What Is Blackout Poetry? These Fascinating Poems Are Created From Existing Art

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Chances are you’ve seen it before: a full page of text that looks like the world’s most hard-to-please editor went after it with a thick, black permanent marker, leaving only a smattering of visible words scattered across the page. Or, more simply put, something resembling a heavily-redacted document belonging to the United States government. Sound familiar? It’s called blackout poetry and it’s been popping up with ever-increasing frequency on Instagram and Snapchat, in traditionally-published poetry collections, and even as street art.

The basic premise behind blackout poetry — also sometimes referred to as found poetry or erasure poetry, though there are distinctions between the three — is that the poet takes a found document, traditionally a print newspaper, and crosses out a majority of the existing text, leaving visible only the words that comprise his or her poem; thereby revealing an entirely new work of literature birthed from an existing one. The striking imagery of the redacted text — eliminated via liberal use of a black marker (hence: “blackout” poetry) — and the remaining readable text work together to form a new piece of visual poetry. Pretty cool, right?

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“It’s sort of like if the CIA did haiku,” writes Austin Kleon, the author and artist behind the Steal Like An Artist books and others, in a blog post titled: A Brief History of my Newspaper Blackout Poems. In addition to his 2010 book, Newspaper Blackout, Kleon shares his blackout poems on Instagram (@austinkleon) and Tumblr (@newspaperblackout) where he quickly learned that the central idea behind his art form was hardly new — though he’s credited with the current trend of newspaper-specific blackout poetry.

In a TEDxKC talk from 2012, Kleon traces the evolving history of blackout poetry back 250 years, to a man named Caleb Whiteford who published a broadsheet of found poetry and puns he’d collected from some of the first-ever print newspapers. According to Kleon's research, blackout poetry then made its way to a Parisian avant-garde poet named Tristan Tzara; a painter named Brion Gysin; American Beat writer William S. Burroughs; contemporary writer Tom Phillips, whose form of blackout poetry is called “humument"; and finally to Kleon himself, who began creating his own blackout poetry as a cure for writer's block.

In fact, the practice has become so popular, that the New York Times even got in on the action, creating a section of their digital newspaper where readers can create their own blackout poetry from New York Times articles, just by clicking.

TEDx Talks on YouTube

But you might be wondering: what about plagiarism? It's a fair question, one that different writers have different answers for. After all, in composing blackout poetry, the poet is technically not writing — they’re erasing what somebody else has written. Robert Lee Brewer of Writer’s Digest argues that “if you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art.” He also notes that crediting the original source is a must.

“Every new idea is just a remix or a mash-up of one or two previous ideas,” says Kleon, in his TEDx talk. His blackout poetry comes from what he refers to as a “genealogy of ideas.” Essentially one idea originating from another idea —  not plagiarism, but artistic evolution.

Think you're ready to create your own blackout poetry? Here's what to keep in mind:

  • Know that any original text can serve as a backdrop for blackout poetry — you don't have to stick with print newspapers. Though, you might not want to go defacing all your favorite novels... just saying.
  • Scan for the most striking words first; those words that stand out, repeat, or speak to the themes you want to explore in your poem.
  • If you're going the traditional blackout route — redacting text with black marker — then a great pro-tip is to outline the words you're keeping first, before proceeding to blackout the rest.
  • Don’t feel like you have to read your source document in full — start at the end, jump around, read from right to left; however the muse moves you.
  • Remember that what you’re eliminating is just as important as what you’re leaving visible. Some blackout poets have even started creating visual art  — line drawings, paintings, and more — over the redacted text, instead of simply blacking out the words.
  • Blackout poetry is a great cure for writer’s block, so be ready for those creative juices to flow.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget to share your blackout poetry with the world! Use the hashtags #blackoutpoetry and #newspaperblackout to get started.