2008: The Year In Review

What a nutty year. The pages of my paper 2008 diary are full—right up until the end of June, when things got crazy, and I lost six months of my life to writing a book, buying a house, and watching Obama get elected. Phew! About the same happened with this blog: July came around…and poof! I blogged about half as much for the second half of the year. (Check out the infographic above and the 2008 Visual Archive.)

So what now, 2009? The only thing I have planned is the book release in September. I’m going to take a break in January and February, curl up on my office couch, and read some really big books. Hopefully start blogging some more. Around March, I’m going to try to start on another book. Maybe a graphic novel. I’ll be posting whatever I come up with here, along with a bunch of blackout poems that didn’t make the book.

Thanks for reading. It was a great year for me, and everybody who visited the site, left comments, linked to the poems…y’all made it so.

My very best to you. Warm wishes for a great 2009!


11 good books I read this year:

book coverWhat It Is
by Lynda Barry

What more can I say about this book? It’s collage, it’s a writing textbook, it’s a memoir…it’s everything. It’s big. It’s hardcover. It’s awesome.


bergerWays of Seeing
by John Berger

Fantastic book based on a 1972 BBC miniseries. Amazing how much the contents remain valid in the age of the internet. My map of the book.


book coverThoreau At Walden
By John Porcellino

Porcellino’s simple, zen lines are perfect for adapting Thoreau into comics.


book coverBorn Standing Up
By Steve Martin

A book that moved quick and didn’t bullshit. Great writing, very subtle and smart jokes. My map of the book.


book coverDon’t Make Me Think
By Steve Krug

A classic book about web design.

My notes on the book.


book coverFlow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

A wonderful book about the psychology behind creativity.

My notes.


book coverThe Power of Myth
By Joseph Campbell

A series of interview with Campbell, accompanied by lots of images. My map of the book.


book coverAnd Then There Were None
By Agatha Christie

My wife’s favorite author. Great, classic read.


book coverThe Gift
By Lewis Hyde

On art and commerce. Terrific read.

My map of the book


book coverMoneyball
by Michael Lewis

My review of the book.


book coverThe Cheese Monkeys
By Chip Kidd

A very funny and quick read. Since so much of the action takes place in the classroom, it sort of functions as a wacky introduction to graphic design.


the night before christmas

This was a fun one. The top half is from an article about an opera singer. The bottom half is about the box office (“Transporter,” “Milk,” etc.).

Merry Christmas! Hope everybody gets what they want.

UPDATE: the poem as originally posted didn’t make any sense. I’ve updated it!


a substance that remains after a process such as combustion or evaporation

These are the back and front covers of the notebook I carried around to make, record (see my calendar and checklist), and store all of my blackout poems. I used the back cover (above) to absorb all the marker bleed, and it still reeks from the fumes of hundreds of poems.

The front cover says, “If it isn’t play, what good is it?” and has a quote from Henri Cartier-Bresson:

…we deal in things that are continually vanishing…and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on Earth that can make them come back again…

For photography, this is true: if you don’t snap the shutter at the right time, the moment has vanished.

For blackouts, it’s similar—mark over the wrong word, and it’s gone forever—but also different: as for moments in life that have vanished, blackout poems are the “contrivance” that can make them come back again.

William Burroughs claimed that cut-ups were a form of time-travel, and it’s no coincidence that the second poem in my book is about instructions for a time machine.

I’ve spent the last six months dipping into the pensieve. Now it’s time to move forward, think about the future. Discover the the next project.

How do you fill the empty nest?


Looking to write

I’m about to finish up the first draft of my manuscript and send it off to my editor.

Last night my wife and I were talking about the book, the book only she and I have read, and I asked her, “Is it something you’d want to read?”

A cliched piece of writing advice is to “write what you know,” but really, this is terrible advice. The late, great John Gardner tells us:

Nothing can be more limiting to the imagination, nothing is quicker to turn on the psyche’s censoring devices and distortion systems, than trying to write truthfully and interestingly about one’s own home town, one’s Episcopalian mother, one’s crippled younger sister. For some writers, the advice may work, but when it does, it usually works by a curious accident: The writer writes well about what he knows because he has read primarily fiction of this kind–realistic fiction of the sort we associate with The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, or Harper’s. The writer, in other words, is presenting not so much what he knows about life as what he knows about a particular literary genre. A better answer, though still not an ideal one, might have been “Write the kind of story you know and like best–a ghost story, a science-fiction piece, a realistic story about your childhood, or whatever.”

