Occasionally – very occasionally – a relative or acquaintance will look up long enough from their phones to ask what a chapbook or a prose poem is. Their unfamiliarity with the terms suggests the general irrelevance of my writing to even people I’m related to. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, and it isn’t to me, but it is dispiriting.
According to my research (OK, Wikipedia), the tradition of chapbooks arose in the 16th century, as soon as printed books became affordable, and reached its height during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Many different kinds of ephemera and popular literature were published as chapbooks: almanacs, folk tales, ballads, nursery rhymes, poetry, and political and religious tracts. Usually between four and twenty-four pages long, and produced on rough paper with crude woodcut illustrations, chapbooks were the reading material of the poorer classes. “Twenty-volume folios will never make a revolution,” Voltaire said. “It’s the little pocket pamphlets that are to be feared.
The term “chapbook” for this type of cheap literature was coined in the 19th century and is still in use today for short, inexpensive booklets. I’ve had something more than 40 chapbooks of poetry published since the early 2000s. It’s very much like me to succeed in an area of publishing that most people have never heard of.
Nights back then somehow seemed darker than they do now. I resigned myself to long empty hours of insomnia. Someone said, “Have you been checked out by a psychiatrist recently?” The house across the street from ours was strung with Christmas lights way into the spring. Police treated any outdoor gathering of three or more people as a riot. The latest idea in art was that only when a painter destroyed a painting, scratched it out, was it ready to be seen. A life’s work could just about fit inside a shoebox.
About the Author: Howie Good is a poet and collage artist on Cape Cod. His latest poetry books are Famous Long Ago (Laughing Ronin Press) and The Bad News First (Kung Fu Treachery Press)
Image Credit: Herbert Crowley “A Dark Landscape” Public Domain image courtesy of Artvee
“It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”
- Bob Dylan
During his brilliant and destructive youth, Steve Earle (singer-songwriter extraordinaire) once proclaimed, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Later, older and sober. Earle recanted such unorthodoxy and admitted that Van Zandt was not as good as the forever mutable Dylan.
What does this story, which sounds almost apocryphal, have to do with the prose poetry of Howie Good? Well, like Steve Earle talking about Van Zandt, Good’s prose poems summon similar hyperbolic and unorthodox statements. In his varied landscapes which encompass the political, the personal, the pop, the historical, and the surreal, Good’s prose poems are unique in American literature.
Unlike the masterful prose poems of Robert Bly and James Wright, his work is seldom vatic. The characters which occupy his poems believe in horror more than transcendence. The god he comes across is “absorbed in his own thoughts” and acts “like he didn’t believe he ought to exist.” Within these poems, as in life, the mundane and the awful happen side-by-side. People die or climb a tree to survive, but hope left on a train to an unnamed camp long ago.
The world Good creates is both visual (he loves to reference painters) and apocalyptic. His work does not re-state the commonplace. A reader will not think, “I have also felt this way.” Instead, Good offers a kaleidoscope view of another reality which often bleeds into our own.
None of this is to imply that his work is without humor. Good often laughs at himself, but his humor is not like vaudeville. It is like the existential jokes of Steven Wright or the ironic jokes of Franz Kafka or the exit door jokes of the patient in the cancer ward. Even his many book titles like The Bad News First, The Titanic Sails at Dawn, and The Death Row Shuffle display his dark humor. Sometimes Good’s characters laugh until they cry and then they keep crying.
It’s important to say characters since these poems are occupied by various figures. There’s no self-willed persona in Good’s work as there is in the work of Bukowski and his acolytes. Only the constancy of themes (fear of the unknown, the certainty of pain and death, the cruelty of existence, and the occasional redemption of art) reveal anything about the man behind the writing.
In his essay, “A Small Note on Prose Poetry”, Good wrote, “All poetry worthy of the name exists in opposition to the churn of mass culture.” The idea of opposition is the force behind Good’s work and aesthetic. He writes as an outsider who makes arguments against the easy and expected.
Good’s background in journalism gives a clarity to his work even when he seems to take notes from a made up country. Journalism taught him the value of a strong declarative sentence and he is a solid student of the ways a sentence can be shaped.
Good’s outsider status is confirmed in his life and in his poetry. He’s a bit like Alfred Starr Hamilton: tied to no group or school he has few readers and fewer supporters, but many fine poems. His writing career includes approximately 40 books from small and tiny presses in the United States and England, but involves neither a MFA program nor a WPA conference. Since no one told Good what kind of poems he should write, he went off and wrote like no one else.
Uniqueness is both difficult and rare. Howie Good’s work is not difficult, but it is rare in the quality of the language, the vibrancy of the images, and the challenges of the worldview. What he offers the reader is a tilt-a-whirl ride where the landscape is always changing and where frogs rain in abundance.
About the Author: Mike James makes his home outside Nashville, Tennessee. He has published in numerous magazines, large and small, throughout the country. His most recent book, Portable Light: Poems 1991-2021, was published by Red Hawk in April 2022. Mike’s previous poetry collections include: Leftover Distances (Luchador), Parades (Alien Buddha), Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor (Blue Horse), and Crows in the Jukebox (Bottom Dog.)
You shuddered and I shuddered and I smiled because of gravity. I moved you with my hands, and then we went to the movies. Full-screen, popcorn, real butter. You say we’ve sinned and our faces have dropped. I laugh and tell you I’ll pick your face up for you. You say you gave up women for an old yellow dog and magazines and a bad lower back. I say I wear a plastic-certainty mask when I greet the young pharmacist who knows my driver’s-license name. Your handwriting was here on my table last week. I’m not giving up on this.
About the Author: Meg Pokrass is the author of 8 collections of flash fiction.
