Long live samizdat, or why we should relax and love chapbooks


“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.” James Haug’s Why I Like Chapbooks (Factory Hollow, 2011)

According to the dictionary, chapbook is a “small book or pamphlet containing poems, ballads, stories, or religious tracts”. In fact, this phenomenon, which we associate with modern day, has long history. It all started somewhere in England in the 16th century. At that time so-called chapmen traveled through the country with the boxes full of small two-pence books, which they sold to everyone. These books were romantic and religious stories, cookbooks, magic and fortunetelling guides. And all sorts of gross tales, of course.


Chapbook was a medium through which songs were spreading among people who could not read or write. Well, you don’t have to read or write to learn a song. So if someone had a chapbook, the whole clique would sing along. People memorized and passed songs on. They learned songs from musicians  – the ones, who could read, and so they bought chapbooks.

Modern day chapbooks are mostly poetry books. They’re still being associated with low culture, but nowadays it most likely underground or countercultural kind of thing. Chapbooks are usually handmade and present new voices, which are more radical and rough than those published in official presses. Sampson Starkweather, a chapbook enthusiast, gives an inspiring definition of what they are:

“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!”


New technologies provide new ways of producing a book. There are e-chapbooks already. But doesn’t Internet kill the originality of chapbook as a handmade object? I don’t think so. Electronic versions are carrying on that folk tradition of spreading the word – and spreading more widely, no matter what medium we use.


To learn how to make your chapbook at home,  go here http://www.pw.org/content/diy_how_to_make_and_bind_chapbooks?cmnt_all=1

Want to publish? Visit http://www.poetrysociety.org/psa/poetry/resources/chapbook_publishers/ to see the list of independent publishing houses


xenia zimmerman

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