Crafting a Chapbook

Are you looking to take your next big step as a writer? Here are a few tips for making your mini collection of poetry.

By Jenna Murray

Throughout my time at SUNY Geneseo, I have grappled with the aspiration of creating a collection of my work that reflects how I have grown as a writer. After speculating the many ways I could present my work to my community, with the workload of an undergraduate student on my back, I decided the best avenue would be to write a chapbook. 

A chapbook is a small book containing ballads, poems, tales, or tracts. Historically, chapbooks were first introduced as an alternative to the expensive, inaccessible book of the late 16th century—these unbound books of 8-12 pages cost less than a penny to purchase. Though the same can not be said of contemporary chapbooks, the exact value of accessibility stands. No matter what kind of poet you are, no matter how far along in your poetic journey you are, you can easily create a chapbook to share with your peers. 

Through a directive study, which I decided to title “Crafting a Chapbook,” I read through contemporary chapbooks, analyzed the structure and critical poetic techniques within, and was able to create my very own 40-page chapbook by the end of the semester. 

For any writer looking to make their next big move throughout their poetic journey, creating a chapbook—whether it be 40 pages, 20-30 pages, or as small as ten pages—is a perfect window into the concept of the poetic collection. Whereas some chapbooks may be based around certain thematic elements, such as motherhood, or a series of specific events, many chapbooks do not need a firm structure and can function within spaces of lyricism and spontaneity alone. 

After gaining all this insight throughout the semester, I understood the production of a chapbook very well. Though there is no one way to create a chapbook, as creative pursuits such as this should not be defined by structure, I found my course plan extremely effective and wanted to share those steps below, should they help any poets in their future endeavors. 

No matter what it is you envision for your future poetic chapbook, there is a space for all creatives within contemporary poetry—so, please take these steps and tips with both an open mind and an awareness of what works for you! 

    1. Read and research contemporary chapbooks around you: Before I started writing my chapbook, I knew it would be tough to find an exact example of what I was trying to create without understanding how the modern chapbook functioned. Therefore, I began “Crafting a Chapbook” by searching online for other poets’ work before anything else. There are many excellent websites to look through for free online chapbooks, such as Ugly Duckling Presse and Chapbooks Online. Or, if you find a writer who doesn’t have their chapbook available online but whose work you hope to read, don’t be afraid to reach out! I discovered the poet Dena Rod and, while his chapbook swallow a beginning wasn’t available online, they graciously gave me access to his work in hopes of helping young poets like myself on their journey. After receiving their chapbook, I read the collection in-depth, including annotations of what was working and how the small book was structured. Make sure; if time allows, you do the same! There is so much to learn from the contemporary poets around you—plus, the most impactful inspirations are often the unexpected! 
    2. Create a Chapbook Statement: After becoming familiar with the contemporary chapbook, I began to imagine what my contemporary chapbook would look like: Did the theme structure it? Did it follow the narrative of a story? What is it I want to communicate to my audience? Questions like these are great ways to conceptualize the work you wish to bring into your community. This ‘Chapbook Statement’ will thus help inform you as you begin to formulate your very own small collection of poetry.
    3. Write. And then write some more: This step is pretty self-explanatory—if you’re not writing, you’re not going to have anything to present to your audience. While it may seem daunting at first, writing every day can accelerate your success as a writer and, consequently, the creation of your chapbook. Find tips here on how to motivate yourself to write once a day. 
    4. Start your first draft of the chapbook: The next step is to combine all the poetry you have written into an extremely rough draft of your chapbook—refrain from overanalyzing; this is just your first draft! But, it is essential to share your work with your peers moving forward, as they can offer you insight into your writing that you may not be able to provide yourself. Remember, criticism does not mean something is bad—frequently, it is a reflection that something is working, but fighting to the surface for better framing. 
    5. Finalize your final chapbook draft: After you have reached out to your peers and get feedback, you can finalize your chapbook and share it with your community. While completing this final draft, you should consider specific organizational elements such as order, supplemental visual material, and an artist statement at the end or beginning of your collection. This is where you can get creative and shape your chapbook the way you want to present it—while, in the beginning, it was important to study those contemporary poets. Creating your own contemporary poetic identity and sharing it with the world is your point.
    6. Pat yourself on the back: A chapbook is a massive project, though defined by its lesser nature than the complete poetry collection! Congratulate yourself, and share your work with the world! You may choose to submit your chapbook to contests, publish it on a blog, or simply print it out for some of your closest friends—no matter what, you’ve done the hard work, and sharing that work with your community can be one of the most rewarding experiences for a poet. Not only have you now created your own small collection of poetry, but you have also introduced this collection into your communities and continued your journey as a contemporary poet.




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