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How to Write Your Own Poetry Chapbook

Christina Crampe

Published on
Last Modified on

Chapbooks have been part of the literary world for more than 450 years, delighting audiences worldwide. According to Middlebury College Special Collection,

The roots of chapbooks go back to 16th century Europe, when printing technology began to democratize. Books had long been the preserve of the wealthy, who possessed both the education and means necessary to read them. This changed, however, when the increasing accessibility of paper and printing presses made it feasible for unbound books of eight or twelve pages to be sold for a penny or less: in those days, not as negligible a price as it might seem, but still within the reach of a laborer's wages.

A Very Short History of the Chapbook by Nellie Pierce

In its basic form, a chapbook is a small book or booklet containing poetry or short stories. There are no standard size requirements for chapbook pages, but they are generally smaller than an 8.5-inch by 11-inch letter-sized sheet of paper.

Some chapbooks are the size of an A4 letter page folded in half, while others are smaller and are made by folding a sheet of paper multiple times. The key intent is to make chapbooks as small and portable as possible. Early chapbooks used a single sheet of paper that was folded into 8 to 24 pages. Today, chapbooks have evolved to be between 20 to 40 pages in length.

Although the size, length, and aesthetics are defining features of a chapbook, the content is the most critical factor. How can you ensure that your content is compelling and impactful?

Establish a theme

sad man sitting on the floor and crying
You can employ a specific theme - like the feeling of loneliness- or a motif - like the use of light and dark imagery. Photo by CandyRetriever.

You should try to present a cohesive compilation of poems with consistent content. Chapbooks should always center on a theme or subject. You may not be writing a typical fiction book, but you're still a storyteller — avoid interrupting the story with unnecessary or irrelevant plot points.

Popular themes include:

  • Love
  • Death
  • Survival
  • Sexuality
  • Coming of age
  • Power and greed

For example, Blythe Baird's "If My Body Could Speak" is a chapbook about the celebration of womanhood along with the struggles that come with being a woman. Two themes present in the poems are the exploration of femininity and sexuality.

You might also write about a specific person, place, or object, or maybe keep your work consistent by employing the same rhythm in each poem. Motifs are commonly used in chapbooks to connect the various content. For example, motifs can include light and dark imagery or the repetition of a particular action, such as biting your nails. Your chapbook will be cohesive if a thread connects your pieces.

Make sure you choose an idea or theme that's meaningful to you. Chapbooks are intended to show sincerity and emotions, and you should feel deeply connected with what you've written.

Developing a story

Chapbooks may be short, but a consistent flow and narrative arc throughout the book can go a long way in keeping your reader. Plan out the poems in advance to show story development throughout the book.

Perhaps you introduce readers to a childhood memory in the first poem and use that memory to show growth through adolescence and into adulthood. Maybe your chapbook begins with a poem about heartbreak. The following poems could explore how that moment affected your subsequent romantic relationships. How much did the person who appeared in the first poem of the series evolve by the time they appeared in the last poem?

Having a good story or theme makes your chapbook engaging to your readers. Always prioritize the emotional connection between your work and your audience. Readers naturally want to know what comes next, and storytelling makes them feel connected to your work.

Overwrite and overedit

Since chapbooks are short, you only need to write the minimum number of poems, correct? Not exactly. It is best to write more than you think you will need so you will have an abundance of poems to choose from. For example, when creating a 30-page chapbook, you might write 30 poems but then realize that 13 of those poems aren't hitting the mark. Now you're down 13 poems and need to write more. Save yourself some time and aggravation by overwriting from the start.

We also recommend saving all edits until the end of the process instead of editing as you write. For instance, you may edit one or two poems for a prolonged period of time and then decide later that they don't fit with the other poems you've chosen for your collection. Perhaps they don't address the theme you've decided to write about, or maybe they're missing the motif present in the others. Whatever the reason, you have put effort into the wrong activity. Do not spend time editing until you have a final version.

Once you are ready, the editing process should be extensive. You should edit each piece over and over again until you are fully satisfied.

