What in the World is a Chapbook?

Sometimes we get so used to the jargon of the field we’re in that we forget it’s a specialized language. And that others don’t always  know what in the heck we’re talking about when we use it.

I was thinking the other day that when I say that I wonder if Perry is a feral cat or a stray cat that the nuance between those two types of cats could be lost. A feral cat is so wild that he is not used to humans or civilization and oftentimes cannot be persuaded that we are ok. Unless quite young when the socialization begins, it might not be possible to ever get a feral cat to accept human touch. But I say that with a caveat: every cat must be treated as an individual because you just never know which feral cats can be socialized and which socialized cats will never be lapcats–based on temperament, environment, and so on.

Speaking of Perry, I have been reading him Cindy Rinne’s story in verse Quiet Lantern about a Vietnamese girl named Mai Ly who is on a spiritual quest. The farther I go into the story and the more poetic prowess I discover, the more impressed I am with the book.

Another word I’ve flung around the blog lately is chapbook. Kin Types is a chapbook, rather than a full-length poetry collection like Doll God or like Rinne’s book (which is over 100 pages). But what is a chapbook? Historically, a chapbook was a small pamphlet that was truly around before books as we know them today were invented. The first written fairy tales were chapbooks. They were small. They were a few pages. And they were really roughly printed.

Chapbooks today, though, usually meet these qualifications:

  • Generally poetry, but not always
  • Less than 48 pages in length, generally around 25-30, but even as short as 15 pages (full-length collection is around 55-75)
  • Generally has a sharper focus than a full-length collection
  • Some of the most famous poems were first published in chapbooks–poems by T.S. Eliot, William Blake, Philip Larkin, and Allen Ginsberg
  • Poems can be used in a full-length collection later (or not)
  • There are many chapbook contests and small presses publishing chapbooks
  • There is only one after-publication prize open to chapbooks in the U.S., whereas there are many for full-length books
  • Poets are encouraged to publish chapbooks, as well as full-length books, and many poets first publish a chapbook rather than a book
  • Sometimes the binding is more beautiful than that of a book
  • Sometimes the artistic quality of the binding is poor and the pages look typewritten
  • Sometimes the book is stapled or bound by cord
  • Although modestly expensive, chapbooks are not meant to make money (yup, that’s a fact and probably true of all)
  • Chapbooks are a way to take a risk and strive for art for art’s sake

I did enter Kin Types in a few contests, but they are expensive (entry around $15-25 each) and when the manuscript was accepted by Finishing Line Press for publication, I decided to go with them, rather than spend more money on contests. Still, Kin Types was a semi-finalist in the Concrete Wolf chapbook contest and a Highly Commended title in The Fool for Poetry International Chapbook Competition.

The only writing I’ve been able to do lately is a poem for my son’s wedding. It’s being framed and will be on a table with photographs of the grandparents (of the bride and groom) who have passed on.

Today is the anniversary of my maternal grandmother’s birth in 1912, two days after the Titanic sank. Her birthday was two weeks after that of my paternal grandmother (though they were born 19 years apart). They were both Aries, as is the Gardener.  It’s hard to think of anything that is similar about the three of them, except that they have all been count-on-able.

My maternal grandmother’s name was Lucille Edna, although she was known as Edna. (Luanne is created from Lucille and my mother’s middle name Ann). Edna was Class Historian at graduation (her older sister was Salutatorian the same year) and  always wanted to be a writer. She thought of herself as the “Jo March” of her family (like in Little Women).

When she was elderly and ill, she made me promise I would never give up writing. That comment from Grandma found its way into a Kin Types poem.

from Grandma’s graduation scrapbook


Filed under #AmWriting, Book contest, Cats and Other Animals, Doll God, Family history, Kin Types, National Poetry Month, Poetry, Poetry book, Poetry Collection, Publishing, Writing, Writing contest

49 responses to “What in the World is a Chapbook?

  1. Well, thanks to you Luanne I’ve just learned something new. I always assumed that ‘Chap Book’ meant something that would only appeal to the male of the species. Thanks <3

  2. I had no idea about chap-books – thanks for the teaching moment!

    • You’re welcome! It occurred to me one day that maybe people didn’t know what I was talking about and then Marie from 1WriteWay mentioned the same thing to me!

