How To Write Blackout Poetry

poetry Aug 02, 2021

You’ve heard of the creative arts, but how about the erasive? While writing any poetry can be challenging, blackout poetry demands its own special considerations, unlike other poetic styles. At first glance, one may think it easier to start a poem from given words, but it’s quite the opposite. If you’re conscious about the final message, you have to tread carefully.

What is Blackout Poetry?

Blackout poetry is the art of adopting a pre-existing text and erasing words, phrases or sections by physically blacking-out those certain parts, leaving only a collection of chosen content with a new context and meaning. People most commonly take newspaper clippings, but anything will do. Blackout poetry is simply the method of redacting and reimagining a message or story already written.

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Why should I write Blackout Poems?

As with all creative endeavours, blackout poetry offers you the chance to free your mind and keep your artistic mind sharp. However, this form in particular gives you further opportunity to really explore a new process of writing, one which favours both original thought and editing skills. Being bound to a source text is a fresh, interesting development for the poet, whose job is to work within a framework to create something new.

Blackout poetry is often prescribed to those suffering from writer’s block, with the conception that the poem will be easier to create with the words already there. To enhance your experience, begin your writing process with a spiritual cleanse. Many enjoy blackout poetry as a short, fun exercise, however, for the serious-minded, it can be just as challenging as starting with a blank slate.

If you are at all intrigued by the notion of metamorphosis, consider your newspaper the cocoon and a blackout poem the new fully-formed being. Each decision you make informs a brilliant transformation, resulting in the birth of something similar but wholly disparate. It’s a real chance to test your creative skills, while just so happening to be extremely fun, too.

How Do I write Blackout Poetry?

Traditional verse begins with an empty page, thus it is often thought of as fundamentally more creative than blackout poetry, the practice of removing words and phrases from an existing work. As a consequence of this fallacy, many employ the wrong methods when trying to create a powerful, effective blackout poem. By first acknowledging that both art forms require equal measures of creativity, writers can begin to think differently about their blackouts. Here are some suggestions on how to write blackout poetry:

  1. Find the Perfect Source Text

Just as the engineer relies on the properties of their materials, and the chef the quality of their ingredients, blackout poets need carefully consider their source text. A crucial mistake often made is to think of the source text as merely the channel through which a blackout poem is created; in actuality, the source text is inseparable from the end result. As the poem is derived from the body, selecting a viable text is just as important as the subsequent removing of words.

Though most of the time writers will dive into a newspaper, there are of course no rules, so feel free to scour books, magazines, letters, brochures, ads, manuals and more. If you are so inclined, obscure or highly-specific sources, such as a product description or phone directory, have a limited lexicon and thus prove more challenging.

It’s relevant to note that different forms of writing will inevitably have unique applications. Reputable newspapers will feature stories on a multitude of topics, with sophisticated vocabularies, giving you fantastic possibilities. On the other hand, books have an entirely differing flow and specific genres contain their respective dictions, making certain types more suitable for the themes you enjoy writing on. 

Even if you have wholeheartedly decided to rip a page from a magazine, which particular one is best? Similar to how writers target specific publishing houses or magazines based on their house style, blackout poets should consider how the source publications will fit their personal methods.

Blackout poetry is not an exact science, so although the choice of starting point has immense implications on the finished work, don’t become obsessed with finding something perfect. Experimentation is key and the actual process is where the true creativity kicks in. 

  1. Chameleon Reading

In efforts to get an ideal source text, you will inevitably be skimming through the lines, but once you have picked, it’s time for another go. Without sounding too weird, avoid reading the text as intended, i.e. normally; instead, imagine the words as individual constituents. One way to make this easier is to dart around the page, digesting the page in a random order. Not only will this make certain phrases jump out more naturally, allowing for you to notice the snippets you favour, but also minimise the influence of the piece’s existing context, permitting you to create your own story.

Capriciously mark words and phrases you feel drawn to, staying open to changes of heart. This stage is the opening filter, so simply circle or underline parts you are interested in. You could begin to blackout sections, but you may unintentionally hinder yourself, as you have yet to establish your themes and narrative.

Language is inherently co-dependent, carrying meaning through structures and combinations. However, as you aren’t really concerned with the current meaning of the source text, don’t think of it as one entire being, but rather a collection of thoughts that just so happen to be connected. Soon, though, their bonds will be broken.

  1. Semantic Field Work

Once you can observe all of your marked words and phrases together, you will quickly be able to establish a semantic field, a set of related terms and how they interact with one another. If you are interested in specific words, see how frequently they appear to judge how you could best implement them into your poetry. By actively building a field, you can differentiate between the relevant and the irrelevant, meaning you can more easily draw your themes and story.

