The Chapbook Interview: Liz Ahl on DIY

When you teach the senior level advanced poetry workshop, you require students to write a chapbook. How do you structure the class to make such a project possible for undergrads?

Students in this class have already taken a sophomore-level Creative Writing class and the junior-level Poetry Workshop, and so come to the class having had lots of experience writing individual poems in response to prompts and assignments; some are already starting to develop a voice, maybe even something you’d call a “project.” If they elect to take this class, I let them know right off that I won’t be giving assignments or prompts (okay, sometimes I’ll give a prompt on request, or in response to a poem draft) — students must hand in new work every week, under their own steam. Additionally, they know, right from the get-go, that they will have to produce and “publish” (in an edition large enough so that every class member gets a copy) a chapbook-length collection, and that they should compose, workshop, respond and revise with that in mind. Students are paired with “response partners,” who give written feedback to each week’s poem and, when their partner is up for workshop, the partner starts the conversation about the poem. In the beginning of the semester, there are three chapbook reviews due — I bring in piles of chapbooks, students rummage through and take a few, then pick one about which to write a one-page, single-spaced review, focusing on both the poems themselves (content, theme, style, form, etc.) and on the design of the chapbook (typeface, images, binding, layout, etc.). They print off two copies of the review — one gets folded in half and tucked inside the chapbook; the other comes to me for a grade. Then everybody swaps chapbooks, and repeats the process — and now they can read reviews written by classmates. Additionally, I build in two “making chapbook” class sessions, where I teach them to sew a basic saddle stitch, and (sometimes) a Japanese stab binding technique. We look at lots of samples, both from “professionals” and from former students. I also use this time to show them how to use MS Word to format a booklet. Finally, I schedule two manuscript-in-process workshop days, where students bring drafts of “the whole thing” to swap with partners in order to get feedback on bigger picture stuff like arrangement, theme(s), and so on. Otherwise, it’s workshop every day. The semester culminates with the presentation and distribution of the published chapbooks and a celebratory reading. I also collect a short essay in which students reflect on their work.

Are there particular chapbooks or readings you like to teach to demonstrate and spark discussion on the “genre” of the chapbooks?

There are three “recommended” readings I’m currently using — “Weaving a Chapbook of Poems” by Robert Miltner (AWP Chronicle, May/Summer 1998), American Book Review’s chapbook feature (handful of articles) from the March-April 2005 issue, and “A Pulitzer Prize for a Chapbook?” by Elaine Sexton (AWP Chronicle, May/Summer 2006).

What is your definition of a chapbook?

A chapbook is a small serving-size of poetry, or microfiction, or maybe a short story. I tend to think of chapbooks as saddle-stitched or stapled, as opposed to perfect-bound, but of course, that’s not a rule. I tend to think of chapbooks as affordable, too — thinking of the tradition of the ‘zine, the pamphlet, the broadside — although of course there are some truly lovely letterpress chapbooks that will set you back some serious bucks. I’m interested in the chapbook’s ability to be very low-cost, occasional, and/or ephemeral OR high-end, artistic piece.

Have your students been successful in finding homes for the chapbooks they wrote in your workshops? Or do they keep them DIY?

Although a couple of my students have gone on to create new chapbooks after my class ended, none of them (that I’m aware of) published, exactly, the chapbooks they created in my class. I actually don’t place a lot of emphasis on publication beyond our course.

You also published chapbooks with your DIY press Ultima Obscura in conjunction with the No Name Reading Series, a graduate student creative writing reading series. What was your inspiration? What was that process like?

I made my first chapbook in 1994 (unless you want to count the yarn-bound booklet from Mrs. Spurling’s third grade class, with my brilliant musings on Thanksgiving).

It was called “The Power of Barbie,” and I made it because I was giving a reading and wanted to have something — let’s say a souvenir? — available for purchase and signing.

I had all sorts of Issues about self-publishing (it’s not “real” publishing, was what I was thinking), but swallowed them by making fun of myself. I made fun of myself by creating a “publisher” for the chapbook — “Ultima Obscura Press.” The faux Latin’s wink at “the ultimate in obscurity” was my way of saying (to myself, to others) that I was in on the joke — ha ha ha. It was not a beautiful chapbook, but it was more or less functional.

