Peddling Poetry — A Time-Honored Tradition

Restored peddlers wagon, Ohio

Beyond the flow of mainstream media, where mega-best-sellers barge by creating big wakes, there are quiet bays where writers row in welcoming waters, where a tide of readers wade in and tug their turquoise and yellow books to shore. I’ve been hanging out in these quiet inlets, splashing in the tide pools of poetic arts, collecting.

I’ve gathered prickly urchins and violet anemones, shells that play madrigals and rondos. I’ve taken them home and treasured each one. Many of these collected “chapbooks” include the poems of friends or writers I’ve heard read their stories at literary events. Some are the work of acquaintances on social media and others passed along by poets.
These slender volumes created by working artists follow a centuries old tradition made popular by “chapmen,” peddlers of sometimes dubious character who tramped the byways of 17th century small-town Europe offering housewares and hardware and the occasional booklet to rural residents. These pamphlets included political and religious tracts, folk tales — and often poetry.

Peddler in modern China

Although the Industrial Revolution brought better printing presses and the chapbook fell out of favor, the publishing method never completely died out. The appeal of inexpensive booklets easily distributed was not lost on thrifty residents of rural towns or on avant garde artists seeking attention for their work — the American Beat poets of the 1950s and 60s published frequently in chapbooks, for example.

American poet Allen Ginsberg’s ground-breaking work “Howl and Other Poems” was originally published this way by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Books, as were works by Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, William Carlos Williams and Gregory Corso. Today a first edition chapbook of “Howl” sells for about $600, but back in the day probably cost less than a dollar. There’s a lively trade in collectible chapbooks these days and many independent booksellers maintain a special section. Not true for chain book stores, however.

But, chapbooks remain one of the world’s most widely-accepted forms of publishing poetry. Given the centuries-old tradition of bringing pots and pans, as well as prose and poetry, to customers worldwide, these minimalist, low-cost volumes don’t carry the modern stigma of vanity attached to longer, self-published works. Heck, every American poet from Whitman to Frost initially published this way.

Right now there are a number of chapbooks on my bedside table that I turn to when I settle down for a quick read before sleep. I’ll highlight them in coming weeks. The author’s aren’t household names like J.K. Rowling, John Grisham or James Patterson. Instead, the books are small, personal and beautifully made by real people with something to say. Here’s an example:

Grand Slam, poet Alan Kleiman’s premiere collection features many of his most popular works, offers deceptively light verse that pops with charm and catches the reader off-guard with unexpected insights. He finds poetic occasion in life’s ordinary events: Sardines, a barn reflected, feta dip, sliver removers, wanting girls, slow dancing and kisses.

Kiss me a hundred times
and then a thousand
and then more that that
and then even more
and you will begin
to touch
the spot where
I want to kiss you more.
 “It’s a pleasure to praise Alan Kleiman’s brave and strange poetry, with its various

strands of innocent yearning and worldly resignation. ‘The Emperor’s clothes don’t fit anymore,’ Kleiman has found. The result is a whole new wardrobe, this time, without excuses” — Jeff Nunokawa, Princeton University.

Kleiman, who often works under the pen name Ace Mulvihil, lives in New York City and is as an attorney. His poetry has appeared in publications around the world. Grand Slam is available online from Amazon.

Today I join the ranks of chapmen, rattling my wagon from town to town, calling to housewives: “Hot poems. Hot Poems. One a penny, two a dime. Hot Poems!”

Published by Kate Campbell

Writer, editor, photographer, novelist, short story writer, poet.

3 thoughts on “Peddling Poetry — A Time-Honored Tradition

    1. Thanks for asking about chapbooks — generally they are 20 to 40 pages, but I have a new 12-story, short story collection that is 135 pages. Originally chapbooks were handmade in limited quantities, illustrated with woodcuts. With today’s technology, chapbooks can be pamphlet size short in length, handmade or printed on a press. Some have reproductions of original art and photography, some have unconventional page layouts. Some have card-stock covers, others are perfect-bound, that is they have a spine. There are printers that specialize in producing chapbooks, some bookstores carry a large of selection of them, others have no chapbooks at all. For many readers, this publishing form is under the radar, but it offers a wonderful selection of work from established to emerging writers and at low cost.

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