The Chapbook Story

In the 90s I was living in Seattle, where grunge rock went from peeling the paint off the walls of old garages to an international sensation, seemingly overnight. I was writing a lot of pretty bad poetry and sending it out here and there but what I really yearned to do was publish my own book of poetry, a chapbook as it turns out, although at the time I didn’t know that such a thing existed.

My friend Dan Brown (not the author of The Da Vinci Code), a genuinely witty and often highly-contentious fellow who only took breaks from reading immense, obscure volumes of philosophy to drink like Bukowski, also happened to write poetry.

I approached him with the idea of self-publishing our own sleek booklet of poetry, splitting the costs 50-50. I would also provide the abstract illustrations, reminiscent of some sort of science-fiction hallucinalia. I designed the layout, marched down the street to Kinko’s and boldly explained to the clerk what I envisioned. I chose a nice, fibrous-looking beige cardstock cover, black ink, 8.5 x 11 white paper and saddle-stitch binding — then handed him the manuscript and artwork and hoped for the best.

It cost around $200 for 50 copies, as I recall — but it’s a foggy recall. The finished product was really quite beautiful — they were indeed poetry chapbooks as I learned later. I’m pretty sure that the guy to whom I explained the project was the same guy that did the work on it and he clearly took his job seriously, which I always appreciate in people. The title of the chapbook was Purtussis [sic]. On one memorable occasion, the title alone managed to invoke such a state of upset in an acquaintance of mine that it sent them into a sort of shell-shocked, pulsating outrage. On the other hand, a couple of musician friends thought that my explosively profane poems would make great lyrics for punk rock songs.

Anyway, Dan and I had eagerly divvied up the books and set about traumatizing people with its contents — and its title. To this day, I cannot comprehend why I sent a copy to my grandparents — they were perfectly horrified by the profanity contained in the poems I had written; Dan’s were pretty clean in that respect, as I recall.

We gave a bunch away to friends, family and coworkers then decided that we should try to make a few bucks out of the deal. As luck would have it, Dan’s uncle, Dave, owned a bookstore (still does in fact, in business for 45 years now), called Easton’s Books, north of Seattle in the pretty little tourist town of Mt. Vernon, surrounded by the tulip fields of Skagit Valley.

We felt triumphant, Uncle Dave had agreed to take the remaining 15 – 20 copies of Purtussis [sic] and to display them front and center on the counter as you came in the door. We priced the books and agreed to pay him a percentage of each chapbook sold.

But none sold. They just sat there undisturbed for something like a year, collecting dust and disdain until finally, one fine and sunny day, a drunk bum rushed through the door, grabbed the whole stack and fled into the tulip fields — or at least that’s Uncle Dave’s story and he’s never given us any reason to doubt him.

Editor’s Note: You’ll notice that we misspelled the word pertussis as “purtussis” in our title. I had completely forgotten about this long-buried bone of contention and had spelled the word correctly for this article, until Tom Sloane, a volunteer editor here, kindly reminded me of this annoying detail. Although his recollection in the matter was vague, mine was nonexistent. I said that I would have to pull out an old copy of the chapbook that I keep stuffed away in a leather shoulder bag along with yellowing thickets of my writing to double-check the spelling. He stated that if indeed such a semiliterate misspelling had occurred, “That would have thrown me into a feral rage!” Well, we did indeed misspell it. Sigh. How we managed to do this is simply beyond me. However, as I thought about it more, much more, a long-lost recollection emerged regarding our choice of spelling. There is a part of me that would very much like to say that we spelled it that way to achieve some sort of quasi-stylistic effect, preferring the look and the concept of our version of the spelling because while it clearly referred to that horrid bacterium and its tyranny, it was not the word itself. Perhaps I’m just inventing a self-justifying memory in an effort to feel less doltish — however, Dan also vaguely recalls that we chose that spelling to achieve an intended effect, but neither of us can be entirely sure of it. I also came to very vaguely remember having explained that choice of spelling to Tom, about a millisecond after handing him the chapbook. Dan remembers that we got the name out of a medical book while drinking copious quantities of red wine (not, in this case, beer like Bukowski, which was also brought to my attention), so obviously enough there may have been an error in transcription that went unnoticed and unremedied even in the scolding light of a new day. Under the circumstances, we acknowledge that it would seem disingenuous and contrived to say that we spelled our title as we did by design. So, we will take it squarely on the chin and own our error in orthography — and, possibly, our error in stylistic judgment. As well, the chapbook is really an anthology of poetry, not a collection as such. Double sigh. Nevertheless, we are still proud of it, as anyone should be who creates a work that is meaningful to them, blemishes and all. A photo of the chapbook has been provided below.

Yours truly,

The Editor