Friday, August 28, 2009

Making your own poetry chapbooks: Everything you need to know

I'll try to keep the personal anecdotes to a minimum on this one and mention them only as they pertain to Chapbook making, with the hope that this post helps anyone out there who has never made a Chapbook. With easy to follow headings!

Why Should I Make a Chapbook?

If you're a poet, and you don't have a published book to sell, you need a chapbook. And if you already have a published book, it's not a bad idea to have one either. A chapbook is a poet's business card. But why not just actually print a business card? Because your 'business' is a strange one. After a reading, it is unlikely that the woman in the back who was so inspired by your words actually wants your business. What is she going to do, have you read at her kid's birthday party?

Of course, it might do well to have business cards as well, because maybe that woman is an English professor, or an agent. But the great majority of people in an audience aren't interested in hiring you, they're interested in your work, so it's a good idea to have a small book of some of your poems (preferably some of the ones you read) to take home with them. Maybe only as a souvenir, but maybe as something they really will go back and read sometimes.

And if you're already published, a chapbook is a good way of sharing some of your new work, as well as something for those people in the audience who can't shell out 20 books for a book. Or don't want to. If my brother and I were in the audience of a poetry reading 6 years ago, I might buy a chapbook because I was a poor student who wished he could afford the book, and my brother might buy it because he has no real interest in reading 60+ poems, but was actually moved enough to want to walk away with something.

So What are my Options?

You basically have three options, after you've decided that yes, you want a chapbook. There is the do-it-yourself option, the do-most-of-it-yourself option (hereafter called the Kinko’s option), and then there's the expensive option. More on that later.

I will, in each section, go over some of the same things over and over again. Not because I think you, the intrepid chapbook crafter is irretentive, but because I want those of you who are going to skip right to the option you want to not have to jump back and forth in this blog entry to figure out what I'm talking about.

1. The Do-It-Yourself Option

This is by far the most inexpensive way to go about making a chapbook, but don't let that stop you. This affords the greatest customization. Cheap is what it will cost you, it's not necessarily what it will look like. Although if you're not very crafty, it could end up looking that way too. But who knows. It may come across as endearing.

First, decide how many pages you want your book to be. Keep in mind that the number must be divisible by four. If you're not great with math, you're just going to have to trust me on this one, but basically, one 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, folded in half, is going to yield 4 pages. You could of course use smaller, or larger paper, but your printer is going to keep to handle that.

Things to keep in mind. You're doing this yourself. That means that you have to fold these things. It means that your stapler has to go through that many pages. And lastly, unless you have professional equipment, at a certain point, the pages in the middle are going to stick out noticeably further than the ones on the outside edge (near the covers). I would say 5 pages, including the cover, is a good amount for this option, but in any case, you're going to want to take some paper before you've even started and have a test run.

Speaking of test runs, if you want an especially nice touch, you'll want to use card stock as the cover, which comes in a variety of colors at your local Staples or other office supply store. But don't make the mistake I made, and never think to test your printer with card stock until the week before you need a chapbook. My laser printer is incapable of printing to cardstock; it just will not go through the machine. This may be true of all laser printers. I don't know.

Another thing you're going to probably want to get is what seems to be called a long stapler, a long reach stapler or a long arm stapler. It seems that this contraption goes by many names. This is going to be one of the more expensive investments for this option; it costs about $30 for a fairly nice one. You can get it at any office supply store, I'd imagine, but I got mine at Office Depot, I believe. Here you can see it, being lorded over by my cat, Alice. Dusty, because, as I said, my printer can not print card stock. If you don't have or don't want one of these staplers, you can just staple very close to the edge with the book closed (that is, not directly in the center of the spine, with the book open, the way a book is normally threaded or glued). But you'll be stapling through even more paper this way.

Now, for the smoothest ride, you're going to want to print a test run, still without poetry, to see where your poems are going to go. Basically, you're going to open your publishing program of choice. I used word. Make a number of pages with the only writing on the page the corresponding page number. You can see what I mean on the right.

