Forms of Enthusiasm: On Chapbooks

Jake Adam York
November 5, 2012
Comments 1

Back at the end of August, I was writing to suggest the value of enthusiastic engagements—interviews, conversations, encomia, even blurbs, however hyperbolic—as counterweights to “negative” reviews, which too often seem to exemplify judgment or criticism. I think a well crafted love note can be just as informative, if not more informative, than a sanguine vivisection.

I had to take more than a few weeks off to nurse a few injuries, which have made it difficult to type. But during that time, I have been able to revisit a number of my all-time favorite books. Not surprisingly, a number of these books are chapbooks.

Chapbooks are another of the forms of enthusiasm I wanted to explore when I began this thread. Because chapbooks are relatively small and typically intended for limited consumption of dedicated or purely occasional readers, the publisher of the chapbook—or the designer the publisher engages or, at times, the author of the poems themselves—can use the physical form of the chapbook to add value to the publication and, more importantly, to communicate a certain enthusiasm about the literary work in ways that might teach readers how to participate in this enthusiasm.

I want to share with you five of my favorite chapbooks to explain the point.


I had to buy two copies of R. T. Smith’s Gristledesigned and published by Slow Loris Press, formerly of Mobile, Alabama—because I started wearing out the vellum jacket of the first, which has become my reading and teaching copy.

R. T. Smith had published a small library of chapbooks in the 80’s and 90’s, including a beautiful edition, Beasts Did Leap, published by Tamarack Editions, designed and printed by Allen Hoey in 1982. And because he was my teacher when I was a student at Auburn and practically the only living poet I’d heard of for a while, I gathered most of these slim volumes.

Gristle was different, however. The poems were different, more visionary and also more muscular in their rhythms and music than the work I’d come to know from The Cardinal Heart, the book that may be responsible for my transferring out of architecture and into English. And the chapbook was different, too. The vellum jacket made the book seem delicate, rare. Within, woodcuts by C. Abbott Meader that tended to the abstracting complexity of illuminations in The Book of Kells and very distinctive type set by Ian Robertson made the same argument.

Gristle, front cover




The poems in this chapbook later appeared as the second section of Smith’s collection Trespasser, but this chapbook edition, a classic letterpress edition, where the hand-work is so clear and so fine, makes a direct (some might say sincere) argument for the worth and perhaps the singularity of the poems. In fact, the chapbook marks a turning point in Smith’s career: Trespasser, his third (or fourth or twelfth depending on how you count) book, was published by LSU, and Smith became the editor of Shenandoah and finally began to get some of the recognition he’d been working for for years.


Another such book is Ailish Hopper’s Bird In The Head, winner of the 2005 Center for Book Arts chapbook competition. Everything about the book—the paper, the type (you can feel the impression of the type in the paper), the binding, designed by Ed Rayher and Barbara Henry—says You need to read this.

Ailish Hopper's BIRD IN THE HEAD


This is a great thing the Center for Book Arts chapbook competition does: to be eligible forthis competition, one must not have published more than two full length books, which means that these chapbooks draw attention through their finery to poets you may not know. Bird in the Head is Hopper’s first publication in chapbook form; she is even now circulating her first book manuscript, which you will soon read and admire, I know.


Pilot Book’s edition of Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s The Book of Flashlights, Clover, & Milk takes the idea of a formal enthusiasm seriously in quite another way. Working outside the material tradition of the letterpress, Pilot creates a unique form that reads as a response to—and an amplification of—the form of Wilkinson’s poem.

In Suspension of a Secret in Abandoned Rooms and Lug Your Careless Body Out of the Careful Dusk Wilkinson was working out a peculiar vocabulary of sequence. In Suspensions, the individual poems carried a uniting throughline, in which the author traces Egon Schiele’s life, but also—through narrative fracture and rich lyricism—resist or complicate that throughline. This work continued in Lug, which at times connects its world back to that of Suspensions. It is as if Wilkinson had been making a film he wanted us to watch at extreme slowness, so we could reach each frame as well as the sequence of frames.

The Book of Flashlights, Clover, & Milk formalizes this. The book is to be read backwards, flipping from left to right the pages, which are printed on paper, vellum, and transparency, so that each leaf contains a stanza or line; flipping the pages lays one stanza on another, so that every trio of leaves gives you something that looks like a page in one of his other books. This format emphasizes both the lapidary quality, the framed quality, of individual stanzas or lines, and the sequence or accumulation as well.

This is clearly an act of enthusiasm, of understanding (perhaps, too, of translation), on the part of Meghan Dewar, who also had to print each page by hand (unlike in a letterpress format, where two or more pages may be printed at once) and hand-assemble each of the 300 copies that have now sold out.

We typically assign discussion of this sort of work to design competitions or quiet reverence in the rare-books room, but I think the design here is an act of criticism, every bit as vital as the book review or the poet’s formal work, which is rarely discussed in book reviews anyway.


These treatments are impractical at large scales, though as Anne Carson’s Nox makes clear, these are possible and even desirable. The design of these books—perhaps even design in general—often gets bracketed, as if these visual aspects were not salient in a consideration of a verbal medium. But, of course, the form of the book is (or has been) the first technology of the relationship between the writer and the reader, the first place a case for transmission is made.

I’ll admit I’m eager for reviews of my own work, because I fall into thinking of the publication process as instrumental rather than material or singular. But I’d forgo a few reviews to be published in these forms, which carry their review with them.

One thought on “Forms of Enthusiasm: On Chapbooks

  1. Such a piece, positive as it is, is, like most book reviews, to a large extent useless to me because it does not allow me to taste the work of the writer under review. I used to love the back page of the New York Times Book Review because in those days it consisted of fairly sizable quotes from what the editors considered notable current books. In that way, I encountered poems and poets I would never otherwise have known about, not to mention novels and short story collections I often rushed out to buy (I lived then on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, back when bookstores there were everywhere). Without those quoted poems and paragraphs, which spoke to my mind and my heart and my imagination, most of those writers would have passed through my consciousness leaving no lasting impact.

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