Teaching blackout poetry at the Texas Teen Book Festival

Monday, October 20th, 2014

photo by @elizzas.art on instagram

photo by @genzone on instagram blackout-reading



In some ways, I’m probably the worst person to teach blackout poetry. I’ve done it for so long, I don’t even really think about it any more.  Making art and teaching art are two different skill sets, and a quick Google search for “blackout poetry lesson plans” shows that there’s a small army of English teachers already doing it better than me, anyways.

That’s not to say I don’t like teaching, it’s just that I’m never sure I’m any good at it.

I’ve done some workshops with a lot of instruction and timed activities, but those always seem just a little bit off. So, this weekend at the Texas Teen Book Festival, I found myself in an auditorium full of teens, and the festival folks had already set out newspaper and markers in front of them, so I just thought, “You know what? Forget it. I’m going to give them as little instruction as possible, and we’ll just see what happens.”

I told the story of how I started blacking out,  showed a timelapse video of how I make one, read a few, then told them they should just go for it. I spoke for another 10 minutes, showed some more examples, then I asked if anybody wanted to read theirs.

This is always the moment where I kind of hold my breath and think, “Uh oh. This is gonna be bad if nobody reads.”

But these teens! They started lining up at the microphone. And they read their poems like it was nothing. And they were great. And they would’ve kept lining up and reading if we didn’t run out of time.

It’s easy for an old fart like me to get jaded about everything, especially my work. Doing that workshop was a jolt of energy. It reminded me of Patti Smith, quoted in the book Please Kill Me:

Through performance, I reach such states, in which my brain feels so open… if I can develop a communication with an audience, a bunch of people, when my brain is that big and receptive, imagine the energy and intelligence and all the things I can steal from them.

I stole a lot from everybody in that room. So thanks, y’all!

33 thoughts on reading

Friday, October 17th, 2014


  1. I will make time for reading, the way I make time for meals, or brushing my teeth.
  2. I will make an effort to carry a book with me at all times.
  3. I will read whatever interests me. I will read novels. I will read poems. I will read essays. I will read short stories. I will read memoirs. I will read magazines. I will read newspapers. I will read comic books. I will read self-help. I will read street signs. I will read ads. I will read instruction manuals. I will read old love letters. Etc.
  4. I will read whatever the hell I feel like. No guilty pleasures.
  5. I will try to clear my mind of expectations before I sit down to read. I will give each book a chance.
  6. I will turn off my fucking phone.
  7. I will be a good date, but I will not let an author waste my time.
  8. I will not finish books I don’t like.
  9. I will let boredom ring like a gigantic gong.
  10. I will throw a book across the room.
  11. I will read with a pencil. I will underline. I will dog ear. I will write in the margins.
  12. I will massacre a book if I need to.
  13. I will copy down favorite passages in my own hand, to know what writing the words feels like.
  14. I will re-read favorite books the way I watch favorite movies and play favorite records over and over.
  15. I will make lists of books I want to read.
  16. I will take a deep breath and understand that it is IMPOSSIBLE to read everything.
  17. I will toss “The Canon” out the window.
  18. I will keep a list of books I have read. I will share this list.
  19. When I find a book I love, I will shout about it from whatever mountaintops I have access to.
  20. When I find an author I truly adore, an author who makes my gutstrings vibrate, I will read everything they have written. Then I will read everything that they read.
  21. If I hate a book, I will keep my mouth shut.
  22. I will make liberal use of the phrase, “It wasn’t for me.”
  23. I will ask people what they are reading. I will take notes.
  24. I will keep stacks of unread books at the ready.
  25. The minute I finish a book, I will start a new one.
  26. I will go to the library. I will go to the bookstore. I will get lost in the stacks.
  27. I will read bibliographies. I will let one book lead me to another.
  28. If I need to read for information, I will browse and skim and Google book reviews.
  29. As often as I can, I will read out loud to someone I care about.
  30. I will not lend out a book if I ever want to see it again. If a friend asks to borrow a beloved book, I will buy and mail them a copy.
  31. I will not harbor the delusion that being a reader makes me a superior person.
  32. I will not suffer under the delusion that the act of reading alone makes me a better person.
  33. If I don’t feel like reading, I’ll go do something else. Maybe even — gasp! — watch TV.

