Poetry Students Celebrate Chapbooks


Student Chapbooks
Photo of Student Chapbooks by Patrick O'Sullivan

In the PSU English Department, Advanced Study in Writing courses offer students opportunities to pursue various genres of writing in greater depth. For the culminating assignment in Professor Liz Ahl’s Advanced Poetry Workshop, students publish and distribute chapbooks of their revised work from the semester and earlier. English major Phillip Cotton calls the project “one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had at school.”

At the beginning of the semester, students read and review published chapbooks, and later in the semester, they look at a variety of samples and try some basic book arts techniques such as saddle-stitching and Japanese stab-binding. But throughout the semester, the primary emphasis is the poems themselves, which students write and critique weekly, both in the whole group and with reading/critique partners. Of this workshopping experience at the core of the course, student poet Patrick O’Sullivan wrote:

“Reading poetry from ‘real’ poets helps me learn, but I shouldn’t think that I have nothing to learn from my peers. They write beautiful poetry, craft lines like masters at times, use words in ways that make me jealous. We all discovered things in each other’s writing that [the writers] might not have seen.”

In 2009, Professor Ahl’s short paper about this assignment was selected as one of the Top 20 Pedagogy papers among those submitted to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference and pedagogy forum, where she was invited to speak about creating chapbooks in class. She writes:

“Students are invited to imagine that a particular subject or theme might be best addressed across numerous poems, which is a new concept for most of them. Because of this emphasis on theme and arrangement, at least two workshop sessions are devoted to looking at whole manuscripts in draft form.  Students practice talking to one another about the whole, which often helps them manage (writing, revising, recasting, rearranging) the individual parts.”

“At first the task of creating a 14-24 page book of poetry seems simple enough,” writes student Kim Chandler. “You kind of scoff at it. But as you approach a due date and you really start buckling down on your own revisions outside of class, you start to feel how imposing it is.”  Fellow student poet Cecil Smith agrees, calling the chapbook assignment “one of the most challenging things I have done as a poet thus far.” He also observes that his chapbook, Letters to Pataphysique, “has certainly emerged from my interests as a poet, but it has also altered them.”

The chapbook project’s potential to “alter” a poet’s interests is one of the key benefits of the assignment, according to Ahl. “It’s a culmination, or capstone, but also a commencement of sorts – an embarking by these poets into the world of the poems they’ll write next.”

Advanced Poetry Workshop Photo by Patrick O'Sullivan