Hiram Larew on a Chapbook like a Candy Box of Pieces

You are the author of the full-length collection More than Anything (Vrzhu Press, 2007) and the two chapbooks Utmost (I. Giraffe Press, 2016), and Part Of (1999) published by the Maryland Humanities Council as the recipient of Baltimore’s Artscape award. When did you first discover chapbooks? What was it about them—magic and pluck of language, sequencing of poems, unified theme, a materiality of a short collection, or something else—that drew you to them? What keeps you coming back?

Other than length, the differences between a chapbook and a full-length collection seem negligible or smeared. But, in fact, when holding a chapbook in one hand and a full-length in the other, I bend towards the smaller one. And always have. But why? Others may disagree, but from the get go (say, when I was in my twenties), chapbooks have beckoned me with the promise of Tiffany’s – a small, ribboned box containing amazing gems. While some may glisten more than others, chapbooks typically offer the essence, the boiled down, the cream atop, the best that the poet can offer. They may or may not tell a story or be themed. They may include artwork or simply be printed without interruption on buff paper. Regardless, they invariably are enjoyed in a single gulp and so, provide an uninterrupted impression, a complete snapshot, a dunk.

In assembling my own chapbooks, I’ve had a sense of greater oversight and discipline in the playground, simply because there are fewer poem-children to manage. I can orchestrate more adeptly. I can assess, imagine, and convey more assuredly. I feel more confident in celebrating the whole when fewer pieces –- all the moving parts — are vying for my attention. Said differently, a chapbook provides me with a greater sense of quality control. And, it may be counter-intuitive but, I feel that I can experiment and range more widely when the Table of Contents lists 20 items rather than 60.

Whether I continue to be drawn to the shorter format in the future depends on if and how chapbooks evolve over the coming years. As more are presented online or from the clouds or in currently unimagined ways, I may become more or less avid. And will I shy from full collections? No, not at all. But, here’s the thing – I expect more from a chapbook as I do any kernel.

 Photo Credit: Donna Luhrs

From your chapbook Part Of, the poem “Ten Years” includes the line “Whatever you’d give to each other you’d probably get back.” Can you talk about reciprocity? How does poetry feed you and how do you return that nourishment?

Blessed with large ears, I thrive on listening to poetry. It makes little difference the type being presented or showcased; I love the tones, inflections and colors of poetry’s variety and diversity as shared these days via readings, recordings and over phones. And, while the current scene is full-throated, imagining the gruff or glide of the now-gone voices of our poetry forebears is a balm, too. So, the sound of poetry is one of its gifts. If I give back, it’s through the further sharing of that delight. Turns out, I’m just beginning to learn about the various new and traditional ways to showcase poetry in the public domain through, for example, poetry posters displayed – and read – as artwork. I also do my best to convey a full force conviction in poetry’s power – with how it holds amazing sway through spacing, commas and flicks. And, yes, it’s how poetry outlasts us with its haunting, echoing legacy that I most chase with hanker.


From your chapbook Utmost, the poem “VIM” oh wells the going away of the illness that will eventually kill the speaker of the poem who later states “I know that anything worthwhile depends/ On repetition.” Can you talk about ideas of practice and acceptance? In terms of your writerly life, can you describe where and how you write a typical poem? Where do you sense the line is for you in terms of completion, striving, and acceptance of a day’s work of poems?

Over time, the whens and hows of my writing have changed. I recall in years past bending over a notebook in subway crowds, and grinning as I jumped off at the work-stop with a half-formed line. Now, my blurriest times – when I write from the swirls of what’s happened – tend to come less from hubbub and more from bedtime or, when I’m thought-wandering as I vista along a country road. More and more, too, I try to have a pencil handy at all times because, if I don’t capture a line as it flies by, it often escapes. I also find that time is the best critic. By setting pieces aside to ferment for weeks or months, and then returning to them, I can often see oops and oh-no’s that were simply not visible when I was enchanted with a piece’s fresh face. Lastly, on repetition…I’m worried good by the fact that much of music’s popular, instinctive appeal –- and poetry’s as well — relies on repletion. For reasons unknown, once is often not enough.


How do you define chapbook? Because they tend to be shorter (about 20-35 pages), chapbooks are usually pretty tightly presented. They rarely ask the reader for more than a devoted, single-sitting chunk of time. And, they reward curiosity with a quick bloom of accomplished insight, offer a speed date to those who are game, or drive one-handed down a steep curvy road. Chapbooks are klieg lights, nuggets.

What makes a good chapbook? Shorter doesn’t mean easier. To assemble a powerful, haunting, memorable chapbook, the poet has to perform beyond the value of a single piece. She/He must carefully consider how a family or candy box of pieces will entice and draw in today’s and tomorrow’s readers. And because there are relatively few assembled between the covers, each poem in a chapbook carries that much more responsibility to the whole.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Less for a theme, more for momentum or evidence of understood (or confusing) change. And surprise – Will the few poems that I’m presenting together make someone blink?

Current chapbook reading list: As 2017 ends, I plan to read chapbooks by Terry Blackhawk (The Whisk & Whir of Wings), Rocky Jones (My Demo). Anne Harding Woodworth (The Last Gun and Up From the Root Cellar), Sarah Sutro (Etudes), Don Illich (The Art of Dissolving), Kate Richardson (Songs from the Nineties) and Luther Jett (Not Quite).

Number of chapbooks you own: At any given time, about 20.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Roughly, 200.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I tend to purchase chapbooks, especially if I know and/or hear the author poet.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: I’ve used sale proceeds to travel to readings and other poetry events.

Your chapbook wish: That the poetry community celebrates chapbooks as a publishing platform for beginning poets, yes, but for mid-career and mature poets as well.

Residence: Maryland, USA

Job: Retired, Director, Center for International Programs, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA. Guided international food security science programs.

Chapbook education: I learn by doing, and will always be learning.

Chapbook Bio: I’ve been fortunate to have had two chapbooks published (Part Of and Utmost) and, like everyone else, am working on the next manuscript. Part Of was the first collection I published. It’s layout – done by graphic artists working for the City of Baltimore – fascinated me. For these reasons and more, Part Of will always be my favored first poetry child with its uncombed hair, knobby knees and foolish, foolish grins.









You Might Also Like

No Comments

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.