Found Poetry

Uncovering the History (and Future) of Blackout Poetry – guest blog post by Emily Ramser

The first time I asked to study blackout poetry, I was an undergrad at Salem College. I'd asked the director of my Creative Writing program to do my honors independent study on it.

I remember sitting in her office on the second floor of Main Hall, fiddling with her crocodile shaped staple remover. I kept turning it around in my hands and pressing my fingertips against its sharp teeth, unable to meet my professor's eyes.

"We would have to hire a consultant or professor, probably from California," she said, while googling. She wasn't familiar with blackout poetry. Not many people are, even today.

Blackout poetry refers to poems created by covering a source text with marker, paint, thread, etc. in order to obscure a majority of the text, leaving just a few words readable, forming a new poem,  like Austin Kleon's Newspaper Blackout and Isobel O'Hare's all this can be yours. We often confuse blackout poetry with erasure poetry; however, the latter requires an author to remove portions of a preexisting text to create a new poem.

Actually, let me rephrase, not many people in academia are familiar with it. Outside of academia, blackout poetry is thriving. On Instagram, there are over 154,000 posts tagged #blackoutpoetry and Tik Tok videos under the same hashtag have been viewed almost 800,000 times. Even my high school English students keep begging to have a blackout poetry day in class too, even though most of them hate traditional poetry - reading or writing it.

Even though I didn't end up writing my undergrad thesis on blackout poetry, I didn't let it go. I kept making my own blackout poems, even going so far as to create an entire Instagram account devoted to blackout poems made out of people's Tinder bios. When it came time to do my Master's thesis at Texas Woman's University, I tried again to convince my professors that blackout poetry was worthy of academic study.

This time a few years had passed during which blackout poetry had gained significant popularity due to the eruption of blackout poems following the #MeToo movement and the political upheaval following the election of Donald J. Trump. But that wasn't what convinced my advisor.

"The architecture teacher here is using blackout poetry to teach her students about the importance of bricks." I told my advisor over Google Hangouts. I was teaching at an academic summer camp for gifted middle school students. I only had one day off a week, Sunday, and that was devoted to thesising, so I was sitting outside with headphones crammed in my ears almost but not quite arguing with my advisor.

"Huh," she said, sitting back and adjusting her overly large turquoise glasses. "Really?"

Blackout poetry has become pervasive in education, particularly in middle and high schools. The phrase "blackout poetry lesson plans" generates over a million hits on Google in .050 seconds. Teachers, and not just English teachers, use it frequently to engage students in poetry. Blackout poet and teacher J.M. Farkas suggests that with blackout poetry students "seem less intimidated by the process of erasing, as opposed to new writing." The architecture teacher's students loved making blackout poems and absorbed the lessons that went along with the poetry well.

The fact that an architecture teacher was using blackout poetry to teach about bricks at a GT summer camp stumped my advisor. After all, how often do we hear about teachers outside of the English field using poetry in their classes? Not often. But blackout poetry is changing that. It is not only accessible to those who don't consider themselves poets in a traditional sense but also for some it is easier to write than the other forms because of how our society has evolved.

In a world of social media and constant remixing of trends, content, and ideas, Adriane Quinn argues that erasure and blackout poetry "show us how much of our world is made up of redaction: how everything we see, touch, read, wear, and nibble was created through selection by cutting, refracting, withholding, reducing, commercializing, and making smaller from a wider, more complex strata of possibilities." Blackout poetry is a form of poetry that suits the needs and lifestyles of today's readers and writers.

However, academia has not fully embraced blackout poetry yet. As a result, I realized in order to write about it for my thesis, I was going to have to convince others that blackout poetry is a legitimate form of poetry and deserving of study.  I knew my anecdote about the architecture teacher would not work for everyone. So, I decided rather than writing just an analysis of blackout poetry, I would create a digital open access histography: This Ocean of Texts: The History of Blackout Poetry.

