In a shop on the banks of the Delaware river in Philadelphia I picked up a book with the title “Newspaper Blackout” by Austin Kleon. I thought it would be about the decline of print media but it wasn’t. It was a book of poems.
In 2008 Kleon was just out of college and living with his girlfriend. He was trying desperately to make it as a short story writer but he had writer’s block. His girlfriend had stacks of the New York Times at home and Kleon, struggling to find any of his own words, resorted to the papers, which had millions. Armed with a permanent marker, he began to read and to draw lines through the words he didn’t need. He was left with the realisation that although he’d “never wanted to be a poet, .. dang if they weren’t poems”.
He posted some of his poems on his blog. Over time, they began to get attention and it wasn’t long before his work was featured on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Kleon says “writing should be fun. Everyone can do it”. It something that I have to remind me of sometimes when I’m staring at a blank computer screen late at night.
I was teaching an advanced English class today and decided to give “newspaper blacking out” a go. There were only three students in the class: a girl from Saudi Arabia and two boys from Japan and Switzerland. We read a few of Kleon’s poems first and then I gave them each a chunky board marker so they could try their own.
I’d picked up three metroheralds on the way to work. We chose to work on the cover story – the guilty verdict in the Jackson doctor case. I gave them about five minutes to complete their poems. Three completely different pieces materialised: three unique ideas jumped from the same article.
What I like most about Kleon’s poems is that you feel part of the craft of writing. You have the sense that these words were chosen actively, by eliminating others. I wonder if this kind of crafting is at odds with the processes of writing creatively. One of the biggest differences is making newspaper blackout poems is that you’re not bound by the structure of the sentence, which usually ensnares you as you begin to write. This kind of writing allows you to draw pictures and to bounce ideas abound without worrying whether your sentence is grammatically and aesthetically pleasing.
Check out Kleon’s Work at http://www.austinkleon.com