Now is the most frustrating part of this process. Figuring out how to print double sided, in landscape. It's going to be different for every printer. Perhaps your printer is physically capable of printing on two sides. But more than likely, it is not, and you'll just have to remember which way to put paper back in the printer, and what side up, to print double sided. REMEMBER THIS. Write it down. You're going to think you can remember it. But you can't. Just trust me.

Note: In Word, I believe you can achieve this by going to File>Print, and under the section Zoom, choosing 2 pages per sheet. I think choosing A4 scaling will ensure the pages fit just right, but you may have to fiddle with that.

Now that you have a bunch of double sided paper with every number on it once, fold it down the middle, and staple it. This is what your book will look like, more or less. Any troubles you've had doing this are not going to get much easier.

The rest of this process is a breeze. Now that you know where the numbers fall, you can paste your poems into the appropriate page numbers and know where they will go. Keep in mind that a couple of the 'pages' will be the back cover or inside covers, if you don't want to print on those. Also keep in mind that anything you write will be half the size that you're used to. That is, if you type something in 10 font, it will be cut in half on the paper. I am not sure if that literally translates to 5 or not. You'll probably want, at the end of this, to print one final test copy to see if everything looks good.

Here's a photo of two hand-made chapbooks. The one on the left shows a chapbook that doesn't follow the conventional size of a chapbook; an example of some of the freedom allowed. And it's very nice, it's called The Bones of Saints Under Glass, by Jeff Fleming. The one on the right is a chapbook by Bianca Spriggs, Constella and the 7-Layer Skin. Bianca hand-drew all the art on her covers, and each one was a little different. It made buying her book special. And of course, the possibilities are endless. Paint your covers, cut things out of them, glue things to them. And the list goes on.

2. The Kinko’s Option

I have done this a few times, and I must say, the Kinko’s option yields nice results, but man is it hell to get just the way you want. It depends entirely on who you're speaking to whether or not they seem to have any idea what you're talking about. And the odds never seem to be in your favor. If you're doing this option, make sure you're doing it well enough in advance that they can reprint the books for you if they mess up. Yes, it can happen. The first time I went, despite what I thought was very clear instructions that I wanted regular computer paper folded in half, I received chapbooks that were CD sized. It wasn't unreadable, but it was awkward and not what I wanted, at all. Kinko’s is supposed to print you a test copy that you okay, but this doesn't guarantee anything, it just raises the chances that your book will turn out okay.

The hardest part of this is going to be figuring out how Kinko’s orders its pages. What I finally did this last time (I went to Kinko’s 4 times in one day trying to explain what I wanted) was number a word document, each page a single number from 1-20 (I wanted a 20 page book) and have them print that as if it were a booklet I was making. That way, I could put the poems exactly where I wanted them. Note: You'll probably want to insert blank pages on the inside and back cover. But also keep in mind that you're paying for this, and each page adds quite a bit of cost to the final product, so you may actually want to consolidate your pages so that the inside back cover has your contact info, for instance.

Kinko’s can read most file formats, but they ultimately use .PDF (Adobe Acrobat's format), so if you have something that saves to that, you might want to save to that format as well as word and any other format you think they might read. You can of course call and ask, but I always bring several copies of the same file, on more than one media if possible, just in case.

Also keep in mind that at Kinko’s, much of the time you're using is being paid for. I think Kinko’s will charge you if you ask them to reorder your pages ($20, I believe it was), and if you want to do it yourself on one of their computers, you'll be paying per-minute charges. And if your Kinko’s is like mine, you'll be paying for 5 minutes worth of time just waiting for your file to load. Also, remember that since this book is a regular sized sheet of paper folded in half, all the fonts will appear smaller than normal. Try to remember what size half a piece of paper is, ignore the font number, and make your font a size relative to the page itself.

At the end, you'll be asking for a booklet, double sided. Ask them to see the final product, and make sure to sit there and make sure everything looks the way you want it. Page order, alignment, everything. They can wait.