Certain approaches are more systemic than others; for example, you may want to lay emphasis on rhyme and alliterative devices, like assonance or consonance. Alternatively, you may want to employ free verse, caring more about the meaning of words rather than how exactly they are delivered. Some might also be interested in creating a piece that can be read bottom top-down and bottom-up, which requires extensive deliberation. In most scenarios, you will find yourself doing a healthy mixture of language and form work.

Have your word and phrases selections converse freely with one another, informing your next decisions, thus reinforcing your field. At the same time, allow yourself to formulate a loose narrative based on your existing framework. At this stage, you may want to begin blacking-out certain parts that clearly don’t suit your intentions. However, refrain from engaging in an all-out attack for just a little longer.

  1. Word Weighting and Visual Space

As playwright Harold Pinter famously suggested, in a 1962 speech, “there are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it.” In much the same fashion, the silence in blackout poetry, i.e. the physically blacked-out section, holds its own unique message, drastically altered by your decisions.

It’s all too easy to go a little mad with excitement and eliminate most of the content in the early stages. By doing this, however, you can slash much of your potential. After you have set up a semantic field and now notice the slow, steady melding of your chosen words, ponder both word weighting and the visual impression of the page. Some blackout poems feature very few words, resulting in a fairly abstract message, though most work retains a decent amount of text from which to create a narrative.

Deciding the weighting of words against blackout is a vital step in the process. It doesn’t solely affect meaning. The amount of blackout has a direct impact on how the poem is literally perceived, as in how it actually appears on the page. As you continue eliminating parts of the text, stop and observe the influence it has on what which remains. Some writers endeavour to create a shape, pattern or symmetry within their blackout, while others will intentionally have ‘pockets’ of text across adjoining lines, which can then be read as various combinations.

Blackout poetry is as much about meaning as it is aesthetic. Otherwise, poets would simply redact and re-type, resulting in a plain paragraph. From sadness we better understand happiness, rests help us better appreciate the musical score; so too does the absence in blackout poetry complement the message remaining. The ratio of white to black, the physical spaces taken up on the page, have an unbreakable, interwoven relationship.

  1. Decide the Narrative

Language, form and aesthetic all possess meaning. Yet, you should also think about your underlying story. Although it’s named blackout poetry, it can also be thought of as short or flash-fiction. Whether or not it is, though, rests on the writer’s approach towards narrative.

Badly-executed blackout poetry can oftentimes be avoided by staying conscious of the narrative. Though it starts out as seemingly random words on the page, the finished piece is by no means accidental. As you make further alterations, remember to re-read the poem to stay aware of how it travels down the page. The physical blackout affects the pacing and rhythm, but it’s the continuity of language that makes the story.

You may be sceptical of the possibility that a few words can become a fully-formed narrative. One of the most famous examples of flash-fiction, attributed to Ernest Hemingway, is this six-word piece:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn

By virtue of our immense processing power and emotionality, even a handful of words can have great sense. If you find this stage especially difficult, don’t hesitate to take a break from the work. Returning at a later time, even if only 15 minutes, removes you from the feedback loop so that you can digest the narrative with fresh eyes.

Blackout poetry is abstract by definition, as writers are not working within the pre-agreed framework that is modern language. If, however, you plan to make your message even more abstract, you won’t worry as much about progression. Instead, you are free to contemplate meaning and connotations of specific language, not even tied to grammatical structures or syntax.

  1. Redact and Adapt

Blackout poetry is perpetual evolution. Juxtaposing the source text with the finished poem illustrates a clear contrast, but the process is actually hundreds of smaller developments, changes upon changes. Every action taken informs the surrounding text, each black strike a reinventing of the page.

Despite the fact that blackout poems can be completed in minutes, there really is no rush. Observation is just as crucial as elimination. When scribbling away, you are viewing the poem through a telescope; by withdrawing yourself, re-reading and deliberating over the entire piece, you are looking at the night sky.

As any experienced tailor does, measure twice, cut once. Assuming you aren’t using a digital format, as soon as you’ve blocked out a section, it can’t be restored. Redacting and adapting is to repeatedly evaluate your latest understanding. Removing words and phrases enhances certain directions whilst stopping many pathways dead. By keeping this in check, you situate yourself in a better position to pick the best road.

Final Thoughts

While there are many suggestions here, the process of creating art is entirely unique to the individual. Blackout poetry is furthermore exceptional in the sense that it begins with something whole, dismantles and eradicates it, and yet remains equally whole. It’s a series of filtering down of the useless and the critical, from which new meaning is born. 

Some might view a system for creating blackout poetry as self-contradictory, because this art form is so organic and changeable. While that’s true, having a system is not the same as religiously following it. In the ebbs and flows of artistic expression, you mind will easily wonder. Though, next time you find yourself tearing the politics section from a broadsheet, try following these steps and you may find they aid you along the journey.

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