It went well enough that, for another reading, I created “Beginning Ballroom Dance,” and put a little more time and effort into it, feeling more comfortable about the DIY nature of the thing. I kept the “Ultima Obscura” label. Then I moved to Nebraska, where the vibrant “No-Name” Reading Series (connected with the UNL graduate programs in creative writing) afforded a regular occasion and a lot of writers, and so I started creating chapbooks connected with those readings.

So, for instance, fiction writer Sherrie Flick and I gave a reading together — and at that reading, we sold copies of “Nobody’s Anything Yet,” a chapbook of the poems and short-shorts we were reading that night. I loved the occasional nature of those chapbooks in particular — there was a bit of the “souvenir program” to them that I’ve always liked as a collector of ephemera, a saver of ticket-stubs and concert programs. I like to think that the No-Name chapbooks, along with others I published while living in Lincoln from 1995-2001, contributed to a vibrant sense of community among those writers. I should clarify that writers made a financial contribution to cover production costs, but those contributions were always easily recovered through sales, with any profits going to authors, not to me.

You took an advanced poetry workshop for your PhD with Grace Bauer that required you to create a chapbook—a chapbook that was later published—and you’ve published a chapbook that won a chapbook prize (A Thirst That’s Partly Mine) and a chapbook (Luck), that’s perfect-bound and the length of what many might call a book (48 pages). Can you talk about the differences between DIY and the other presses with which you’ve worked?

The folks at Slapering Hol Press took so much time with me both fine-tuning the manuscript and coming up with an amazing design through-and-through — my poems were lovingly shepherded by people who truly cared about the work — mine, specifically, and poetry generally. At Slapering Hol, they do a hand-stitched, numbered edition of 500, with a letterpress cover. Mine also had a die cut window and a really nifty semi-transparent inner cover page with water droplets on it — just gorgeous! Working with them, as well as with Palmer Hall at Pecan Grove Press, who published Luck, helped me get a glimpse of what some writers who I’d published had told me before: that the gift of having an editor and a designer create a thoughtful and beautiful vehicle to get your work out into the world is incomparable. I’m not sure how to characterize the differences between my work on Ultima Obscura projects and my work with those two fine presses. It felt nice to have my work chosen by someone else — not having to make the thing myself, though I found pleasure in making my own chapbooks. It was narcissistically gratifying to see how they decided to design the chapbooks, I suppose!

I must acknowledge that the way I distribute chapbooks and have students write reviews, copies of which are kept folded up with the chapbook, is completely ripped off from Grace’s class!

How do you negotiate and maneuver within the hierarchy of the publishing industry that value certain types of presses (e.g. mega-conglomerates, university, literary presses, etc.) over others (e.g. DIY, chapbook presses, small press, epresses, etc.). Do you have advice for other poets considering where to submit their first chapbooks?

Well, up here in rural Northern New England, I feel very far away from “the hierarchy of the publishing industry,” and certainly when I think of the “industry,” I think mostly of novels and nonfiction books, less so of poetry, which tends to be published, by and large, by smaller presses, university presses, etc. I do know that as I’ve grown older (and more confident?) my feelings about that hierarchy have softened, at least in part because I am tenured, and so many of those hierarchical distinctions (real or imagined, for better or worse) are linked to the academic job market and to promotion within academia. I don’t think most poetry lovers care too much about whether the poems are packaged as a chapbook or a perfect-bound, longer collection; I don’t think they care about whether the publisher is Big or Small. In fact, I’d argue that, for some years now, there has been growing cache around the small/indie/fine press. There’s a hip factor, I think, connected to some of the DIY and letterpress and zine efforts at play out there.

Do you have advice for poets who what to start their own press and/or DIY their chapbook?

Regarding advice about where to submit a first chapbook – I highly recommend Slapering Hol, which ONLY considers FIRST chapbooks. They produce such beautiful work, and are so supportive of emerging voices. Really, though, there are so many great little presses out there creating quality chapbooks.

