COMICS=POETRY+GRAPHIC DESIGN, says Austin Kleon, who is, in turn, reprising Gregory Gallant, a.k.a. Seth–but wherever the formula comes from, I love the possibilities it raises for both comics and poetry as media. It’s my starting point for a paper I’m giving at the Modernist Studies Association conference very soon. I’ll be discussing the 1920 Krazy Kat strip above by George Herriman in terms of babble and doodle, Northrop Frye’s terms for the axes of poetic making.
I had a slight knowledge of Herriman’s work before, but this summer read the recent biography–which is, among other things, a story of racial passing–and became obsessed. Krazy Kat is very funny and anti-pretentiously brilliant and would be perfectly at home on a modern poetry syllabus. Each strip is as predictable as a sonnet: a linguistically inventive, genderless black ket loves a pompous white mouse with anger management problems, who responds via brick. That’s the form. The variations: endless.
Being on the krazy side (I’m in denial about any resemblance to Ignatz, the lecture-prone control freak), I’m juxtaposing this poetic comic against an Anne Spencer poem presented in visual form. “A Lover Muses” is the second stanza of one of Spencer’s few published poems, “Lines to a Nasturtium” (1926), and was painted onto nasturtium contact paper and fixed to a cupboard by her neighbor and good friend, the African American artist and architect Amaza Lee Meredith. I have some things to say here, too, about babble and doodle but also gender, race, justice, and the meanings of repetition. I’ll be joining Chris Gavaler’s “Modernism and the Comics” panel on Thursday afternoon, August 10th. Wish me luck.
Best of all, the conference is in AMSTERDAM, where we’ve never been, so Chris, the kids, and I are going a week early. Madeleine is home from her Siberian adventures, tired and hungry but eager to keep learning about Russian language and culture. She’s also more than happy to pack up again and see some canals and world-class museums. The scary thing is that, when we come back, our school years will start up again fast. Was my work this summer a howling success?–NO. Never mind. Pancakes and jenever, here we come.
I didn’t know, when writing the fairy-tale-inspired long poem that became my forthcoming chapbook, Propagation, that folktales and chapbooks have a long association. Here’s what Dáithí Ó hÓgáin writes for The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales:
“Printed little volumes for popular reading, chapbooks were common in several western European languages. These books contained a wide variety of reading material, ranging from stories about the heroes of ancient Greek and Roman literature to accounts of philosophers, saints, and noted historical personages, and to picaresque tales of rogues and entertaining rascals. The term “chapbook” first came into vogue for such publications in the early nineteenth century. It was derived from “chapman,” the usual word for the type of trader or peddler who sold them at fairs or markets and in other public places.
The publishing of small inexpensive tracts began in France near the end of the fifteenth century and soon after became common in Germany, the Netherlands, and England. The German chapbooks—Volksbücher—contained prose versions of medieval romances and other miscellaneous tales; and in Germany, the Netherlands, and France, the adventures of the entertaining trickster Till Eulenspiegel were especially popular. From the seventeenth century onward, a wide variety of chapbooks were available in England, and they spread to Ireland, America, and other places where material in English was read.”
I’d like to think some magic was at work when I decided to mine Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale for an April’s worth of writing prompts. I knew that chapbooks had been a vehicle for popular literature in various genres for centuries, but not, consciously, that thegenre I was working in was especially intertwined with the history of the medium. At any rate, there was enough magic involved that I placed Propagation with one of my dream publishers, Dancing Girl Press. It’s due in the fall and the ms is just about finalized now.
In the meantime–partly inspired by reading a draft of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s excellent forthcoming book PR for Poets—I thought, well, what else do I need to be doing now by way of promotion? (That link, by the way, is to an especially wonderful post that gives heart to anyone who, like me, gets squeamish about the marketing thing.) I thought it might be useful to assemble a list of resources for other chapbook-writers who want to get the word out. Sure, a chapbook–called a “pamphlet” in the U.K.–is smaller and cheaper than a full-length collection, so one way to think of the marketing tasks is, well, they should be smaller and cheaper. One can post about the new arrival on social media, send out notices, give readings, seek reviews, hope it gets a few classroom adoptions–all the basic work (which is never actually small or cheap). But are there ways a chapbook is not just less than but different than? What opportunities does the form create?
As a reader, I’m attracted to the distilled brevity of chapbooks, and how they feel in the hand. The best are tightly-focused gems you can read at a sitting, which makes them beautifully approachable. I was corresponding with a friend lately–Janet McAdams, author of the mysterious and lovely chap Seven Boxes for the Country After–who thinks that an increasing number of them seem less like baby steps towards full-length books and more like separate creatures, that is, sequences conceived especially for the compression and accessibility of the chapbook format. That’s true in my case. I don’t have any plans for Propagation to be part of a longer volume.
Yet how likely are chapbooks to have the afterlife other books can generate? Certainly there are fewer readings, reviews, class adoptions, and post-publication prizes to keep a light shining on your well-made chapbook after its debut season.
Here’s a list of resources I found–not enough, I’d say. I’d love to know about what I’m missing. Please send me notes and I’ll edit this post to include them.
Chapbook Review: This cool site includes lists of recently published chapbooks, publishers, and contests.
