Much of my early winter has been spent in the thrall of a short-form project—specifically, a group of poems responding to Cartridge Lit‘s call for game-based chapbooks. It has given unexpected joy; in composition, it occurred to me that writing a long suite of poems based on some theme is a rare mode for a poet, who is generally told that only a ‘full-length’ book of poems will make her future. Of course the muse pays no mind to all that; and it is a strange product that arises when the poet commits himself to an anti-commercial project like the chapbook.

Strange and liberating. Not a week ago, Stephanie Adams-Santos and I talked about how the muse—the spirit-in-muse?—laps the reasoning mind in ways only crystal product can help us understand. I mean: most artists have felt a creative drive through which something superior issues, something they could not have predicted they’d achieve, or thought they had the wisdom to compose, when first sitting down to write, sculpt, dance. That moment, the appearance of the crystal product, smacks of the occult, because a clear separation develops between a rational act (‘I’m going to sit down now and try to write a pantoum’) and an super-rational artifact (as, for example, Dickinson’s stanza ‘With Blue—uncertain—stumbling Buzz / Between the light—and me— / And then the Windows failed—and then / I could not see to see—’). Through the act of composition one is made aware, quite suddenly, of rivers or stars self’s landscape had (or suddenly has?) in reserve, and that now can be used to make things.

Because the chapbook (I like the UK’s designation of ‘pamphlet’; and in French bibliothèque bleue; and in German Volksbuch) is, again, anti-commercial, short-run, and relatively ephemeral, something of the noisome public artist can drop away in writing it. Even a fancy chapbook publication from an ‘established’ house won’t net one his dreamt-for big-label review or his happy professorial post; so the buried you (Adams-Santos contrasts this free ‘you’ to the you thinking, even in the very writing act, about how to properly compose for an industry/editorial audience) breathes. Perhaps even dares a stanza that feels foreign to sentinel, writerly You.

Wikipedia shares a happy list of topics that Samuel Pepys considered apt for chapbook-writing:

  1. Devotion and morality
  2. History—true and fabulous
  3. Tragedy—viz. Murders, executions, and judgments of God
  4. States and Times
  5. Love—pleasant
  6. Ditto—unpleasant
  7. Marriage, Cuckoldry, &c.
  8. Sea—love, gallantry & actions
  9. Drinking and good fellowship
  10. Humor, frollicks and mixt.

‘Mixt’—yes! And I find even greater thematic or object-based specificity—like, in my current project, the replaying of a video game with ekphrasis in mind—has caused a fissuring I couldn’t have predicted. I’m not exactly the poet I was this October, no. Let a little chapbook prize from some interesting small press or odd magazine make a mission out of your method. You might then reconsider your appreciation for what the big-spending publishing industry calls ‘worthy.’