When I talk about this housesitting gig, which I don’t often, people smile and stare at their shoelaces. They wrap things up, label me “once spunky, now sad”. His cats are throwing up everywhere. It is raining. The problem is that I am standing in his kitchen; in an apartment on a sinister street on a landfill-ridden plot covered in drab apartment complexes. The town is called Baggageport. Not worse than Intercourse, Pennsylvania or Hell, Michigan. Sighing and smoking and huddling there next to the cats… peeking out at the neat world.
About the Author: Meg Pokrass is the author of 8 collections of flash fiction.
Image Credit: Harris & Ewing “Cats” (1923) Public domain photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
A love letter tacked on a refrigerator slips from the grip of the magnet and lands inside the fridge, among the leftovers, uncooked meat, and vegetables. It grows cold over time, soaks in all the pungent smells of the tupperware food kept for too long. Grimy spinach. Sour soup. Chili caked in a layer of discolored fat. The letter’s edges curdle and the penned words blanch in solidarity with the forsaken dishes, until the words have completely faded and the page is empty, and somewhat crepey.
About the Author: Caleb Bouchard’s writing has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from The Atlanta Review, MORIA, Saw Palm, and Thimble Literary Magazine. His translations of the French poet Jacques Prevel will soon appear in Black Sun Lit and Poet Lore.
Image Credit: Russel Lee “Houses at Mineral King cooperative farm. Tulare County, California. They are equipped with electric refrigerators” (1940) The Library of Congress
It was about the time I added plastic house plants to my apartment. Fake foliage works for every season. I was still getting postcards from an ex-lover with a return address of Undisclosed Location. I’d given up Frisbee in favor of sitting very quietly in a favorite, stuffed chair. Much of my thought given to the new parliament. The old majority tossed out in favor of a coterie of meteorologists, nail technicians, and film noir enthusiasts. People were optimistic. I was agnostic. I never expected the wind to take on a new color which shimmered at the spectrum’s edge. And the wind blew the same as always. Though the moon, that old coin, seemed closer, brighter. It could just be I spent more time looking up. I no longer foraged with neighbors for cigarette butts and lost dreams.
About the Author:Mike James makes his home outside Nashville, Tennessee. He has published in numerous magazines, large and small, throughout the country. His poetry collections include: Leftover Distances (Luchador), Parades (Alien Buddha), Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor (Blue Horse), and Crows in the Jukebox (Bottom Dog.) In April, Red Hawk will publish his 20th collection, Portable Light: Poems 1991-2021.
Any one of us is every one of us, if you get what I mean. I want to tap this guy and that guy and that woman on the shoulder and tell them, “You can’t be lost in your own world all the time.” But, of course, I won’t. The train is approaching the station, andthe degree of courage required to board keeps multiplying. I look at the gray faces of the other travelers skulking about the platform. If they only knew that the same gene thatgives birds the ability to singgives us the ability to speak!
About the Author: Howie Good is the author of THE DEATH ROW SHUFFLE, a poetry collection forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.
Image Credit: Jack Delano “Freight train operations on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa. Every time a train is passed, the rear brakeman of each train steps out on the caboose platform, and if all is well, as in this case, gives the other brakeman the high sign” (1943) The Library of Congress.
Just before dawn, the train barreled across the border. My carryall bag on the overhead rack contained an entire set of ant-dreams preserved in amber. Spies lurked everywhere, but, after the train pulled in, I eluded them by frequently changing my facial expressions. Later that day, I traveled by sampan and pedicab to meet my contact, an experienced agent posing as an English nanny. We met in a neighborhood playground beside a tree whose round fruit the children pretended were bombs. At one point I forgot the word “cremated” and had to ask her, “What’s it called – incinerating the body?”
The Anxiety of Influence
A banner stretching across the building’s exterior said, What’s Shakin’. You entered through a glass door, walked down a long, dim hallway and up a set of stairs into an area with large windows. The view was constantly changing, and you weren’t always sure what you were looking at or how it was happening. Jack Kerouac berated you for your perceived lack of cool. William Burroughs wouldn’t remove his hat. If you were going to be somewhere, this maybe wasn’t the best place. Many years would pass before anyone would realize that among the 20 most common passwords is “trustno1.”
About the Author: Howie Good is the author of three recent collections, I’m Not a Robot from Tolsun Books, A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel from Analog Submission Press, and The Titanic Sails at Dawn from Alien Buddha Press.
Not everything fits on the back of my motorcycle. For instance, neither my pet cactus nor my roommate cat travel well. Both claw me considerably in different ways. And my bike is not large. It’s the small engine type I never grew out of.
Thomas De Quincey knew it was time to move when no more books would fit on shelves and when bill collectors came more often than meals. I know it’s time when someone tells me. My jokes worn thinner than the cheapest tissue paper, which won’t absorb more than a shot glass of tears.
Identify not by wings, which mostly stay jacket-hidden, but by sadness which serves as eyeliner. Also, by any buffalo penny worn as a pendant. If wings are seen, feathers are frequently oily. Often a few lost on alley bets and during sidewalk waltzes. Be warned: when they crack their knuckles dreams escape. Mice can hear it. And dogs who so often come and happily lick their hands.
About the Author:Mike James is the author of eleven poetry collections. His most recent books include: First-Hand Accounts From Made-Up Places (Stubborn Mule Press) Crows in the Jukebox (Bottom Dog), My Favorite Houseguest (FutureCycle), and Peddler’s Blues (Main Street Rag.) He has previously served as associate editor for both The Kentucky Review and Autumn House Press. After years spent in South Carolina, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, he now makes his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with his large family and a large assortment of cats.