Moby-Dick Blackout Poems

Moby-Dick blackout poem
Blackout poem in progress

My novel Landfalls came out in North America yesterday (!!!), and I want to share a quirky project I’ve been working on in anticipation of its launch.

The idea came from Austin Kleon’s newspaper blackout poems. Kleon’s technique entails “finding” short poems in a newspaper page and inking out everything else. They’re really cool. Here’s one example:

Austin Kleon, newspaper blackout poems
Austin Kleon newspaper blackout poetry

I first stumbled across Kleon’s work four or five years ago. I was teaching at Sacramento City College and looking for an engaging and approachable in-class writing exercise for the poetry unit of my Intro to Creative Writing class. Many of my students had signed up to write short stories or personal essays. The prospect of writing a poem daunted them. Indeed, their instructor had not written a poem in many years and wasn’t undaunted herself. But when I handed out a thick black Sharpie and a sheet of newspaper to each student and described the idea, the whole room fell to the task with a will. Much of what was turned in that day was fresh and surprising. And it somehow broke the poetry ice for everyone, including me.

I remembered that experience last year when I was casting about for something to do to celebrate my upcoming book release. I wanted to make something tangible, something I could hand out at early readings, something related to my book or to me as a writer. And then it came to me: Moby-Dick Blackout Poems!

Given Kleon’s general philosophy of borrow-from-other-creative-types, spelled out with charm and wit in books like Steal Like An Artist, I thought he would approve.

And why Moby-Dick?

Well. I had never read Moby-Dick before embarking on Landfalls, but about halfway through the project, I realized I could hardly call myself a writer of nautical fiction if I hadn’t read what may be the greatest novel of the sea. I thought of it as something that would be good for me — you know, like vegetables.

But once I opened its pages, I could hardly put it down. It moved me so much more than I expected. I was prepared for its grandeur, but it was also surprisingly funny. And so inventive, veering between different styles of telling with reckless abandon. I was awed. I knew that I’d met one of those books I’d want to reread every few years, a boon companion for the rest of my life.

So last summer, I bought a new Dover Giant Thrift edition of Moby-Dick and started creating blackout poems — or tiny fictions, depending — within its pages.

Here’s the basic process: I scan a page in search of words or phrases that strike me or that go together in an interesting way. I lightly circle in pencil any likely candidates. Once I’m happy with the text I’ve picked, I take a black pen or marker and black out the rest of the page. It’s pretty simple, although sometimes I fuss for a while over what words to keep. I’ve experimented with a lot of different ways to black out the remaining text. I’ve grown partial to the method that uses a black fine-point Sharpie to hatch through one line at a time. It looks kinda cool. But it’s time-consuming.

Earlier this week I documented what I did with page 103. (Click on the pictures to make them bigger and more readable.) Here’s the page before I messed with it:

Page 103, clean as a whistle

I often start at the bottom in search of a good ending. Something like this:

I thought it had some potential: “Now these … were … by universal prescription … captains of … conjecture”.

But then I moved back up the page and found something that took me in a different direction:

I went with this and blacked the rest of the page out:

The completed “poem” reads something like:

I say … every one knows … this … disinfecting agent.

A … pugnacious … reverence for … fearlessness … fun … and … a jolly joke

I quite like the idea of reverence for fearlessness and fun as a disinfectant. Really, I think we could all use some of that disinfectant in our lives.

As for those lines I originally liked at the bottom of the page? Alas:

The final step is to erase the pencil lines still showing:

There’s something really meditative and soothing about this activity. Unlike with my regular writing, I’m not that attached to the outcome. While some pages have come out better than others, I’m basically pleased with all of them. When was the last time I felt that way about anything I made?

I’m going to start giving these away to people who come to my readings with a book to sign, starting Friday, August 7, with my first solo event at the Avid Reader in Davis, California, my current hometown. I’ve only made fifty of them, so it’s only good while supplies last.

I think I need to devise another giveaway. Something not quite so time-consuming to produce but just as tangible and similarly relevant to my book. Origami boats made out of pages from Kidnapped, anyone?

(Please check out my Events calendar to see if I’m doing a reading or appearance near you.)

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