Perhaps you’ve seen images online of a page that looks like a ruthless editor scribbled out all the words with a black marker except a select few. But it’s actually not a heavily edited manuscript or government property that mustn’t be leaked to the public. It’s poetry.
Many poets cling to free verse because it’s the style they’re most comfortable with—myself included. The non-existent rules allow us to write with the length, formatting, and content entirely up to our whims. Although free verse isn’t without challenges, we all enjoy an occasional change (even some devoted poets want to try their hand at article writing). When I feel like this, I grab a Sharpie and a newspaper to create blackout poetry.
What is blackout poetry? Also known as “erasure poetry,” the poet isolates single words or short phrases in existing text and strings them together by blacking out everything else. The results can range from random absurdity to thought-provoking messages and reflection.
This exercise can strengthen poets, both budding and experienced. Here are some reasons why blackout poetry has become my new obsession.
1. It Pushes You Out of Your Comfort Zone
As I mentioned earlier, this exercise is more challenging than my usual free verse—and that alone can be beneficial. You don’t have to scroll far through Google to find countless articles about the state of mental security that prevents you from exploring new levels of creativity. In fact, I hadn’t ventured beyond the first page of my search when I spotted the phrase “productive discomfort”—a title for braving the storms of uncertainty that rage when you step outside your hobbit hole. Productive discomfort can boost your growth as a writer by causing you to attempt feats you normally wouldn’t.
With blackout poetry, an article, ad, or book excerpt forms a word bank, and the poem you construct from it must be comprised of whatever is on that page. There are no thesauruses to run to; no editors to help you expand a thought. With practice, you will develop your own methods for scanning the pages and catching words that jump out to you. I like to lightly pencil under the words I might want in my poem. This way, I don’t lose words I was interested in, but I don’t commit to boxing around them yet. As you challenge yourself, your comfort zone will adjust, and the task that initially caused stress will become easier with repetition.
2. Unlimited Materials
When I started creating blackout poetry, I salvaged old magazines from the garage. As I became dissatisfied with the lack of articles on every page, I switched to however many newspapers I could get my hands on. But recently I’ve been buying random, inexpensive novels for this activity.
While all you book lovers gasp, let me explain. I love books too. I inherited this from my dad. The two of us will often wander over to wherever the most books are and stand there, comforted by their presence. But with an obscure, cheap novel that probably shouldn’t have been published and you’d never read anyway, it can be worth the guilt of destroying a book to compose poetry.
3. A Great Exercise for Beginner Poets
Writing poetry can seem daunting for those unfamiliar with it. They’re unsure where or how to begin and end up staring at a blank page, feeling helpless. In the art of blackout poetry, the words are already present—all you have to do is find them. You can’t alter the words; they’re permanently imprinted, and it’s up to you which ones to use. It’s one of the rawest forms of poetry to exist.
If you search for blackout poetry on social media sites like Pinterest and Instagram, you will probably encounter long stretches of blackened paragraphs that look like a well-written piece of free verse was already hidden among the text. This can be a deterrent from experimenting with it yourself—but it needn’t be that detailed or difficult. A blackout poem can be a handful of words, or even a few, taken from practically anything. Consider the opening of a recent article by Kingdom Pen’s Sierra Ret, “How to Resist Writing Stereotypical Fantasy Races”:
Note the words that stand out to you. Crop words if necessary so that they’ll flow with the phrase or sentence you are forming. Learn to see your base as a jumble of words and don’t be influenced by the content or structure of the sentences that are already there. Most importantly, grab a permanent marker and watch as the paper transforms from white to black.
What about Plagiarism?
You may be wondering about plagiarism—and for good reason. After all, no writing is involved—only erasing someone else’s. In light of this, Robert Lee Brewer of Writer’s Digest advises: “ If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art.” I would agree with this argument (and not merely because I wish to defend the craft). Nobody owns the alphabet, but you need to remove at least half of the original piece if you’re going to call it yours. It is, however, wise to credit the source of your work when posting online.
I have always loved creating. But there is something unique about making my own art out of a patch of text that would otherwise be discarded. Perhaps my fondness for words compels me to recycle them. It’s addicting too—I often stay up late with a flashlight, scribbling with a Sharpie (and I would probably stay up even later if my older sister didn’t tell me to go to sleep). My journal is overflowing with black-smattered article clippings that I’ve glued inside.
Artist Louise Bourgeois declares, “Something is a work of art when it has filled its role as therapy for the artist.” Sweeping a thick black marker across a page to eliminate everything but the words you choose is, in my experience, very therapeutic. I like to call blackout poetry the art of destruction and reconstruction. Yes, you are demolishing the original text. But you are also rebuilding it.
This isn’t a big, intimidating task. You aren’t writing a novel or trying to imitate Ernest Hemingway’s poetic abilities. You don’t even have to show anyone your work (but if you can provide samples to inspire your friends, do it—they may have a poetic side). All it requires is a permanent marker, a page filled with words, and your imagination. If you haven’t tried it, fetch a newspaper or a book. Destroy it. Discover your own voice in someone else’s work. Create art. The world needs more of it.