rob mclennan on old-school chapbook-making

rob mclennan's chapbook production process

How to make chapbooks (the old-fashioned way,
rob mclennan

It has been pointed out to me that how I physically produce chapbooks is a bit ridiculous. Well, maybe not ridiculous, but certainly antiquated. Occasionally I’ll have an author request I email a final proof of their chapbook before it heads off to the printer, not understanding that such isn’t possible. I don’t design chapbooks using programs, whether Adobe InDesign, or whatever else. I honestly don’t even know what the options are. Since 1993, I’ve been utilizing the simplest of tools to make chapbooks, journals and broadsides: scissors and tape.

Supplying a proof involves an original dropped off at the printer, waiting two or three days to collect it, folding and stapling and slipping it into the mail. Which means: an author could wait for a week, after requesting. This is why I work so hard to be organized.

I don’t specifically recall how I began to make books this way. I suspect it was the most obvious option: building originals using cut-and-paste methods, and then delivering those originals to the photocopy shop down the street.

Given the look of my small books, this might not surprise anyone, but I really consider this to be the least interesting element of my publishing process: over the past twenty-five years, above/ground press has produced some nine hundred items, including multiple journals, and more than four hundred single-author poetry chapbooks. Through above/ground press I’ve produced numerous debut titles, as well as chapbooks by well-established writers from across North America and beyond, and print runs range from two hundred and fifty (chapbooks) to a thousand (Touch the Donkey). How I stitch together originals at our small kitchen peninsula is simply a means-to-an-end.

Originally, the logic was one of access. I barely had a working computer when I was twenty-three, so putting together originals for book-making via scissors and tape seemed the simplest option. Glue doesn’t erase the potential shadows, so tape became the staple. Over the years, it became a matter of habit, of rote: if it works, why learn a new process? I could spend that same time accomplishing further work. I have much to do. During a recent visit Christine and I made to Picton, the look on Leigh Nash’s face when she discovered that this was how I made chapbooks: you do what? I was increasing my own workload, she said.

Yeah, Christine offered: how you make books is strange. Antiquated, really. She reminds me, also, that others have made similar faces when they discover how I make. I have become quite adept at sliding tape across lines, erasing shadows that might emerge where page meets page. I can do this quickly, efficiently, at our peninsula, even as our wee girls play, or eat lunch. It doesn’t take long.

As Christine, the book and paper conservator, also points out: originals can easily be remade, since I’ve the files saved on my computer, but older chapbooks can’t easily be reproduced from the same originals, given how the tape decays yellow, and requires new originals produced. This is rarely done, but it has come up occasionally, especially now that above/ground is producing the occasional “twentieth anniversary edition” of chapbooks. Otherwise, older originals have long been sent into the archives of the University of Calgary, as part of my papers. I’ll let those future conservators/archivists figure out how to keep them intact.

There was a moment in early 2013, when I was first putting together what would become the debut issue of the quarterly poetry journal Touch the Donkey that I wondered if I should learn proper design like a grown-up, make the thing look proper (especially now that I’m married to a gifted book designer). Revisiting an idea is always worthwhile, but I realized, instead, if I’m happy with how I make books and it works for me, why change? There might be other projects down the road that require different methods of production, but for now, this is how above/ground makes books, perhaps the only remaining chapbook press to work in such ways. And I like that.


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012 and 2017. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include the poetry collections A perimeter (New Star Books, 2016), How the alphabet was made (Spuyten Duyvil, 2018) and Household items (Salmon Poetry, 2018). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), The Garneau Review (, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (, Touch the Donkey ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( He is “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, editor of my (small press) writing day, and an editor/managing editor of many gendered mothers. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at


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