At a time when Arts Councils around the world are announcing cuts as cooperatively as butchers’ shop windows, the humble chapbook is thriving. Let me hit you with the opinion from the offset and we’ll see where we go from there: chapbooks are just as important to the writer as any book deal from a national or international publisher. I talked before in a previous post (“To the page we turn”) about beginnings, and this is not only about beginnings, but also sustainability. You can stick all sorts of definitions onto the word ‘chapbook’, (and agree or disagree with Writers Digest’s definition) but essentially, it’s a smaller book of 40 pages or less, produced inexpensively by either the author or a small independent publisher.
So what’s their significance and how on earth can you say they hold their own among the glossier, bar coded, nationally distributed books whose publishers have a pretty logo and a website with a Paypal-entrusted store? In a recent article in Poets & Writers magazine, poet Travis Mossotti takes a look at the life of a touring poet. In it he argues that making things happen, making lasting connections through readings, class visits, book signings, lectures, workshops etc. will be a burden falling squarely on the poet. (“Unless you have Allison Granucci on speed dial; or you have Knopf printed on your spine;...or you’ve changed your name to James Franco” – oh James!). Admittedly, poets like Mossitti and fiction writers with publishers behind them also have to do this. However, the majority of chapbook authors own the stock, not just the rights. And if they do not own the stock, it’s far cheaper and easier to get hold of than a book that is retailing for 15 dollars plus tax. That makes a big difference in terms of getting on the road, networking, getting the work into the public's hands and laying the stepping stones to more fruitful ventures.
That brings us to the two chapbooks.
In ‘Dried Up’, Canadian and LA-based author Trista Hurley-Waxali offers a amiable, sometimes jocular look at Los Angeles through the eyes of an outsider. She has distanced herself enough in her writing to be objective at times, yet offers situations so familiar to our everyday pull-of-hair frustration that we can’t but help place ourselves in her sketches; ‘Self-serve Dialog’, for example, a no-holds-barred rant that we all go through at some point or another. ‘Real Things’ will also elicit a few smiles and nods when read, although, as with other poems in this collection, the subtlety of truth is there on the second read.
“She always shows off her slender legs, disregarding her/ blotchy/ department store self-tanner and the dark purple/ bruises on her knees.” (from ‘Complete’)
“Her V05-sprayed hair would glisten in the sun,/ while rose-scented talcum powder/
started to leave a line of sweat on her chest/ where she always caught me looking.” (from ‘The Worm Basks)
Her observations are always sharp, zooming in on details we might otherwise neglect, egging us on to look again. In a way, the sparseness of the chapbook (10 poems), the moment to moment imagery, could be likened to the irony of isolation you get in a crowded city such as LA where people appear as “leaves, sharp as blades, ... getting ready for battle.” This is a tidy, well-written first chapbook that will have justifiably given the author encouragement to continue.
I couldn’t have picked two more contrasting chapbooks to write about. Kevin Ridgeway’s ‘Riding off into that Strange Technicolor Sunset’ is an altogether different beast. I had originally paired it with a Neil Young LP and a bottle of Alaskan Amber. By the third poem, I had turned off the record player and shoved a few more bottles into the freezer under a bag of peas for quick-cooling access.
Some poems can be read once, digested easily before moving swiftly on to the next poem. Within 15 minutes, you could have 7 or 8 poems happily sitting in the department of checked-off-things in your head. If you try this with Ridgeway's poems, you will explode. It's rare that I've seen so much packed into a page of poetry. Images comes at you like Mayweather jabs. Sentences get you in a headlock and drag you down alleyways. You will be forgiven for reminding yourself to breathe as you sit winded in your chair getting the bejesus beaten out of you. And that can only be good.
The link keeping this collection together is Dallas-Ft. Worth, taking to the page in various forms: :
"the petrified doppelgangers of the long dead/ bearded settlers of this funky western city/
look down upon their bearded hipster/ successors playing hacky sack in skinny jeans." ('Statues of FT. Worth')
'Giraffe Hunting in Downtown Dallas' is probably my favorite poem, purely because it is bizarrely bulletproof when it comes to finding deeper meaning some of us like to look for. As with Eliot's three white leopards, here is another poem that you just have to take for what it is - it's a joyride.
Cameos appear every few pages too, from Townes Van Zandt to Buddy Holly, Hank Williams to Big Mama Thornton. But this is not just about music - it's about movies too; about what ideas we had in our heads growing up: "the old west/ with its paintbrush of Technicolor/ those afternoon movies from/ when we were young." ('Stockyards').
An honest, weird and wonderful collection.
*More from Trista Hurley-Waxali at this blog: https://tristaisshort.wordpress.com/
*Kevin Ridgeway is all over the internet. You could start here: