I recently did a reading from Colonize This! at the Asian American Writers Workshop. The Asian American Writers Workshop is a wonderful place. It seemed to be thrumming with literary and community energy. There were: 1000 origami swans soaring across the walls and ceiling; names of Asian American writers affixed to the wall; names of sponsors on each folding chair; and a poster admonishing students to let go as writers and to treat each other well during critiques hanging on the blackboard. It felt wonderful to be there amongst all that positive energy. Clearly, this was a space people came to to express themselves, and to hear others express themselves. As it was women’s night, any male poet who got on the mic had to read a poem by a woman first. One young man held a yellow photocopied book in his hand. He read the title of the poem he was going to read: “Three Asian Boys” by Ishle Yi Park. I remembered Ishle’s name. I had seen her perform at Bar 13 at a weekly open mic. As I listened to the man reading the poem, I found myself enjoying the turns of phrase, smiling at the references and taking the emotional leap to sit for a few moments in the poet’s soul. I thought the last line was especially powerful and felt immediately moved to spend more time with Ishle’s words. I asked if they were selling Ishle’s chapbook there at the Asian American Writers Workshop. They were. I bought one and took it home.
Cracking it open, I found myself intimately placed into a Korean woman’s life confronting lily-white college classmates, her lover, racism, fear, travel, and a family history of abuse. I was fascinated by the simple turn of events that brought her thoughts and feelings to me. I was cognizant that it was her will to produce a chapbook that transported her poetry into my hands. No one decided her work was worth it. No one put their stamp of approval on her. Perhaps someone encouraged her to collect her poems in printed form, perhaps it was her own idea. Regardless, through her own actions, she shares her art and her self with strangers, simply because she thought: my work is worth it.
When I was studying publishing in 1995, mainstream publishing’s official term for self-publishing was “vanity publishing.” The rationale was, you were being vain or stroking your ego if you published your own work. I accepted that explanation at the time without much critique, but now, years later, I realize the publishing industry is not a trustworthy source for characterizing self-publishing. There are so many assumptions and assertions made with the term “vanity publishing.” By labeling it “vanity,” the mainstream publishing industry asserts that they have the right, the proper objectivity and taste to decide what material should be published and the writer doesn’t. The word “vanity” asserts that a financial investment in one’s own work is egocentric, while a publisher’s investment in a writer’s work is validation. The term “vanity publishing” invalidates the writer’s judgment. Having seen editorial reports at mainstream publishers where readers and editors have trashed books stating: the plot is weak, the writing lazy, characterization stereotypical, but we should publish it because it’s going to sell; I know mainstream publishing is not the bastion of quality and taste. When those same books end up on the New York Times Bestseller List, it is clear that blanket claims of merit and quality by mainstream publishing are laughable. While I’m certain some self-publishers are vain, it’s irrational to negate work because the author published it themselves. It’s also misguided to laud work simply because it was published by a mainstream publisher. The game is much more convoluted than that.
In a way, putting out a chapbook is a brave move. In printing their own work, writers assert that their work is valuable and worth reading; that their words should be recorded in permanent form. While I don’t doubt that self-stroking ego-centric motivation is behind many self-publishing ventures, I’m beginning to find poignant, powerful reasons for making chapbooks. One writer friend wants to capture her words to share with her family and keep a record of her creative efforts. Another writer friend is exhausted by the submissions process and is eager to see her words in print. As for myself, I have so much work that is simply sitting on my hard drive, not doing anyone any good. I’m wondering if it might be better to let the stories out to breathe and move around in the world, than to keep them locked up until a buyer comes bidding. So many of the conversations about self-publishing are focused on financial advantages and possibilities, but I’m not looking at chapbooks from a business perspective. Divorced from the financial realities, chapbooks are a vehicle for writers to speak directly to audiences.
I’ve produced one chapbook in my life. The organizer of an event where I read encouraged folks to have a product to sell. I had a designer create a tiny little chapbook of one story. I printed them up at Kinko’s and folded and collated each book by hand. I printed a limited amount of copies and sold them for $10. I definitely made my money back, but it was not a financial endeavor. I sold a few at the event I made them for and I carried the remainder of the chapbooks to readings I had in the following weeks. It felt strange to pump my own product while at an appearance to publicize someone else’s anthology, but it was gratifying to see my chapbook go from my hand to a reader’s palm. I felt the sensation of my words going out walking in the world. Of course my words travel the world when I publish a short story in a book or post an essay to the web, but I’m not present when the readers buy the books, I don’t feel the experience when others publish my work. Mainstream publishing can feel removed from my daily life. After I turn in the story/essay/writing, everything happens without my participation, but when I am responsible for pushing my work, the material becomes a tactile part of my life. I guess chapbooks bring a new awareness/dimension to a writer’s reality/identity.
There was a time when I thought chapbooks were a symbol of self-centeredness or failure. Now I see them as the possibility of unadulterated sharing. They offer writers the ultimate freedom of being able to speak directly to readers. The dynamics of this thought sharing is fascinating, exciting and liberating. But it’s more than that. At a recent master workshop as part of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Cassandra Wilson addressed one woman’s question about how to confront the lack of musicality in today’s music. Cassandra Wilson said (among other things): Feed Yourself. For some of us that means seeing our words in print. For others that means sharing our work with loved ones. And for all of us, that means giving others the opportunity to experience our creativity and share their gratification and appreciation with us. Chapbooks can be the last stage in the creative process—making real, making material the workings of our creative spirits and hearts.
Be well. Be love(d).
: : : September 2002 – present : : :
I recently got a rejection letter from a publisher to whom I had proposed a collection of short stories. What was unique about this letter is that it was full of information and suggestions. The editor was responding to material she received approximately a year ago, but she took the time to go beyond a basic rejection: she suggested publishers who may be interested in my project, suggested I get an agent, and wished me luck. I appreciate her extra effort. Since I don’t have a space for book proposals on my acceptance/rejection meter, I’m going to leave this particular rejection off the meter.
Rate of Acceptance/Rejection
August 2001 – August 2002
Publications: Acceptances = 6; Rejections = 6
Grants/Fellowships: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 1
Residencies/Workshops: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 4