Introduction to the brief history of chapbooks published by small presses in Austin

“The chapbook will always be conscious of its size, and availability.

It embraces smallness, brevity, and care. It is humble, and beautiful.”

Bianca Stone, Poet[1]

Chapbooks are essential to the life of American poetry, as much as live readings and full-length books. They are strange objects and difficult to define. They can be handmade, staple-bound booklets that resemble zines. They can also present as a traditional book with a sturdy, professionally-designed cover. The UT Poetry Center in the Perry-Castañeda Library includes local poetry chapbooks from the last 40 years, and this exhibit presents a selection from this rich, unique collection.

Chapbooks have a curious history. Some scholars argue that the term is a combination of “cheap books” and “chapmen.” (Chapmen were traveling salesmen who wandered England and Scotland with thin, paper-bound books throughout the early Modern era, circa 1500-1800.)[2] The current iteration of the American poetry chapbook is a distinctly 20th century phenomenon, linked to the technological advances of photocopying, desktop publication, and the internet.

These little books play a profound role in poetry communities because they allow authors to share their work with their readers and fellow writers cheaply and easily. Writers can bypass the elitism and bureaucracy of boutique presses and mainstream publishing companies by self-publishing chapbooks or working with small local presses. These books, then, come with small price tags. Writers often only recoup their production costs, and some give their chapbooks away for free.[3]

This practice, too, fosters community around creative writing. Poet Tan Lin describes chapbooks as a “function in a gift economy,” where value isn’t monetary but something more personal.[4] Indeed, this practice of giving has been part of the UT Libraries acquisition process––some of the chapbooks featured in this exhibit were gifts directly from the authors or presses.

This version of a literary gift economy has been alive in Austin since the 1970s. Many outsiders might assume that Austin’s art and culture begins and ends with live music, but Central Texas has a vibrant literary culture, built by dedicated writers and small press editors. This exhibit features chapbooks from the late 70s and early 80s that showcase Austin’s counter-culture and feminist voices, while contemporary examples represent the diversity of writers in this growing city, especially those from marginalized backgrounds. This exhibit is organized around the local presses that published these chapbooks, with one excellent exception that is an example of a self-published chapbook.

By highlighting the presses, their editors, and, of course, the writers, I hope to bring to life and document Austin’s literary community. Emmalea Russo and Michael Newton, poets and small press editors, argue that chapbooks create “a space for makers to come together and look at each other’s work. So much of the value of poetry is the community that comes out of it—both in terms of relationships and as a way to discover new ideas. It means everything.” I hope that you will find these selections by Austin writers represent a community where poetry does, indeed, mean everything.[5]Notes

[1] “Bianca Stone on Monk Books.” Poetry Society of America. Accessed February 20, 2020.

[2] Woodcock, Diana Gwen. “The Poetry Chapbook: Blessing or Curse?” International Journal of the Book 8, no. 3 (2011): 27.

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Hartig, Jean. “Celebrating the Chapbook: Postcard From New York City.” Poets & Writers, April 29, 2009.

[5] “Emmalea Russo and Michael Newton on Ugly Duckling Presse.” Poetry Society of America, n.d.

Citation: Bastone, Gina, curator. (2020) Weird and Wonderful Little Books: An Abbreviated History of Chapbooks Published in Austin