For the ambitious perfectionist poet — that is, every one you will ever meet — the chapbook’s the paradox of thrift: Although more likely than a book-book aka full-length collection to come through a perfect living text object, the chapbook does not, cannot exist in the open market of bookstores, prizes, and tenure track teaching positions. Try getting a copy-shop box of stapled items past TSA sometime — in these metal-detecting times, staples = suspicion. And on the converse, read a recent vintage book-book a day for a month and let me know what ratio of greatest hits to filler you come up with. (I’m seeing one-to-five on average. Higher than that ought to make anyone’s list.)
Chapbook distribution comes down to mailing lists and event sales. Friendliness, and calculation. As with anything else in poetry, reviews and press may somehow miraculously light on a chapbook, but until someone builds a real paypal portal for micropresses, good luck tracking down that promising beta. Here’s where the paradox comes in. Exasperation saved me from too much undergraduate study of economics, but I seem to remember something about scarcity… It’s impossible to read let alone judge what it’s impossible to find. The odds are always long and the circumstances often murky, but a perfect little chapbook nevertheless has a chance at generating some spark of mystique, buzz, quiddity. That which thrills readers with the illusion that time spent reading poetry is a wise use of the present moment.
QED, several of the best texts of the year so far come only in this potlatch-friendly form: Aaron Kiely’s The Best of My Love from Ugly Duckling, Jim Goar’s Whole Milk from Effing Press, Julie Lechevsky’s Glass Ceiling and Carson Cistulli’s Assorted Fictions from Sean Casey’s Chuckwagon Editions, and Wayne Chambliss’s The Traveling Salesman Problem and Kira Henehan’s Seven Palms, from Ryan Murphy’s The Caitlins and Fungo Editions, respectively. Casey is halfway through a 2006-only chapbook-of-the-month club project (maybe he can be persuaded to post the details as a letter to the editor of this site). Murphy has perhaps the most perverse concept of branding yet to emerge from poetryland’s anti-business-model incubator: He prints in runs of 162 (the number of games each baseball team plays in the regular season), and assigns a new press name to each small hand-sewn item. This anti-branding would be less of a why-are-you-doing-this headscratcher if his books were less appealing:
Redundant as the “L” TM,
another Corman-like op-ed:
Louis Pasteur vs. Terrorist Cells.
And a civilian barber enquires, “y para usted?”
Up 94 floors, there’s no point stopping.
Call it an unconfirmed assumption.
The PoV is of rain dropping.
Higher than Thelonious Monk in
Straight, No Chaser, the maitre d’oes his best St. Peter.
Dialing Beatrix, dying to meet her. Hell’s got more rings than Derek Jeter.
(Wayne Chambliss, “Chicago Postcard 8”)
Murphy, whose baseball-obsessed debut book-book Down with the Ship is dedicated to Henehan and which appeared this year from the Otis College MFA house press, favors allusive texts that refer to American geography in its raw state: An asymmetrical array of urban centers supporting sports stadia. He likes wit and something like a cinematic sense. Disrupted syntax and clever rhymes are sufficient conditions; what is necessary is that there be a narrative, and that it be below (at least some of the time) sea-level. Henehan’s seven page Seven Palms takes place in Miami, in and around what appears to be a particularly good outing for the home team ace Dontrelle Williams:
At least one Cuban box-shocked at least one sister flayed about the fingerskin forced a very soft tube through a not round hole. Sulkish plumber-pantsed daughters brown while the horny electrician erects his scaffolding just so. Marlins. Marlins. We all breathe snow I am quite deciduous enough for one evening thank you. The most dappled in all of Havana you know. Marlins Marlins everywhere and not a seat stays warm as the no-hitter unjinxed slouches toward the sixth.
Back in the 90s this kind of not-quite-full disclosure used to be labeled elliptical. Now it just sounds like the way to talk to get people to listen more than once. Recalling the ecstatic slouch of American splice-and-run experimentalists such as Ron Sukenick, Henehan’s climate-controlled prose conveys a freakish unsafety, a paradoxical sense that everything is off, in play, and running against expectations. Most prose poetry claims this quality, which actually only thrives in a narrow band of undecidedness, between too remote and too cute, too abrupt and too rambly. One prose-poet who flirts with all four of these extremes only to hover always over the interesting spot is Michael Friedman, about whose extraordinary new novel Martian Dawn I hope to tell you some day. Henehan may be another:
All you aquacrats behold: an unlikely bottom-feeding angelfish menace. An attack of baby moonjellies. The pineapple aspect suspicious blue wave that blonde, that grand Ecuador for godsakes an ornery hatching troubled me about the eyes. Revolt in the cuttlefish ghetto. So if someone washes up on shore can we safely please assume it is not me who did or is it and thank you good day here I lay.
Inasmuch as it’s possible in such a short piece there are subplots about silence, sisters, cockroaches and comas. If the digressions within sentences keep the writing lively and the reader awake (“Were it not for the coma I’d like to say really I’d say really do you really do you you puma-looking thing, you magnificent antipode, you decadent langorous torpor, you desolate moon-garden deranged you who marvels and remains yet ribaldly distinguished child love it really with all your filthy heart and soap?”) these short fugues hold the piece together and drive the reader forward. It’s not so much that no word is wasted — what an odd concept to pass for righteous, by the way — as that every word confirms that its writer will keep finding unpredictable directions to lead not lose the reader. Just so for publisher Murphy, whose hot streak Henehan’s chapbook continues. As they say at Shea, you may want to get your tickets before the bandwagon gets rolling.