Poetry Pamphlet DIY: How to Create Your Own Chapbook

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Victoria Kennefick

‘Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose-petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.’ Don Marquis

Emerging poets often bring out a poetry pamphlet or chapbook (in the United States) before publishing a full collection. It is a statement of intent, a ‘mighty yawp’ as Whitman would have it, the perfect ‘O’ of a baby’s first cry announcing its arrival to the world. So what exactly is a pamphlet, and what is the best way of publishing one? A pamphlet is a small collection of poetry, usually comprising of between 15 and 30 poems which often focuses on a specific theme. It is usually stapled or saddle-bound (like a magazine) with a cardstock or plain paper cover. A number of literary journals and small presses offer chapbook/pamphlet competitions in Ireland, the UK, Europe and the United States. It is worth exploring these competitions as they are often run by established and prestigious publishers who accept unsolicited manuscripts for the purposes of the competition. Producing a pamphlet is an effective way of providing audiences with a sample of your writing, as well as potentially attracting a publisher for a full-length collection. It is proof to publishers that there’s a market for your poetry, and that’s often the best way of getting their attention!

You’ve spent time and creative energy writing and editing your poetry, now how to go about compiling a pamphlet? This process requires the same focus, thought and creative integrity that you have given to each individual poem. In general at least 20% of poems have been previously published individually in literary journals and magazines. So, which poems should you select for your pamphlet?

Selecting the Right Poems:

At this point you are looking to select your ‘best’ poems, so it may be easier to choose ones you might exclude at this stage. This doesn’t mean that you have rejected these poems outright, they will certainly find a home, maybe even in your first collection, but for now it’s important to focus on showcasing your finest 20 or so poems, the poems that show the reader who you are as a poet. So, let go! Be open to what the poems tell you, listen. When selecting these poems you need to concentrate on both the quality of your work and how the poem relates to the other ones you have selected. Do your poems have a clear theme, or common elements that will serve to unify the pamphlet? Some chapbooks may have a narrative structure or focus but it is also advisable to have a variety – perhaps in relation to form or tone. Make sure that no two poems deal with the same thematic concerns; for example in a slim volume it will be very obvious and remember you want to show your versatility and originality as a poet. Consider mood, rhythm and the overall unity of the book you are creating.

You may not have quite enough poems you’re proud of, so you may have to write some new ones. It will probably become clear as you compile by excluding and choosing poems that there are some omissions. Always bear in mind what your collection needs and wants. Again, listen. It could be an element of humour, a series of short poems or a longer poem that will bring the central ideas together.

Putting the Pamphlet in Order:

The manner in which you organise your poems is vital to your pamphlet’s success as a cohesive volume. Decide what kind of journey you want to take the reader on. You may find that your pamphlet has a natural narrative; be it chronological, geographical or emotional. Don’t be afraid to experiment with using separate segments, or sequencing the poems in a format that helps create a rhythm or sense of anticipation. A decision needs to be made as to whether you will group similar poems together in a particular section or sequence, or whether to space them throughout the chapbook. You could use pieces of one long poem scattered throughout the chapbook as a thread which ties elements of the chapbook together.

Once you have organised the poems into a pattern that you think works, let it sit for a few days, or even weeks before visiting the chapbook again. Read it through from start to finish and note which poems don’t sit well together, and which ones do.

Remember to pay particular attention to the poems in key positions. The first poem is very important; it must grab the reader’s attention. A reader may decide within the first few poems whether or not to continue reading your manuscript, so welcome the reader early on with a great poem – one of your best.

The final couple of poems also need some thought, these are the poems which will resonate in the memory and should indicate where you might go next as a poet, make us want to go there with you!

Preparing the manuscript:

  • If you are entering a Chapbook/Pamphlet competition pay special attention to any guidelines concerning identification, number of poems, formatting preferences etc. It is also worth reading previous winning pamphlets to get a sense of what type of work the publisher supports.
  • Don’t be too concerned about meeting the maximum page requirements. If a contest accepts manuscripts from 16 to 24 pages, send your best poems, even if you only have 18 of them.
  • Don’t forget to include an ‘Acknowledgements’ page if any of your poems has been published previously. The page should state the name of the poem and where it first appeared.

And Finally:

A pamphlet is your literary mix-tape, the one that you want readers to fall in love with and return to again and again. Give this delicate process time. Select the poems, and the order in which they appear, with great care. Though Theodore Roethke insisted he had set his greenhouse poems in The Lost Son and Other Poems in no particular order, many scholars have analysed and argued as to whether the sequence is structured to trace a boy’s coming of age, or to imitate the feel of manic depression. So, in many respects, once the collection is published it is no longer the property of the poet. If a pamphlet is well-crafted readers feel like the poems belong to them, that the poems understand them. The poems you choose, and the order in which you place them, helps create this sense of identification. The author of The Room Where I Was Born, Brian Teare, knew his collection was complete when he felt that if he ‘pulled out so much as one poem, the entire structure would come crashing down.’

Remember a chapbook’s whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a poem comprised of your poems. Make individual poems sparkle, and the pamphlet shine! As Coleridge reminds us, ‘I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is prose; words in their best order; – poetry; the best words in the best order.’ Good luck!

(c) Victoria Kennefick

About the author

Victoria Kennefick’s chapbook, White Whale, won the Munster Literature Fool for Poetry Competition 2014. It will be launched as part of the Cork Spring Poetry Festival 2015. Her first collection was shortlisted for the prestigious Melita Hume Poetry Prize 2014 judged by Forward Prize winner, Emily Berry. In 2013 she won the Red Line Book Festival Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the Bridport and Gregory O’Donoghue Prizes.  She was selected to read as part of the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series 2013 and at the Cork Spring Poetry Festival Emerging Writers Reading in February 2014.

Victoria was a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship in 2007 and completed her PhD in Literature at University College Cork in 2009. Originally from Shanagarry, Co. Cork, she now lives and works in Kerry. She is a member of the Listowel Writers’ Week committee and co-coordinator of its New Writers’ Salon, as well chairing the recently established Kerry Women Writers’ Network (kerrywomenwriters.blogspot.com).   She is the recipient of the Cill Rialaig /Listowel Writers’ Week Residency Award 2014 and has been granted a Bursary from Kerry County Council.

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