Sadly today, it would often be easier to buy a book on permaculture, knitting or bee keping than it would be to buy a collection of Contemporary Australian poetry and although these are all worthwhile pursuits, I can’t help asking the question, “how has poetry publication & distribution reached such a low point?”
Right now there are many interesting and reputable practising poets, yet few of them can enjoy an expectation of their poetry being published, distributed and reaching a wider audience. Poetry, an art that arguably best reflects the speed at which we absorb ideas, information and imagery, is being neglected by corporate publishing houses and distributors throughout Australia.
Over the next few months, I plan to speak with editors, poets and you… the reading audience to try and create some discussion about the challenges facing poetry publication and distribution in 21st Century Australia.
First up, let’s take an historical look at one of the methods independent publishers have used to try and keep poetry in the public eye – the chapbook. This is part of an article co-written by David Stavanger, first published in Writing QLD (July 2008)
“If you want to buy, I’m your chap!”
This was the cry of the chapman, itinerant pedlars and hawkers, who cheerfully sold anything, including printed ephemera, or chapbooks, at fairs and markets, on street corners, or by traveling door-to-door. Such chapbooks, generally consisted of a single sheet of paper, folded and simply stitched to make a small book of between eight and thirty-two pages. They were crudely fashioned and definitively coverless, but in the early 1500’s they moved our pre-print, oral culture forward and quite literally, made the word flesh.
From the 16th to the 19th century, the chapbook flourished as a locus of popular culture, poetry, religion, myth and story. Many of these ‘penny dreadfuls’, were looked upon as dangerous by the political and religious authorities, as they were a means of distributing radical ideas. The chapbook was not confined to the English speaking world and the phenomenon spread throughout Italy, Spain, France, Germany and China, becoming a vehicle for the democratisation of folklore and the melding of myth and imagination across national divides. Many would argue the chapbook is responsible for recognising the value and power of reading, regardless of class.
In the late 19th century, the popularity of the chapbook began to wane. The passing of laws banning hawking and singing in the streets put the chapman out of business; new print technologies, the rise of the novel and the popularisation of the newspaper, all contributed to their decline, but it was not long until the chapbook found its place in the burgeoning world of contemporary poetry. Pamphlets distributed by the international Dada movement and elegantly designed works of Russian avant-garde poets set a new standard. The second coming of the chapbook continued on through to the establishment of City Lights book store in San Francisco and the publication of the internationally renowned Pocket Poets series, which took the popularity of the chapbook to new heights.
In Australia, the Gargoyle Poetry series (Makar Press) saw many of our finest contemporary poets such as John Tranter, Shelton Lea and Billy Jones published and widely distributed, some for the first time. The Wagtail series (Picaro Press) continues to publish high-quality, affordable poetry chapbooks and set the benchmark alongside productions from publishers such as PressPress, Sweetwater Press, Post Pressed and Small Change Press.
Whether it be self-published zines, studiously hand stitched, letter-pressed works or works published in conjunction with a reading series or to fund tours, the chapbook continues to occupy a crucial space in the publication of poetry worldwide.
Gordon, Noah Eli. Considering Chapbooks: A Brief History of the Little Book. Jacket 34, October, 2007.
Shepard, Leslie. The History of Street Literature. Detroit, MI: Singing Tree Press, 1973.
Morton, Chris. A Pleasant History of Chapbooks. The Books Blog. January 4, 2007