Ever since I can recall, I’ve been a maker. Not of anything structurally sound, internally robust, or directly useful to the feeding, clothing, or sheltering of anything or anyone. No, I’ve been obsessed with making ephemera, tiny little objects and experiences that stand out as memorable. When I was five, Troy Guyot, Jennifer Spenst, and I created the game Frisbee-soccer-baseball; when I was ten, I started writing public speeches for each annual competition; at fifteen, I drew treasure routes for my nephews and nieces and I was their robot uncle guide; and when I was in my early twenties, I started to make short improvisational films with some friends who shared a vision of recording DIY madness on the streets of Vancouver where we ran with Bibles in our hands (“Full Contact Religion”), a guitar (“The Stalking Busker”), and a man perpetually in training to run across the country (“The Narcoleptic Jogger”). Yet despite all of this brouhaha, my history of making found its culmination one quiet afternoon in December in my English as a Second Language classroom, where a Japanese student proffered me a gift of a small book — held out with both hands as a sign of respect — of the true tale of a Japanese flamenco dancer who moonlighted as Santa Claus in the winter. The drawing she made of him gave him the face of a pancake with red cheeks. It was all done on a single piece of green paper that she had cut in the middle. I asked Mariko how she had made it and she showed me the steps. Little did I realize that this simple cut and fold technique would be something that I would do hundreds of times in the future.
As I write this, a copy of A Garden of Anchors: Selected Poems by Joy Kogawa sits by my elbow. Inside this book is a smaller book, a single piece of paper that I’ve cut and folded just as Mariko showed me twenty some years ago. In this smaller origami style book, I’ve written down lines that resonate with me most: “out of the many small embarrassments of the day / grew a miniature personality” and “i greet the dead who smile through trees / accepting the pebbles that melt through my eyes” and “sama zama no mono,” a line in Japanese which I write down as meaning “things of all sorts.” My little chapbook doubles as a bookmark and a little repository for notes of things that I adore and hope to commit to memory.
Of everything that I do love, foreign words are near the top of the list, especially foreign words that begin with the letter Z, our alphabet’s last letter that doesn’t get much work at the front of words, which is a shame because it so zealously zooms, zips, and zaps. “Sama zama no mono” carries an energy as the second line in a short poem of Kogawa’s entitled “On Hearing Japanese Haiku,” and the speaker is commenting on all the different sounds that can “blossom” from a mouth and also, in my reading, the many subjects and states that can open from haiku. It strikes me as a particularly important phrase in a culture that acknowledges the superabundance of existence. I had a Japanese student twenty years ago who was interested in fishing lures. He brought a Japanese magazine that featured page after page of nothing but every type of fishing lure imaginable. In Japan this is recognized as otaku, being a total nerd over all the variations and permutations of one thing and there are otaku for most everything. More fundamentally, we can see this fascination in variety in the pantheon of Japanese deities. In Japan, there are spirits for not only every natural object (the river, the mountain, the sun, etc.), but there are also spirits in sounds themselves. What’s singular about the Japanese language is the wealth of onomatopoeia for the most minor of actions: peko-peko is the sound of bowing humbly, zuru-zuru is slurping, and zaa-zaa is the sound of heavy rain. All of these sounds can be found in manga, Japanese comic books that have legions of otaku. I would never claim to be a chapbook otaku, but it’s a dream and if we widen our gaze from Japan and consider the myriad forms of expression around the world, the zillions of forms of life from zooplankton to the zebra shark, and all the ideas waiting to be expressed, I can think of no better form than the chapbook to capture not only every topic, but also the process of writing itself from notes to sketches to a completed form entirely your own.
