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March 28th, 2012 / 11:44 am
Massive People & Presses & Word Spaces

Sampson Starkweather Strips it Down to Just Chapbooks

The 2012 Chapbook Festival starts tomorrow. I call it “the good AWP.” In preparation, this year I’ve asked Sampson Starkweather, 1/5th of the Birds, LLC braintrust and chapbook enthusiast, some questions about the form. Go get a blanket–he links up some great stuff that is way worth the read.

Hey Sampson, what’s the deal with chapbooks?
Funny, that’s how I start all my stand-up comedy gigs. It kills of course. So I wanted to start with a quote from James Haug’s Why I Like Chapbooks (Factory Hollow, 2011), who waxes lyrical “Chapbooks are stealth books./ They can slip under a door./ They don’t impose. They suggest./ They’re not one thing or another. They don’t take much time. They’re sly and easy to ignore. They imply, insinuate, inquire./ They don’t expect an answer./ They have a long history; they have no history.”

Chapbooks are the currency of underground poetry publishing, and tied to a sense of community and gift-ish economy, mostly run by poets who want to give something back and create a home for the work they believe in. Chapbooks are the new of the new, in the world of poetry most poets’ first publications come through chapbooks, so if you want to know the future (of poetry), read chapbooks. Chapbooks tend to be exciting and tied to a counter-culture because they provide a space for more experimental, esoteric or avant-garde work to be published that contests and university presses or bigger presses who may be more concerned with money wouldn’t take the risk on or didn’t think would sell…Chapbooks are like the opposite of money. Which is so money!

Chapbooks also have such a materiality and visceral physical life, because they are mostly handmade and handbound and come in all shapes, sizes (from Small Fires matchbooks to The Pines LP records) and textures imaginable (god I love texture!), made from old military uniforms, childhood blankets, prison cups, cardboard, vinyl, rubber, bolts, matchbooks, you name it. It is this handmade element and imagination and of course each chapbook’s limited nature that gives them such value, and ties them to history and an archival existence. Chapbooks are a link to the human that I think is more important than ever right now in the face of ever increasing digital media and publishing, Chapbooks are like Sarah Connor and her son (John Connor) facing the Terminators in Terminator 2: the hope of all mankind and the future of the human race lie in their hands. Also, they are perfect to read on the subway!

Oh, cool. Well, what year were they invented in?
I should probably just put in a link to Wikipedia here, but I actually learned a bit about the history of Chapbooks from Andrew Kenower of Trafficker Press at a panel he gave at last year’s Chapbook Festival. Basically back in the 1550s, and they were peddled by chapmen or “unruly people” and they formed “nearly the sole literature of the poor” and ranged from everything from collections of “bawdy verse” to religious ballads and political manifestos, and served as the only device of communication for the general public. So it seems we are culturally indebted to them, I’m thinking about the Dadaist manifestos, counter-culture publications of the 60s and underground punk era publications of the 70s, and more recently as I’ve been watching Occupy movements evolve, the way literature is passed around has that same feel–pamphlets, documents, manifestos, and poetry collections are everywhere, like unrecognized passports allowing each other access to our ideas and minds, and of course the People’s Library, which is a haven for these “chapbooks” and hopefully will live as an archive.

Is there anything that strikes you about the chapbook as a form that can’t be done in other forms (like regular books or say movies)?
From a reader’s perspective, I think the main thing is the chapbook form allows for a succinct singular and intimate reading experience in which the life of the poetry is tied to material form. The difference is with most books or full-length collections, one is not reading it in a single sitting, but with chapbooks you can read them fluidly from beginning to end without stopping, and like all great art forms, you are transformed after that process. Not that you can’t be with longer books, but mass produced books and longer collections tend to supersede and drown out the particular or local, also each time you stop and then pick those books up again to resume you are to some degrees a different person, so it is a different kind of experience.

