Chapbooks are small, but mighty.
As I’m reading the poetry book submissions for Interstellar Flight Press, it occurs to me that a lot of writers struggle to put together poems for a collection. But when the right congregation of poems appears, it’s so exciting as an editor. Poems, when collected, have the ability to speak to each other in new and interesting ways not explored in their individuality.
So how should you select poems for a chapbook?
This article is going to focus on chapbook collections. I will post a separate article later on full-length collections. The only difference between these is page length, but they are two completely separate genres.
I love chapbooks. They’re in some ways the ideal form in which to publish and read poems. You can read 19 poems in a way you can’t sit down and read 60 to 70 pages of poems.
— Robert Morgan
Selecting poetry for a chapbook very often focuses on theme. But let me back up. What exactly IS a chapbook? Well, it’s a small book of poems. A chapbook or “pamphlet” is a book of about 15–30 poems. Individual poems in the book might have been published in other publications such as journals or magazines. This page length can vary widely. I’ve seen presses ask for shorter or longer, just depending on guidelines. As a reference point, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association lists chapbooks as 10–39 pages to be eligible for the Elgin Award.
When I say that chapbooks focus on theme, what I mean is that chapbooks very often have an underlying thread tying the poems within together. This thread might be based on one of the following factors:
- Content (What is the poem about?)
- Structure (How does the poem appear on the page?)
- Voice (Who is speaking in the poem?)
Why is it that chapbooks are so often themed? Well, the truth is that it’s difficult as an editor to sell a longer book with so many similar poems. If you have a selection of 15–30 poems that are all about, say, apples, then it’s probably best for a chapbook because readers will get bored after reading 30 poems about apples. The same goes for structure as well. A good example of a themed chapbook is Franny Choi’s Death by Sex Machine, which is about fem-surrogate cyborgs and the uncanny valley. There are exceptions to these rules, of course, and you will very often find longer works that have some theme to them as well. AN example of a themed longer work is Natasha Tretheway’s Thrall, which features poems about mixed-race unions and includes several ekphrastic pieces.
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Themed chapbooks work really well because they allow the reader into a small world and on a quick journey through that world. If you think about this from a marketing standpoint, it’s much easier to market a book of poems if they are about one subject or use one structure throughout. When I was writing my latest chapbook, Numinose Lapidi, I chose to write in a non-rhyming pantoum form. That was the structure holding my book together, as each poem had a different topic but was in that one form.
Selecting Poems for a Chapbook
When you’re thinking about which poems will go into a chapbook, it is useful to start with theme. But beyond that, you may want to consider a few other elements:
- Which poems are my strongest? Are there other poems that fit with those poems?
- Which poems do I love? Which have received good feedback in critique? Which poems will I be comfortable with other people reading and perhaps, reviewing?
- Which poems haven’t been published yet individually, but might work well alongside poems in a collection?
- Do I have poems that don’t work well individually and might be better suited as a group? (An example is a poetic sequence — a series of poems that are interlinked and only have full meaning when read together.)
- What kind of market or press might be a good fit for these poems?
- How can I market these poems? Are they accessible to a general audience? What knowledge does my reader require to read them?
- Will these poems work well alongside my other work? (Sometimes, poems from a chapbook are later collected into a full-length collection. So it’s useful to compare them to your already published work or your body of work as a whole.)
Sequencing, or How to Order a Chapbook
I find it good practice to select about 5–10 more poems than the length of a chapbook in order to give yourself room to wean. Select about 40–50 poems and then cut down to about 25–30 as a good barometer. Remember that very short collections of say, 16 pages, will be harder to sell to presses.
When it comes to deciding on order, there are several ways you can compare your poems. You will end up using whatever method works for you, but here are some things to try:
- Print each poem out and spread them across a large table or floor. Rearrange as necessary.
- Put your poems in a Word document and set the titles to headings. Create a Table of Contents. Compare the titles next to each other. Do they speak to each other in any way?
- Make a notecard for each poem. On the notecard, write the poem title, a list of any vivid images or phrases, and the poem subject. Use these notecards to consider which poems might work well together.
- Choose an opening poem that is strong and hooks the reader, but also gives the reader an idea of where the collection is going. Consider epigraphs (quotations at the beginning of collections), section headers, and other non-poem elements that will help tie your collection together. A fantastic example is Shannon Connor Winward’s book The Year of the Witch, a book separated by the seasons.
- Save your best, strongest poems for last.
- The first poem is crucial. It hooks the reader and makes them want more. Choose a poem that shows the reader what they are in for.
- A chapbook is meant to be read in one sitting. What journey do you want your reader to take? How do you want them to feel by the end?
- Consider chronology. This works well for poems that are based on a poet’s life experience or personal history.
Take a Break
At this point in the process, it can be useful to take a break and let the collection ruminate. Come back to it in a week or a month and you will see it with new eyes. This is a good time to get feedback on the collection from other poets or readers.
- Ask a friend to proofread the collection for you.
- Exchanged critiques with another poet.
- Add any final touches such as an acknowledgments page, epigraphs, section headers, or dedications.
Giving your book time to ruminate will give you fresh eyes to see it anew.
Chapbooks are small, but mighty. They can be stepping stones to longer works or can be small books you use to entice readers to your writing. Do not underestimate the power of these tiny collections!
Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor based out of Houston, Texas. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She provides editing services for writers and organizations of all genres, experiences, and backgrounds, but enjoys working with new writers best. Find her on Twitter or visit her website.