The Cut-Up Poem


Last weekend at the Albany Book Festival my table was next to the Adirondack Center for Writing table. It’s an organization that’s building a community of writers and readers in the Adirondacks region, offering classes, workshops, events, and more for writers of all ages.

They had one of those old-fashioned gumball machines at their table, this one offering (for a free turn of the handle) pop-open containers of poems. Yes, poems. Different kinds of poems. The one I got when I turned the handle was a cut-up poem, a type of poetry I had not known about.

The folded piece of paper inside the container explained it: “A cut-up poem is made from clippings that have been cut apart and put back together to form a poem.”

Here’s the poem I got, from the poet Erin Dorney, who cut up an L.L. Bean catalog:

I loved the idea of a cut-up poem and I had to try it for myself. But I didn’t have any catalogs around or even magazines, except for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, which I proceeded to page through cut words from.

It was kind of like using those magnetic poetry sets that at one time everyone had on their refrigerator, except I never embraced those sets. I think it’s because every time I stand in front of a refrigerator I’m mostly interested in opening it to see what I can find to eat.

I didn’t know what I wanted to write a poem about, so I started cutting out interesting words from headlines and callouts. There’s a limited amount of language at your disposal. You have to play within the boundaries of the game.

Once I had a bunch of words in hand I started arranging them in various ways. Because the cover article in the magazine was about meat-packing plants using child labor in their slaughterhouses, I decided to write something about kids and adults.

I kept fiddling with the words. I wished I had some others, but felt I shouldn’t go back to the magazine to search for specific words. That wasn’t in the spirit of the game.

I ended up flexing my creative writing muscles in a new way—and that in itself was a reward. Here’s the little ditty I came up with. I think I’m going to do it again.

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, journalist, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.


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