By Shirley Bell
I have the dubious claim of having had one of the longest periods ever of writer’s block (although I was still active in art and photography so my creative life was redirected rather than altogether dead).
As a result, I have an interest in methods that can help with escaping the dead hand of writer’s block.
One technique is “Found Poetry” – Wikipedia’s definition is below.
There is a great suspicion about found poetry, that it is a cheap gimmick, too easy, a bit like monkeys, typewriters, and Shakespeare. However, it can also be a successful way of bypassing the parrot on the shoulder, the critic that endlessly tells you your work is no good, you shouldn’t bother, who wants it, who needs it and jibber jabbers on.
I’m not advocating mind altering drugs. Instead, this is a relatively simple way to mine the depths the critic is guarding to discover the new ideas, fresh connections, and the creativity that lurks below.
At its best, found poetry is a covetable combination of art and literature, like the work of Tom Phillips in A Humument , his altered Victorian novel. All you need is a piece of text – which does not have to have any literary merit. For example, I collect old Readers’ Digest novels to use for new sketchbooks and notebooks, because the covers are often surprisingly attractive under the dustjackets. The contents are generally old thrillers or love stories, but by choosing a sequence of words across the page I often find surprisingly interesting ideas appearing.
I have used this technique successfully in workshops, distributing pulp fiction, pages on fly fishing and other miscellaneous pieces of text.
The harvested words can either be circled, as on the left, or can become blackout poems developing this idea by obliterating the text, as below in
Chris Lott’s Blackout poem. Source text: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Flickr.or degrading its importance with paint or marker pen, right, A Humument.
Another approach is the use of cut-ups, a technique originating with the French Dadaists in the 1920s and famously expressed in
How to Make a Dadaist Poem
(method of Tristan Tzara)
To make a Dadaist poem:
- Take a newspaper.
- Take a pair of scissors.
- Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
- Cut out the article.
- Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
- Shake it gently.
- Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
- Copy conscientiously.
- The poem will be like you.
- And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
This was elaborated on by William Burroughs:-
Cut-ups are for everyone. Anybody can make cut ups. It is experimental in the sense of being something to do. Right here write now. Not something to talk and argue about. Greek philosophers assumed logically that an object twice as heavy as another object would fall twice as fast. It did not occur to them to push the two objects off the table and see how they fall. Cut the words and see how they fall. The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America (1963)
The technique was also used by David Bowie for his song lyrics as described in a 1975 BBC documentary, Cracked Actor
Where he says it was not always a direct way of writing songs but it was always a method of “igniting imagination”
Refrigerator poetry sets exist, and there are apps for tablets and smart phones which allow you to construct surreal poems by sliding tiles around. I have printed out lists of “refrigerator words” and used them in a workshop. This was effective and produced lots of work, some of it surprising.
This one is not for purists as it allows you to add your own definite articles, the, a/an; conjunctions for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so; prepositions in, under, towards, before, of, for
LANGUID SLOW FAMILIAR OMNISCIENT HELPLESS CROWDED NINE HUSHED INFAMOUS GROTESQUE STRANGE DEVILISH SECRET TANGIBLE NUMBERLESS SWIFT NERVOUS HARSH REPULSIVE
HATRED MOONLIGHT SNOWFLAKE AFTERMATH FAMILY CROWD BIRD SUNRISE FLOWERS HONEY MUSIC SNOW LIGHT FOREST STARS CLOWN DANCER EYES SNAKES LIFETIME AUDIENCE POVERTY LOYALTY RANGE SWARM HOUSE REFUGE DARKNESS LOVE PEACE FEAR PROMISE
ANGRILY BOLDLY SILENTLY HEAVILY TERRIBLY GENERALLY CLOSELY FAIRLY RELUCTANTLY DIMLY OMINOUSLY CLUMSILY BLINDLY ETERNALLY PLAYFULLY INAPPROPRIATELY UNFORTUNATELY MAGICALLY VERTICALLY ANXIOUSLY NERVOUSLY JUBILANTLY FERVENTLY YEARNINGLY QUICKLY PATIENTLY LOUDLY WEARILY
ACCEPT BLUSH YELL ENJOY LEARN MISS FOLLOW RESCUE ZOOM FLOOD HOPE DELIVER UNITE ANALYSE MAKE SMASH ESCAPE STIR HATE POSSESS WHIRL NEED TALK INTRODUCE WATCH BLINK AGREE CHECK
Below is a screenshot from play. magneticpoetry.com, which is free to play online.
(Ah, I can see that I have made a “poem” on the left including “the champagne air is brilliant”, I love that). You can send the poem to facebook or email it (to yourself if you want a copy) and the kits are Original, Poet, Love, Mustache, Nature and Geek. It’s funny, easy to use, can come up with some surprises and is a hit for waiting at the dentist etc when you only have a smart phone with you. There are other apps, and the internet is teeming with examples.
So what’s to lose? Instead of chewing a pen you can be defacing (old, worthless) book pages, cutting up text, or moving words around on a fridge or a screen.
In workshops these techniques have been engrossing, often funny, and have surprised people. It is like opening a little door into your subconscious, rummaging, around and dragging things back to function as poems in their own right (sometimes) but always as a source of inspiration.