Blackout poetry is one of the many forms of poetry found. A found poem is a poem that uses any type of text that already exists to create something new. Some poems found show the original text while others only reveal the newly created poem. Blackout poetry falls mainly into the latter. More importantly, blackout poetry can get so artful!
Blackout poetry shows part of the original text, but usually not all of the original words are apparent. The extent to which the original text shows through depends on the method chosen by the poets to create their new poem. I promise, the trick is coming.
There are various methods of creating blackout poetry. These methods lead to poems that might be adjacent to a breakdown if you don’t want to put them all in the same category. Erasure poems are erasure poems – or they are a type of erase poetry – or erase poetry can be a type of erase poem. Here you decide:
An erasure poem is a type of found poetry that the poet creates by crossing out, blocking, blackening, cutting, removing or literally erasing words from an already existing text.
See? It’s a bit the same but also different.
Examples of Blackout Poetry
Here are some examples to make blackout poetry a bit more concrete (concrete as in understandable, not concrete as in concrete poetry form, which is a whole different category).
Form N-400 Cancellations by Niina Pollari
Here is a 100% blackout poem that appears in New York Tyrant’s Magazine. Pollari uses the text of a naturalization application as the source. The poet then uses a black marker to hide all the words surrounding the words of his choice. The chosen words become a new poem. This poem uses the application words to comment on the naturalization process. Sometimes the point of the poem is to use the words of the source to comment on the original meaning of the source.
“Ferrum” [excerpt] by Mr. NorbeSe Philip
This poem uses legal language as the source. The space around the words is very similar to using the black marker to hide the words. It’s more of an erasure than a blackout, but the idea and the process are similar.
Mathea Harvey‘s lamb and If the tabloids are true, what are you? both feature poems that use white instead of a black marker to whitewash words from an original source. These are occulting poems more similar to Pollari’s poem.
Choose a method
A line through
Draw a single line through the surrounding words so that all of the original text appears but the poem appears in the words not crossed out. Use the strikethrough option in your word processing program or use a pen or pencil on paper.
Exclamation point is the most precious punctuation mark you have in your arsenal, but it is also the most dangerous. When well used, just one exclamation point can put a light tone, convey excitement, and even demonstrate interest.
Block out surrounding words completely so that the only original text that appears are the words in the poem. Use the highlight option in your word processing program and choose black or a dark color or use a marker on paper. We see this in the Pollari example above.
Block surrounding words completely, as above, but hardcopy with a blank. We see this in the Harvey example above.
Use text on paper as the original source. Cut out the surrounding words so that literal holes appear where the text has been and the remaining page contains the poem. Use scissors or an X-Acto knife on paper. “Hemaris Difinis” by Karen Massey shows this method in a publication of Silver Birch Press. It’s super smart!
Circle or draw a box around the words, then connect them with a line across the page, through the columns, in any direction so that the poem does not follow the linear text. You can combine this method with other methods like crossing line or blackening with one color and then create the lines of the map with another.
In 2019, then 16-year-old Jewel Guerra won a blackout poetry competition hosted by The New York Times. His winning blackout poem, “Stars,”Looks a lot like a card that uses the image of space to block out surrounding words.
Get out your crayons and colored pencils. Pick out the words for your poem, then draw or shade around them to hide the source text you aren’t using. The drawing can be over the poem or it can just be a shading.
When I attended the AWP conference in Portland, Oregon, I found Poets for science, curated by Jane Hirshfield. There I did my first app-based blackout poem. Sitting at an iPad station, I scrolled through some source texts until I found an article on water balloons and physics. Then I clicked on some words, making them darker or lighter. In the end, I had a poem on science and also on humanity created with the Wick Poetry Center Emerge Application. The digital trick!
[Side note: Science has the best words!]
It’s not the only digital blackout option in town. As mentioned above, you can do a lot of blackout poetry using Word. You can also use power point if you want to get a little more chic.
Blackout Bard: Blackout Poetry is a free app with in-app purchases. The rabbit hole for the choices in this application is fast: select a source; select the font and color of the text; select the background color; select the background image; select the darkening color. There is more. The rabbit hole is deep, my friends.
Blackout poetry maker on Glitch.com works similarly. There is source text on the screen. You then click on the words. Then you click on Black Out. Then you have a poem.
Also, consider playing with the apps you might already be using on your phone. Try the markup feature on your iPhone. Find out what you can do with Moldiv or Picstitch. You might already have apps that can work for you.
How to actually “write” the poem
1. Choose your source. It can be anything with words. Here is one of my favorites from A very curious mind.
2. Decide if you want to make a statement about the source or write a poem using its diction.
3. Read it once without doing anything.
4. Read it again and highlight, circle, underline or check off the words that appear to you.
5. Choose your method – be really tricky with scissors and glue? take your pencil case? load your word processor?
6. Create / Write / Rewrite / Remix your poem.
7. Share with the world – or keep it to yourself.
For more on blackout poetry, check out this interview with Austin Kleon.
For poems based on art, check out this Guide to Ekphrastic Poetry.
As always, check out the Poetry Archives for more.