All my trashing aside, in the end, you have a lot of options with Kinko’s. You have a number of really nice cardstock covers to choose from. They trim the edges of your books which means even a really thick chapbook will have smooth edges (no middle pages sticking out in a V). And if you want to go all out, you could even choose to print in color, or on glossy paper, although that can get very expensive.

An example: At my Kinko’s, I had 25 chapbooks made. Each was a total of 1 sheet of cardstock, and 4 sheets of paper (that's 20 pages, counting the inside and back covers, 16 not counting them). I printed my books on the cheapest paper, in black and white, and had them staple them twice. I don't believe they trimmed my chapbooks, because they were so small. My final cost plus tax was $37.37. Which isn't bad, but each addition of a page or any other frill would compound that, as well as any more copies I would want to get. Also, $30 is what it would cost to buy a long arm stapler, so you can see why making these yourself can save you a ton of money, since you'll never need to buy another one of those again after buying it.

3. The Expensive Option

I have never taken this option. But there are also sites like or where you can have professionally bound and produced books. The production is very professional, although dependent upon your own skill at designing. In fact, in this respect, it can be dangerous to use these services, because nothing stands out more than a well printed, and yet very ugly or poorly designed, book.

There are a ton of options, including hardcover books, and extremely nice glossy pages. There really is no better option if you want to sell something that looks outstanding. But keep in mind how many times you've walked past a book you thought looked really nice. Your poetry coming in a nice package won't make anyone buy something they wouldn't have bought in the first place, and let's face it, it's a feat to get someone to buy poetry in the first place. Keep in mind, also, that this does not count as being published, or even as publishing a chapbook, to any of the places that you are going to want to say this to (competitions, etc).

These sites have their own walkthroughs, so I won't walk you through a walkthrough. But be prepared. A set of 25 books comparable to the ones I got done at Kinko’s for $37.37 (about the same size, about the same page count) would cost me over $150 at And unless you want to eat that cost, you're going to have to try to sell them for that much more as well.

Final Word

Wow. That's some writing. I decided to go through all this because of how much trouble I had in doing it myself, and how hard it was for me to find any info anywhere online. I hope it was informative. If you have any questions, feel free to ask, and if you can link to this article, that'd be great, because it doesn't help for the information to now be out there, but floating just outside of everyone's vision.

Edit/Update: Brian Campbell has let me know about an easy to use chapbook template for anyone who has a copy of Microsoft Publisher. The file is hosted at The League of Canadian Poets.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

My most recent reading: Holler Series 16

Occasionally, this blog must take the form of a sort of journal (that's a diary for guys), no matter how much I want to stay away from that. I tend to think of poems as word Poleroids, so I remember events just fine without a journal. And yet, here I go.

Yesterday was my feature at Holler Series 16. For those of you not living in or around Lexington, KY, this is a poetry series run by Eric Sutherland, and is very popular in part because of the sheer number of literary luminaries that live in Lexington, as well as the sheer determination of the activist and writing community, which unsurprisingly, have their colors run into one another quite frequently.

It went great. I read entirely out of a chapbook (my third self produced 'volume'), in an attempt to encourage people to buy it, as well as to keep myself from changing my set a hundred times during the reading. It also allowed me to focus on what I thought the audience would dig (something I didn't know to do during the Affrilachian Tour that this blog was started for) and to practice reading them some. That's a no-brainer for reading in front of a crowd, but I write a new poem a day. This year I have close to 200 new poems. So no, I don't get to practice all my poems.

It's a chore to decide what poems to read. I was being exposed to an entirely new crowd of listeners than I am normally around, so I wanted to keep them happy, of course. But I also wanted to show the scope of my poetry. That I write about race, and manhood, and activism, as well as humorous poetry. Which, incidentally, people tend to enjoy the most from my readings, although that may be more because it's easier to hear a laugh than a nod of approval. haha.

But speaking of the chapbooks? My next blog will be a how-to for chapbook making, as well as a censure of Kinkos and their ridiculous unproductive process. Keep an eye out.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Do I risk being lost in another poet's art?

I recently read Victoria Chang's blog, which essentially asked the question "What if reading lots of poetry is detrimental to your own voice?"

