A couple of years ago, while staring at my magic glow screen, I stumbled upon a cartoonist who was creating experimental poetry by attacking a page of the New York Times with a Sharpie and blacking out all but a few choice words. Little did I know that this magic glow screen was actually called the “internet,” and that this multitalented “writer who draws” would soon be launching an entire book of these winsome poems, created by subtraction rather than addition.
Meet Austin Kleon, whose Newspaper Blackout was published this month by Harper Perennial. The technique of “finding” a hidden text within a text is not new, as Austin will tell you, but his approach is. He has liberated it from the left-field manifestos and postmodern posturing which have usually accompanied it, and has created work which is direct and accessible. These poems are as sweet, poignant, evocative, and funny as anything written by the “traditional” method, and definitely worth reading. One might even find them addictive. At Austin’s prodding I decided to try one of my own, and then I had the pleasure of talking to him about his book. Here’s some of the back-and-forth:
DD: Michelangelo reportedly said that “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” What made you first discover the blackout poem?
AK: A nasty case of writer’s block. I was twenty-two, right out of undergrad, trying desperately to write short stories. (Short stories are what they teach you to write in college, and so I tried to write them.) I’d sit in front of the computer screen, and the Microsoft Word cursor would just blink and blink and blink. Like it was taunting me.
One day, I looked over at our recycle bin stacked full of newspapers, and I thought, I might not have any words, but right there next to me are millions of them.
So, I picked up a marker, circled a few words, and blacked out the rest. I didn’t know what I was doing. (Donald Barthelme said all art comes from “not-knowing.”) It just felt good to watch those words disappear. It felt like play, not work.
I didn’t know anything about the history of found poetry, which people filled me in on later. I was thinking of John Lennon’s FBI file, which I’d seen on The Smoking Gun website: those stark black and white documents with just a few words peeking out from a mask of magic marker.
The play element is apparent and I think it’s what makes the poems engaging. What kind of found poetry are you referring to?
Well, after doing a bit of research, I found out people have been finding poetry in the newspaper for over 250 years. The farthest back I can trace it is to a guy named Caleb Whitefoord, a wine merchant, writer, diplomat, and former next-door neighbor to Benjamin Franklin. In the 1760s, he’d read the newspaper across the columns, to come up with all kinds of funny juxtapositions, like, “On Tuesday both Houses of Convocation met : / Books shut, nothing done.” He’d read them aloud in the pub, and on occasion have them printed up as broadsheets. In the 1920s, the Dadaist Tristan Tzara cut up a newspaper, tossed it in a hat, and read the words he pulled out to make a poem. Then, in the early 1960s, Brion Gysin and William Burroughs take up the cut-up technique, and it just goes on and on from there…
I guess such long history shouldn’t be any big surprise: as Walt Whitman said, “The true poem is the daily paper.”
Do you see any similarities with your book and the Dadaists?
I really don’t identify with the Dadaists at all. The only thing random about my technique is the article I pick. That’s it. Everything else is a process of deliberate choosing. Again, it’s the idea of turning this avant garde, random technique into something that’s readable. Tzara thought even a random poem would still resemble you, but I don’t buy it. For one thing, it’s not interesting to me as a reader. Why would I want to read some random gibberish that a guy pulled out of the hat? Now, Burroughs, he thought that the cut-up method could pull you out of your own ego. But frankly, I don’t want authors to escape their egos. I go back to my favorite writers to hear their voice, to experience their “best selves” that they’ve put out in their writing.
Not only is it readable – it’s also doable. Anybody can do this, especially those who find themselves overwhelmed when they’ve got a blank page staring back at them. You’re very intentional about this.
I’m not sure if William Burroughs meant it or not, but he said, “Cut-ups are for everyone.” At the last Newspaper Blackout event, we had over 50 people of all ages attacking newspapers with a marker like they were mad artists. The intensity in the room was amazing. And even better than that, many of them stood up and read their poems in front of the audience! It’s very rare that adults are told that it’s okay to play, it’s okay to make something. The Oklahoman, a newspaper out of Oklahoma City, they had me judge a blackout poetry contest that they ran, and the winner was an eighty-year-old lady with thirty-three grandchildren! (Watch the winners read their poems.) Her poem gave me goosebumps. I think everybody’s got a good poem in them.
My favorites of yours, not surprisingly, are the ones that seem to stumble into an unexpected twist at the end, like “Gasoline.” In others, like “Foreclosure,” it seems like you sought out a tidy ending: “…a house is not a home.” Is there a difference in approach? Which ones were surprising even to you?
It’s funny you mention “Foreclosure,” because that’s my least favorite poem in the whole damned book. My wife liked that one and made me keep it in! (In all fairness to her, she also loved “Gasoline.”)
It all comes down to choices. You can choose the word that ties up the poem all nice and neat, or you can choose the word that pushes it in another direction. That’s writing: choosing the right word. I figure if the poem surprises me when I’m making it, it’ll surprise the reader, too.
I love the poems where the end result is either a complete transformation or a reversal of the original text. For instance: a poem like “His Wife Appears,” which was from a review of the great French flick, Tell No One. (“His wife appears / nude in the moonlight / then they have a hot-fudge sundae / and do the twist”) Tell No One is a movie about a man who loses his wife. The original text was “Snared in a Dark Labyrinth When His Wife Disappears…they return to swim in the moonlight…they have a minor squabble……Watching it is like gorging on a hot-fudge sundae…The story, which involves murder and depravity in high places, is so elaborately twisty…” So the poem is still about marriage, but it’s about my marriage. I made it into what I wanted it to be.
