American Diary Part 2 – Make poetry not paper hats!


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.

I tried my own when I got home today. Not sure I’d really call them “poems” but it was fun to eliminate words at will. See if you can read them here:

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

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4 thoughts on “American Diary Part 2 – Make poetry not paper hats!

  1. I think this is similar to my style of poems delivery. Sometimes it’s random and I go by elimination and selection of words as well. As it goes, I think I am better with word poetry summary and injects my feelings unconsciously as well rather than a 300 word essay on how I feel about it. Isnt it?

  2. That’s true! Sometimes this kind of method can be much more effective in conveying a point than labouring over a longer piece in the style of an essay! I find that any time I try to plan what I want to say, somehow the message gets lost because I’m not “free” enough. I hadn’t really thought of poetry as a ‘light’ medium before because I always thought that chosing the right words and a message would be very arduous but this kind of process fills me with optimism for the creative process!

  3. I used to do this – when i was a poor artist and didn’t have the £3.99 for a new sketchpad, I’d make sketchpads out of big, old, hardback books from second hand stores (50p) and paint out the pages with paint robbed from the schools I was working in (not actually robbed but used during my lunch break) then I’d paint on the pages. Sometimes I would leave words visible when I painted out the pages. it’s a fun way to work and they look good when you surround them with drawings.

  4. Pingback: Three Ideas That Have Changed The Way I Think « katekatharina.com

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