  3. Great post, Luanne, definitions, cats, and history. Plus we learned the derivation of your name! 🙂
    Jack’s comment made me laugh, too. I know what a chapbook is, though not all the details you provided–so thank you for that! I think of them in history, too, along with commonplace books. When I had a fellowship at the Quaker Collection at Haverford College one summer, two scholars were working on Milcah Martha Moore and her commonplace book, now published.

    • The whole concept of the commonplace book is sooooo cool, and wow, to see them working on the Moore book must have been so exciting. Thanks, Merril! I love your historical nuggets!

      • It was a fun month there because there were several of us working on related topics and people. You would have loved it–we were sharing handmade family trees. There were all these Quakers with the same or similar names and intermarried. 🙂

        • Oh, that sounds like a great time. Were they intermarried on the first cousin level, is that it?

          • If I remember correctly, there was one pair of first cousins, but I think they were read out of meeting. I think it was more distant relations. But if you look at early American history, there are lots of step parents and step families, and sometimes siblings have the same names, or a baby dies, and then a later sibling is given the same name. Sometimes spouses and siblings have the same names. . . It’s been a while since I worked on this. 🙂

  4. Congratulations on placing in those competitions. I wouldn’t be surprised if chapbooks weren’t making a comeback, given people’s preference for reading material that’s small and easy to carry, easy to read digest in quiet moments during a busy day on the run.

    That novel in verse looks interesting too. I love the cover painting. Do you know who it is by?

    • Deborah, thank you so much re the competitions. I was pretty happy with that because Kin Types is not what some people might think of as a contenda because it’s got prose in it, the prose is flash nonfiction, which in itself is a bit unusual. In fact, the whole project is kind of unique and doesn’t fit into categories.
      The cover art is by Hung Viet Nguyen.

  5. Thanks for the education on chapbooks, Luanne.
    What a lovely gift you’re gifting your son and future daughter-in-law. That’s beautiful. Takes pictures!

  6. How thrilled she’d be to know you didn’t give up writing. Wise advice from a wise woman. 🙂

    • She would be tickled. She is the one person I most wish had been alive to see Doll God when it came out. I was lucky my father was still alive for a few months after it did and he was able to see it and (sort of) read it. But my maternal grandmother would have been thrilled in that way only a writer could be thrilled!

  7. fiberverse

    Dear Luanne,

    Thank you for the mention. I look forward to reading your chapbook. Yes, people do ask all the time what that is! I see you have an upcoming wedding. I did one year ago. It is an intense and special time. Enjoy! Cindy Rinne

    • Perry (the cat) and I are still enjoying your book! Maybe he looks so serious because he can tell from my voice what an enthralling story it is! Thank you re the wedding, too! So happy Carla and her husband can come as well!

  8. I’m with Deborah on the comeback of chapbooks. They seem like an ideal format length for those with limited attention spans (like me). I’m hoping novellas will make a come-back, too!

    • I think you are right about the short length of chapbooks fitting into the way readers are today. The more specific focus helps with that attention span, too. Novellas. DEATH IN VENICE. My favorite novella ever. Mmmm, when will I be rereading my favorites?

  9. Oh Little Women – magnifico.
    Love the idea of Chapbooks.
    Thanks for the inspirational post.

  10. Great clarification, Luanne, about chapbooks and full length poetry books. I have read many chapbooks without realizing that they were chapbooks, and your upcoming one, Kin Types, seems like a full-length book to me judging from the cover. I think it is due to the experiences in the past of reading chapbooks that were mainly stapled and were not well-printed. Today, they are much more sophisticated, thankfully! And thanks also for the feral/stray cat distinction, which was something I had not known. I love the idea of chapbooks; the term just sounds like one of those poetry words that we enjoy using in our poetry circles and lives.

    • I have done that, too, not differentiating between the two as I read. I saw one the other day that seemed a throwback. The quality was low, and I wasn’t very impressed with the poems either. That hasn’t happened to me in a long time so I know the quality has really gone up in chapbooks. I agree about the word chapbook, although it’s going to be hard not to think of Jack’s comment above when I use the term in the future! 😉

  11. I’m so excited about your chapbook! I’m like those people who were so impatient for the baby giraffe to be born. But finally it was, and it’s almost 6 feet tall.