Though the fact is not always obvious at a glance when we look at works of art very close to us in time, the artist’s primary unit of thought–his primary conscious or unconscious basis for selecting and organizing the details of his work–is genre.”

Not write what you know. Write what you like.

Bradford Cox, lead singer of the band Deerhunter (a new favorite of mine — get their album Microcastle) recently commented on his blog about the leak of the new Animal Collective album:

Back in the 90’s when I was first starting to make 4-track tapes I had a game where I would make a fake version of an album I was anticipating. If Pavement’s Brighten the Corners were (sic) coming out soon, I had to wait till release day to hear it. I would record a set of songs that I would want the Pavement album to sound like. Some of those songs ended up becoming Atlas Sound and Deerhunter songs years later.

My advice to those who are so desperate for AC’s album to leak is to pick up instruments and make your own version of what you would want it to sound like. Respect the BANDS wishes and wait till release day. Then you can compare your new songs with theirs. Who knows. Maybe your album will be the one people are wanting to leak next year.

I’m reminded of the last Dirty Projectors album, where Dave Longstreth found an empty cassette case of Black Flag’s Damaged and recreated the album from memory.

The manifesto is this: draw the art you want to see, make the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read.


3 or 4 months ago I did a batch of full-page “broadsheet” newspaper blackout poems — using the entire page of the newsprint. I soon realized they were a lot of work, and I probably couldn’t use them for the book anyways. So I dropped them. I did, however, take the time to scan a couple and found the scans recently on my hard drive. If you click the images below you can read them. I’ve also included a few “in progress” shots.

“On The Day”

On The Day

My first full broadsheet poem

Broadsheet poem

* * *

“A Hangover In The Mediterranean”

A Hangover In The Mediterranean

The Right Tool For The Job

* * *

“The Curator”

The Curator

* * *

“Olympic Games”

I Do Not Want Shoulders Broad Enough

* * *

It’s funny, looking at these again, I’m reminded of how important size and dimensions are to the success of the poems.

Normal-sized, they’re really easy to read (usually) on one monitor screen. I’ve always tried to make them the size of a paperback book. (Wishful thinking?)

Broadsheet-sized, they’re really hard to get a look at online–they take a long time to load, and you have to do a lot of scrolling.

My guess is that if I’d only worked on full-paged poems, they’d never become as popular as they have. I’m not even sure they’d work well as posters — it’d just be a sea of black hanging on a wall.

No matter!

* * *

In other news, here’s some blackout fan mail that I received the other day from a girl who grew up near me (we’ve never met). It was one of the funniest e-mails I’ve ever received:

Fan Mail

I took it as a compliment.


The Big Sort

Meg took these shots of me working on the book. At this stage, I have about 175 poems scanned and cleaned up. I’d like to have about 150. I was trying to organize them all on the computer in Adobe Bridge, but I wanted to be able to see them all, to touch them, to shuffle them, stack them, sort through them. I decided to print them all out on paper. Now I’m looking for themes and threads, stories and characters, trying to make this thing flow.

The Big Sort

It’s a lot like making a mixtape, or sequencing an album. The way the songs butt up against each other can totally color their meanings. One could craft a hundred different albums from the same batch of songs.

The Big Sort

The task now is looking. Trying to see a book in this stack of pages.

Dan Roam, in his book, The Back of the Napkin, says “there are four basic rules to apply every time we look at something new.”

dan roam back of the napkin

1. Collect everything we can to look at—the more the better (at least at first).

2. Have a place where we can lay out everything and really look at it, side by side.

3. Always define a basic coordinate system to give us a clear orientation and position.

4. Find ways to cut ruthlessly from everything our eyes bring in—we need to practice visual triage.

Lay it all out where you can look at it. As Edward Tufte says, “Whenever possible, show comparisons adjacent in spaces, not stacked in time.”

Looking leads to seeing which leads to meaning.

David Hockney came to his theory on optics and painting by pinning a photocopied timeline of paintings down one wall of his studio:

david hockney wall of painting

He looked and was able to see a story.

Let’s hope it works for me.