Thursday, July 29, 2010

Lost and Found; Finding Poetry, Part I

Before I begin I want to thank two people and dedicate this post to a third; I want to thank the poet Denise Brennan Watson for introducing me to "found poetry" and I want to send a sincere thank you to Diane Solis at Creativity As a Way of Life for suggesting that I write a post about it.  Lastly I want to dedicate today's post to Chris Al-Aswad, who tragically left us at the age of 31.  I can't say enough about how much I enjoyed reading his poetry and essays.

As I mentioned above, I first discovered found poetry in a week-long workshop taught by Denise Brennan Watson at the summer conference of the International Women's Writing Guild.  Denise's book, The Undertow of Hunger, a collection of food poetry, had just been published.  In her class Denise continued with her theme of food and cooking; each day we experimented with different ways to use food and its related associations as poetry prompts.  The idea of "found poetry" was discussed from the start.  Denise suggested that cookbooks and food magazines were brilliant places to find "hidden tidbits" of writing that went way beyond recipes.  This was because in order to sell food, it must be presented to readers as more than something that tastes good.  The words used to describe food are often sensuous, multi-layered, and evocative of childhood and our most cherished occasions and memories.  To demonstrate her point, Denise had brought to the conference an entire suitcase of food magazines she generously shared with us to cut, slice, and dice our way into finding the poetry inside.  Right away I was hooked, totally addicted; my writing and my life changed from that week forward and I haven't been the same since.  Seriously!  Until Denise's class I never knew what treasures could be found between the lines of an innocent article on say, how to bake a raspberry tart or melt chocolate for a fondue.

Denise's workshop was exactly ten years ago this summer.  Over those years I have worked hard to develop her ideas and use them in ways that are uniquely my own in my pottery, art journaling, and collage.  One small project I have on the side is I am writing an entire "found novel" from scraps culled solely from food magazines.  Here are some of the things I have learned to help you find and create your own poetry:

  • Anything and everything can be turned into found poetry.  What you are looking for are snippets of meaning when lines of prose are taken out of context and removed from their original source.  For instance, during that same IWWG conference in 2000, I went to an evening performance where the poet Judi Beach recited lines from a menu--verbatim--as poetry.  I will never look at apple pie the same way again.
  • If you use magazines to find your cut-out words and lines, it's a good idea to stick to a single type of magazine for coherency, theme, and word association.  I still love using food magazines, but you can express yourself best when you use magazines that express your personal interests, e.g.,  tennis, finance, history, sewing, fine art...  The list of subject-specific magazines is endless. 
  • It can also help to become adventurous and jump into a magazine world you would normally avoid:  Motorcycle Rider when you'd rather be reading Elle and vice versa.
  • Besides the straight-out text of a magazine article, I find headlines, advertisements, and the table of contents to be full of good lines just waiting to be grabbed and turned into poetry.
  • Other sources besides magazines can include:  overheard conversations, Twitter, Facebook, old letters and greeting cards.  The key is to never simply repeat what you find, but to completely reassemble the seemingly ordinary into the extraordinary.
  • Old manuscript drafts can be a wonderful source of material.  Never throw away a piece until you've taken all the good lines out for future use.
  • A method I have yet to try but is certainly on my list of future goals is to dismantle/alter/change an entire book--one of course that is in the public domain and no longer known.  Used bookstores are full of obscure and forgotten books just waiting for you to give them new life.  The poet Mary Ruefle did this with great success in her book, A Little White Shadow which started life as an obscure Victorian novel of the same title.  Ruefle's technique for finding the poetry in this text is what's called "erasure."  Ruefle used white-out to delete all the words and lines surrounding the lines she wanted to keep and use.
  • While white-out, felt pens, and tape are all good ways to block out your chosen text, I prefer using an X-acto blade to cut out the lines I want.  I love seeing how far I can cut my way down the page, often finishing with a multi-lined fragment that could easily pass as haiku or a tiny verse all on its own.
  • Much of the charm of found poetry is in the arrangement of the words on the page.  While the cut-out lines can sometimes look like those poison-pen letters in an Agatha Christie novel:  "beWARe the KnIfe wAitS 4 U" they can also look fresh and original when positioned neatly on a piece of art paper or your sketchbook/art journal.  Any artwork you can add to the piece for embellishment is a great plus, too.
  • I like to paste my smaller pieces onto unlined index cards for both future reference and as a way to present them as a "mini book" on their own.
Judson Jerome in The Poet's Handbook defines poetry as "metrical writing."  That's it!  However, he does go on to say that there is a tug-of-war within the poet as one chooses, picks, polishes, and twists words into a form:  "Prose lies flat on the page.  Poetry (good poetry, that is) stands up off it, rounded like a piece of sculpture because of its imposed form."  To me, found poetry is all about the choosing and twisting and making a new form from what is otherwise a flat piece of prose.  Next week I'll share some of my found poems and offer you more ideas for creating your own.

Tip of the Day:  Start looking; start cutting--gather up your magazines, phone books, old manuscripts.  Don't be afraid to put your own stamp on the mundane and turn it into a piece of startling imagination.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Love your blog! This is my first visit, and you have already helped me immensely... love the suggestions of found poetry, which is what I am working on right now. Visit me at