Submitted by Sara Lamers, Department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Communication; Lawrence Technological University
Course: CRW3113: Special Topics in Creative Writing: Compiling a Chapbook: From Drafting to Polishing and Publishing
This was a traditional Creative Writing course in which students intensively drafted, revised, and polished original poetry. Further, we examined a specific type of publication: the poetry chapbook. The term “chapbook” grew from English “chapmen,” peddlers who sold inexpensive pamphlets throughout the late 1500s up until the mid-1800s. These small pamphlets contained poems, ballads, stories, or folklore; because these pamphlets were cheaply produced they were affordable for masses. Today a chapbook is a short collection of poetry of 16 – 25 pages (as opposed to a full-length collection, which is 50 – 80 pages long). Typically the poems are linked by a clear theme, though this is not always the case. The chapbook is generally still modestly produced, but it is a respected publication in the poetry world. It’s often a way to get a “foot in the door,” as many poets publish a chapbook before pursuing a full-length collection.
I modified this course by adding a module in which we explored the various publication avenues available. At the end of the semester, students prepared final work to submit to literary journals and self-published a chapbook featuring their work.
The module itself fit quite seamlessly within the existing course: I was able to provide students with instruction in peer-reviewed literary journals, including what I term the journal’s “tier” (those open to beginning writers, those accepting work from moderately established writers, and those open only to well-established writers). Students received instruction in the “how to’s” and the “do’s and don’ts” of submission. The assignments which assessed students’ mastery of these concepts both proved successful. Each student selected a mid-tier or top-tier journal and intensively examined a minimum of two issues in order to determine the journal’s editorial aesthetic. A written response and an oral presentation were required. Secondly, all students selected an “open tier” journal (i.e.: journal accepting submissions by new and unpublished writers) to which to submit their work. Each student prepared and formatted his/her work for submission according to the journal’s instruction, prepared a cover letter, and a written explanation of the criteria used to select the particular journal.
What was also of great value were the guest speakers which the Coleman grant made possible. I hosted Poet and nonfiction writer Sandra Beasley for a two-day campus visit. During this time, Ms. Beasley gave a “chat with the author” Q&A, a public poetry reading, and presented her experience as a self-employed writer to the class. Beasley’s books include two full-length poetry collections and a memoir. Her work has been published extensively in prestigious literary journals – such as The Baltimore Review, Gulf Coast, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Passages North, and Potomac Review, and has also been anthologized by Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. Beasley is a freelance writer for such publications as the Washington Post Magazine and leads workshops at the Writer’s Center. In class, Ms. Beasley spoke of having to be her own secretary, publicist, travel agent, tax accountant. She said she would not have been able to quit her job and work full time as a poet alone – it was the publication of her memoir and the free-lance nonfiction she writes that allows her to be self-employed. I appreciated that the clarified this to students and that she stressed that speaking events/readings, and workshops are all necessary to “pay the bills.” She spoke candidly to me that even a small $100 honorarium literally helps her pay the rent money.
Secondly, Steve Dolgin, Editor-in-Chief of The MacGuffin, and Carol Was, Poetry Editor, also presented to the class. The MacGuffin of Schoolcraft College is a national journal published three times a year. Dolgin and Was provided a behind-the-scenes look at the process by which writing is selected and published in their journal. Their presentation conveyed both the risks and the rewards of professional publishing.
Though I advertised the publication module of the course prior to students enrolling, inevitably some students enrolled out of necessity, rather than interest, as this course is a degree requirement for the English major. A few students expressed some interest in learning about the publishing world at the onset of the course, but the majority of the class appeared fairly intimidated by the notion. I was pleased that the students left the course very receptive to pursuing publishing: on the final day of class 80% indicated a strong desire to pursue publication in the future. We talked candidly about publishing and the excitement in the room was palpable. One student expressed this enthusiasm best when he said “having something to hold in my hands that is more than paper stapled together is my dream.”
Similarly, I’m confident that students walked away with a clear understanding of the risks of publishing. I stressed that when they submit work for publication they will get rejected. One of the resources I required – the text Poet’s Market – provides detailed information on the number of submissions literary journals receive in each reading period as well as the (very low) percentage of those submissions which are accepted. Further, I shared personal experience with students, even circulating a check I’d received for $5.00 to underscore that there is little to no market for poetry.
The course culminated, as I mentioned, in the production of a chapbook of the students’ work. Students worked with two graphic design majors to self-publish the books. I use the term “self-publishing” fairly loosely as the students were producing the books not to sell, but for the benefit of having a professional-looking, polished book (“Self-publishing” can be a nebulous term, though generally self-published work is assigned an ISBN as professional published books are). I was pleased not only with the way the books turned out, but that producing the books whetted the students’ appetite to publish professionally. It’s rare that an instructor actually sees students’ faces light up, but this is exactly what happened. Students gave a formal presentation of the deliverable which was attended by the department chair, the college dean, and the university provost.
The downside to the module was that some content had to be cut from the original syllabus. Similarly, I was unable to address some of the module’s content as I had hoped. For example I’d planned to address self-promotion by prompting students to examine the websites and blogs of professional writers and for them to investigate other means of marketing, such as readings, community events (giving workshops at libraries, attending “local author” book fairs), and the like. I was able to attend a presentation at this year’s AWP conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) devoted to just this topic. Further, I hoped to be able to provide a more in-depth look at self-publishing. While in theory this was an intermediate course, in practice it was an introductory course for most students (due to the fact that instructions of the Introduction to Creative Writing course can choose to focus on only one genre – some students had not studied the craft of poetry in the Intro section they’d completed). Thus, I had to dedicate more time to some of the principles of Creative Writing poetry. In the end, it’s clear that this module would work best as 1) a brand-new course, rather than a module integrated into an existing course and 2) an advanced-level course where students are already strong writers. Part of these stumbling blocks are the result of LTU’s English degree being relatively new and the program not yet a well-established one.
At the conclusion of the course each student completed a course evaluation which I designed specifically for this course and the publishing module. What follows is a selection of student responses to the following question:
The publishing aspects of this course (instruction in submitting to literary journals, production of chapbooks, etc.) were made possible by a grant from the Coleman Foundation. Please provide a brief response on your experience concerning these aspects of the course. Did you hope to pursue publication of your work before entering this course? What are your thoughts on publishing upon completing this course?
• “I did not know about publishing before this course. I never truly set it as a goal [. . .], but now that I am printing my first chapbook, not only do I feel accomplished, but it is encouraging me to go further with my poetry. Upon completing this course, I want to continue writing in hopes of publishing. It is a very satisfying feeling to see your work put together and out there for others to enjoy.”
• “Before this course I had a desire to be published, but not in poetry. I still don’t know if I will submit poetry in the future, but it won’t go unnoticed as before. If I do decide to publish I will know how, thanks for the step-by-step guide provided in this class. The guest speakers were especially helpful in giving us the ‘do’s and don’ts’ of publishing.”
• “As I said before, the publishing aspect was the biggest motivator in the course. Without it, I would be putting my name on something that would never leave the classroom; now it has taken on a life of its own. I am very happy that I had the opportunity to work in these areas and publish my own chapbook. To have something to hold at the end of the course is simply wonderful.”