From a writer’s perspective it also allows for the right measure or duration of an exploration of a subject, idea or theme which would often exhaust itself in a full-length collection or longer book. I mean just like poems can be long or short, why shouldn’t books of poetry, but we’ve got this limit in mainstream publishing like anything under 48 pages isn’t considered “book,” which is insane. Sometimes a sequence/series or collection just needs to be 9 or 15 or 34 pages, and that’s where the chapbook as a form and unit and means of publication is so crucial. George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, Jack Spicer and the mimeograph world of the West Coast in the 50s and 60s all come to mind as poets who mastered the form or unit of what we call the chapbook.

From a publishing perspective there is also an obvious analogy with music, much like EP’s function in the music world, with chapbooks you get a taste of what a poet is doing, then see the same work re-contextualized or realigned when it appears in a full-length collection, which can create a new and dynamic life for the work functioning as part of a larger whole/idea/conversation/narrative.

How come Birds, LLC doesn’t do chapbooks?
We come from a chapbook background, Birds was born out of Kitchen Press (2005-2008), founded by Justin Marks, who published awesome chapbooks (with freakin’ spines) by exciting poets writing a new kind of poetry that was outside of the mainstream of what was being published, most of whom it was their first published collection: Mathias Svalina, Elisa Gabbert, Ana Bozicevic, Lilly Brown, Jon Leon, Joseph Massey, etc. Birds, LLC seemed like a natural progression of this, wanting to fill a similar gap we felt existed in publishing full-lengths books (which seemed to be mostly carbon copy contest books) for writers who we felt deserved full-length collections and a wider audience (especially women). However, we can only afford to publish 2 to 3 books a year and there are so many more poets we’d love to publish. So we will be doing chapbooks, starting with the re-release of Morgan Lucas Schuldt’s Kitchen Press chapbook Otherhow. Morgan was a fantastic poet, pushing the limits of form and language in an exciting and beautiful way while still remaining emotional and personal, who sadly passed away earlier this year from complications of cystic fibrosis at age 33. We hope the publication of the chapbook will expose Morgan’s work to a wider audience; it will be available for free online soon. I should also mention Flying Guillotine Press just put an exquisite new chapbook of Morgan’s that will be available at the Chapbook Festival.

Can there be fiction chapbooks?
O Yeah (Randy “Macho Man” Savage voice), and plays, art, criticism, and comics too (check out Bianca Stone’s ridiculously awesome comic “I WANT TO OPEN THE MOUTH GOD GAVE YOU BEAUTIFUL MUTANT” from Factory Hollow Press). Fiction and prose is growing in the chapbook world, which makes sense, because let’s face it, it’s not easy to get your first novel published. Rose Metal Press actually just had a collection of 5 prose/fiction chapbooks bound together. New Herring Press is another good example promoting prose publishing alternatives, focusing on fiction and criticism, publishing manifestos, stories collection, novel excerpts, stories in one long paragraph, etc. All of which will be at the 2012 Chapbook Festival.

Can chapbooks exist online?
Chapbooks can exist anywhere! Like a gift from heaven, UDP is unrolling or re-releasing their out-of-print chaps digitally as part of a growing chapbook archive, one could spend a lifetime here. Yes Yes Press is doing some dope work in this world, check out two of my favorite poetry aliens Ben Mirov and Eric Amling’s collaboration. Or check out this mind-blowing interactive collaboration between Ish Klien & Orra White Hitchcock in Triple Canopy. Some press called Pubishing Genius (I think you might like them), H_NGM_N has their portable document series which rocks. I’m sure there are a million others.

So what happens at the Chapbook Festival?
Murder. And a lot of literary duels and scores are settled. No, it’s really a family atmosphere, which centers around the 2-day bookfair with over 50 small presses (from as far away as Croatia) held in the CUNY Graduate Center, and provides (for free) the smallest of the small presses a chance to show their work to the public. Chapbooks rely on an underground means of distribution, you can’t just run out to Barnes & Noble and pick up the new John Coletti chapbook. The Chapbook Festival provides an opportunity for the public to interact with the publishers and the books (they are tactile and material after all and beg to be touched). Besides the bookfair there are also workshops, which kick off at The Center for Book Arts, on Binding/Print-making, followed by a panel discussion on Community & Publishing, then on Thursday & Friday we have marathon poetry readings “LUNCH POEMS” (with a killer line up) from noon to 3pm, curated by 6 local reading series, and at 3 and 5 we have free workshops (such as Digital Chapbooks) and panels (such as Why Chapbooks Saved My Life), and Thursday is capped off by one of our most exciting events to day, a panel with an all-star cast called The State of Translation Trends in Innovative Publishing, and Friday night the festival is capped off with the Poetry Society of America’s annual Chapbook fellow contest reading/celebration.

