In today’s newsletter, I demonstrate how I use a dry erase marker and a transparency sheet to make poems like this one:
I made this blackout after observing my wife teach my kids math out of a workbook that uses techniques that confuse our Elder Millennial brains. Here’s a decent explanation for why Common Core math problems look so weird:
Note that I didn’t say what the article was about — I never “read” the articles I black out, I just try to look at them as raw fields of words. (Here’s a video of this one being made.)
After I made the first batch, I remembered an article I saw about the pop singer Lorde, and I used that to make the second batch of “10 Short Poems”:
I’m often asked if I have an idea for what I want to “write” before I start. The answer is a big No. If I start out with an idea, it will be bad. It’s all about responding to the material. (For example, when “Swift” as in “Taylor” shows up.) Half finding the wave, half surfing it…
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) August 21, 2021
Related reading: How to make a newspaper blackout poem
Artists speak of unforgiving mediums.
I am attracted to pastel as a medium because of the gamble involved in its execution. There is a fascination with the processes of control and risk enacted on a surface, a surface building toward the last plunges of color that bring everything already developed there into focus—the color bolt that finishes a picture.
I am on Twitter, still, despite my better judgment, and it seems to me to be The extremely unforgiving medium in my life.
It is risky compositionally. You can delete a tweet, but you can’t edit a tweet. You can add to a tweet, but it’s hard to improve upon it.
It is risky socially. Every tweet is an invitation for scrutiny if not consultation if not correction if not misunderstanding if not rancor. Forgiveness, even if we agreed it still existed in the wider culture, I think we could probably agree it doesn’t really exist on Twitter. (“Never Tweet” is not terrible advice.)
And yet, like Petlin, I think I am attracted to “the gamble involved” in the unforgiving medium’s execution. Sometimes it yields gold. Sometimes a tweet leads to the next good idea or a new friendship or mutual appreciation. Sometimes tweets become blog posts that become book chapters.
If Twitter is the unforgiving medium in my life, where are the forgiving mediums?
My notebooks would be one.
Even my published books, since they go through a long editorial process of people who care correcting me, and if there’s a typo, we can fix it in the next printing.
Another forgiving medium? Compared to Twitter, I’d make a case for blogging.
Blog posts can be edited, added to, improved upon.
If you missed something, you can fix it.
Another reader pointed out (on Twitter) that there was an The Art Assignment video about Russell’s work.
The ability to “move it around for a long time” is what I’m looking for in a writing medium — I want words and images to be movable, I want to switch them out, copy and cut and paste them, let them mutate.
But most importantly, I want to be able to be wrong. I want to change my mind! I want to evolve.
Being wrong publicly is the easiest way to learn what you need to know. The trouble is: it’s also the easiest way to get yelled at or shamed or “canceled,” as they say.
To do the exploration that growth and change requires, one needs a forgiving medium… but what one really needs forgiving readers.
Every newsletter I send, for example, is a gamble. It can’t be edited, only issued a correction in the next one. But my readers, on the whole, tend to be a caring bunch. (If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t subscribe.) Corrections are often made privately, over email.
In the book Fare Forward, a collection of letters David Markson sent Laura Sims, Markson begs Sims not to send him any print-outs from the internet.
“HOW CAN PEOPLE LIVE IN THAT FIRST-DRAFT WORLD?”
Twitter, to me, is very much that “First-Draft World” that Markson bemoaned. But blogging feels to me like a world of endless drafting, endless revisioning.
A much more forgiving medium.
(I look forward to editing this post.)
I like this description of poetry from John Carey in his book, A Little History of Poetry.
I’ve been thinking about another thing I love about poetry: its ability to change meaning, depending on the time and place and the person reading it. A poem that seems ho-hum one moment, seems perfect the next.
For example, here is a blackout I made in 2016:
I had completely forgotten that one. I shivered a little when I read it. (Burroughs thought writing could be a kind of time travel or crystal ball reading.)
Here’s another blackout I came across that was cut from the final manuscript of Keep Going, made in 2013, but made quite new on day 50 of our family’s quarantine:
I also like how the demand for poetry changes depending on the times we’re in: You think you don’t need it… until you do.