What is Blackout Poetry and How is It Made?

All you need is a Sharpie!

Too many of us have a less-than-stellar introduction to poetry. Maybe we’re forced to read poems that don’t speak to us and then analyze them to death for English class. Or maybe we find a poet we love, only to be told by a snob in our creative writing class that they’re not a “real” poet. That’s why blackout poetry is so exciting! You don’t need to agonize over a blank page for an hour, trying to come up with something that will sound pretty. But what exactly is blackout poetry, and how is it made? Do you need to be a genius with an expensive MFA to pull it off?

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No! Blackout poetry is for everyone. Creating a blackout poem, also known as an erasure poem, can be as easy or complex as you want it to be. Want to whip out a poem in five minutes? You can do that! Want to spend the afternoon creating a mixed media work of art with deep literary meaning? You can do that, too! The point of a blackout poem isn’t crafting a perfect, polished piece, but rather being spontaneous and seeing where your creativity takes you.

A Basic Blackout Poem

image: austinkleon.com

To get a feel for what a simple blackout poem is and how to create it, check out the work of poet and artist Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist and other books on art and creativity. Kleon takes pages from newspapers and blacks out sections until only a few words and phrases remain, scattered across the page. Sometimes these words from a sentence or miniature story. Other times they’re more cryptic, forming a poem that may not have any logical meaning, but still has a weird sort of dreamlike beauty.

To create a blackout poem, take a black marker and a page of text from a newspaper or magazine. You can also photocopy a page from your favorite book if you want to remix that author’s words into your own creation.

Now, start blacking out text! You can go about it one of two ways. You can start by lightly circling the words you’re not going to black out, and then black out everything around them. Or, you can start by blacking out lines and skip any words that you come across and decide to keep. Each method will create a slightly different blackout poem, since your eye will be drawn to different words depending on how you go about it.

If you want to get really experimental, you can make two or three photocopies of a page of text and use those copies to create two or three different poems! Give it a try. Do any words or phrases end up in every poem, or are the poems completely unique? Do your poems end up telling different stories, or do you find that a theme starts to emerge in all of them? However it shakes out, congratulations—you’ve just created new works of literature! You’re officially a poet!

Getting Crafty With It

A Sharpie and a page of text are all you need, but you don’t have to stop there. Many poets and artists use paint, art paper, collage, and other techniques to create erasure poems that have a visual component.

If you’re not sure where to start, just take a small paintbrush and a few colors of paint. Go through the text exactly like you would with the marker, except switch up the paint color every couple of minutes. You’ll end up with an erasure poem that has stripes, blocks, or blotches of color. Don’t worry too much about whether it’s “good” art or not. I promise you that it’s beautiful.

Another method you can try is taking scissors and cutting out the words and phrases you want to use. Paste them onto a piece of fancy paper (a sheet of patterned origami paper will work great) in roughly the same spots they appeared in the original text. How does it look? I bet it looks awesome.

If you’re feeling more adventurous, try drawing a design in the spaces between the words you’ve kept. The design can speak to your poem in some way, or just be random. If you’re feeling shaky about your drawing skills, you can pull up a picture from the Internet on your tablet, place it flat on a table, and then put your paper on top of it to trace the image. Or you can go abstract with swirls or geometric shapes. When you’re done, hang it on your wall!

Blackout poetry is fun, easy, and satisfying. Happy writing!

(Image: Matthew Henry from Burst)


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Author
Julia Glassman
Julia Glassman (she/her) holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and has been covering feminism and media since 2007. As a staff writer for The Mary Sue, Julia covers Marvel movies, folk horror, sci fi and fantasy, film and TV, comics, and all things witchy. Under the pen name Asa West, she's the author of the popular zine 'Five Principles of Green Witchcraft' (Gods & Radicals Press). You can check out more of her writing at <a href="https://juliaglassman.carrd.co/">https://juliaglassman.carrd.co/.</a>