Are you looking for something specific about a text when you set out to do a poem?
I’m just looking for language that I can use. Words that, if I were to sit down and try to write a poem “the traditional way,” might come out of my pen. I’m looking for words that are part of my own world. The poems in the book reference small towns, love, marriage, time-travel, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Texas, teenage sex, UFOs, lawn-mowers–all the junk that’s up in my head. All the junk that’s important to me.
In a funny way, the poems have freed me up to make writing of the stuff that really interests me. Kurt Vonnegut said he wrote best when he sounded “like a person from Indianapolis,” which is what he was. I’m a kid from small-town Ohio.
Every art form, including cartooning, is governed by its own internal logic. Are there any identifiable “rules” that you try to follow as you do this?
My #1 rule is: the poem has to be readable. My big idea is to take this weirdo, avant-garde technique, and get poems out of it that people actually want to read. Poems that don’t waste anybody’s time. So it’s very important to me that the structure of the poem is very clear, and that it’s very easy for the reader to tell in what order the words are supposed to be read. Practically, this means that I either make sure the words appear in the order that Westerners read, left-to-right, top-to-bottom, or that I use the white space between words to create arrows or little “trails” that indicate the reading order.
Which speaks to a sensibility derived from your comics background. Has this process altered your approach to “traditional” drawing or writing?
Well, I was a huge fan of “subtractive” methods in art before I started making the poems. One of the poems I made reads, “Creativity is subtraction.” It isn’t just what we choose to leave in, it’s what we choose to leave out. (I like the idea so much I made it into a t-shirt.)
What the poems have taught me is that every artist needs constraints. Absolute freedom is the death of creativity. It’s when an artist is working within constraints…that’s when the really interesting work happens. Saul Steinberg once said to Kurt Vonnegut, “what we respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her limitations.”
I totally agree. You’ve got those great Chesterton quotes on your website about how constraints are the essence of artistic freedom. In his autobiography, Chesterton says that the setting of limits is a secret pleasure, a “truth without which the whole modern world is missing its main opportunity.” Even though technically there are still thousands of choices to make even among one page of text, there is something truly thrilling and liberating about being limited to this one palette of words. I found that my mind was forced to make connections between things that it wouldn’t have ordinarily made, which created fresh ideas. Cartoonists get writers block also, so this was a great model exercise in how to break out of a rut.
I think that’s all a “new” idea is: a connection made between two previously existing ideas. Even though there’s no cutting and pasting with the blackout poems, it is, essentially, collage. You’re taking the words out of their context and making something new with them.
Embracing collage has really changed my whole approach to art-making. Even when I’m just doodling now, I think of all my drawings as a Frankenstein monster of the stuff I love–over here, one of Steinberg’s profiles. Over here, a tree like Bruno Munari would draw. Etc. Jack Kirby once said, “If you think a man draws the type of hands that you want to draw, steal ‘em. Take those hands.” What this means is that you have to constantly be collecting–either keeping a physical/mental/digital scrapbook, or copying the stuff you love into your sketchbooks. The collecting comes first. And then, when you sit down to work, you have all that stuff at your fingertips. I drew a doodle one time called “How To Look At Art Like An Artist.” It had two steps: 1) figure out what’s worth stealing 2) move on to the next thing.
Speaking of avant-garde, you cite Tom Phillips’ 1973 book A Humument, in which the author took a W. H. Mallock novel from 1892 and refashioned it into a new story by giving it the blackout treatment. Instead of using a black marker, he painted images on every single page. What’s your take on his approach?
A Humument is amazing. I have nothing but respect for Tom Phillips’ work. That said, it’s not exactly accessible. I mean, it’s pretty far out. If I may be allowed a stretch of a music metaphor, I like to think that A Humument is Sgt. Pepper’s and Newspaper Blackout is The Ramones. You listen to Sgt. Pepper’s, and you go, “Whoa, this is amazing. Can you imagine the work? I could never do anything like this,” and you sit with your headphones on, in awe. You listen to The Ramones, and you go, “Well, dang, this is amazing, but this is just a couple of dudes from the corner. I could do this,” and you go out and buy a guitar and start a band. Of course, it’s deceptively simple…
I’ve long appreciated Phillips’ book, but I’ve also felt that the images turn the book into more of an art gallery than a truly cohesive novel.
I think in my work there are several ways of incorporating graphical elements into the poems without detracting from the writing and the overall look. I’m only just starting to explore that idea now. (See: “Open Road” from my blog.)
So, speaking of exploring, what are you currently working on or discovering?
I’m trying to recharge right now. I still work a 9-5 cubicle job, so it’s really been a stretch for me to go to work, promote the book, and try to make new work. So now, I’m just banging out a poem here and there, and reading as much as I can. My wife and I have an idea for a graphic novel about art and marriage that we want to collaborate on. We’d write the “script” together, I’d draw it, and she’d do the coloring (she’s a painter). Trouble is, we’re both so busy: she’s getting her PhD in Architecture right now. One of these days. My question is always: is it better to kill yourself cranking out art in the studio or to live a happy life surrounded by family and friends? I want a balance. I’m a fairly healthy 26-year-old guy with not a lot of vices, so I figure if I’m really lucky I’ve got about 50 or so years left–that’s a lot of art that could get made. But I want to enjoy the ride.
Well, the “limits” idea works in art, so it should in life also, right?
It should! It’s all a big experiment…