Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange: Interview with Melissa Eleftherion Carr
Lauren Davis: So what exactly is the Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange?
Melissa Eleftherion Carr: The Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange is a community-curated archive created and developed for poets to convene, correspond, and collaborate via chapbooks: the currency of the poetry community. Our mission is to engage our poetry community by sparking dialogues between the chapbooks in the interest of collaboratively building a community archive.
We began by inviting a select group of poets to be core contributors, and grew our collection in just a few months to feature chapbooks from over forty poets. Currently, there are over fifty chapbooks in our collection.
Contributors are invited to share their chapbooks via upload and as such gain access to the chapbook repository. They are also invited to recommend another poet to contribute to the exchange. The model is “take a chapbook, leave a chapbook.”
LD: Where did the idea of the PCCE come from?
MEC: The model for the chapbook exchange was catalyzed by the need to invigorate poetry collections in public libraries and was eventually expanded to include extant poetry communities. While studying collection development as an Master of Library and Information Science candidate at San Jose State University, I began to look more closely at poetry collections in public libraries and considered how they might be refined to include works by contemporary local poets, to both reflect the currency and community of a given library.
As a poet and former educator with Poetry for the People, I was especially struck by the lack of currency and culturally diverse works by local writers at my public library in the Bay Area that was home to numerous poets of color and substance yet reflected mostly works by dead white males and a few females.
This poor representation of “poetry” to the public confirms the notion, particularly to young students, that poetry is not timely, not reflective of their diversified experiences, not present and certainly not cool. So I became outraged enough to figure out alternatives.
Keeping in mind the space constraints and meager budgets of public libraries, I began to explore virtual collections as a means of ensuring access to timely resources while preserving available shelf space. While the goal is to simultaneously augment print collections, virtual collections can aid in deploying more print poetry books by inciting interest through social media and disseminating awareness of the value of poetry.
Being a highly versatile medium, chapbooks were the obvious format for such an endeavor as they encapsulate the urgency of “impelling messages” and are often sold cheaply or given as gifts which fosters the resource-sharing ethos inherent in the project design.
LD: The function of PCCE seems to imply that chapbooks become lost objects unless they are eventually digitized. Do you agree with this implication?
MEC: Currently, I don’t know that I’d categorize chapbooks as “lost objects,” but they’re definitely ephemeral, both in terms of limited press runs and their predilection for easily going out of print. As a result, chapbooks can be perceived as vulnerable, even endangered over time.
Poets have the cultural agency to ensure access to chapbooks by sharing their print copies with friends and communities, but eventually those limited-edition copies will become worn, lost, possibly stolen, etc. This ephemerality lends chapbooks a unique sense of urgency in terms of the medium’s overall sustainability.
Digitization does not ensure true digital preservation of a given document or cultural record, so it’s not yet ready to ensure sustainable open-access to archival documents over time. What it offers at this stage is immediate access and dissemination of critical works on a global scale, for as long as the files remain readable. The difficulty is that if files are not maintained over time, they are likely to succumb to bit rot. They lose 0’s and 1’s, or become incompatible with newer operating systems.
LD: What do you believe are the benefits of publishing a chapbook instead of a full-length manuscript?
MEC: This is an intriguing concept to me. Many poets look to the chapbook as a stepping stone to the full-length, as I have. Yet the chapbook as form has the capacity to capture, document, and disseminate fleeting movements or ephemeral capsules of time more so than the full-length, due to the relative ease of cost and production. I suppose I’m mostly referring to DIY chapbooks and how that form is perfectly suited to convey urgency in the current, while full-lengths tend to be read in hindsight or after an event has occurred.
LD: You have authored multiple chapbooks. What has that process taught you about the function of chapbooks inside a poetry community?
MEC: Chapbooks can create dialogues and foster affinities and/or arguments between poets. These conversations can also be generative and help build new work.
As much as chapbooks are part of a sharing economy, they are usually traded or swapped. The intimacy of this hand-to-hand exchange is decidedly anti-capitalist and represents a social currency among poetry communities, Also, the most current and radical poetries are often found between the tattered covers of these disarming “little pamphlets.”
LD: You are also a librarian. Do you think you look at chapbooks differently than most poets because of your profession?
MEC: Yes. As a librarian, I often think about issues like copyright, licensing, democratized access and preservation. So, in chapbooks I recognize ways poets can shape the legacy of poetry we’ll leave behind as cultural agents curating the future.
LD: Give us three of your favorite chapbook publishers.
MEC: Having worked with writer & publisher Kristy Bowen on two of my chapbooks, I’d first list dancing girl press based in Chicago. A one-woman operation, Kristy produces beautiful chapbooks by female poets and is incredibly generous and wonderful to work with.
I love Little Red Leaves textile series’ hand-made aesthetic. They really honor the book-art aspect of bookmaking while also featuring great writing. Their chapbooks are beautifully made and feature great authors like Beverly Dahlen, Mairead Byrne, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis among others.
Dusie Kollektiv’s model of energetics is wonderful in that it helps to sustain the sharing ethos surrounding chapbooks and their communities of practice. Created and overseen by Susana Gardner, the Dusie Kollectiv is comprised of poets who are invited to create one-on-one chapbooks to be swapped with the group. Each participate makes enough chapbooks so that all participants receive one copy each per author. While the number of participants varies, a kollektiv is generally comprised of twenty to fifty people a year.
LD: Tell us one of your favorite chapbooks of all time.
MEC: Insect Country by Sawako Nakayasu. Her ability to examine the world in its mundane glory through the lens of insects really helps destabilize this idea of humans as “superior” creatures.
While I admire Sawako’s work a great deal and love this book, it’s also a favorite because it marks a synchronicity I felt in reading it for the first time. Days before, I had begun to write poems from this new interstitial place of a feminsect imaginary, poems that were later published in my first chapbook huminsect. In reading Insect Country, I was simultaneously awed and irritated that I had not been the one to make these poems. This is another example of the conversations chapbooks participate in—despite not knowing Sawako personally, our poems were in conversation by chance. This is what poetry does—it forges connections.
Melissa Eleftherion Carr is a poet and teen & adult services librarian with the self-proclaimed “best job in the world” – creating, developing and implementing programming & services for teens and adults. Her poetry has been collected in various forms and fragments including journals, anthologies, and three chapbooks: huminsect (dancing girl press, 2013), prism maps (dusie kollektiv), and Pigtail Duty, Bone Bouquet, Delirious Hem, Entropy, Open Letters Monthly, Menacing Hedge, Letterbox Magazine, Bibliomancy Oracle, and susie. Melissa also manages the Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange.