Every morning I try to pick up a newspaper and a Sharpie marker, and I make one of my newspaper blackout poems:
This is what one looks like after I scan it into Photoshop and play with the levels a bit:
(It’s sort of like if the CIA did haiku.)
This one’s called “Overheard on the Titanic”:
This one’s called “What Is Marriage?”:
I’ve been making these things since 2005. Once I started posting them to my blog, they slowly spread around the internet, and over time I got tons of blog comments and emails telling me just how unoriginal my idea was.
Turns out there’s a 250-year-old history of people finding poetry in the newspaper.
But I didn’t quit. I kept making them and posting them online. And eventually I started selling prints of some of the pieces:
And a few years later I heard from an editor at HarperCollins who asked if I’d ever thought about turning them into a book. I said, Hell yes I’ve thought of turning them into a book, and in 2010, Newspaper Blackout came out:
Since the process of my work is pretty transparent, I figured it only made sense to encourage other people to try out the method themselves, so I started a Tumblr blog, NewspaperBlackout.com, a place where people could learn about the blackout poems and share their own:
And this was when things got really interesting. The book sold okay, but it was the site that really took off—almost 140,000 people subscribe to the site now, and we’ve published blackout poems from around the world.
People send me the craziest stuff—I think I’ve learned as much from them as they’ve learned from me:
Perhaps the most interesting thing that’s happened is that “blackout poetry” has now become a thing out in the world totally independent of me—there’s a thriving scene around the “blackout poetry” tag on Tumblr, teachers use it in the classroom, advertising agencies use blackouts in ads for Fortune 500 companies, and even The New York Times itself has made a website devoted to blackouts.
Lots of people have asked me why I haven’t cashed in and made a Newspaper Blackout app. For a while, I tried making them on the iPad:
But I quickly found that something was missing. There’s a kind of magic that happens when you make art with non-digital materials: the feel of the newsprint, the way you watch the words disappear under a thick black line, the marker fumes…
It can be hard to sustain a project like this over such a long time, but new technologies and opportunities pop up that make things new.
When Instagram came out I realized that I didn’t even have to scan my poems any more—I could just take a picture with my phone, post it, and people could see one of my poems a few minutes after I finished it:
But the best is still seeing the poems out in the world, and seeing folks make their own attempts. Last year we had an art show in Denton, Texas, and part of the show was dedicated to a poem-making station where people could pick up a newspaper and make their own:
And they say poetry is dead.