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What’s a Chapbook & How Do I Make One?

Last week, I told you about three creative ways that you can share your poetry apart from submitting your work to literary journals or other publications.

We talked about performance poetry, doing live readings on social media, and created mixed media poetry with artistic friends. But there’s one more BIG way that you can share your work…and that’s by creating a chapbook. “Chapbook” is a big, fancy, literary word for a small collection of poems. They can be as short as five to ten poems or as long as thirty. The only requirement is that they be thematically linked or deliberately put together to create a larger whole.

This means a chapbook is not a random assemblage of poems. You don’t just slap some poems in a Word document and print it. There is usually a strategy to how the chapbook is put together, with the individual pieces forming an intentionally constructed whole. I once heard a poet compare creating a chapbook to making a mixtape (or a Spotify playlist for those of you who came of age in the era of digital music). When you choose the songs to include on such a compilation, you typically keep in mind a particular theme or occasion. Maybe it’s a playlist you’ve made specifically for a vacation or special event like a wedding. Maybe you want all your favorite country songs or showtunes in one place, or you’re creating a playlist to show your crush how you feel about them (which is primarily how we did it back in the ‘90s). Regardless of the situation, there are certain principles that guide you toward which songs to choose. And making a chapbook works the same way.

Throughout National Poetry Month, you’ve hopefully created all kinds of new poems, either through the prompts in my Ultimate Poetry Workbook or our 10 Minute Writing Time on Instagram. Maybe you’re looking at the accumulated poems, as well as ones you’ve previously written, and think it might be time to culminate those efforts with a chapbook. And if that’s the case, let me walk you through the process so you can get ideas on how to create a powerful book that not only showcases your work, but impacts readers.

Assembling Your Content

The first step in making a chapbook is selecting the poems you want to include and putting them together. Remember, unity is a key component of a chapbook—whether the unifying factor is a common theme, use of imagery, or recurring ideas, you need to choose which poems fit together best. This may mean that you have to reject some pieces that are not in service to that unity, even if they are really good poems. You can put them aside for future projects, submit them individually to a journal, or use one of the performative or creative methods we talked about last week to share them with people. So, how does finding unity in your chapbook work? Here are a couple examples. In a previous post, I showcased Inkling author Logan Roberts’s chapbook, It’s a Knife. All of the poems in it deal with relationships and the wounds we intentionally and unintentionally inflict, as well as their repercussions. The poems are organized in a way that gradually unfolds these themes throughout the book, developing new explorations of them and revisiting old ones. Grab a copy over at the Inkling Store—I guarantee that if you are interested in writing a chapbook, it will provide you with some inspiration and a great model of how it’s done. I’ve also mentioned my own chapbook, Bone China Girls: A Poetic Account of a Female Crime in past posts. Creating this chapbook was perhaps easier for me than it is for many authors because mine tells a story composed of persona poems showing different viewpoints of the same event. However, I still had the challenge of arranging the different poems in a way that would tell the story while simultaneously letting the right voices speak at the right times. In fact, I cut three or four poems because I felt that they made the larger narrative lose momentum.

One thing that I, not to mention many of my poet friends, recommend is to print out physical copies of all your poems. Then, put them all on the floor in front of you (one friend of mine puts hers on a clothesline) and read them.

Mix them up. Put them in different arrangements and think about how the order changes the meaning. Look for the ways the poems talk to each other. Once you find an order that feels “right” to you, you are ready to move on to the next step…

Revision & Editing

The terms revision and editing are commonly used interchangeably, but there is a distinct difference between the two. Revision is taking a good, hard look at your writing and identifying what’s working and what needs to be changed. In poetry, this typically means dissecting the individual lines by thinking about word choice, line lengths, and line breaks. Revision is a tough concept for many writers to wrap their minds around, and this is particularly true for poetry.

The best thing you can do for your poetry revision is, quite simply, play with it. When I revise my poems, I feel like a little kid playing with Play Dough. I take lines and move them around, break them in different places, or rearrange them on the page.

Eventually, I reach a point where I like what I see. There is an instinctual feeling of knowing that the poem is finished. While revision focuses on the global changes you make to writing, editing is “the fine print.” This is where you proofread your work on a technical level.

Obviously, this process works a bit differently for poetry than prose. Sometimes, poetry deliberately breaks rules with grammar and punctuation. Therefore, your job with proofreading will be to make sure you have used punctuation and grammar in a way that fits the poem itself.

Publishing Your Chapbook

One of the great things about chapbooks as a genre is the diversity. Some people make chapbooks themselves by simply photocopying and stapling the poems, or even stitching the spines together. Many small presses also sponsor chapbook contests throughout the year. The winners not only get their books published, but get great exposure as well. The downside to these contests is that an entry fee is usually required, so it’s worth taking the time to “vet” the publishers to see if your book would genuinely be a good fit for them. However…one of the best and most convenient options available to poets is to use a print-on-demand service like Kindle Direct Publishing. By far, the question writers ask me the most is whether self-publishing your work is worth it, a topic that I addressed at length in this post.

Spoiler alert: the answer is YES.

In particular, choosing to publish your chapbook independently allows you to fully accomplish your vision for the collection. You can choose your own cover art, lay out the text however you wish, and share it with as few or as many people as you want. Regardless of how you choose to share your chapbook with the world, numerous avenues exist for you to get your work out there. Want to talk more about your poetry and ways to share it? I’d love to connect on a free 30-minute Virtual Meetup. We’ll discuss your goals for your writing, dig into your current questions or hang-ups, and identify the next steps you should take to making your project precisely what you want it to be. Click here to get on my calendar.

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