Finding the Words 1: Blackout/Erasure Poetry Generative Exercises

Overview

Writers default. That is, without quite realizing it, we write using preferred words, preferred sentence styles, preferred voices. This means a universe of possibilities is not occurring to us during composition. So we need ways to break out of our habits, to find new words. Here is the first of two poetry generative exercises for finding new words. 

Create an Autobiographical Blackout/Erasure Poem

A blackout/erasure poem is a type of found poetry, which itself is a category of found art (called in French, objet trouvé). Found art is a means of discovering artistic value in everyday objects. It was once an avant-garde movement, but now is a highly familiar and common practice.

A blackout/erasure poem is created by taking a source text that is preferably NOT poetry, such as pages from a textbook, a newspaper article, junk mail, court transcripts, even instructions for a tax form, and blacking out with magic marker all the words except the words you keep, which makes your poem.

(Admittedly, the source texts can be literary. However, it’s much more challenging and fun to create poetry that has been created out of non-literary texts that you have redacted.)

Here is an example of a blackout poem I created during a workshop I gave in Indianapolis in 2018. I’ve included both the original, and the finished product. The original article appeared in the Indianapolis Star.

Original Article

Blackout/Erasure poem - original article from the Indianapolis Star
Autobiographical blackout/erasure poem Michael Jackman created from the above article from the Indianapolis Star.

As you can see from the example above, the words in a blackout/erasure poem are not rearranged, or taken out of context. They are left on display with the original text, your objet trouvé.

Two Ways to Create your poem

There are a few ways to perform the erasure.

  1. Blackout the text on the original. However, using marker on the original will be permanent. You can’t go back and change your results. Alternatively, you can print or photocopy the original to use for your drafts. Or, use faint pencil lines to mark the words you will keep. When you are ready, use the marker to black out the rest of the text.  
  2. Use a word processor: type out the original text, or copy and paste it from a digital source. Then use the program’s highlight feature to “black out” the words you don’t want (set the highlight color to black). That way you can edit your work by removing and adding blackouts.

The advantage of method 1 is the reader gets to appreciate the hand-redacted work on the original text. The result is more like an artwork. Or perhaps you can use method 2 to edit your work in Word, and then move to the original pages for the final version. 

HINT: If you’re stuck, try different source texts. In addition, don’t bring a “plan” to the blackout poem. Discover the poem in the text. 

OTHER TYPES OF FOUND POETRY

Blackout/Erasure poetry is one of a number of types of found poetry. Try these genres that also serve as poetry generative exercises:

  • REMIX – excerpt words and phrases from your source and rearrange them in any manner.
  • CENTO – Each line of your poem comes from other author’s poems. The original lines remain intact.
  • CUT-UP – Cut or tear up a text into words and phrases, then create a poem by rearranging those strips. Arrangement may be intentional or haphazard.

Reflect

I always find it useful to reflect on my work. When teaching, I add reflections to student assignments. I suggest when you’re done that you write a few paragraphs reflecting on the following question:

How has this exercise challenged your beliefs about composing poems, finding the words, and teaching poetry? 

In addition, reflect about your process or other discoveries you made from doing this assignment. 

Other Generative Prompts

While this version of the exercise uses autobiography as a prompt, you can use any prompt you think will help you generate ideas. Some other ideas are to write about your identity, family, what your name means to you, an issue. There’s no limit to prompts. Or you can approach the assignment with no prompt at all and just find the words.

Talk it Over

You can use this exercise in a workshop or other group setting. At the conclusion, share your poems and your insights from reflection. Or show the poem you composed solo to friends and other writers. Talk it over. Being part of a writing community and engaging in conversation creates deep impact on your writing and your understanding as a creative artist.

I hope you enjoy this example of poetry generative exercises and find it gives you new words, directions, and new insights. You may also enjoy my lesson: Finding the Words 2: The Eight Words Poetry Generative Exercise. Discover more of my online writing lessons.

For several decades I have conducted writing workshops of all kinds, and for 14 years I have taught writing on the faculty of Indiana University Southeast. Now I have decided to give back for these opportunities by making my lessons available online. I hope you enjoy this lesson, and the other lessons here on my writing Web site, michael-jackman.com. You may download and use any lesson here free of charge, provided you give credit as: © Copyright Michael Jackman. All Rights Reserved.

Although the lessons are free of charge, you can help support maintaining lessons on this site through the paypal link on the top right of this post. Thank you for your support! – Michael

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