This month, Sebastian invites Philadelphia-based poet, essayist, and editor Ted Rees to tell us about his favorite (chap)books. Ted's most recent book is Dog Day Economy (Roof Books 2022), and 2020's Thanksgiving: a Poem was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. Below are his favorite (chap)books.
Last spring, the poet Ryan Skrabalak introduced to me a wonderful short essay by Bernadette Mayer, “Mimeo Argument.” Originally published in the April 1982 issue of The Poetry Project Newsletter, it is Mayer's rejoinder to a set of reviews by Eileen Myles in the previous issue of the newsletter, one in which Myles writes, “I... don’t like mimeo books.” (You can read Mayer’s piece here and Myles’s here.) In Mayer’s page-long screed, she forcefully argues for the primacy of mimeo, describing chapbook culture as a “momentary and urgent dissemination of poetry, which is also full of pleasure... [it] is not the marketplace but a kind of cupbearing for the knowledge and pleasure of poetry.” Beyond the vigor of Mayer’s rhetoric, which I happen to agree with, there is also the tender side of her argument, which values the mimeo book or pamphlet as a community form, a piece of art that passes between hands with immediacy for often very little money, if any at all. Though the form’s inherent ephemerality and low print runs have now allowed book dealers to sell older mimeographed chapbooks at ludicrous prices, I’ve come to believe that an aura of immediacy follows these books around—I can pick up a chapbook mimeographed in 1970 and it feels more of the now than some slick new perfect-bound book published by a large press. I know, you’re thinking, “Ted, get the ‘Net!” But look: read a bit about some of my favorite chapbooks below, and you’ll realize that Bernadette Mayer is correct when she writes that the chapbook demands one “forget about value as it’s perceived.”
Linear C by Jean Day
It’s impossible for me to not enthuse about Jean Day’s work, and there’s no better place to start with her poetry than with her first chapbook, published by Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba imprint in 1983. There is a sense of the uncanny, the unsettling dusty ennui of dry California days, the hilarity and boredom of the quotidian’s fragments, the Marxist grumble, how the present splats before us in ever more surprising and terrible ways—really, it introduces some of the themes that remain focuses of Day’s extraordinary work up to the present. Check out the whole chapbook here.
Slowpoke by Deanna Ferguson
I’ve rarely worked with concrete or visual elements in my own poetry, but occasionally happen upon a book that does so in a way that fascinates me, and Ferguson’s Slowpoke is a prime example of such. The poems within this slim, seemingly self-published chap are acrostics, but not in the Cageian sense. Rather, the pages consist of phrases and word combinations spelled out vertically and horizontally, connected by a single letter that is highlighted in color. There’s something bewitching about how it forces the reader to move slowly through the poems, making decisions about how to read them. A great chap from 1999 by a great poet of the Kootenay School of Writing, who sadly no longer writes poems or comes around much, it seems.
Hochelaga by Maxine Gadd
What can be said about Vancouver’s Maxine Gadd? She’s one of the last of a generation of poets, and also one of the most criminally under-recognized poets of the past sixty years. A gift from dear friend and bibliophile Jo Giardini, Hochelaga is a book that performs the complex feat of being an indictment of settler colonialism’s logics of death and destruction while also being profoundly resonant in its beauty.
iam obedient to every sign this way and that my head turns. yr new paint suddenly makes sense in that the birds seem to sing for it. you have no radiance
Few other poets have addressed the settler in themselves as well as those around them as searingly as Gadd, and this 1970 chap from bill bissett’s legendary blewointment press is one that should be better known. (I know that I just used a lot of superlatives to describe Gadd and her work, but here are some more: “Maxine Gadd is one of the best poets in Canada… a titanic perspective born of pain and sympathy in equal parts.”- Kevin Killian.)
Notes from Gethsemani by Phil Hall
When I purchased this from the now sadly-defunct Nomados Literary Publishers, I had never read anything by Phil Hall and had few expectations. It turns out that this slim chapbook is a meditation on the book, the page, the pen, the poem, and what might be called the simple holiness of the gesture of writing. “Agape—as if the mouth were wide open—as if the page wide open—were ready for anything we might say or do to it—for it.” Truly one of the more beautiful and ponderous chapbooks I’ve read, Hall wrote the work based on his time spent in the quarters and small personal library of Thomas Merton at Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery in Kentucky where Merton lived the last ~30 years of his life. A real life-changer.
