The peripatetic Jack Kimball is reviewing chapbooks this week, including Ange Mlinko's, and points out that they "look more important than ever as basic frames for a writer's work and process." Indeed. They're the secret history of this thing we do, eluding in their many fly-by-night forms all the bar codification of this sell-or-die culture. I revere them and count a number of them, like my copy of The Hotel Wentley Poems (which I've been carting around since the sixties) among the few possessions I'd seize if this place were on fire.
What I can't figure out is why they're not more celebrated, more treasured and more purchased by libraries, which one might assume would really get what these slim volumes represent. Some do, of course, and in my nomenclature "rare book room" sounds like another kind of heaven. (We'll overlook for now the fact that I don't have entrée to any of these lovely places, certainly not to the special collections or any other collections at Stanford, only two miles away, as WorldCat is fond of reminding me when I look up something I will likely never be able to see. When they call that little window at the front of the library "Privileges," they are not kidding.)
But let's look up some chapbooks at WorldCat and see how the libraries do. I wouldn't expect them to have Mlinko's Children's Museum yet, of course, but (just for example) how about her Immediate Orgy & Audit, which came out in 1996? Five libraries have it: Stanford, Utah State, SUNY Buffalo, New York Public Library and Brown (and you'll find some of those names coming up again and again in chapbook listings). Or let's try Anne Boyer's Good Apocalypse (Effing Press, 2006). Not a single entry, astonishingly enough, and I tried calling it just Good Apocalypse as well. 153 libraries have my Hotel Imperium, a full-length book, but only six bought The Last Campaign, even though it was lavishly produced (with a silver-embossed jacket no less) by the very billable, brick-and-mortar Hudson Valley Writers' Center.Why is this? Of course chapbooks (for the most part) don't have spines, so they're harder to display, and aren't in high demand in any case at Poughkeepsie Public. But why don't university libraries and larger city libraries aggressively buy them? I have no idea but it seems like an incredible impoverishment of the public (and the scholarly) sphere. Obviously there are things I don't understand, so if there are librarians reading this please straighten me out. In the meantime try entering a few of your favorite chaps at the WorldCat link above and you'll probably agree that the situation at least seems absurd, and perhaps a little bit shameful.