Summary:Learn about blackout poetry: what it is, how to find good examples, and how to get your class started making with and writing within this fascinating art form. Originally published on April 10, 2020
Facing a blank page is, for us, the scariest part of writing. In an attempt to provide ourselves some emotional catharsis through creative expression, we end up racking our brains for just the right words and themes, struggling to arrange these new ideas into something coherent. Sometimes, the words just start flowing. Oftentimes they do not. We add words and erase them, pursue some metaphors and discount others. Some images lead to new trains of thought, while others are dead ends. This struggle is amplified when we imagine how the audience will perceive these ideas. Is our word choice sophisticated enough? Are the nuances clear? How should we revise this piece to suit the readers’ needs?
Our students frequently face this same dilemma in their writing. Finding the right words is hard for everyone, but it can be especially difficult for children and adolescents. Students have comparatively less overall writing experience and a more limited vocabulary, which makes this momentous task even more daunting. After several years of minimally-successful attempts to teach this concept, we were still desperately looking for ways to open the doors of creative writing to our students. Writing of any kind is such a powerful way to process emotion, so we knew that if we could find a way to make them fall in love with at least some aspect of creative writing, the rest would soon follow. It was then that we learned about blackout poetry.
Why Blackout Poetry?
Even the word poetry can strike fear into the hearts of the most experienced writer, but blackout poetry is a maker-friendly way for individuals of all ages to create powerful pieces of deep, meaningful text. Gone is the dreaded blank page; by interacting with someone else’s words and using another’s work as a foundation for our own inspiration, we are free to make new and exciting connections. It refocuses the mind from creating to recreating, while also offering the writer a chance to explore visual artistic expression. In fact, the true power of blackout poetry lies in its ability to help all of us articulate feelings and process ideas in ways that we would have never thought possible, and the expression of those feelings can be created from any piece of written text, whether that be a page in a book or just an old receipt. Black out poetry has opened new doors for us as writers and as educators, and even our most reluctant students have been able to find their own voices and process difficult emotions.
It seems clear that, in today’s times of isolation and fear, this multi-layered expression is particularly important for all of us. As we all find ways to remotely connect with one another, we must also emphasize the importance of connection through creation. Join us as we write, create, and recreate together.
Creating a Blackout Poem
The first step to creating blackout poetry is to look at examples of completed poems. Beautiful examples of blackout poetry are one quick google search away. I have found in the past that these examples are highly impactful in the creation of unique poetry. If the sample is a higher quality, you will strive to reach that standard. So, it is important to select a variety of different exceptional model poems to inspire yourself. Everyone benefits from having a good example to follow, and it is better to fall short of a lofty goal than to excel at something easy. Use this as an opportunity to push yourself to greater creative heights.
Continuing, you want to select the texts you will use with intention. You can make blackout poetry from any page with words on it, but not being thoughtful in your selection can diminish the experience. I have found that blackout poetry works best when the texts being used aid in helping the poet explore their own thoughts on a given theme or topic. When the texts that serve as the base have a clear focus, the poet can springboard into an extension of that thought or their own novel ideas. Selecting the texts meaningfully helps provide direction to this art form.
After you have selected the texts you are going to use to create your blackout poetry, you simply need to think. You need to determine what your thoughts are as a result of what you have just read. Jotting down some quick thoughts can be helpful in exploring your understanding of what you are thinking and feeling at that exact moment. After you begin to understand what you feel, it is time to shift outward. What do you want to say? What do you want to express? Blackout poetry, like all other forms of writing, is a form of self-expression. Determine what you want to say and begin identifying clauses, phrases, single words, anything that stands out to you and helps you express yourself in your poem.
After you have found the components of the texts that have meaning to you, begin to organize them into a poem. Play around with where you put things; be creative. Writing frequently takes us to places we did not intend on going. If the writing process takes you in a new direction, be willing to go there. We learn as we write, and we can have new ideas in the middle of a sentence. This is a generative experience aimed at self-understanding and expression.
After you have completed your poem, decorate it. Many of the examples that you will find online are beautiful pieces of art with an image skillfully illustrated that relates with the content of the poem. However, if you do not feel comfortable in your artistic ability, simply black out the entire page leaving only the parts that make up your poem. Do whatever you are comfortable with, but it is fun to face a new challenge, so push yourself in the design of your poem.
Poem: Struggling for Air
We breathe cleaner
During this crisis.
Take care of themselves
Blackout Poems in the Classroom
The most straightforward way to utilize blackout poetry is to simply have students discover, notice, and create. In fact, most educators immerse their students in the genre using mentor texts and then give the students an opportunity to create and display or present their own unique blackout poem. The South Mississippi Writing Project (SMWP) is including this traditional model in its creation of a teacher and student poetry hub. The site will not only offer poems and prompts, but it will also guide teachers and students into creating and submitting their own found poetry.
Other educators have adapted this type of writing to better address individual student and teacher needs as well as explore the nuances of the genre. For example, Leslyn Tamberg, a South Mississippi Writing Project TC, uses blackout poetry as part of her NCTE March Madness Poetry Tournament. Students use a self-chosen topic or section from the Wall Street Journal to create their poems, but she innovates the genre by inviting students to reflect on the creation process in a written paragraph. This final reflection gives students a unique opportunity to refine their insights about poetry and what it means to be a poet. This exploration of the genre became part of an important site series, SMWP March Madness Movie Night, in which teachers viewed clips of these poetry lessons in action and then experienced the lessons as students. Not only has this work deepened the understanding of students, but it has also better equipped teachers to handle the genre in the classroom.
No matter how you choose to create and share, blackout poetry is a welcoming genre with endless opportunities for self expression.