My knee-jerk response about starting new presses: do we really need more presses? How can there possibly not be enough? What about finding a press you love and working in support of it by buying books, reviewing books, submitting work there, etc? My second, more measured response: if you want to make books, you should make books! Why not? With respect to making your own chapbook, I’d also say go for it — but be realistic about distribution. Maybe create your first chapbook in conjunction with a reading or other occasion, so there’s a built-in way to distribute at least initially. Consider collaborating with another author on a chapbook — that can also help get it out there to folks who might not otherwise have read your work.

Tell me about your forthcoming chapbook, Talking About the Weather, from Seven Kitchens Press.

Talking About The Weather will be produced in the “Summer Kitchen” series, in an edition of 49 copies. I love a limited edition. Perhaps this is connected to the notion of publishing hierarchy — conventional wisdom privileges the large print run, and going “out of print” is seen as a bad thing. I get that, of course. But I really treasure (partly due to my great privilege of being a tenured academic!) the idea that only so many copies will be available — and then — that’s IT! No more! A treasure, a rarity. Not everybody can get one. I think I first got turned on to that notion in Nebraska, when I was studying book arts and learning how to set type and do letterpress printing with Joe Ruffo. I remember, after having spent AGES assembling type and image, and pulling proofs, and correcting, and re-setting bits, and all that — printing my first broadside, and then, finally, taking apart the type and putting it away. I remember thinking, wow, this is really it — even if I re-set everything, it won’t — it can’t — be the same. Once I ran out of those broadsides….well….I’d have to do something new.

Current projects

I want to do something new but I’m still figuring out what it is. I’m writing some poems, but they don’t feel like a project. Today, in class, I came up with the title, “Knowing What I Know About Rocks,” sort of jokingly. But it’s beginning to grow on me. Some students may be showing up next week with “Knowing What I Know About ___________” poems. We’ll see.

Number of chapbooks I own

eyeballing, I’m going to estimate between 250-350.

Number of chapbooks I’ve read

oh boy, I have to confess I haven’t read all the chapbooks I own — not completely — but I’ve easily read a couple hundred chapbooks.

Number of chapbooks I published

18-20 (and a small number — 5-7) broadsides

Ways I promote other poets

When I read something really spectacular, I try to mention it on my blog, rate it on Goodreads, mention it on Facebook. It’s an easy thing to do, really. I get book recommendations from my friends on Goodreads all the time. I buy poetry books and chapbooks — I am so lucky that Grolier’s Poetry Bookshop is less than 2 hours away, in Cambridge, MA; and once a year I get to visit Open Books, also a poetry-only bookstore, in Seattle.

Where I spend my chapbook earnings

buying other chapbooks

Inspirations and influences

There are so many, though certain inspirations/influences occupy my consciousness at certain times — other times, they fade to the background to make room for a new crew. Today, here’s what comes to mind: Elizabeth Bishop, William Matthews, Cornelius Eady, other artists generally — like, hanging out with them, watching them work (painters, actors, dancers, composers), Dylan Thomas, Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich, food/cooking/eating, Walt Whitman, Muriel Rukeyser, quantum physics, D.B. Cooper, the Apollo space program, and bourbon.


Holderness, NH

Job and education

Associate Professor of English, Plymouth State University; BFA – Emerson College; MFA – University of Pittsburgh; PhD – University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Liz Ahl is a poet and teacher who lives in New Hampshire. Her poems, some of which have received Pushcart Prize nominations, have appeared or are forthcoming in Four Corners, White Pelican Review, 5AM, Court Green, Margie, The Women’s Review of Books, Prairie Schooner, Alimentum, and North American Review. Her work has also been included in several anthologies, including Red, White and Blues: Poets on the Promise of America (University of Iowa Press, 2004), Mischief, Caprice, and Other Poetic Strategies (Red Hen Press, 2004), and Like Thunder: Poets Respond to Violence (University of Iowa Press, 2002). Her first chapbook, A Thirst That’s Partly Mine, won the 2008 Slapering Hol chapbook contest; a second chapbook, Luck, was published in 2010 by Pecan Grove Press. In 2012, Talking About the Weather will be published by Seven Kitchens Press. In 2002, a limited edition (30) collection of poetry, On The Avenue of Eternal Peace, was designed and printed by book artist Joe Ruffo (Lyra Press) and beautifully bound by Denise Brady. She has been awarded residencies at Jentel, The Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and The Vermont Studio Center.

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