Tell me about your chapbook.
I believe all my chapbooks are out of print, but I can tell you they were all out from super rad presses, Greying Ghost Press, Horseless Press, Rope-a-Dope Press and Immaculate Disciples Press, actually there are a few copies of The Heart is Green from So Much Waiting but I’ll let Mike Young tell you about it.

Tell me about one of your favorite chapbooks?
ONE! That’s impossible, I can tell you about a few that changed the way I write or think about poetry. Elisa Gabbert’s Thanks for Sending the Engine from Kitchen Press is one of my all-time favorite chapbooks, and is the reason we did this amazing book, it was what I think of as a book of thinking, Matt Cook says “you write the way you talk, I just happen to talk real cool,” well I think we write the way we think, and Elisa Gabbert thinks real cool! Dana Ward’s Typing Wild Speech by Summer BF Press totally blew my mind and made me realize if you’re good at running downhill, well then run down hill as fast as fucking possible! You open it and freedom jumps out and slaps you in the face and then kisses you and tell you “Let’s go!” Chris Martin’s How To Write A Mistakest Poem by Brave Men Press is mindblowing, and I find myself like a spy mechanic trying to figure out how it works, how it ticks and how the hell I can steal from it. Shannon Burns’ Preserving The Old Way Of Life is just super cool and a chapbook I wish I had written, and makes me just wish I knew this awesome person who wrote it. Amy Lawless’s Elephants in Mourning by [Sic] out of Detroit just totally bowled me over emotionally, somehow she is able to take this form or seemingly conceptual technique of writing based on watching Youtube videos of elephants mourning their dead, and making it beautiful, funny, sad, and ultimately, utterly human. Guy Pettit’s Love me or Love me No 1 & Ben Kopel’s Because We Must made me write to them, which is to me, the highest praise for any poetry. Look what Corina Copp’s double chap from UDP did to Ron Silliman. And last but not least, the last chapbook I read had a huge impact on me and is the reason I wrote this interview, Lorine Niedecker’s Homeade Poems, which are an amazing facsimile of the actual handwritten book she assembled and sent to Cid Corman, which is beautifully designed and published the Lost & Found CUNY Poetics Document Imitative, and masterfully edited by John Harkey. It’s part of the upcoming Series III of Lost & Found which will be available soon, and a few individual copies will be at the Chapbook Festival so look for them!

How many chapbooks do you have? How do you organize them? What percentage of them have you read?
A couple hundred. Besides scattered all over the house, I organize them in this shelving unit, so you can scroll through. I’d say I’ve read about 92 percent.

What are some of your favorite types of binding chapbooks?
Japanese stab bound, besides just sounding bad ass they look beautiful.

If you were a chapbook, how would you be bound?
I’d probably just be stapled, like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.

Do you ever get chapbooks just because they look amazing, instead of because they might have amazing poems or whatever inside of them?
All the time. I’ll buy basically anything that’s produced out of Flying Object for example. But usually they turn out to be amazing inside as well, it’s sort of like magic.

Do you feel bad for chapbooks that came out in a limited edition of 75 copies 30 years ago and now no one knows they exist?
No, that’s part of their charm and genius, that esoteric, arcane nature of limited edition made objects, and just adds to their value and the thrill of discovering them. Besides, Nat Otting knows about all of them.

I have a chapbook of poems about Guided By Voices that I just wrote on the toilet, would Birds, LLC like to publish them?
If you could just send a video of you reading it on the toilet and post in the comments we’ll let you know …

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