Blackout Poetry: Creation Through Reduction

Blackout Poetry: Creation Through Reduction

Can’t bear to put pen to paper? Start with a page that’s full of words instead of one that’s devoid of them.

Photo Credit: Emily Bingham

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but in my office file cabinet right now, on the second shelf from the top, are 11 journals. Some are plain, paper-backed, utilitarian; others are beautiful with hardbound covers containing thick, creamy paper and satin ribbons to mark their pages. The one thing they have in common, though: They are all blank.

I’m a sucker for the potential of a blank journal—that opening page stretching out before me, all peaceful and pristine like a field of fresh snow. And yet, at the same time, there can be something intimidating about an empty canvas. Creation anxiety wells up, and my inner critic starts yammering away at me even before I’ve put pen to paper: What do I want to say? How can I say it best? Is this even interesting? Will I cringe when I read it later? Maybe I should “save” this really nice journal for when my thoughts aren’t so messy.

Even seasoned writers will admit: The hardest part is often just to begin.

Writing is an essential part of my daily self-care and spiritual practices, so when those moments arise where I can’t seem to get out of my own way, I take another path: I start with a page that’s full of words instead of one that’s devoid of them.

Blackout poetry is a form of creative writing that involves redacting words from text published in, say, an old newspaper or magazine. All that’s required is a thick black marker, a body of text, and a little patience. Think of it like carving a statue out of a block of marble—the material is already there, it’s just up you to decide what to take away to create shape, form, meaning.

There is no right or wrong way to go about making a blackout poem. I usually begin by skimming the article, noting interesting words or phrases, maybe even using a pencil to underline them. Once I’ve “gathered” these words, I go back over them again, drawing boxes around them with my marker, linking them to create sentences and build an idea. Word by word, paragraph by paragraph, I scratch out the rest of the unneeded words, until finally when I look at the page, a story or poem is looking back at me.

By nature, blackout poetry is messy. It requires you to be in the moment, open your mind, and work with what you’ve been given. It’s also permanent: Once you’ve deleted a word, you can’t un-delete it. So you learn to let go a little, reset your expectations, go with the flow. If you don’t like what you end up with? You crumple up the page, toss it in the recycling bin, and begin again.

Ray Bradbury once said, “Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration.” In times of creative stagnancy, sitting down with a newspaper and a Sharpie helps me shake out the stuck feelings and allows me to loosen my perfectionist grip. And it’s fun! It’s always fascinating to see what my subconscious decides to shape out of a bunch of words sitting on a page, almost like a verbal Rorschach test. And whenever I make a blackout poem that I really like, I even write it out longhand—in one of my blank journals, of course.

Writing Exercise

Today, set aside 10-15 minutes to create a blackout poem. All you need is a thick permanent marker and an article or page torn from a newspaper, magazine or old book (you could even print a page from an online article). Don’t worry about whether or not the poem is “good”—just seek to draw a message, story or idea out from the page. Then, share it on social media and tag us (@spiritualityhealth)! We can’t wait to see what you come up with.

Emily Bingham is a freelance writer, editor and social media consultant based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, or at

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