Let me share some of my assumptions about what a chapbook might be. The name originally refers to a "cheapbook," a small handy volume sold by a chapman, who would "chap" or barter his goods in the marketplace, or door to door. Embracing that early Renaissance tradition of hawked goods, I still think of it as a handy publication in one gathering, of a dozen to no more than 32 pages, with an aesthetic that includes a softbound cover, an informal but distinct presence without page numbers or table of contents, and usually but not always a single tight focus or subject. The analogy that comes to mind is a short story compared to a novel. No room or time for digressions; little patience with loose associations and meanderings. Scene setting must be spare, with each element an integral step along the path of the whole.
So I look to see if there is a through-line, a "plot" or development that links the pieces. As a natural consequence, a substantial long poem would benefit from this kind of stand-alone presentation, though a long poem would need to be engaging, accessible, not too lofty or formal. As these remarks suggest, an important part of my publishing agenda with this series is to win new readers for the works, and not simply to dish up the familiar and expected. For too long chapbooks have been considered way-station in writers' careers, stopgaps for the full book that should inevitably follow a career on the move. So considered, chapbooks have not been seen as aesthetic wholes, not conceived or executed as a complete reading experience, so not taken seriously. That could change, given the right work and treatment. Eliot's "Wasteland" and Ginsberg's "Howl" might both have benefitted from a first appearance as chapbooks, each conceived and presented as a single experience.
A few notes about my own explorations deserve mention. Necessity being the mother of invention, the Victor and C & P presses are what fell into my hands, and the size of the chapbooks was dictated by the maximum sheet size the Victor would accept. Using antique, muscle-powered equipment stretched to its limits encourages the printing to be direct and spare, if a trifle irregular. I chose to work with woodblocks, since as printing's earliest form of illustration they stand easily alongside handset type, and give a plain and sturdy quality, as well as an aesthetic unity to the whole. Under the knife the drawings are reduced to their strongest, simplest shapes and shadings. Perhaps they set up an expectation that the essence will emerge and at some point clearly stand forth.
Another element to note is time. I have been thinking of this process of hand typesetting, carving and printing as a kind of compound-low gear in the transmission that is publishing, a set of tools and way of thinking that are slow, deliberate and labor-intensive, a stump-pulling gear to realize those works most rooted and anchored in language. Look at any handprinted book, and by the most generous measure you must count each page a long work-day, if not with some a work-week. It is not appropriate treatment for every piece of writing. Thoreau notes that a book should be read as deliberately as it was written. Perhaps writing that is tossed off merits only a cursory glance. I do know that is a personal test of what I publish: can I live with it for the weeks and months it will take to be set, inked and pulled, folded and sewn and glued into an independent, modest whole?
By its very presence such printing in the old ways asserts Horace's famous dictum, "Littera scripta manet": the written word remains. For anyone who has held a four-hundred year old book, and seen how sturdy and longlasting (and dare we say beautiful) such efforts can be, there is both secret joy and slight trepidation in seeing living writers join the pages of such august company. For better and for worse, these little books will stand a lot of handling, and be around a long time. Which means we must write well, look long and closely to coax forth the life of a piece, and even so accept that most of what we write is not so engaging, lasting or vital.
Even with competing electronic media, we have not outgrown reading and writing, particularly not the imaginative act this connection entails. Much less have we outgrown the notion of appropriate technology, where the book on the shelf remains a marvel, a technological and cultural achievement without parallel. Once printed it uses no energy in its transmission, is durable and reusable and casually in touch with the centuries. Within its covers a book can encompass and realize worlds. Having done our jobs writing, editing, publishing, we await the moment when we will be lifted down, opened, felt anew, shared and enjoyed.
I have elected to work a visual element in the broadsides, using woodblock cuts. I think of what I am doing not as illustration, but as a kind of beckoning, so generally choose recognizable shapes and objects. The role of the printed whole is to attract and hold the attention, to focus it on the poem. When one is far enough into the poem's language, its gestures and effects, the woodcut should be like the other visual elements--type faces, layout, ink colors and paper texture. All these should drop away, subservient to the primary impulse, which is the poem.
The current arrangement I make with authors is to pay them in copies. The author of a chapbook receives the first fifty (50) numbered copies, plus a hardbound copy of the published work. The author of a broadside receives the first twenty-five (25) numbered copies of the run. In addition I make the promise to chapbook authors to keep the work in print. If the limited letterpress run is quickly exhausted, and there is clearly a larger demand for the work, I will issue a mass-market second printing that is as close to the letterpress edition in materials, format and quality as I can make it, in offset, xerox or laser-printing.