Experiment with style

Although your poems should follow the development of a particular theme, they do not have to be in the same style. Switching up your poem's style is one way to keep your readers engaged. For example, one page might feature a sonnet, a poem with a strict structure and rhyme, while the following page might feature a free-verse prose poem. Poems in these two dramatically different forms can work cohesively side by side as long as they both fit your subject matter.

Writers have created poems in the form of letters, text message exchanges, and other unorthodox methods. Don't be scared to try out a new technique to see if it fits what you're writing. For example, a chapbook showing the development of a parent/child relationship might begin with an epistolary poem to the parent from the child at a young age and end with a sonnet dedicated to the parent from the child during adulthood. Transitioning from a less restricted form, like an epistle, to a more structured form, like a sonnet, can demonstrate the physical and mental growth of the author.

Map the journey

woman sitting on the floor, drinking a cup of coffee, and looking at sheets laid out on the floor
Printing physical copies of your poem can help you visualize the structure of your chapbook. Photo by gstockstudio.

Since organizing your content is essential in making your chapbook cohesive and engaging and because you want to take your reader on a journey, take the time to map it out. If you plan out your poems ahead of time, when your readers reach that final destination, they feel like they have experienced a literary adventure.

The order in which your poems appear matters. Think carefully about which poem will appear first, last, in the middle, second-to-last — it all helps to create your arc. It is important to note that your first and last poems should be the most impactful. These are the poems readers will most likely remember.

One method for organizing your work is to print physical copies of your poems and lay them on the floor. Look at your poems from a bird's eye view and switch them around until they appear in an order that feels best. This makes it easier to visualize your entire collection, and you might find outlier poems you no longer want to include and should replace.

Your audience should finish your chapbook feeling like they read something meaningful. Leave readers with a solid conclusion they can identify with, feeling relieved, happy, sad, or excited about what they experienced during their journey through your poetry collection.

Attract attention

Although you want your content to speak for itself, chapbooks are generally regarded as a niche part of the literary landscape. This means it may take more work for your poems to garner interest. One way to attract readers is to give significant thought to your cover art.

A good example of effective cover art is Blythe Baird's chapbook. Her cover features a white dinner plate with a fork and knife. However, the plate is full of different makeup products instead of food. This cover art is a creative take on femininity which Baird writes about in her poems.

Your cover images can be simple or abstract, but they should relate to your work somehow. Will there be a subtle drawing on the cover? Or do you have illustrations that overtly match your chapbook theme? Maybe you want a classic, leather-covered chapbook that gives a nod to the chapbooks of yore. Make sure that you create a cover that echoes the feelings you want to convey through your poems.

Knowing your audience

magazines on a conveyor belt
Publishing your chapbook can be difficult, but you have more than one publishing option available to you. Photo by Zefart.

Your audience includes not only readers but also publishers. Here are some ways you could consider gathering attention to your work:

  • Find a publisher: It is harder to get a chapbook published than a traditional poetry collection of over 40 pages. However, it is not impossible. Some companies are specifically chapbook publishers you can send your work to in hopes of being picked up.
  • Self-publish: If you're struggling to get published by a traditional publisher, you might turn to self-publishing. Many chapbook writers self-publish because this choice gives them creative control over their work, and they can print and distribute as many copies as they want and need. If you're unsure how to proceed, refer to online sources that will teach you how to DIY your chapbook. The one downside to self-publishing is the risk of not having that collection published by a press in the future because you have already published it. However, this route can still help you gain attention and make you a better prospect for future publications.
  • Enter a contest: Entering your chapbook into a contest can help you gain visibility. If you're skilled enough to win, you might have the opportunity to meet with other poets and potential publishers. This is also a great way to build your network and make industry connections.

Poetry in motion

Chapbook content should reflect a piece of you regardless of your topic, layout, audience, or final destination. Select your favorite poems or short stories, decide what shows your personality, and put it together using the tips above. Why wait? Start joining the poets and writers from the past and leave your mark in the literary world with a brilliant chapbook that is all your own.

Header photo by Wirestock.

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