don’t think I became familiar with some of my other early favorite poets (like Anne Sexton, Margaret Atwood, and Ai just to name a few) until I started college and found out about them in classes and had access to a much broader library plus more unique independent book stores plus other people who were excited about poetry. I don’t think most younger poets are aiming for young writers or popular writers; I think they just don’t have a great deal of familiarity or experience yet and have lots of awesome creative exploration to do.

The body and disease has a place in literature. I think of memoirs like What Becomes You by Aaron Link on trans identity, One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing by Diane Ackerman, and Face First by Heather Sellers on face blindness, or poetry collections by Hilda Raz, Mark Doty, Ryan Williams, and Wendy Barker, to name a few. In two of your new chapbooks, Poisonous Beautyskull Lollipop (Grey Book Press, 2013) and Post-Stroke (Blood Pudding Press & Dusie Kollektiv, 2011) you note the poems were partially inspired by and relate to “a recent health issue I suffered from, a Carotid Artery Dissection/stroke which resulted in various brain loss and aphasia.” Many would argue there is a dis-ease with disease in our culture, despite a fairly rich and substantial body of literature that provocatively explores how we make meaning of illness, injury, and pain. I’m curious about two things: 1) what is your sense of the stories we tell about disease in our culture and why we tell the stories and narrative we do; and 2) what is the place of writing poetry in your own process of exploration and inspiration as it relates to aphasia, stroke, and illness?

In my personal experience, there has been a dis-ease with disease, because my serious health issue seemed to lead to my divorce and the ebbing of some other long term friendships, because it was too difficult and/or un-enjoyable for them to frequently hear about or think about that sort of subject matter or deal with it on a long term basis. It was not the sort of subject matter I could just quickly choose to ignore or close the book on though, since it seriously impacted my health and my brain.

However, I did not want to over-focus on it in my life and in my conversation and especially not in my poetry. My poetic content though has always been largely provoked by my real life experiences and related thoughts/feelings – and the stroke was a hugely significant real life event that powerfully impacted my thoughts and feelings.

I am not very artistically interested in significantly focusing on writing (or reading) obvious health-oriented subject matter; that sort of content tends to bore and bother me. I’ve had a few people suggest I should work on a non-fiction memoir about my health situation, but my true writing passion lives in poetic expression.

I don’t want my health issue in and of itself to be perceived as a primary focus of my poetry, because it is not, at least not in a literal sort of way, but it definitely had emotional impacts that enter my poetry. My poetic approach isn’t related to my health issue in an obvious sort of way; the reason I credit my health issue with inspiring/infusing itself into my poetic content is because some of its emotional impact does infuse my art now.

As for the body, my poetic content has always had a lot of body-based focus, in one way or another (or a semi-grotesque fusion platter).

Beyond Post-Stroke and Poisonous Beauty Skull Lollipop, you’re also the author of Planchette (Blood Pudding Press, 2008), several chaps from BPP, Thirteen Designer Vaginas (Hyacinth Girl Press), and a full-length book. Can you talk about some of your other collections and in your telling can you describe what inspires you to write? How do you make space for your writing, especially when, but not limited by the times life events conspire against that writing space?

It’s predominantly my brain that inspires me to write poetry – it’s the way I feel compelled to express my ideas and thoughts and feelings and emotional issues and errors and quirks and qualms and flaws and strengths and other streaks. A lot of my poetry content has a female bent, delving towards products and bodies and standardization and mainstream versus deviant and what is considered attractive/unattractive or powerful/weak by oneself and others.

Prior to the chapbooks you mention above, my two earliest chapbooks that I published through my own Blood Pudding Press were ‘The Laura Poems”, which was inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks characters, and “Girl Gang”, which created a mixed bag girl group of contemporary woman, ranging in age from teens to mid-thirties, and one of the mid-thirties characters was based on me, because I felt uncomfortable with the aging process juxtaposed with the speed racing of time.

My more recent chapbooks are usually not as thematic content-wise, but I still think their content fits together well (and I do spend a lot of time and attention deciding how to order them). In addition to the ones named above, some of the others include my three Dusie Kollektiv chapbooks (MONDO CRAMPO/2009, Soft Foam/2010 and POST-STROKE/2011) my e-chapbook ‘Tongue Like a Stinger’ published by Wheelhouse Press, 2009 and my contest winning poetry chapbook, ‘Fondant Pig Angst’ published by Slash Pine Press, 2009.

‘Thirteen Designer Vaginas’ (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2011) and POISONOUS BEAUTYSKULL LOLLIPOP (Grey Book Press, 2013) are my two most recent ones.

As far as making time for my writing, it’s a challenging fit sometimes (as it probably is for many people, figuring out how best to alternate and balance our free time). For me, it’s about choosing how best to alternate my poetry focus between reading, publishing, AND writing (and submitting) my own poetry. Personally, I tend to feel annoyed by bored people (because how is that humanly possible?) – and on a more poetry-related level, I feel annoyed by poets who only choose to focus on their own work and hardly even read any other poetry.