"And everywhere you go, you hear people say, “Read, Read, Read,” as their one piece of advice to aspiring writers. What if, just what if, all this advice is BS? What if, in fact, the best writers do what they feel, what comes naturally to them and erase all the outside noise? What if they do the exactly opposite of what’s popular or accepted or the norm?"

I am all for pushing art as far as it will go, or with ignoring convention. Or at least in trying to, in order to see where that gets us. Because let's face it. There is quite a bit of horrible abstract poetry out there. Enough to make an eskimo sell his green protractor.

But to me, a writer who doesn't read is like a dancer who doesn't listen to music. Is it possible to be passionate about what you do if a part of you isn't compelled to involve yourself on levels of your medium other than just creation?

Well. Yeah.

But I'm convinced that your art will suffer for it. That intangible suffering, like trying to imagine what your life would be like without your kid. You wouldn't miss them, because they wouldn't have existed. But you know, now, having had them, that there would be something missing afterall.

I also don't fully believe that someone, even trying their best to emulate another artist, can fully capture the other's spirit. There will be chinks in the writing. And these gaps, exposed by the inability to 'become' that first artist, expose a distinctly individual voice.

There are many books on the market that are written in the 'voice' of Jane Austen, for instance. But would she have written these books? (Sometimes I doubt the people writing these books want to have written them.) At some point, the word choice, the rhythm and even the direction of the book reveal themselves as something of the other artist. Because as viewers of art, we only see the very outermost layer of an anything; the final artistic product. We can never know why the artist made those decisions.

It is the reason that artists wishing to paint the human form study muscle and bone mass, and not merely the flatness presented in photographs. We can't emulate a writer. We can only distill some of the style of the works that they've chosen to give us.

And so, it becomes impossible, especially given the results, that any level of effort can knowingly result in the complete loss of your voice. I can't imagine being able to loose yourself in another writer's skin accidentally, by merely reading other poets' works. Influence is not the same as voice. My parents taught me to speak, but I only some like them in the loosest ways. And think of how much of my early life was actively spent trying to be exactly like them.

The article which Victoria Change cited for her blog says we must become the purple cow, some sort of anomaly, to make our mark in the world. But I think some of the problems with poetry today is that so many poets purposefully handle poetry as if it were some kind of ad campaign. We don't need a million poets being different. We need for a poet to push their words as far as they will go. Read some of Shakespeare's contemporaries. He didn't stand out because he was writing so differently from the others of his time. He stands out because he was writing so much better than those other writers.

For some of us, that means writing at the forefront of what is considered unique and novel. But for so many others, it's just writing things the way they were meant to be written, even if that style has been done to death. If that's the way you write, do it better.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Semantics: A look at the phrase 'yell at.' Or how I finally proved my dad wrong twenty-some years later.

There is nothing that makes me feel so stupid as to use a word incorrectly. Likewise, there is nothing that makes me more upset than to hear a word misused.

You can ask my girlfriend (okay, so only those of you who know her can probably manage that). Given the right circumstances, I will argue semantics until my jaw hurts. To me, the meaning of a word (or sentence) is everything. I understand that there are shades of meaning; sarcasm, hyperbole, and so-forth. And if someone knowingly says something they don't mean, that's fine, on one level.

But to say something that your intentions or emotions don't back up because you just let the words fall out of your mouth, is a different offense entirely, and one that I often, for some reason, find myself debating with some people over.

It's probably just as annoying as it sounds. But thankfully, I don't (believe I) do it very often. Perhaps it's all a part of why I'm a poet.

But I was arguing with my girlfriend earlier today, and I told her that I didn't know why she was yelling at me. Her response was that she hadn't raised her voice at all, so how was she yelling? I not-so-happily responded that she was scolding me, then, and this was the same argument over the meaning of 'yelling at' someone as I'd had my entire life with my dad.

So I came inside and did what the poet in me had to do. First I looked up yell, but none of the definitions meant to scold. Strange. So I tried asking Google for definitions of yell. Same thing. So finally, I asked Google to define the phrase 'yell at.'

