When I read Andrew Kleon’s description of blackout poetry (see above) the vague plans swirling in my head for unarticulated reasons seemed to click. I knew that I wanted to do something with President Mark Schlissel’s statement to the UM community amid the events of 2017 when known white supremacist Richard Spencer was trying to speak on campus. And I also knew that I wanted to try my hand at blackout poetry, since one of my friends had recently posted some of her gorgeously illustrated creative endeavors on her Instagram story. But only after hearing blackout poetry described as akin to CIA censorship did the connection between the themes of first amendment rights, rhetoric, and blackout poetry become clear to me. However, before I took on the grandiose visions in my head, I had to do some research to figure out just how one actually does create blackout poetry.
Blackout poetry is created when the – writer? author? creator? – artist decides to redact all but a specific selection words from a physical piece of text. That’s the most generalized description that I can provide without inadvertently excluding any subset of blackout poetry. Since so much of blackout poetry is subject to personal creativity and visual presentation, I would classify it as more of an art form than a written genre – but I guess that’s why they call writing an art too, right?
There are a number of different approaches to making blackout poetry. In my discussion of the conventions of blackout poetry I’m going to break the whole process down into two halves: Composition and Creation. I’m using “composition” to refer to the process behind the words that comprise the poem and “creation” to refer to the physical manifestation of the piece.
I’m actually gonna switch things up on you and talk about the creation side of things first. The creation of blackout poetry starts with the selection of a base piece. Some people use newspaper clippings. Other people use random old books. Authorities on blackout poetry all seem to agree that you can use pretty much any previously written piece as your base. A general theme is that the base piece was written by someone else originally, but there’s no one saying you can’t blackout something of your own. Then, there’s what you do to the piece. Another general consensus seems to be that everything done to your base should be done physically – with sharpie paint, crayon, pencil, etc. Even though the New York Times apparently made an app that allows users to electronically blackout sections of articles, it’s just not the same. From there it’s up to you. Some people, like Kleon, stick to the CIA style plain black sharpie redaction, while others (see above gallery from Intstagram) choose to whiteout or add illustrations or collages to either change the visual appeal or add meaning to their poem. The physical presentation of the poem is where the artist has the most freedom, because they must draw their words from what’s already been put on the page.
When it comes to the composition side of things, a lot of people seem to say that the best, maybe even the only, way to to start is my skimming a page for a word or phrase that stands out to you. What to do after that is somewhat ambiguous. Some sources just suggest looking for other interesting words then (magically) putting them together to form a poem. When I talked to the friend who first sparked my interest in the genre, she explained that after finding the initial word or phrase she composes based on syntax. If the phrase is a noun, she looks for a verb, or vice versa, and eventually a poem comes out. She seconded the suggestion of composing on a separate notebook before doing anything to the actual piece, only marking it up when she knows exactly which words to keep. Blackout poems are all very short, maybe a phrase or two. However, it doesn’t seem like much about the text itself matters beyond this point. Some people claim that you need to redact at least 50% of the text for it to not count as plagiarism, or that you should avoid using more than three words in a row. Some people rely only on words in their exact form on the page, others adapt them with letters from adjacent words, or even black out all but a single letter from a word in order to spell their own. Some blackout poems read disturbingly like a “live, laugh, love” sign, while others are insightful, funny, quirky, or downright confusing. You write from what the page gives you.