To Max Douglas by Ken Irby
A stirring homage to a poet acquaintance who died too young, this 1971 chapbook from Irby is among his most moving works. It showcases his erudition while also being close to the land and its histories of violent conquest, but perhaps most significantly, it allows Irby a space for mourning the death of someone whom he didn’t know altogether well, but with whom he felt kinship. It’s a space that I’ve been privy to much too often in my 37 years, and one that Irby understands as touching all that we do.
‘As a head only I roll’ ‘A bad song I am’ rolling on the edge of the nest rolling on the knife-edge of the bloodfouled West
Insomnia and the Aunt by Tan Lin
Lin’s writing is always wildly difficult to describe, but bear with my dearth of language: here, Lin depicts the unknowability of family, the strange paths of immigrant entrepreneurship, the enduring legacy of American racism toward Asians, the absurdities of consumer culture, and the insomniac tendency... all through the lens of watching late night television with his aunt in the motel that she manages in rural Washington. It’s an incredible piece of writing.
The Day Was Warm and Blue by Richard Loranger
I know that I should probably try to spend more time memorizing poems, but other than some which I memorized as a teenager, I’ve found it next to impossible. However, I’ve had the first poem of Loranger’s surprising little chap memorized for as long as I’ve had a copy:
I stuck my penis in my lover’s hole. The day was warm and blue. We had both just murdered our bosses and there was little left to do.
This might be one of my favorite poems ever written: there’s the lyric sensibility, a sort of grossly matter-of-fact intimacy, an endorsement of class war, and a blasé cool. You can memorize it, too, and then any time there is a day that is warm and blue, become inspired.
How Mickey Made It by Jayne Anne Phillips
I love Phillips’s stories, especially the early ones—she has the poet’s ear, and gets the rhythms and intonations of her characters’ speech down to a T. What I also adore about her writing is that so many of her stories are barely stories, but surreal monologues or collections of monologues that build into a larger narrative. The titular character of this chap is a hapless hunk whose idiosyncratic ideas and slippery misogyny make for a wild read—this was a gift from dear friend Mark Francis Johnson when I was recovering from a round of chemo, and I can’t thank him enough for it.
Otherhood Imminent Profusion by J.H. Prynne
If you’re aware of Prynne, then you know that in the past three or so years, he’s had about 1,000 pages of poems released in either regular book form or chapbook form. Otherhood Imminent Profusion is a Critical Documents release from 2021, and is my favorite of his recent efforts—there is the “ontology of difficulty” inhered in Prynne’s project, yes, but also an astonishing lyric tendency that recalls earlier Prynne works. Just check out the poem “Radiant in Moment” on the chap’s site and you’ll understand why Prynne fans go ape for his work.
Lanterns at Guantánamo by Jordan Scott
As a person with a stutter, Scott’s work on dysfluency has ranged from children’s bestsellers (the deservedly praised I Talk Like a River) to this essay in chapbook form, which details his time spent in Guantánamo Bay as part of a Media Tour. Flummoxed in his original intentions to learn about dysfluency’s role in determining guilt during questioning (and torture) of detainees, he instead writes a damning piece that circulates around the ambient sounds of US empire’s most infamous extralegal prison, and how his recordings of these sounds cannot be redacted—that is, “background noises escape redaction to the extent that they are perceived as already redacted,” when in fact they are a kind of witness to imperial murderousness and rot. A moving and brilliant work of poetry and scholarship, you can read the essay and learn more about Scott’s project here.
Typing Wild Speech by Dana Ward
In 2010, when Lindsey Boldt handed me a copy of this chapbook outside the Oakland house and venue affectionately known as the Speakeasy, I immediately knew that it was special, though I had no clue as to its contents. My instincts were right: Ward’s poetic essay is a meditation on friendship, loss, resemblance, ritual, and how we might make poems in a relentlessly bleak world. It is also extremely funny, and includes riffs taken directly from The Office, David Larsen’s The Thorn, and any number of other sources. I return to it again and again as a means of thinking about my own losses, as well as thinking about Ward’s immense powers as a writer—though mostly making music these days, his influence can be found throughout more recent poetic offerings, and we’re all the luckier for it.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you find some good chapbooks to read in 2022.
"Favorite Books with Sebastian Castillo" is our monthly column in which previous contributors and friends of Peach Mag are invited to share the works of literature that have made the biggest impacts on their reading and writing lives. Sebastian is the author of Not I and 49 Venezuelan Novels. Read previous installments of Favorite Books here.