I divided the project up into four sections: "What is Blackout Poetry?," "Academic Coverage," "The Politics of Blackout," and "The DIY Movement." The first provides an introduction to the project including an analysis of how blackout poetry is different from erasure and a brief timeline of the history of blackout poetry going back to the 1920s. The section on academia provides a substantial literature review of publications that covered blackout and erasure poetry. The other two sections focus on the two movements that have sprung up within the past twenty or so years, focusing on how blackout poetry has been used to tackle United States political upheaval and how it has moved out of traditional poetry communities and into the hands of community members who did not previously consider themselves poets.

While This Ocean of Texts: The History of Blackout Poetry only currently addresses the history of the form in the United States, I hope to continue to grow it and add to it. Blackout poetry will only become more popular I think, and I am excited to document it as it does.

Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts. 

Contact me here if you are interested! 

Emily Ramser is a queer activist-teacher-scholar-poet living in Denton, Texas where they write, collaborate, and perform with the creative collective Spiderweb Salon. A graduate of TWU and Salem College, Ramser currently teaches AP English and yearbook at Braswell High School while recording the history of blackout poetry and advocating for the rights of LGBTQIA+ students. You can find more of their work on their website, and on Twitter at @RamserisReading.

17 replies »

  1. Why do I envision vultures picking meat from a carcass whenever I hear the word “blackout” poem? Blackout poetry may be in vogue because it scratches the itch against private property avant garde poets and poetry theorists feel. Its popularity may also be due to its being the newest piece of tinfoil entertaining our magpie poets. Or perhaps it’s simply a method for lazy, ahistorical poets to compose poems : as Ramser reports, “Even my high school English students keep begging to have a blackout poetry day in class too, even though most of them hate traditional poetry - reading or writing it.”

    • Jefferson, I personally love erasure and blackout poetry–it can be just as rich as traditional forms and the word play and artistry of it is a pleasure to work with. Maybe don’t knock it ’til you try it.

      • Trish, I’ve tried it and find an image of myself as a parasite devouring its host too disturbing to enjoy the activity. I understand Marxist literary theory and our current thirst for community undercut poetic “ownership” as a value, but still. . . .I imagine the host author shouting “Get off my lawn, bitches!”

      • Trish, the moderator at a reading I gave in San Diego concluded the event by reciting a cento he’d just cobbled together from iines of my poetry. I found his exercise less of a homage than a glorification of his own wonderfulness. And, by the way, the piece was inane and foolish.

      • We used to do this at our open mics… we’d call it a collaboration poem and one poet in the audience would take their fave line from each performer and then remix them into a new poem. It was great fun and most of the time, they were surprisingly good and a great way to remember all the performers at the end of the night. Sounds like your own experience wasn’t as great :).

    • My students do like blackout poetry but not because they’re lazy (most of them at least). I’ve watched them construct truly beautiful poems, planning out their visuals and picking and repicking words. Often times going through numerous drafts before settling on their poem. I’ve seen them incorporate watercolors, pastels, scissors, glue, even one unfortunate time glitter. They find it freeing. Many have expressed the feeling that their words won’t measure up to those poets we study in class, so why try. Additionally, many have mentioned all the rules of more traditional forms feel stifling rather than inspiring. Blackout poetry allows them some distance and some freedom. Younger poets seem to have an easier time engaging with visual poetry forms (I think perhaps because of having grown up in an intensely visual time). While they may not have as much grasp of words, they can communicate amazing things through visuals (unrelated, but I once had a student turn in a poem composed entirely of gifs and while I laughed at first, they actually had a lot of nuance behind the gifs they chose and why). As how we engage with language changes, our poetry will change. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

      In reference to vultures picking meat from a carcass, I think Goldsmith has an interesting point. He wrote, “It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing: With an unprecedented amount of available text, our problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information--how I manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it--is what distinguishes my writing from yours.” In a world so oversaturated with writing, perhaps there is some value in learning to “manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it” and for some poets, that happens to be blackout poetry – creating something new out of something old.

