Chapbooks spread in popularity during the Early Modern period in Europe, peddled by “chapmen” who traveled from town to town. They were small, coverless pamphlets often comprising a single folded page. They detailed current events; told tales of chivalry, mystery or magic; and spread moral instruction. They were inexpensive to produce and gained popularity as literacy increased among the lower classes but printed books remained affordable only to the aristocracy.
Chapbooks now often serve different purposes than they did when chapmen sold them around the countryside. Sometimes they are a writer’s trial run of the poems, stories or short essays that might culminate in a longer manuscript in the future, and sometimes they contain independent projects or collaborations that writers want to take on in a smaller form. Chapbooks now run the gamut of design and content, from hand-bound volumes with a DIY aesthetic to elaborate objets d’art. Even as the function of chapbooks has shifted in the centuries since the Early Modern period, their materiality still informs and complements their content. These recent poetry chapbooks, Sunset Park by Jason Koo, Dovetail by Kimiko Hahn and Tamiko Beyer, and Death by Sex Machine by Franny Choi are just a few examples of what poets and publishers are achieving with the form today.
The title and image of a mattress-less bed on the cover of Jason Koo’s Sunset Park (Frontier Slumber, 2017) appear as if they were a 3-D image seen without the glasses — out of focus and slightly dizzying. Reading the chapbook feels like waking up with a breakup hangover, if such a thing existed; everything is blurry and unstable as the reader runs over the events of the previous days and nights and years, trying to piece together a narrative of what happened and when.
Brooklyn Magazine named Koo one of the “100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture,” and he is also the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets. His Sunset Park initially piqued my interest because the chapbook was accompanied with a cassette tape of the poet reading his own work. A reader could imagine the chapbook as a map of Brooklyn and the recording of his readings an audio tour of the city, revealing the speaker’s broken heart.
Sunset Park begins with the titular poem in the book’s eponymous neighborhood where the speaker recalls the early part of the relationship in question and how it slowly fell apart: “Despite the sadness, there was always you there, endlessly / Beside me, I took and took and took from that source // Without offering the least endlessness in return.” Throughout the book, the speaker revisits the places that are significant to the relationship, including the yoga studio where he went to take a class from his future girlfriend who didn't show up. The girlfriend, feeling guilty, shares coffee with him: “Our whole relationship grew // From that guilt,” he writes. In “Morning, Motherfucker,” the speaker takes us to his apartment kitchen where he muses on famous poets and their hypothetical relationships to hash browns — e.g., “Auden would’ve had his hash browns at an appropriate time / Scheduled into the morning” — as he tries to distract himself from his heartbreak. His tour also shows us the ways in which young Brooklyn transplants inscribe themselves on the neighborhoods: In “Eclipse,” Koo brings us to “the one gentrified restaurant on 4th Avenue” where he and his girlfriend went post-yoga, and notes: “We were a sign the neighborhood was changing. We were, // In fact, probably helping to kill it. But it didn't feel like that.” The final poem in the collection, “Single Gay Uncle,” brings us to an all-white Williamsburg bar where the speaker muses on the complexities of Asian male masculinity and meeting a Miss Austin at a party, who only feels safe with him because she thinks he was “gay, i.e. Asian” and his consequently conflicting feelings: “oh you knew she was not / What you should like but what you did.”
Sunset Park is also an accounting of the ways in which our relationships inscribe themselves on our surroundings and people who surround us and how we, in turn, inscribe ourselves on them — and how it is often only after a big rupture like a breakup that we come to terms with what’s been happening all along, despite the illusion (or delusion) that everything is okay: “How two people come together / All right, I ask the sky, how deteriorate / Though looking all right, how one person manage alone all right?” (“All All Right”)
There was a meme circulating recently of a picture of a cassette tape and a pencil that asked folks to click “like” if they knew the relationship between the two. The image brought me back, as it probably did to others in my generation, of winding the tape back into the case if it caught in the cassette player, of waiting for songs to come onto the radio so we could record them for mixed tapes. I wanted to listen to Sunset Park on a cassette player, but it would have taken too long to find one, so I gave up and listened to the digital download. Koo is a great performer of his own work. But I wanted to listen to the recording in its original form. The cassette tape, perhaps like the breakup poem, is an artifact, a trace of what used to be. Koo’s work is less an embodiment of nostalgia than a reckoning with our propensity toward it. To see the past only through the lens of nostalgia is to render oneself unaccountable for the present and the future. In the end, it is not nostalgia that Sunset Park leaves us with, but remembrance — which is to say, an urging to consider how the past causes us to reckon with the ways in which the home to which we long to return no longer exists, or if it did, how we were tearing it down all along.
Photo courtesy of the author
Jason Koo is the author of several books, the most recent of which, More Than Mere Light, is forthcoming from Prelude Books this year, is an assistant teaching professor of English at Quinnipac University, and the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets and creator of The Bridge.
Kimiko Hahn and Tamiko Beyer’s Dovetail (Slapering Hol Press, 2017) is a beautiful object, featuring a dark blue cover with a letterpress title and the faintest silver outlines of the shapes of two dovetailing pieces of wood coming together around a cutout that allows a glimpse into the woodblock print on the second page. The interior print is by Utagawa (also known as Ichiyusai) Hiroshige, who was, as the authors note, “the last great master of ukiyo-e, the genre of art that flourished in Japan from the 17th through the 19th centuries,” and whose work strongly influenced Western artists at the end of the 19th century, including Van Gogh. The book is separated into two sections — the first is a series of prose poems often titled with a single word, “Tooth” or “Mud,” or simple phrases: “Things Nearly True,” many of which are written in the style of Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book, a collection of loosely or unrelated musings and observations, published in 1002 C.E. The second section is a transcript of a conversation between the two authors about the process of collaborating on the book.
