chapbook poetry

Elizabeth Harper on making chapbooks, a sample of the Chicago poetry chapbook community, and responding to Stein’s Tender Buttons

You are the author of the two books of poetry, Love Songs from Psychopaths (1997) and Fairy Tales Gone Awry (2006), as well as the chapbook Tender Bonbons (2014), the chapbook written in celebration of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and as part of The Ninth Annual Chicago Calling Arts Festival. Poets & Writers features an online DIY article on “How to Make and Bind Chapbooks,” which includes the stitch you’ve used to bind Tender Bonbons. Talk about your process of making chapbooks.

The way I went about putting together Tender Bonbons isn’t exactly like any of these. And it took me a while to figure out how to do it, because I kept thinking, “There must be an easier way. Isn’t there an app for that?” But with a little help from my friends and the nice people at the Apple Store I eventually figured it out. I wrote Tender Bonbons in Microsoft Word and then switched computers and formatted it in Pages, which is basically Apple’s equivalent of Word. The key to making it come out book-like, in pages that could be collated and layered and folded to read like a book, was using the Print settings. In Print, I choose the option to print two pages per sheet, so File> Print> Layout > Pages per Sheet (2)> Layout Direction (I choose the first option of four which looks like a Z with an arrow pointing right at the end). Eventually I want to get a printer that does double-sided or “duplex” printing, but since I don’t have that now, I need to print out one page at a time and then flip it over to print the other side. The other tricky thing to figure out was how to get the pages in the right order. Although there might be some algorithm, the way I did it was I printed it out with the two pages per sheet and then cut them up and put them together in the right order to see how they should go. Then in a new Pages document I put the pages in the right order and added page numbers individually. So the pages of the book went in this order in the document file: 9, 2, 3, 8, 7, 4, 5, 6. I did the title page/ back page separately: blank page, title page, blank page, back page. Altogether that is three pages of paper printed on both sides. So pages 9 and 2 print on one side of an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper, then I flip it over and pages 3 and 8 print on the other side, and then the same thing for the rest of the pages. So pages 5 and 6 would be facing each other in the middle of the book, with pages 4 and 7 on the other side respectively, and then 3 and 8, and 2 and 9, and then the title page/ back page. So then I fold those 3 pieces of paper to make a book that is 8.5 x 5.5. I use color printer paper. For the cover I use color card stock folded in half, but my current printer won’t take that thickness, so instead of printing the cover I use a rubber stamp and ink pad to decorate the cover. Then I put the cover over the book pages and staple the whole thing together with two staples on the fold from a long reach stapler.

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In his essay A Brief History of the Little Book, Noah Eli Gordon writes that a “chapbook constitutes a crucial nexus of the poetry community.” Talk about the chapbook community in Chicago.

The chapbook community is part of the poetry community but also connected to the zine community. One of the great things about Chicago and the open mics and poetry events and shows I go to is that poets, musicians, visual artists, cartoonists, comics, performance artists, actors, playwrights, page poets, spoken word artists, storytellers, academics and college students, working stiffs and retirees, are all connecting with one another and supporting each other at these various events.

As I write this, I hear voices of other people in my head contradicting me, saying, “Elizabeth, what pollyanna utopian world are you living in? This group doesn’t do enough with this group, and this group doesn’t support this group, and this group doesn’t even know about this group, and there are cliques and petty animosities and a whole lot of other problems.” I can hear that, but really, my experience is that I go wherever I want, am welcomed wherever I go, and meet new friends and old, and am excited and inspired by the work of other people. I’ve traded books for books by other people or for CDs from musicians. So despite any criticisms someone else might come up with in the spirit of trying to improve things, I know that at least it has that potential to be this nexus of connection and creativity and collaboration and support most of the time.

Quimby’s (http://www.quimbys.com/) in Wicker Park for years has been the place to go for chapbooks and zines, and whenever I go there I am compelled to look around and find little treasures. Uncharted Books (http://www.unchartedbooks.com/) in Logan Square hosts many literary events and has an active interest in carrying books and chapbooks from local authors.

The Chicago Publishers Resource Center (CHIPRC) (http://chiprc.org/) is “a non-profit that strives to build community and foster creativity by providing access to the space, education, and resources necessary to create and self-publish literary and visual work.” I have attended poetry readings there and talked with CHIPRC’s founder John Wawrzaszek, aka Johnny Misfit, about the value and uses for self-published chapbooks, pamphlets, and zines. At one of the readings, I got Rauan Klassnik’s Sky Rat, a chapbook from Spork Press (http://sporkpress.com/), which is not in Chicago but in Tucson, AZ. Chicago certainly gets its share of touring poets so we intersect with chapbook makers from other places. Spork Press’s chapbooks are objets d’ art in themselves, with substantial letterpressed raw board covers. They’ve also published the chapbook Lucinda by Chicago poet John Beer.

