Chapbook or Full Length Manuscript?

In poetry, there are several ways to get published. You can publish individual poems in literary journals, poetry chapbooks (16-24 poems), or full-length books of poems (around 50 poems usually). There are also other unique ways to publish, like broadsides, anthologies, and even self-publishing.

As a poet who tends to stick to traditional poetry publication routes, what should my next step be? I’ve had several poems published in journals and my first chapbook is coming out next month. A logical next step seems to be to work on a full-length manuscript. I’ve written a lot of new poems this year and have about 25-30 poems that I thought I could add to to turn into a full-length book. I even had a tentative title (“Map for the Lost”) and an organizational idea for the book based around the idea of maps. My sections would be sort of geographical in nature, like “Garden,” “Sea,” “The Antarctic,” and “Desert.”

However, something has been nagging at me for a while. My organizational plan feels a little too structured, easy, and cliche. When I was at Collegeville, a participant asked this question about one of my poems: “Does the poem fill the form?” It was a great question, because it was a poem titled “Compass” that had four parts: North, South, East, and West. I found that the answer to that question was, “No, the poem doesn’t fill the form. Not yet at least.” Our poetry mentor at Collegeville, poet Michael Dennis Browne, even suggested that I take out the form and play around with the content of the poem a little more, which I took as good advice.

I’ve been asking that same question about my full-length book plan: Do the poems fill the form of the book? I don’t think they do. I was trying to figure out a way to meld a bunch of poems into one book just to get a book finished. But the truth is, I have clusters of themes. I have some poems on the theme of spirituality and faith wrestling, some poems on parenting, and then this weird sequence of eight poems about penguins. I don’t think that together they make a cohesive whole.

A poet friend of mine, Meg Eden, posted an article on Facebook called “So You Want to Win a Book Prize?” last week. The article is an interview with poet Naoko Fujimoto on creating her first book of poetry. In the interview, Fujimoto talks about how hard it has been to create and prepare a full-length book. After talking about how she has restructured her book four times, she says, “To be honest, with my young, optimistic attitude, I thought that it would be easier to publish a book after I had published a decent amount of individual poems in print and online magazines.” 

Later in the interview, Fujimoto is asked what writing advice she would give to her past self, and she answers, “Create more chapbooks. In my early poetry career, I really wanted to start with a major book, so I had never entertained the thought of creating chapbooks. Though, like my media-type feelings, this has evolved. I am currently working on four chapbooks, and I adore them. Their experience brings with it a new enjoyment and creative opportunities . . . Chapbooks have millions of creative possibilities.”

In July had the opportunity to participate in an alumni reading at Murray State, where I got my MFA. I chose to read five or six of the penguin poems. My former poetry prof, Jeff Skinner, was there and encouraged me to push that idea/topic/metaphor as far as I could. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to follow his advice. I felt like the penguin poems were done. But now I wonder if I could create a chapbook of poems about Antarctica. Many chapbooks are themed, and the topic of penguins and Antarctica is a pretty unique topic. Now I think Jeff was right, and I want to try it!

So for now, I’ve decided to hold off on creating a full length book of poetry and focus on making another poetry chapbook. The full length is still definitely a goal, but for now I am going to do some more research on Antarctica and see if I can find some material that I could write poems about. I’ve been watching the PBS show “Chasing Shackleton,” which is about a modern day attempt to recreate an expedition of explorer Ernest Shackleton, who took several trips to Antarctica in the early 1900s. I already have four pages of notes!

I’m excited about this new possibility. Though I’ve revised several poems recently, I’ve only drafted one or two new poems since July, and I’ve felt a bit of writer’s block actually. I finally feel like I have a bit of a focus for my work now, and I look forward to this project.



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One comment

  1. Joanne Corey says:

    Best wishes with Antarctica! It sounds exciting!

    I’m so interested in reading about this subject. I am going to my first ever workshop/residency for a week in November, and I am hoping that I will be able to put together a chapbook as a result. I have only a few journal, blog, and anthology publications so far, but would love to publish a chapbook before I turn 60. I’m about to turn 55, so I’m giving myself some time…

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