Definitions of yell at on the Web:

To scold, to rebuke - often by yelling
That is, often, but not always, by yelling.

There Dad. I told you.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What is everyone's problem with Abramson Leslie Consulting (ALC)?

Having thrown myself, as I do, into the blogosphere (oh how I detest that word), I have found myself caught up in the trending topics of that world, or at least, as the pertain to blogs that deal in any way with poetry, writing, MFA programs, or literature.

And the current shit storm being stirred about seems to be directed toward Abramson Leslie Consulting (ALC) a consultation firm for MFA applicants. Or, more specifically, the blog entry announcing the birth of this never-before-seen venture.

The comments, which range from supportive to what can best be described as disgusted, are really pretty tame if you've ever looked through comments made by upset readers anywhere else on the web. But the general tenacity of what are often (presumably) college educated, or at least fairly well-read, writers is kind of astonishing.

And if you look through some of the comments on other people's blogs, it only gets worse.

I know, from the comments, that I am not alone in being completely dumbfounded about what the big deal is. How can a person find reviewing an application as being a scam, but then also see the MFA program itself as some sort of virtuous and sacrosanct institution?

You guys realize that for many people out there, those of us who go to school for art are the ones foolishly throwing our money away, right? And who can blame them? How many of the truly great writers didn't go to college at all? What exactly does a college offer you that you shouldn't be able to achieve yourself for a fraction of the price?

And isn't there some beauty in what it is we have? Is if you feel as if there is something that you need, and there is a business that offers a service purporting to supply that, then what's the problem? Conversely, if you think the business is erroneous, nobody expects you to pay for it anyway.

I guess I'm missing the point that someone is trying to make by raging in the sidelines about the ethics or honor of MFA programs, of all things. The ALC, and MFA programs in general, are not 'targeting' those mentally incapable of making rational decisions. To the contrary, they are aimed at adults who have had considerably more education than the average person.

They aren't taking advantage of minors or those in their down and out, because those hoping to go to graduate school either have enough money to comfortably do so, or are deciding that they will sacrifice the financial security of say, accounting or engineering, for what it is they love to do.

And they aren't tricking anyone. I would be shocked to find out that someone who has read ALC's FAQ would be surprised at what they are offered when they pay for the service. This is a FAQ, people. It's not like reading the convoluted verbiage of a legal contract (although I'm sure something like it exists somewhere along the line, since Americans are like bloodhounds when it comes to lawsuits).

Either you want the service, or you don't. What exactly is the problem?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

I'm finally free from my self assigned Kentucky poetry

I finished, today, a 7 day series of poems based on Kentucky. It became progressively more difficult to think of a new way to approach the subject, but I think a few of them turned out pretty well. I started the series because I find myself, fairly often, in places wanting to rep my state, and while I have some Kentucky poems, they never feel ‘right.’

In other news, I am still unemployed (8 months now. My debt is ridiculous, and my savings destroyed). This is essentially, of course, my own stupid fault, but a part of me revels in the freedom it grants me to write, every single day.

And I have; every day since April I've written at least one poem. Also on my schedule:

  • Reading a certain number of blogs.
  • Reading a certain amount of poems from a list of online publications, to get a sense of the market.
  • Learning a certain number of new words (hey, that GRE is coming up).
  • Writing, about every other day, an article for Examiner or a blog entry.
  • Doing all the house work for Regan that I can.

But this very involved schedule drains me quite a bit each day, and it doesn't help any that my spirits are in a constant state of depression from being unemployed. I need a job, any job, and soon, or barring that, to remove some of the things from my heavy schedule.

I will admit I am not the most focused person in the best of times, but I haven't really been able to read regular (see: print) books, or write short stories.

Here's the last poem in my series, inspired by Third Street Stuff, an Affrilachian hangout in Lexington, KY:

An Escape to Third Street Stuff

The walls are brushed in ocean-water pigments
and copper-red paint, dried grape sheen
and sunflower-liquor rouge. And there, set
in the creases, are seashells removed from some
far away sea, each of them deliberately laid.