    I was thinking about Aries the other day, how bright and cheery they can be, and how important their brains and eyes are. They know a good picture when they see one — even before it’s snapped!

    • I would love that Kin Types would turn out to be six feet tall and well worth the wait!
      That’s interesting about Aries. I would say that, given her life, my paternal grandmother was quite even keel in her nature. She also made her living with her needle, so her eyes were extremely important to her and when her vision began to fade it must have been so distressing but she never showed it. My maternal grandmother had a personality people might think of as jolly. And her brains were important to her. But the 3rd one of the trio, the Gardener, is not what I (or anybody in their right mind) would think of as a cheerful person. More of a glass 1/2 empty person, although plodding along and always doing the right thing even when others don’t always notice. His brain very important to him and his eyes, too.

  12. I love this post, Luanne. My favorite aunt’s name was Lucille – I absolutely adored her. She was my dad’s sister and died the year following my mom’s passing. And to think you were named for Lucille Edna…another moment of serendipity.
    I learned some new things about chapbooks, too!

    • Oh, I love that I sort of have a name in common with your favorite aunt! I’m liking what others have mentioned here about how chapbooks fit into the way people read today–shorter. And, I might add, in need of focus. Maybe we will see more and more of the in the future.

  13. Ian

    I felt a bit out of the loop when you and Carla were calling Kin Types a chapbook in recent posts and comments, so I actually looked it up. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one unfamiliar with the term! So, not only will it be my first POETRY book but also my first CHAPBOOK.

  14. I didn’t know what a Chapbook was Luanne. Thank you so much for this insight (and the insight into your name as well!) xxx

  15. First, thank you so much for explaining what chapbooks are! Here I am, with a Master in English degree and I still didn’t know what chapbooks were even so many of my professors and fellow students talked about them. And I really like that idea of art for art’s sake (i.e., chapbooks aren’t for making $$). Many years ago I subscribed to One Story, which is a pretty cool publication of one short story at a time. I stopped the subscription because I couldn’t keep up (yes, even with short stories, I have a hard time staying on top of my TBR list), but I loved the concept (although the binding, etc., was something anyone could do with a standard printer and stapler).
    Second, I’m so glad you listened to your grandma 🙂

    • Aw, thanks, Marie. I am pretty glad I listened too. She was having an anxious time in a rehab nursing home at the time, and I found her request very compelling. I’ve heard of One Story! I love the idea, but I too get overwhelmed with too much reading ahead of me. xo

  16. I love that reference to Jo March! I liked the Little Women book and the series, including Jo’s Boys. Louisa May Alcott wrote about and created a strong, independent woman. 🙂
    Your grandmother was wise in knowing you would become a fine author, Luanne.
    So glad you shared how you got your name, too. <3
    My Grandpa would have been 116 on April 20th. (Another Aries. He died in November, 1980 and was 79.) He lived until the year I had my first daughter and was brought back to Lancaster, Ohio to be buried by his second wife.
    Family is part of "who we are," which brings me to why I think I relate so well to you. 🙂

    • My grandma so wanted to be a writer herself and when she saw that in me, she didn’t want me to set it aside as she had.
      116! Imagine that! So did your grandpa meet your first baby? So your grandpa was born in 1901? That is fabulous. One of mine was born in 1908 and the other so long ago I can’t even remember the year haha. Oh, I guess it was 1877. No, I’m not making that up!

  17. Hi Luanne! I’m grateful for your in-depth description of chapbooks. I’m working on a couple of projects that may be be chapbook-length collections of flash fiction, each around its own theme. When you mentioned that the first fairy tales were chapbooks, that struck me, as one of my projects is a set of re-imagined fairy tales, which I’m tentatively calling “The Little Book of Fables.” I may have 10 K-20K words in these 12-15 stories, which is way too short even for a novella-length book, which is one reason I was considering a chapbook length. But it’s been hard to find information on chapbooks – thank you for this! 🙂

  18. My ignorance is bottomless. I obviously move in the wrong circles, Luanne. 🙂 But at least I now know what a Chapbook is. I was sure it must be something for the lads. 🙂

    • Haha, yours is definitely not bottomless, though mine feels that way lately! Yes, not a book just for lads, but for lassies, too!

  19. Luanne, thanks again for introducing me to chapbooks. So helpful!

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