The collaboration between Hahn and Beyer began as an exchange of words and phrases from their respective childhoods that “resonated and radiated over time,” a process that the authors describe as being like a game of Cat’s Cradle. “It invokes strong tactile memories of the feel of yarn through my fingers, the loosening and tightening, my fingers stiff or agile — and a visual memory of the magic of patterns emerging from a set of memorized actions,” Beyer writes.
Although Dovetail, in some ways, is a meditation on trans-generational differences, the book reads as one seamless voice, and the two authors are, in some ways, reflections of each other: they are both daughters of Japanese American mothers from Hawaii and white American fathers from the Midwest. Their names, too, as Hahn comments, “are kind of mirrors.” In the interview, Beyer wonders if readers can figure out who wrote what. I myself am uncertain who writes what, who holds which memory, where one voice stops and another begins — all of which seems to befit a book that also meditates on the “liminal spaces between outside and in,” (“Genkan”) and whether those spaces embody the untranslatable spaces between cultures:
In the States, the front door opens right into the living room. I don’t
know how to shed the outside, how to come inside. (“Genken”)
or between languages:
Say a word and watch it evaporate (“Mizuame”)
or the slippery boundaries between gender categories:
Faith was a bilingual five-year-old who said boku because her brothers
use that male pronoun. I was nine and amused, amused to be right. But
really she was right. (“Boku”)
or the precarious spaces living as a physical body entails:
[...] If only you
could see the inside of your body. A network of crimson passages ready
to burst at any moment. (“Tooth”)
The book came together as a whole, the writers state, after Inauguration Day 2016, and Beyer comments on how she began to see the project as a form of resistance: “To me,” she writes, “[the book] feels like an intensely creative and joyful opposition to the racism, misogyny and xenophobia that Trump and his administration has foregrounded.” Hahn adds that two centuries ago, girls like her and Beyer, due to anti-miscegenation laws, would have been considered born out of wedlock: “Two hundred years ago, we’d have been an exotic sideshow,” she writes, “For me, this history still means: to speak is to speak up.”
Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan
Kimiko Hahn is the author of nine books of poems and is a distinguished professor in the MFA Program in Creative Writing & Literary Translation at Queens College, The City University of New York.
Photo credit: Kian Goh
Tamiko Beyer is the author of We Come Elemental (Alice James Books) and the chapbook bough breaks (Meritage Press) and is a social justice communications writer and strategist.
Death By Sex Machine
Franny Choi’s Death by Sex Machine (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017) is a sleek volume featuring magenta digital-style text and a surreal portrait by the artist Gel Jamlang on the white cover. The book’s cover has a rubbery matte finish, as if meant to withstand hardship — almost as if it is an archive of resistance that could be a found object that survives an apocalypse — one that, contrary to common sci-fi tropes, does not comprise machines taking over the world, but one in which a machine might remark, “remember / all humans / are cyborgs,” and, “smile / even as you sense it / trying / not to blurt out / monster.” (“Turing Test_Love”)
Choi’s poems appear variously as line-broken poems, prose blocks, tables and lists (including a series of Tweets sent to the author which were processed through Google translate into multiple languages and back into English). Filtered through the chapbook’s world of cyborgs, amusement parks, androids and avatars, Choi asks us to consider the technologies that access, maintain and extend power — and how the woman-identified body and the Asian body — resist the technologies that reify structures of domination. In Choi’s poems, the male or dominant gaze is often framed as a technology: “a man barges through the screen / to hook his fingers in my mouth.” (“Beg”) There is also a socially programmed desire to appease that gaze — “Acknowledgments” begins with the speaker blushing when someone praises her poem and being “thankful to be seen,” but as the poem progresses, it morphs into a sinister funhouse mirror of the ways in which the pleasure of approval begins to control the speaker: “thank you, thank you for having / me, please have me please, have me again.”
One of the characters who surfaces in the book is Kyoko, the android servant in the film Ex Machina, who evokes the unfortunate Asian female stereotype — submissive, servile, silent. “Letter to Kyoko” meditates on the ways in which women are robbed of language, like Kyoko, who recalls transforming from a girl who ran “bright-winged through the mud and gathered voices” to one who watches a man “laugh, gnaw at the air, drink until the windows are filthy with his memories.” “Dear sister,” the speaker asks, “how do you do it? How do you stay dangerous after he’s unscrewed your sharpest part?” The poem concludes with an image of Kyoko “smiling, a knife in one hand, [the speaker’s] pink, wriggling body in the other.” When the speaker asks what this means, Kyoko is already gone.
Often, to be a body, especially a body that is not cisgender, heterosexual or white, is to live in danger. One solution, reflected in “Letter to Kyoko,” is to eliminate the soft, pink, wriggling self that is vulnerable to domination. But even this is a way of acquiescing to the legitimacy of cultural or racial or gender supremacy, or the idea that any form of embodiment apart from being a cis white male is itself a weakness. There are no easy answers in Choi’s book — no answers at all, perhaps. But her world is not a closed system. There is a way out.
The last poem, “Solitude,” concludes with the speaker jumping into Narragansett Bay in February, on her birthday, and then running back to the car in the snow:
Now that’s my kind of intimacy —
no wondering how my jokes are going over,
just running straight toward warmth
as my skin bursts open in shock.
Choi’s book remains brutally unflinching until the end, but she offers a vision of a world in which one might eventually break free from the objectifying, commodifying, dominant gaze — where resistance is imagined as an embodiment of all that stinks and chirps and glitters and feels — and keeps running straight toward warmth.
Photo credit: Tarfia Faizullah
Franny Choi is the author of the collection Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing 2014) and serves as the Senior News Editor at Hyphen magazine.