April 2011

Jon Cotner


Faces from the Third Annual NYC Chapbook Fair

Aiden Arrata, Ugly Duckling Presse

I put my coat and hat behind Ugly Duckling Presse’s table. Now 17 years old, UDP is a venerable independent publisher known for its gorgeous books. Aiden is part of the bookmaking team. She says, “It’s nice to do something hands-on. Otherwise literature can be so cerebral.”



Erin Morrill (L) & Andrew Kenower (R), Trafficker Press

Any remarks on the chapbook’s origins?

Andrew: “Chapbooks were small, folded books of usually 12-24 pages sold door to door by chapmen in the 16th century. The chapmen sold other little objects too -- bottles and trinkets. Chapbooks formed the literature of the poor.”

Christian Hawkey, poet

Suddenly I see Christian Hawkey, author of Ventrakl (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). I ask if he’ll comment on the chapbook’s place in our contemporary world. “Chapbooks,” Christian muses. “They’re small, they’re portable. You can read them anywhere. And you should store them in the freezer along with your passport, cash, and family photos.”

Sarah Nicholls, The Center for Book Arts

Why teach bookmaking?

Sarah: “It’s empowering. You don’t have to wait for someone else to publish your work. This can be done by yourself.”

Sonia Farmer, Poinciana Paper Press

Based in the Bahamas, Poinciana Paper Press offers opportunities for Caribbean writers and artists to collaborate. Sonia says it’s the only Bahamian press. Local writers used to buy their own ISBNs, print books at a newspaper facility, and self-publish.

Carolyn Zaikowski, Magic Helicopter Press

Everybody here is so generous. By the time I reach Magic Helicopter’s table I carry ten new books. If I adopt Christian Hawkey’s advice, my freezer will soon get stuffed. Carolyn hands me Daniel Bailey’s Drunk Sonnets. In this book -- composed while drunk -- EACH LETTER IS IN CAPS.

Betsy Wheeler (L) & Megan Dewar (R), Pilot Books

How would you describe Pilot Books?

Betsy: “We take small selections from full-length books, and make artist books. Everything is handmade -- accordion-folded or pamphlet-stitched.”

Emily Pettit, Factory Hollow Press (L) & Guy Pettit, Flying Object (R)

At the Pilot table I pick up Emily Pettit’s What Happened to Limbo. Then I run into Emily herself. This could be a coincidence, or it could illustrate small-press publishing’s close-knittedness. I ask Emily why she makes chapbooks. “Can I quote someone else?” “Sure,” I reply, intrigued. Emily opens James Haug’s Why I Like Chapbooks (Factory Hollow, 2011) and reads:

“Chapbooks are stealth books./ They can slip under a door./ They don’t impose. They suggest. They carry little baggage./ They’re not one thing or another. They don’t take much time. They’re sly and easy to ignore. They imply, insinuate, inquire./ They don’t expect an answer./ They have a long history; they have no history.”

Emily’s brother Guy is the founder of Flying Object, a non-profit center for independent publishing in Western Massachusetts. What once was a dilapidated firehouse is now a bookshop with a vibrant event calendar. Guy knocked down walls, built new ones, installed insulation and electricity. He reflects, “It was the best phase of my life.”   

Nathaniel Otting, minutes BOOKS (L) & Zach Schomburg, Octopus Books (R)

Why did you start minutes BOOKS?

Nathaniel: “To print Lewis Friedman’s Catfish Po’ Boys.”

And why did you start Octopus Books?

Zach: “To have e-mail exchanges with my favorite poets.”

Justin Taylor, X-ing Books

As I talk with Nathaniel and Zach, I notice Justin Taylor packing X-ing Books’s table. Justin has published a poetry book on X-ing (More Perfect Depictions of Noise) along with a story collection and novel on Harper Perennial. Justin says, “I write fiction primarily, but I read a lot of poetry. I like to stay involved in poetry. Events like this is where that happens.”

M.C. Hyland, DoubleCross Press (L) & Adam Robinson, Publishing Genius (R)

What’s the biggest challenge you face?

M.C.: “You mean that there’s nobody besides me? That’s the biggest challenge.”

How is Publishing Genius?

Adam: “I want to be bigger than Google.”

Aiden Arrata, Ugly Duckling Presse

Thankfully Adam left some money for the others. I grab my coat and hat, and put on a sweater. Outside the temperature dropped 20 degrees.

Joshua Beckman, Wave Books

It was a successful, fun bookfair all around. Yet as Andrew from Trafficker Press said, chapbooks were originally the literature of the poor, and poets, poet-publishers, etc. must do what they can to survive. Joshua sneaks a book from the Pilot table. I ask about this lingering New York winter. Joshua smiles, “The winter was very beautiful, and I’m excited for spring. The birds have arrived.”

Waiting for my train home, I choose a book. Delays won’t bother me tonight. The first piece in Mike Topp’s Sasquatch Stories (Publishing Genius, 2010) makes me burst out laughing. It’s called “We Do That!” and goes like this:

“We Do That!”

I’m reminded of Emily’s quote from James Haug’s Why I Like Chapbooks -- that chapbooks are “not one thing or another.” Flipping Sasquatch Stories, I see it’s categorized “Poetry/Other.” Which amounts to saying “Poetry/Non-Poetry,” or “Poetry/Something Often Considered Distinct from Poetry.” But I suppose we could simply call this book “poetry” (along with the 20 in my bag) if we return to poesis, that is, to “making”: word- and paper-based productions happening outside ordinary custom, shocking expectations and offering new artistic/economic/social possibilities. At least that’s what I’m inclined to think after today’s bookfair.