The Kind of Beauty That Has Nowhere to Go is a collaboration by local Chicago poet Kathleen Rooney and Elisa Gabbert published by Hyacinth Press (hyacinthgirlpress.com/) in Pittsburgh, PA.

Plumberries Press (https://plumberriespress.wordpress.com/), the love child of Edwin R. Perry and Chelsea Tadeyeske, has its roots in Chicago but now is in the midwest more generally. Their books are truly special in all different sizes with interesting covers. They published I’m So Into You by Dolly Lemke (of the Dollhouse Reading Series in Chicago) which features short dedications to other Chicago poets.

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Kristy Bowen’s Dancing Girl Press in Chicago (http://www.dancinggirlpress.com/) publishes a lot of chapbooks, promoting women writers whose work tends towards the hybrid and experimental. Kristy is organizing the Indie Press Festival that is happening at Columbia College on November 14.

Scars Publications (http://scars.tv/), run by Janet Kuypers, who recently moved to Austin from Chicago, publishes chapbooks online, so even though they are in downloadable pdf format for ereaders, they are still considered chapbooks.

Dave Gegic’s Puddin’head Press (http://www.puddinheadpress.com/) has been around a long time. The website is a good resource for books and chapbooks by Chicago poets. His catalogue includes books from other publishers as well, including mine and also some from Fractal Edge Press (http://fractaledgepress.com/), among others. Puddin’head recently published the chapbook Gently Broken by Gregory Curry who organizes and hosts several events in Chicago.

Patrick Hurley’s Water of Life Press puts out truly unique chapbooks printed on recycled brown grocery bags. He actually irons the paper to prepare it for printing.

Elizabeth Tieri’s Back to Print puts out the monthly broadsheet the deadline which is distributed for free throughout Chicago, but also publishes limited edition chapbooks. Dana Jerman’s Sins in Good Taste recently came out. Of course there was a party with readers at Uncharted Books and with beer from Lagunitas.

Rob Hendler printed out his chapbook Tea Time Apocalypse to have something to sell at readings. Talking to him helped me to figure out how to do my own chapbook.

Andy Karol (http://www.andykarol.com/) has her own chapbook Fail-Safe which she sells at readings and on her website.

People often sell chapbooks to raise money to go on tour. The 2015 Lethal Poetry Slam Team offered a team chapbook as a perk for contributing to their crowd fundraiser to help them get to the National Poetry Slam in Oakland, CA this year.

So these are just a few examples of what is going on—there’s a lot. I think the main benefit of chapbooks is that they can be a relatively inexpensive way to get your work out to the people who are interested in it, even if it’s only a handful of people, even though by big publishing standards it wouldn’t seem worth it. In that way, it can democratize publishing, by making the true variety and breadth of work available to a niche market.

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Your chapbook Tender Bonbons is a lovely and playful mediation on language and sound. I adore the way the lines turn back and forth over ideas, this yes/no debate the speaker has with herself and with meaning. The chapbook is written in celebration of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Talk about the process of creating a sequence in conversation with another poet’s work. In your answer, discuss other such works you admire and what inspired you to begin such a project.

Thanks for the kind words about Tender Bonbons. It was fun to write. Once I had the basic idea for what I wanted to do, it just flowed. I came up with the subheadings and let the free associations begin, with each phrase or idea leading to the next. Of course I had studied the style in Stein’s Tender Buttons and was trying to imitate aspects of her syntax and repetitions.

The project came about because of the Chicago Calling Festival which always happens in October, the month of Picasso’s birthday. It’s organized by Dan Godston of Borderbend Arts Collective http://www.borderbend.org/. It includes multiple events and aims to have the projects and performances be collaborative in some way. So in 2014 Dan wanted to do something to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems and the 100th anniversary of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. He asked me and I agreed, but then I was stuck and didn’t know how to begin. I mentioned it to poet Dana Jerman, and, lo and behold, she had written a piece called “Objectives” as a response to Tender Buttons. She emailed it to me, and once I saw how she did it, with the made up subheadings and imitation of style, I knew how to go about it. So for the event, Dana read “Objectives” and I read “Foodies” and “Roominess.” Here is the link: http://www.borderbend.org/blog/archives/10-2014. If you scroll down, you can hear the recording of that performance. So we were happy with how that went. We toyed with the idea of expanding it and doing a chapbook together. But even though we were both riffing off of Stein, our styles and preoccupations are different, so I decided to write “Object Lessons” so I would have the three parts corresponding to “Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms” in Tender Buttons.

