Austin Kleon ‘blacks out’ for poetic effect

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Austin Kleon, a writer, cartoonist and web designer for the UT School of Law, is best known for his poetry collection “Newspaper Blackout,” which was released in April to much critical acclaim.To create the poems in “Newspaper Blackout,” Kleon took articles from The New York Times and crossed out the words he did not need with a black Sharpie marker. The result looks like a redacted top-secret government document, but the words left unmarked form poems that are poignant, funny and, at times, even disturbing.

Kleon started creating blackout poetry when he was faced with a serious case of writer’s block. Devoid of inspiration, he turned to his recycling bin full of discarded copies of the Times, grabbed a Sharpie and began to experiment.

“At first I thought it was just a writing exercise,” Kleon said. “Then I came up with these things and showed them to my wife, and she said, ‘Well, I think you’re writing poetry.’”

Kleon started to post his blackout poems on his blog, and they received an overwhelmingly positive response from readers. Eventually an editor at HarperCollins Publishers approached him about compiling his poetry into a book.

“I want to say it’s kind of a Cinderella story, but it’s actually happening more than you think now. Publishers are looking for authors that already have an audience or platform online,” he said.

Kleon has read the Times for many years and uses it as a medium for his poetry for a variety of reasons, including its reputation as a leading source of news.

“I always like to say, if you’re going to steal, steal big — and the Times is this kind of lumbering presence,” Kleon said. “But besides that, the typography is really good.”

He says the art and metro sections of the Times are great for creating blackout poetry, but that much to his surprise, he frequently finds himself drawn to the sports section.

“It’s funny because I’m not a huge sports freak, but I love the sports section. It’s because the coaches and the players use this vernacular language. There are a lot of places’ names, and it’s about actions,” Kleon said. “The business section is difficult, but it can be done. Those poems are more abstract.”

Although Kleon picks articles to work with at random, he employs a strict methodology to turn each article into poetry.

“I’m kind of looking for an anchor phrase or an anchor word. Something that jumps out at me,” he said. “And I usually make a box around that, and that’s where I move out from. It’s a meticulous process of finding stuff. Some poems can take me 10 minutes, some poems can take me an hour or a couple days.”

Kleon admits that what he is doing is nothing new; he said other artists and writers who used similar techniques include the Dadaists and William Burroughs. He also said the current disc-jockey culture uses similar techniques to create remixes.

Writing is not Kleon’s only form of artistic expression. As a cartoonist, he has been invited to provide illustrations for concerts and live events, including Austin City Limits Music Festival and South By Southwest.

Today, Kleon will be teaching fans how to create their own blackout poetry at the Austin Museum of Art.

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WHAT: Make your own newspaper blackout poetry with Austin Kleon
WHERE: Austin Museum of Art, 823 Congress Ave.
WHEN: Tonight from 6:30 to 8
Tickets: Free