There' some excellent discussion going on over at looktouchblog about vanity and chapbooks. Jessica makes great points about nepotism and genre particularly. These sorts of concerns are not quite as divisive in music or filmmaking, and it may be, like someone said in the comments section, that whole "everyone can be a poet" thing. How, we ask, can serious work differentiate itself from the rabble without someone serving as gatekeeper? I generally think good work makes its own legitimacy. And half the battle is just getting it out there to readers. And while certainly name brand value of certain presses hold an advantage, that doesn't necessarily make them any more legitimate, just more recognizable, easier to market. And it IS so much about who you know and who you blow in a lot of cases---as much as it is in any art field I suppose. The flip side of "nepotism" is "community"--depending on how you look at it. It is a bit hypocritical to think the author published by his/her best friend is more "legitimate" than the author who self-publishes. If it's crap, it's crap no matter who publishes it. If it's good, it's good. Get over it already.
But, admittedly, these are things I've struggled over in the past. I had no problem with publishing my own chapbooks initially, but I was also somehow made more comfortable by the fact that my first chap, The Archaeologist's Daughter, had been published by someone else. While I was very grateful they even published it, it took them like three years to get it out. Not exactly ideal conditions in hindsight. Bloody Mary and belladonna were both immediate and served the purpose of getting the work out there and having something to distribute at readings. But I was still hoping to find a publisher for my full-length manuscript. The question of self-publication came up again and again. I also wondered if I really needed a book book, the chaps being completely sufficient for my needs. While the fever almanac is certainly more definitive, revised, and comprehensive bunch of poems, including about half of which were newer and not in the chaps. I also wanted a nice glossy hefty book of my work, which I actually could have done POD if I had the nerve. Problem was, I didn't. Those little whispers of "legitimacy" and "vanity publishing" were still in my head. I worried about distribution, about being taken seriously, about whether self-publishing would somehow impose some sort of judgement on me as a poet, that I was somehow inferior. That I was just kidding myself. All stupid, but I'm sure I'm not the only one.
I was very relieved when Ghost Road accepted it and I didn't have to make a tough decision. And I'm sure the fever almanac will get much better distribution and be a better, prettier book design-wise because of it. Otherwise, though, it's pretty much the same book as I would have self-published if I had the guts. It would be no more nor less legitimate. Same poems, same order, maybe less typos in the hands of the professionals. But otherwise pretty much the same book.
Somehow I now feel freer in the last six months or so not to worry about what's "legitimate" or not. But then I also feel like I've cleared that first ridiculous hurdle which shouldn't be a hurdle at all. So maybe I'm totally a hippocrite. Or maybe I just don't know, how to work within the po-biz system and how to subvert it. How to make it so it's not a hurdle. How to say how my self-published stuff is just as good as that published elsewhere. And so is other people's---be they books or chapbooks. How to take away some of the power of the bottleneck, of the gatekeepers (and I'm speaking as one of them somewhat, as both and editor and publisher), to give it back to the poets. And it sucks majorly that other aspects of po-biz, the university/grant/awards side, doesn't see it this way, so some people HAVE to buy into it out of financial necessity when they otherwise wouldn't. And definitely things are changing outside of that for the good--ease of distributing through the web, presses using POD, independence from traditional distribution channels and brick & mortar bookstores. It's hard to straddle all these things at once. To question the whole "legitimacy" as bullshit thing and still want to be taken seriously. To have your cake and eat it, too. Ugh..it gives me a headache.
Regardless, I'm still wondering how to go with future projects. Releasing archer avenue myself was a no-brainer, it's just a little series, but I struggled over feign, whether to go a contest route or not. One of the reasons I'm happy to have placed it with New Michigan is their readership is much wider than dgp's. So many more readers have a better chance of encountering it. And again, there's the name value thing, people trust NMP to publish good work. And it's a bigger project which was originally intended to be book-length until I chopped alot of filler out of it. But like last year with errata, if they hadn't taken it, I'd probably have published it myself at some point. The next book? the next chap? who knows.
As for the chapbook discussion, I've found them to fulfill a number of roles, all of which are touched on. The Archaeologist's Daughter was just all my publishable work up to that point in 2002 (luckily it all fit together somewhat coherently). Bloody Mary and belladonna were linked selections of the longer manuscript that became the fever almanac, mostly put together in that business-card like function being talked about, a sampling. errata, on the other hand, was it's own little self-contained series from the beginning. As was archer avenue, and the unfinished Cornell project. feign felt more like a book from the beginning, not a distinct series like the other, but individual different poems linked by a greater thematic arc. So I guess chapbooks can really be just about anything, the only defining characteristic being their length. girl show has yet to be determined, whether it will fall on the longer or shorter side (though it has to at some point exist as my thesis at 48 pages.) But as a published work, it could go either way at this point. The same with dulcet, the novel-in-verse-like project still in it's infancy.
Regardless of length, I've come to the realization that my work represents itself better in books, chapbooks, and series, how one poem plays off the other. I've often wished I was one of those poets who could just knock your socks off with a single poem, but my work functions in more a cummulative effect. I even work this way with visual art most of the time, everything part of a series moreso than a distinct piece. I think I have to try getting at things from many approaches and directions, rather than in one-shot.