I love William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say” and Kenneth Koch’s “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams.” And then recently I read “Grave-Robbing E.E. Cummings” by Charles Joseph in a chapbook of poetry he did with Brandon Diehl called Temporary Obscurity. It’s a play on “Buffalo Bill’s” by E.E. Cummings. Then there’s James Joyce’s Ullysses, which gets its structure from Homer’s Odyssey. And then there’s Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote and Great Expectations, but even in Blood and Guts in High School, there’s parody/appropriation of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. I love the song parodies of Weird Al Yankovic and frequently write my own song lyric parodies.

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How do you define chapbook? If someone wants to call it a chapbook, that’s fine with me. Some people define it as a certain number of pages stapled or tied together, but I’ve seen so many different ways to do it. At the Little Indie Press Festival, Carley Gomez and Levi Sherman had a deck of cards with images of collages made from wallpaper scraps on one side and short prose poems on the other. But they also have a LED display that moves around Chicago showing poems, so those are chapbooks too. And I’ve seen loose individual poems in an envelope. Paul Ryan’s Destruction Instructions are poems with color images printed on glossy tri-fold brochures and then packaged all together in a white box. If someone wants to call a CD a chapbook, I think that’s fine too.

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What makes a good chapbook? Design and packaging are nice, but what makes a really good chapbook is the poetry. It has to be original and unique.

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What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? Andy Karol’s Fail-Safe. Paul Ferrell’s The Cosby Show. Dana Jerman’s Sins in Good Taste. 

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What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Lisa Hemminger. Billy Tuggle. Nick Demske.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Since lately I’m interested in doing small, short books, I’m interested in something that stands on its own.

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How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? So there is the figuring out the logistics of how to do it—how to make them and sell them. And it seems there’s no other way to learn but the hard way—playing around, making mistakes, talking to people, getting surprise inspirations. I am painfully aware lately that I am slowed down by perfectionism. I don’t think I can be any other way. But the important thing for me would be to not let it stop me from doing anything at all. With the writing, I’m thinking of chapbooks as a format for more experimental, serious writing, or longer pieces that would be hard to get through at an open mic at a bar.

What’s next for you? I’ve got lots of work in the pipeline and lots of ideas, but first I need to invest in a new printer.

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Current chapbook reading list: Not My Enemy, Warrior Writers. Fearless as I Seam, Abigail Zimmer. White Deer, M. Forajter. Playing House, Carley Gomez/ Levi Sherman. Tiny Stories, Woody Leslie.

Number of chapbooks you own: I don’t know. A lot of my things are in storage right now, so I’m not going to count. But I’m sure it’s hundreds.

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Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Hundreds, even more than I currently own, because I’ve given some away as gifts. 

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. I’m committed to the free expression of ideas and creativity. I’ve been doing my own open mic show for over five years, but I also have been attending all sorts of poetry events for years. I try to promote as much as I can, even if sometimes it’s only on Facebook.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I promote poets as features at my monthly open mic show, “Elizabeth’s Crazy Little Thing.” They can read from their work and sell their books at the show. Often I buy chapbooks from poets when I go to see them read. And I find things at Quimby’s and Uncharted Books. Also, if I like something, I tell the author and I tell other people too. I think it’s important to spread the word and share ideas. It’s important to support the efforts of local poets, artists, musicians, etc. If you value and enjoy what they are doing, you need to let them know and support them by attending events and buying merchandise if you can.

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Your chapbook credo: Do it any way you want.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Any money I get goes to attending events and supporting other poets, performers, venues, and book sellers.

Your chapbook wish: I think chapbooks could be like open mics, but in print form. That is, a way and a place for everyone to express themselves and share. Because, really, we need to hear everyone, not just ideological crap shouted at us from television sets.

I’m also interested in chapbooks as something to do with children.

I like tiny chapbooks for my dolls. They do a lot of reading.

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Residence: Chicago

Job: Poet. Open Mic Host.

Chapbook education: Chicago. Columbia College. Scott Marshall. Quimby’s. CHI-PRC. Lisa Hemminger’s Yammer. Polyrhythmic Arts Collective. Janet Kuyper’s Scars Publications. Patrick Hurley’s Water of Life Press. Dave Gegic’s Puddin’head Press. All the poets and chapbooks I’ve ever come across.

Chapbook Bio: Elizabeth Harper’s chapbook, Love Songs from Psychopaths first came out in 1997. Tender Bonbons is her newest work.

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