Breaking the Cycle of Consent: e-chapbooks

Posted by @ 10:28 am on October 30th, 2009

There is no such thing as an e-chapbook. And honestly, why would you want there to be? The very term shrieks “diminished expectations” and “compromised dignity.” This is no referendum on the quality of your poetry, which I do not doubt is lovely, smart, and in the words of Daphne Dunham writing about Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, “brain candy of the best sort.”

Nonetheless, “e-chapbook” is a non-form that somebody made up, presumably as a joke, but which, like everything else in the poetry world, seems doomed to invert the classic Marxist formula–ahem, flarf–by appearing first as farce, and then as tragedy, which is the late-stage of e-chapbookism in which we now find ourselves copiously sighing. Can you think of anything more ludicrous than the idea that the publication of a pdf file to a blogger page is somehow cause for a new entry on one’s bibliography? I can, but all the examples are about other things, like healthcare.

In poetry world, this seems about as absurd as it gets, and the logical extension of the poetry “pub-credit arms race” which, unsurprisingly, tends to do double duty as an all-purpose “race to the bottom.” The only thing that I wonder is whether the impetus is the result of cynicism, laziness, or a sheer lack of imagination on the part of so-called “innovative” publishers. Though, now that I’m thinking about it, I suppose there’s really no reason why I shouldn’t be generous in my thinking and assume it’s all three at once. It’s the same lamentable urge that causes poets to casually mis-identify “chapbooks” as “books,” as in, “I had five books last year, and three more are coming out in the next six months.”

Listen, I’m sure your poems are great and I’m really glad you have eight friends with access to a copy machine and/or letter press. Seriously. That’s awesome. (I have one friend who has these things–and I love him.) And I’ve no doubt–none whatsoever–that the work is deserving of–or perhaps better than–Allen Ginsberg’s description of Naked Lunch as “the endless [poetry chapbook] which will drive everybody mad.” Still, it must be said that you have not in fact published “a book” of any kind–not even of the chapbook kind, since the one thing one of the many and best things the chapbook has going for it is its built-in value as a limited-edition, a status necessarily contingent on the physicality of the thing itself. And if you’re wondering why “must it” be said– the reason is very simple: because you are standing there trying to convince me that you have. If you weren’t trying to lie to me, I wouldn’t be forced to tell you the truth about yourself. But by all means, do go ahead and fwd me that pdf file. I’m genuinely excited to see it.

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