Found Poetry

Finding Poetry – guest blog post by Cheryl Caesar

“What is your process when writing a found poem?” editor Jessica Purgett asked me recently, in an interview. Good question!  And one I hadn’t considered before–it had seemed like a simple thing. But the more I thought about it, the more complicated and interesting that question was.

My interviewer was asking specifically about “Kanye Finds a Dad in the Oval Office,” from my chapbook Flatman: Poems of Protest in the Trump Era:

You know they try to scare me
to not wear this hat, my own friends.
But this hat, it gives me, it gives me power
in a way. You know, my dad and my mom
separated so I didn’t have a lot of male
energy in my home …

This is what we generally think of as found poetry: the words are exactly those that came out of Kanye’s mouth on 11 October 2018, with only line and stanza breaks inserted. It appealed to me for its oral rhythms — the repetitions, the inversions, the insertions. The rhythm of poetry comes from speech, after all. What’s more, it’s unscripted, unplanned – the kind of free association that you might expect to hear in a psychiatrist’s office. Some listeners called it nonsense, but that was partly a defensive reaction, I think. Under the surface, it was saying a lot about race, class and gender in the U.S. And the best way to get under the surface seemed to be just laying it out there in lines, in breath groups, and examining it.

“Lots of people” (as Kanye’s interlocutor would say) are finding poetry in the public ramblings of Trump. For example, Scott Feschuk creates little William Carlos Williams-type meditations, adding only a title:

Can I Be a Lawyer?
You can be a lawyer
or you don’t have to be
a lawyer

Things We Knew and Do and Did
We totally knew about it
We knew about everything
We do things well
We did things right

Here, unlike in the Kanye poem, the reader sees the signifiers of poetic form (line breaks, stanzas, titles) looks for a deeper meaning, and finds none– except the realization that Trump is a profoundly unintelligent individual who, by virtue of being rich, white, male and narcissistic to the point of absurdity, can stand at a podium with a microphone and make people listen to this claptrap.

So what’s the point? Why do it? Well, we are all inundated with these words every day, and being flooded with nonsense is frustrating. Where we can find no logic, creating artistic form is satisfying; it gives us a sense of agency, of control.

Some readers find the poetry in verbal tsunamis by blacking out words, like a sculptor carving at marble to reveal the shape within. Niina Pollari did this with the Form N-400 Application for Naturalization, inking out nearly the entire page, leaving only the question: “Have you / been / in / total / terror?” followed by a choice of boxes to check, yes or no. Jerrod Schwarz erased all but a few crucial words of Trump’s Inaugural “speech”:

count    and            store                       our people

               we                                  mine                       the world for       ears …

What are the delimitations of a found poem, anyway? Aren’t all poems partly found and partly fashioned? They’re never entirely made up from scratch. In “A Trio of Emergency Triolets,” I took two lines of Trump’s “speech” in the Rose Garden on 15 February 2019 for the first two lines, and built the rest of the triolet around it. Here’s an example:

Sometimes the thing that is found is just the rhythm of an utterance that snags in your brain, like an earworm. At the Michael Cohen hearings in February 2019, I heard Cohen say, “He’s a racist and a conman and a cheat,” and that sentence took on a thumping “lions and tigers and bears” rhythm that just begged to be put down in limericks. And the more I muttered it to myself, the more it took on its own tune, something like “Mein Herr” from “Cabaret”:

Emergency triolet 1: We Don’t Need the Military
We don’t need the military.
‘Cause we would have a wall.
Wipe out the Spangled Fritillary.
We don’t need the military.
Leave animals no sanctuary.
Just build it big and tall.
We don’t need the military.
‘Cause we would have a wall.

When I sing this at open mics, the audience thump their fists on each “Don Trump.”

So “found poetry” is perhaps not a discrete thing, but a continuum. We’re finding poetry all the time, in the sounds of the speech around us. If you haven’t tried it, I urge you to do so. The raw material of the ridiculous is all around us. Put some down on the table in front of you. Stick your hands in the sand, the clay, the finger paint. Have some fun.

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! 

Associate professor of writing at MSU, Cheryl Caesar spent 25 years living in Paris, Tuscany and the Republic of Ireland. She gives readings locally of her protest poetry, and serves on the
board of the Lansing Poetry Club. Last year she won third prize in the Singapore Unbound
international poetry contest for a poem on climate change, and this March she won the “no age limit” scholarship to the Fine Arts Writing Center Social Justice workshop in Provincetown MA offered by Indolent Books, publisher of the protest poetry blog What Rough Beast. Her most recent chapbook Flatman: Poems of Protest in the Trump Era was published by Thurston Howl Publications, Lansing MI, on 5 April 2020.

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