Recently, I had the good fortune to interview the Vancouver poet Laura Farina on Wax Poetic about poetry and chapbooks. Gaspereau Press, a publisher based in Nova Scotia, had mailed me a handful of chapbooks to review. (I write a column entitled “Chuffed about Chapbooks” in subTerrain magazine). One of them, a delicate slip of a pamphlet, was “Diagnostic Tool” by Laura Farina. On Wax Poetic, she read from this along with a new chapbook that will be coming out later this year from above/ground press. This latter collection is a Choose Your Own Adventure book of poetry. Yes! It’s finally happened and she read a couple of versions for us on the air. Where else would someone risk something so unique but in the ephemeral form of a chapbook? I had a poetry professor once who said, “Poetry is great. Nobody likes it. As a result, you can do whatever you want.” Strictly speaking this isn’t true, as there are awards, tenure positions, and a certain cachet that comes with being in some circles. Chapbooks on the other hand … While there are some well-respected publishers (such as Gaspereau), there’s also a nebulous edge to the world of chapbooks where anything goes. Want to write poems about the Pioneer 10 probe? Wrap your chapbook cover in Space Brand Emergency Blanket (Donna Kane with Jackpine Press). Interested in helping to raise money for stoves to be sent to Guatemala? Make an accordion-type fold for poems about air in a collection gathered together by the ever-creative poet Pearl Pirie. If you are burning to just have your words out in the world, you can do any number of simple or complex folds or designs. That’s the beauty in the copiousness of chapbooks.
I write fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, but I also love considering the form that this writing will take. I’ve had more than a dozen chapbooks published; I did a one-hundred venue chapbook tour of the country in 2015 (where I often wrote poems on the spot for strangers and put them in chapbooks made out of postcards, airplane sickness bags, and regular old pieces of paper), and I’m excited to get my hands on as many different types of chapbooks as possible. (Once at Canzine West, I bought a bar of soap that had a cloth chapbook embedded inside.) I also like collaborating and I’m very excited to be working with my partner, Shauna Kaendo, an art therapist, on the upcoming chapbook workshop at Historic Joy Kogawa House. On Sunday, February 3, we’ll do some collaborative writing in origami chapbooks, some more focused work on two types of accordion folds, and also some stab-stitch binding. Along the way, we’ll work with mixed media materials, including some textiles to create our own little chapbooks.
Chapbook Making: from Process to Plenitude
Chapbooks tear something tangible from the sometimes mysterious and amorphous forms of poetry. In this three-hour workshop, chapbook-ophile and author Kevin Spenst and art therapist Shauna Kaendo will lead participants through an exploration of the uses and shapes of chapbooks. Through discussion, writing prompts, and hands-on exercises with mixed-media materials, including some textiles, participants will explore how chapbooks can help them generate new ideas, hone writing concepts, and use the medium of the chapbook as a tool for both written and visual expression. Please bring a pencil or pen and be ready to write, fold, cut, glue, and sew.
Kevin Spenst is the author of Ignite, Jabbering with Bing Bong (both with Anvil Press), and more than a dozen chapbooks, including Pray Goodbye (Alfred Gustav Press), Ward Notes (serif of nottingham), and most recently Upend (Frog Hollow Press). In January and February 2019, Kevin is writer-in-residence at Historic Joy Kogawa House in the Marpole neighbourhood of south Vancouver. Kevin will start his first book of short fiction, which will be rooted in the Mennonite refugee experience centred around South Vancouver in the 1920s and 1930s and branching out to 1495 Southwest Marine Drive, where his mother lived in the late 1930s. Furnishing his stories with Vancouver and world history, he also hopes to bring an element of the surreal with an eye to creating a kind of Mennonite magic realism.
Shauna Kaendo is an art therapist, visual artist, and web designer. She runs a private art-therapy practice out of her downtown studio. You can read more about her at heyshauna.com
When: Sunday, February 3, 1:00 to 4:00pm
Cost: Free for members (please sign up for $25 on the Kogawa website at https://www.kogawahouse.com/wp/donations-and-memberships/ or bring $25 in cash or cheque to the workshop).
Register at firstname.lastname@example.org
Help Us Host More Programming Like This
Do you have ideas about ways Historic Joy Kogawa House could serve the local writing community? Please respond to our community outreach survey.
Feedback from Kogawa House members and friends will be very helpful in understanding how we can sustain itself long term through programming, tours, events, and writers-in-residence.
Survey response will be collected until Friday, February 8, and I’ll send round another reminder before then.
Thank you for participating.