My slower reading skills in recent years have gotten me way behind with contemporary reading and that bothers me quite a bit. It is more challenging than it used to be for me to stay on top of all three realms. Despite having literally hundreds of un-read poetry chapbooks in my home, I still buy (and/or trade) new ones occasionally, because I don’t want to be one of those poets who only focuses on my own work and does not support other poets.

Sometimes though, I feel like I should give up on my small press/publishing, until I can somehow manage to get caught up with my reading of all these

Many poets and readers know the head-over-heals feeling of falling in love with a chapbook. You do that each time you run Blood Pudding Press’s chapbook contest. Have you given any thought to what makes that happen for you?

For me, falling in love with a chapbook has variances and divergences, but usually my favorite content is pussy-centric, in one way or another or an amalgamated multitude of ways.

What current projects are you working on?

A new Blood Pudding Press chapbook (the third one of 2013) to be published sometime this month (May 2013) – Sister, Blood and Bone by Paula Cary AND a spew of dark, twisted collaborative poems by me and Robert Cole, which we will soon start formatting into chapbook style and submitting.  Five of our poems were recently accepted by Menacing Hedge (they’re called ‘Red Grout Echoes out Creepy Masks’, ‘Coagulation Served Cold With Lemon Zest’, ‘Broken Down Glitter Witch’, ‘Bang It Until It Explodes’, and ‘Stop the Madness!’, so we’ll need to read those soon.  More reading, writing, painting AND I will soon start preparing for my next poetry reading; I’ll be one of the readers for “Dark of the Male, Light of the Female: Women Writing About Horrible Things” in Chicago, June 1st. AND more more more.

Number of chapbooks I own is in the hundreds, probably around 300.

Number of chapbooks I’ve read is probably close to 200.
(Unfortunately, I probably have close to 100 un-read ones, because my second two years with the Dusie Kollektiv (which involves all the members trading chapbooks with each other), were shortly after my stroke, and for several months after that, I could barely read at all, plus for over a year, by reading was very slow. It’s still significantly slower than it used to be).

Number of chapbooks I’ve published through my Blood Pudding Press (which I started near the end of 2006) is three of my own, seven by other individual poets (with an eighth one coming out in April or May), and six collaborative chapbooks.  I’ve also had three of my own chapbooks published through the Dusie Kollektiv and eight of my own chapbooks published by other small presses (print chapbooks by Trainwreck Press, Spooky Girlfriend Press, Slash Pine Press, Hyacinth Girl Press, and Grey Book Press – and online chapbook/e-books by Scantily Clad Press, Wheelhouse Press, and Gold Wake Press).

Where I spend my poetry earnings usually well over half of them towards purchasing the supplies used to publish other chapbooks. I also use some for buying other chapbooks. I also sometimes use small amounts towards reading fees of submitting my full-length manuscript. I also save some of my earnings from my Blood Pudding Press shop to use towards purchasing other artsy items for myself plus gifts for others.

Inspirations and influences involve my own brain oddities and quirks and emotions, body issues, consumption/consumerism and pussy- centric feminism. Over the years, I have been inspired by a vast majority of other poets, mostly contemporary poets. Some of the more well-known poets who inspired me a lot in the past (and some of them still inspire me quite a bit) are Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Ai, Frank Stanford, C.D. Wright, Margaret Atwood, Evelyn Lau, Tory Dent, Marie Howe, Lynn Crosbie, my list could go on & on. As far as non-poetry writing inspirations, those include William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker, David Foster Wallace, David Lynch (especially Twin Peaks) and a variety of other film directors and musicians over the years, including Kate Bush, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Tori Amos, and Patti Smith, who is both a singer and a poet.

My current residence is not far from Cleveland Ohio, but in a smaller area called Medina.

Job and education includes a BFA in Creative Writing (with a minor in Popular Culture). For over ten years, I worked at a family oriented science center in Columbus Ohio, in a variety of different positions. In more recent years, I’ve volunteered as a Writer and Public Relations Team Member for a small independent film company and help at a Paint Your Own Pottery studio. I’m almost always thinking about/working with my Blood Pudding Press (print press focusing on hand-designed chapbooks) and Thirteen Myna Birds (online blog style lit mag.).

Bio – Juliet Cook’s poetry has appeared within Arsenic Lobster, Barn Owl Review, Menacing Hedge, PEEP/SHOW, Ping Pong and many more print and online sources. She is the editor/publisher of Blood Pudding Press (print) and Thirteen Myna Birds (online). Juliet’s first full-length poetry book, ‘Horrific Confection’ was published by BlazeVOX. She also has oodles of published poetry chapbooks, most recently including FONDANT PIG ANGST (Slash Pine Press), Tongue Like a Stinger (Wheelhouse), POST-STROKE (Blood Pudding Press for Dusie Kollektiv 5), Thirteen Designer Vaginas (Hyacinth Girl Press) and her newest, POISONOUS BEATYSKULL LOLLIPOP, published by Grey Book Press in 2013. You may find out more at

Selected Works Cited

Brower, Bryon. “Articles of Chap.” American Book Review, Vol. 26, Issue 3, March/April 2005. 3.

Miller, Wayne. “Chapbooks: Democratic Ephemera.” American Book Review, Vol. 26, Issue 3, March/April 2005. 1-6.

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