Monday, April 11, 2011

What's a chapbook, should I publish one, and what makes a strong entry?

Today my e-mail inbox contained an announcement:  Chapbook Contest Deadline Extended!  I'm glad because I was thinking about entering; now I can.  But should I?

Chapbooks are little volumes of poetry, about fifteen to twenty pages long.  (They can be longer, but not more than forty-eight pages, or even as short as ten pages.)  Unlike books, they are usually staple-bound, giving them a fold rather than a spine.  Think of them as either mini-books or hefty business cards.

So why have one?  For one thing, it feels great to hold a printed volume of your work.  Secondly, you are more likely to be invited to give poetry readings if you have a little book for the audience to buy.  Third, a poet with a chapbook is taken more seriously by publishers.  On your way to that first book, the chapbook makes a handy pit stop.  Include this credit on those cover letters!

My own first chapbook came out in 2002.  I'm indebted to a professor-friend who put my work in front of Richard Sale of Trilobite Press.  This tiny press publishes annual chapbooks.  For being so small, they'd published a couple of big names, like Naomi Shihab Nye.  When my professor phoned to say that the press would publish my chapbook, I jumped up and down.  Danced in my driveway.  Called my writer friends.  Called my mom!  I'm still grateful, and that first volume gave me both confidence and credibility.

If you want to enter a chapbook contest, you'll find lots of them listed in Poets and Writers Magazine.  Here's the one I heard about today: Dallas Poetry Community Chapbook Contest

For a strong entry, follow these tips:
1) Make your title interesting, but not pretentiously artsy.  I've seen lots of titles like, "Azurite
Monkeys" or "Dream Hallucinations with Cloud."  Puh-leez!  It's fine to take the title of your best poem -- which is what I did.

2) Put a strong poem first.  Give judges a reason to keep reading!

3) Create a narrative arc with the poems or arrange them in pairs and clusters that work together.  Alternatively, you can sprinkle similarly-themed poems throughout, giving the reader a thread to pick up multiple times.

4) Don't hide weak poems; cut them.  If you don't have fifteen solid poems, wait until you do to enter.

5) Reread these poems as a group to catch language tics and repeated metaphors.  If you've written these poems over a few years' time, you might not realize that two of them contain similar phrases.  Revise where needed.

6) Polish every line of every poem.  Don't let any flabby, music-less lines live!

7) Realize that the last line of the last poem is also the last line of the chapbook.  Ideally, this line will leave the reader wow-ed.

If you have a decent pile of poems, and you're thinking about entering a chapbook contest, you're probably ready for it.  Why not try?  If you win a chapbook contest, let me know!


  1. Wow! What great advice! I've been trying my hand at poetry writing lately and now I have a goal. Thanks, Rebecca! ~Lisette

  2. I need to cull my wad of poems, and kick them up a notch to make them chapbook worthy. We'll see, but you've made it sound possible.

  3. Kimberly SherrellMay 1, 2011 at 4:47 PM

    Great post, very helpful. I subscribe to P&W magazine and have considering the chapbook contests. Your blog post really helps me to focus on what I need to put one together. Thanks so much for the great info!