      I’m curious, however, as to why you describe blackout poetry as a method for the lazy?

      • Em, I was perhaps too harsh (one of my many personality defects.) Forget my comment about laziness. I suspect it’s hard work to mine a decent poem from someone else’s text.

        Your comment about your students hating traditional poetry, writing or reading it, is what got my goat. I have a PhD in English literature. I don’t idolize the poets of the “canon,” and I’m glad it’s being expanded to include other writers besides white, cishet males.

        Recently a Latina MFA poet was interviewed for a teaching job at the University of Arizona; she had never read Emily Dickinson! That’s the kind of ahistorical ignorance about literature that alarms me, an ignorance I notice among young poets everywhere. Hating the great poetry of the past guarantees future generations of self-involved, know-nothings. Why would any responsible poetry teacher cater to that hatred?

        Goldsmith is. . .Kenneth? The vast quantity of texts he complains about is a result of the Creative Writing Industry’s effective propaganda:
        everyone should write poetry (and exhibit it). Perhaps the solution to this over-saturation isn’t MORE poetry, whether erasure or black-out, but less, even perhaps an end to MFA creative writing programs and the monetization/professionalization of composing verse.

        I do appreciate your engaging me further in this discussion. And please believe me, my opinions aren’t set in cement.

  2. Really interesting. I’m looking to develop a program where I can use poetry in business – this is a form that I can see would easily resonate. Thank you Emily

    • Geoffcall, huh? Why would anyone want to use poetry in business? The business-folks I know would much rather read a memo about the stock market than any kind of verse. Why not accept the fact that for most people, poetry is for special, quickly forgotten occasions, you know, birthdays, Valentine’s, divorces. And Hallmark verse fulfills this role perfectly.

      • Trish, I’m not surprised. Educated folks usually appreciate and are able to quote lines of famous poetry. Geoffcall seems to be talking about him and other businessfolks WRITINg poetry, yes?

        I do wish the Creative Writing Industry would push READING poetry as hard as they push WRITING it.
        Just think how nice it would be to shrink the tsunami of mediocre poetry now choking online and other venues.

      • Hi Carter 7878. There’s a bit too unpack there. I understand what you’re saying about your sample, but I’m not sure how valid that is – and you seem to have built your argument around anecdotal evidence. However if it is true it is what we need to change. The business world is rapidly changing and the need for creative innovate thinking and the ability to connect and relate on a deeper human level is recognised by an increasing amount of people as a core capability. You only have to look at the neuroscience behind art and healing, for example, to see the potential of art, including poetry, to enrich and change.
        I also don’t accept the poetry is so limited as you make out. You only have to look at the popularity of poets like Rupi Kaur, for example – or the influence of poets like Ross Gay or Tracey K Smith. In terms of poetry in the workplace I would encourage you to look at the work David Whyte has done and the insights of Ralph Windle.
        And, to be honest, I’m not that interested in working with people that won’t read further than a stock market memo. I’m interested in working with people with open minds who understand the need of bringing greater humanity into the workplace, and having spent 25 years in business I know there are plenty of people that want to know and are willing to explore different ways of doing so

      • G-call, I like what you say though I have my doubts that a deeply human and humane transformation of any kind is in the cards either now or in the future. Let’s hope it is.

        My issue with using poetry as social amelioration is that its value as an art form is ignored. Your reference to Rupi Kaur perfectly illustrates my concern. Kaur is an AWFUL poet, a genius at marketing her work, which is little more than reassuring bromides chopped into lines. Those who see poetry as a tool for healing adore her poems.

  3. I love the visual and (sometimes tactile) quality of blackout poetry – I’ve seen some exquisite examples using textiles, which sprang to mind when you mentioned thread as a medium. I didn’t realize there was such resistance to this interdisciplinary form of poetry in academia. Thank you Emily for your advocacy and for creating a histography. And thank you Trish for bringing Emily and their work to this forum.

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