Some literary magazines do chapbook reviews in a micro- or “roundup” model. In addition to the list on the above site, including Rain Taxi and other venues, check out other venues that occasionally feature chapbook reviews: Blackbird, Kenyon Review Online(among the micro-reviews, once in a while), Pleiades, The Mom Egg, The Rumpus, So to Speak, New Pages.
Also, plenty of magazines that don’t feature chapbook reviews in any regular way would probably be open to an omnibus review, if one made a pitch. Any writer who wants attention for his or her own work should be giving back somehow, and reviewing is a great and generous way to do that.
As for Propagation, reply here, or on FB, or drop me an email if you want to be on the publicity list I really should be working on, ahem (with your email address). I’d also be happy to send galleys, eventually, and signed copies to people planning reviews or classroom adoptions–but I don’t even have a cover yet!
I’ve been swimming around in H.D.’s work since my undergraduate years, on the recommendation of the writer I eventually married. I started with her memoirs of Freud and Pound, trekking up to the sunny top floor of the University of Southampton library to find them, then worked backwards to the poetry, which became central to my 1994 dissertation and then my first book, The Poetics of Enclosure. I’m a poetry professor, primarily, with a deep love for lyric and lyric sequences, so most of the H.D. I teach is from the Collected Poems. But it’s been a 21st century thrill to watch a few of her other books come back into print, midwifed by generous H.D. scholars. The latest is the paperback version of By Avon River, scrupulously edited by Lara Vetter (published in 2014 in hardcover, but now an eminently teachable $16.95 paperback, folks!).
The reason I use the word “hybrid”: H.D.’s book, like some proto-crypto-creative-writing-PhD-thesis, consists of three longish Shakespeare-related poems plus an extended prose meditation, full of quotes, about Elizabethan verse. Vetter’s introduction explains the project’s origin in three trips H.D. made from Blitz-ravaged London, at the close of World War II, to Stratford-upon-Avon. The first, on Shakespeare Day 1945, was almost a pilgrimage. As Vetter puts it, “Shakespeare is an icon, standing in for England in times of strife” (26). H.D. loved England and was thrilled to celebrate its survival, along with many other pilgrims, by immersing herself in English art and history. I agree with Vetter, however, that H.D. was far from Bardolatrous. By Avon River represents Shakespeare as a genius but also a poacher, implicated in British imperialist violence. Interestingly, too, Shakespeare is not so central to H.D.’s project as her title might imply. The literary-critical part of the book really concerns not so much Shakespeare as his milieu–less-celebrated poets, some very obscure now. And her poems revolve around a character referenced in The Tempest, Claribel, who never even appears onstage. Shakespeare mentioned her, more or less, and then forgot her.
By Avon River is resonating with me in part because of its hybridity. First published in 1949, the book did well–never a given for H.D.–receiving many laudatory reviews. This makes it an important precursor for later literary experiments. As Vetter argues, and as Cynthia Hogue reiterates in her back-cover endorsement, women writers late in the modernist period deserve more credit for their “hybrid works located at the juncture of personal, national, and nationalist concerns.” Hear, hear. But let me add: trying to publish hybrid work, many decades later, is still awful. I haven’t yet placed my creative- critical ms, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, even editors have praised it to me, and every time I reread it, too, having come to doubt myself, I get convinced all over again that it’s strong work. It’s just in the margins between everyone’s carefully articulated marketing plans.
And that connects to something else I appreciate about By Avon River. I read it as the meditation of an artistically ambitious woman nearing 60 who feels connected to Shakespeare (through bisexuality, among other ways) but knows she is not the Bard, not the poet who most indelibly articulates her time and place, if the 20th century even has one. I’m nearing 50 and while remaining as ambitious for my art as any poet you’ll ever meet, I find myself thinking a lot lately about my own unimportance. That’s not entirely a bad thing. It’s a condition I share, after all, with pretty much every other member of the human race. Sane people, I suspect, keep this demoralizing truth in the back of their minds and just keep trying to do their best work anyway.
H.D. writes of the more than 100 Elizabethan poets and dramatists whose names survive: “Not one is negligible” (76). She quotes their verses admiringly and speculates about their lives, respecting what it means to pen even just one poem that lasts for centuries. Their achievements, she insists, “must not be forgotten” (97). She also writes appreciatively of Shakespeare saying farewell to the court, and his own stature, through The Tempest: “there is no hint of bitterness or rivalry. If he is to be elbowed out, he will at least, give at the last, a demonstration of good manners” (101).
H.D. didn’t know if any of her own work would delight readers in 2017, and none of us knows if it will three centuries from now. In By Avon River, I hear her pondering this unpredictability and deciding she can live with it. All poetic effort matters, in the end, because the many strivers make a few shining successes possible. Besides, she’s on the side of the little guys, having vowed to be one of the historians, one of the rememberers. Bless them all.
I read her focus on Claribel in her lovely verses the same way. Maybe Claribel is not the hero of the drama, but “It is enough,/ I live forever” (61). H.D. knew, likewise, by the mid-forties, that she did have at least a small place in literary history. I personally rate H.D.’s work infinitely beyond footnote-status, but it’s bracing to dip into her thoughts about ambition and history and remember that she was just navigating currents, too, at water-level-perspective. Who knows where any of us will wash up?