We walk through the doors, past
the benches, and notice how they bow
a bit for the weight of artists. They
express interest in the newest display:
framed photographs of dangerously
attractive men; a drag show in wide-
shouldered glory, set unabashedly to film.

We are met with apothecary bottles of loose
leaf teas at the counter, order coffee and
bottled drinks. Then we walk—holding our
hot and cold stories—past the makeshift
poems on the wall, to a set of seats resting
on the black checkered tile. We silently watch
a wavering white ghost escape from its bleak
espresso, and hold softly these tables,

or absently grip a gently kissed bottle
of Ale-8, which is sweating sweetly in the air.
Ensnared by the atmosphere, we've forgotten
about the traps that hold to us outside, those
obese clouds rolling this earth, the world
that awaits darkly at the end of our rides,
back at whatever we choose to call regular.

Isn't this some slice of Kentucky?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Stop wasting time trying to live. Just live. And write.

As much as people want to claim life experience as a necessity for truly being able to express deepness of perception and emotion, I've always, and secretly at times, believed that this notion is a crock of shit. I was reminded of this recently after having read a blog entry from The MFA Chronicles.

But I was dwelling on this even before that, during the Michael Jackson memorial when it first aired. I took particular interest in Smokey Robinson's take on 10 year-old Michael Jackson's performance of his own song, "Who's Loving You." He basically heralded him as wise beyond his years. Said Robinson:

"I thought to myself: Now they have pulled a fast one on us. Because This boy can not possibly be 10 years-old. This song is about somebody who has somebody, who loved them but they treated them bad. They treated them so bad, till they lost them. And now they are paying the price of wanting somebody back that they treated bad and lost. How could he possibly know these things?"

Now, I don't want anyone to believe that I am attacking Smokey Robinson, especially for praising at their own memorial. I am not attacking him for what he said, but rather, trying to focus on an idea we seem all to have heard over and over again. That it takes great heartbreak to express great heartbreak, great sorrow to express great sorrow. And what is there to argue? It makes sense. Robinson went on to say:

"I did not believe that someone that young could have that much feeling and soul and know. He had a lot of 'know.' You had to know something to sing a song like that."

Perhaps Robinson is right. Maybe Jackson, even at age 10, had the 'know' to sing that song. Lord knows that MJ was forced to grow up much faster than any child should have to in an environment that doesn't absolutely require it.

But maybe, instead, an artist is sometimes able to adequately put themselves in the life experiences of another person through empathetic outreach, and not because they need to have lived through tragic heartbreak, feelings of desperation, or any of the other things we so love to read and hear about.

Drug use, too, is often seen as a gateway to something like this life experience we writers feel we are required to have lived through. How can we really open up our minds if we haven't gotten trashed a couple dozen (or hundred) times? How can we really SEE colors for what they are if we haven't tripped acid?

The fundamental truth that we are all alike is one that anyone who claims any sense of egalitarianism must believe in, in some part, and which Americans should be familiar with even if they don't always practice it. If this is true, then it is not impossible to surmise that given enough thought, one might guess what it feels like to feel heartbreak, or to be addicted to drugs, or to be suicidal, even having never been in those situations.

Perhaps I have never been chained to a drug, but I have watched people who are victims to substance abuse. I have spoken to them about addiction, and I know what some of the things they feel are like; helplessness, gnawing desire, despair. And the other emotions too, the ones that have nothing to do with their drug dependency.

There are writers too afraid to write about things they haven't lived, and I'm telling you: Yes, there is some kind of universal truth to be found in human suffering. In deep depression, for instance. I know. I have been depressed, though I don't always choose to write about it. In fact, I rarely do. But I don't expect or wish for anyone to reach that dismal state. And it would be a shame to lock up a truth that another writer is fully capable of expressing, just because they haven't lost everything yet.

Keep writing. If the experiences on your page ring false, question the validity of what it is you're basing your words on. But don't hold yourself to some imaginary life gauge that your elders have used to justify their own past suffering.