Special thanks to Alan Jacobs, who wrote my favorite book about reading, and the other sources in my “reading” tag.

Interview with Scratch Magazine

Friday, October 17th, 2014

scratch magazine

I had a nice conversation with Manjula Martin for the latest issue of Scratch, a digital magazine about writing and money. (They also used a blackout for the cover.) We talked about several topics, including self-promotion, selling out, and, of course, money:

Look, I do not have it figured out. I feel really good about my output up until this point. It’s been my dream to be able to stay at home and have a family and go out to my studio and do whatever I want. But I think the whiplash of it has been so quick that I’m still catching up with it.

It’s the imposter syndrome thing, where you think someone’s gonna knock on the door and take it all back.

So for me it always comes back to the daily practice. Having that bliss station set up and going to it and making your thing happen. Making sure you do that every day no matter what. Do the thing that feeds you, first. Then do the crazy business stuff.

Read the rest of the interview→


Friday, September 19th, 2014

my office

I posted this picture of my studio on Instagram the other day, and people immediately began asking me about my “clipboard system,” assuming that I actually have a clipboard system. Read the rest of this entry »

Notes to self

Sunday, August 31st, 2014

notes to self

notes to self

Came home from a walk with my wife and wrote down this list. It’s going on the wall in my studio.

What your days look like

Saturday, August 30th, 2014

in any day there is some poetry

When my dad brought home girlfriends, my grandpa, rather obnoxiously, would quiz them from his arm chair. I’m told the first question was usually, “So, what’s your philosophy of life?” (I’m not sure what my mother answered.)

I was thinking of my grandpa last week when I was asked a similarly baffling and broad question during an interview: “What is your definition of success?”

I hemmed and hawed a bit, until I finally said, “I suppose success is your days looking the way you want them to look.”

Sounded okay, but after I said it, I wondered what the hell it meant.

“What do you want your days to look like?” is a question I ask myself whenever I’m trying to make a decision about what to do next. In fact, I believe that most questions about what to do with one’s life can be replaced by this question.

What career should I choose? Should I go back to school? Where should I live? Should I get married? Should I have kids? Should I get a dog? Should I take up the piano? 

“What do you want your days to look like?” forces you to imagine the day in, day out realities that making such choices will present you with.

Albert Camus once told a reporter, “One has to pass the time somehow.”  And how you pass the time, what your days look like, well, as Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Maybe success is just a matter of how the reality of the days match up to the ones in your imagination.

That’s not to say my ambitions these days are all that lofty. In 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne, after spending the day with his five-year-old son, wrote in his journal, “We got rid of the day as well as we could.”

Whether that’s aiming too low or not, it sounds like success to me.

No Angel

Friday, August 29th, 2014

they said he was no angel / who is

Here you can see this poem being made:

Otherppl podcast

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

words i won't say

I recently talked to Brad Listi for over an hour about creativity, my books, and all sorts of stuff.

Office hours

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

sorry we're tired

My inbox is full of more questions than I could possibly answer and still get any work done, so once a month, I try to schedule a set period of time to hold “office hours” over on my tumblr, where people can ask me anything they can’t google.

Oftentimes, the answers are just remixed thoughts from my books (how much more is there to say?), but sometimes I hit on something interesting. Below are a few answers from yesterday’s hours minus the questions…

i feel like i have a book in me

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Some thoughts on Layer Tennis and having another body in the room

Monday, August 11th, 2014


Last Friday I played designer Kelli Anderson in a match of Layer Tennis, moderated by Jason Kottke. You can see the whole match unfold here.

It was definitely one of the most intense afternoons I’ve had in a while. I used to hate playing in competitive sports. The only sports I ever enjoyed taking part in were pretty solitary: golf and long distance running. Practicing both of those sports, mostly you’re just trying to beat your own score or time. (Honestly, I hated them, too. Just not a sports dude.)

I think one reason I’m drawn to writing and art is that I don’t have to be competitive — if I’m competing with anyone, it’s against myself, or a bunch of my favorite (most of them dead) artists, or it’s a kind of friendly competition spurred on by seeing other folks’ work in the world. And even then, I’m not competing to be the best at what I do, I’m trying to be the only one who does what I do.

But there was something about the combination of the pressure of the match and what Kelli threw at me that pushed me to come up with stuff I wouldn’t have come up with otherwise…


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