I've got a stack of poetry chapbooks sitting on my table, among other lit journals, books, magazines, newsletters. Here, in an attempt to clear the decks, is a review of a handful of the chapbooks by local poets that have risen to the top of the heap. In a number of ways these 5 represent the spectrum of publishing styles that I've seen lately at area readings (as well as the recent small press bookfair at the the UAG Gallery in January). They range from the "quick & dirty" Kinko jobs to the slick, glossy print-on-demand that emulate the major publishers & university presses.
It used to be that if you wanted to self-publish your poems, after years of publishers' rejections, you had to really do-it-yourself: typeset & layout the pages, design the cover, find a printer you can afford, pick up the boxes of books, then schlep them around to bookstores & to readings. With the prevalence of computers the typesetting & layout became easier, but still some of the software that printers would accept is expensive. Now the frustrated poet, or impatient novice, can email a manuscript to one of many "print-on-demand" sources that can be found on the internet & they will do it all -- for a hefty fee, of course. The finished product looks like all the other poetry books on the shelves of Borders or Barnes & Noble: perfect bound, 4-color covers, crisp typeface on good stock, complete with an ISBN & bar-coding. And you don't have to store boxes of the unsold books in your attic because the technology permits the printing of copies as needed.
But more than ever the old cliche (but it's an old cliche) is true: "you can't judge a book by its cover;" or to quote another cliche, "freedom of the press is for the person that owns one." There is something to be said for the old days of the poets shopping their poems around, workshoping, either formally or just around the kitchen table with other beat-down poets, trying their poems out at open mics, getting a sought-after featured reading, continuously working through the whole process. Now, "if you can pay, you can play."
Dominick Rizzo is a young poet who has been showing up at open mics recently, reading from his book, The Spiral Staircase of My Life: a Selection of Poetry Defining My Thirty Years. This is a professionally produced volume of 88 pages published in December 2008 by AuthorHouse (www.authorhouse.com). Obviously Rizzo has been writing for a few years, but the poems collected here all seem to be pulled from the same early notebooks, where he writes about "beauty" or "emptiness" or "desires." I hope that his involvement in the writing community can help him develop & polish his work, finding images & metaphors & rhythms. He apparently has the writing bug, now he needs to work this into art & find his voice. He is contributing a portion of his sales to suicide prevention programs, so I hope he sells a lot.
Another attractive volume of poems from an internet printing service is W.D. Clarke's Soldier Ballads and Other Tales (2009) from Infinity Publishing.com (www.buybooksontheweb.com). Those of you who read this Blog regularly, or attend open mics in Albany or at the Caffe Lena, are familiar with Clarke's work. I included him in the Poets in the Park in July 2008. His rhyming narratives of soldiers & rough life in the West, from his own life & from stories other soldiers have told him, are written in the tradition of Robert Service & Rudyard Kipling. I am glad to have in my hands so many of the poems I have enjoyed hearing him read over the last couple years. The book itself is also perfect-bound with a glossy 4-color cover, crisply printed & attractive. My only criticism of the production is that the poems & the introductory notes are all centered on the page. They would look better with the traditional flush left margin. Such a layout always reminds me of collections of inspirational verse by minister wives. But, hey, I can't tell where the lines begin when he reads them.
On the other end of the spectrum is a saddle-stapled, untrimmed photocopy job by R.M. Engelhardt (as the author note on the last page states Engelhardt "was the host of Albany's most former well-known poetry open mic...", I kid you not). The cover says "Poems Versus" so I guess this is the title -- there's no title page. The pages are numbered unnecessarily (& in Roman numerals no less!) since there is no table of contents anyway. And worst of all except for the poems themselves, the text is printed in tiny type, laid out in 2 columns. If he was trying to squeeze all the poems into one chapbook, he still could have done it with a normal layout & readable font size if he eliminated the huge, inexplicable spaces between sections of the poems. If I hadn't seen all of Engelhardt's other self-published books I would say that this was a rush job thrown together precipitously in order to have a new chapbook out for some reading he was giving. If you want a copy you will have to track down Engelhardt since there is no publisher information (no title page, remember?), except a URL for a blog: http://albanypoetrm.blogspot.com.
The final 2 chapbooks in this review, from Benevolent Bird Press (P.O. Box 522, Delmar, NY 12054), are also in the DIY tradition but show what you can do with a little bit of attention to detail & loving care of the work. Alan Casline is the publisher as well as the director of the Rootdrinker Institute (same P.O. Box address) does some of the production work himself by hand. Interestingly enough for this review, there is no websites, email addresses or other evidence of the internet listed anywhere in these 2 books.
Tom Corrado's three is just that: 3 poems, printed on 8 1/2 X 11 stock, folded vertically to create a 4 1/4 X 11 chapbook, saddle-stapled, an attractive cover with reproductions of 3 of Corrado's paintings, even yellow endpapers (which never occur in the print-on-demand books). The poems themselves are good-humored ramblings in a wry tone, a mix of Frank O'Hara & John Ashbery, filled with images & things, real stuff, nary a big concept of "Truth" or of what "poetry must be" to be found on these slim pages.
Harvesting Silence by Dennis Sullivan looks more like a traditional poetry chapbook, its 52 pages perfect-bound, a simple, attractive readable design & simple wood-block cover, with end-papers of heavier stock than the cover itself. Sullivan is the kind of poet who starts with a simple, everyday image (a pen on the floor, the weather, a cookie jar) & takes you to places you didn't know you wanted to go, deep within memory & the meaning of existence. His poems are contemplative, in the broadest & most monkish meaning of the term. He has an interesting habit of not only dating his poems to the day, not just a month & year, but also noting the time (when he ended the poem? or started it? or just happened to look at his watch?).
There is a great variety of work out there being written & published by local poets. Unfortunately, as a publisher of poetry myself, I know that woefully few people, even poets, buy other's books. So get out there, buy the books, find out for yourself what other poets are writing, & keep on writing.