Title: Newspaper Blackout
Author: Austin Kleon
Poetry is not difficult. I’m sure most people think differently. One of the great urban legends of writing is that poetry is something that is obscure, inaccessible, cut off from the general public. You’re taught in school that Shakespeare was a genius and Keats was clearly the Hand of God and that Robert Frost had a crystal ball into which he scried visions of a glorious rhyming future. All of this is bullshit and I want you to forget it now.
Understanding poetry is no more difficult than understanding fiction and anyone can enjoy it. Those who claim that poetry sucks either haven’t read enough good poetry or haven’t read any at all. Remember, kids, you can’t judge what you don’t know (though admittedly, I do it all the time. Do as I say, not as I do.) The thing you need to know about poetry is that it is to other forms of writing like a turboshot is to coffee- all of it all at once, instead of a gradual presentation. Frost’s poem ‘Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’ could easily have been a short story, but it wasn’t. It gave you all you needed to know in the verses.
Now that the impromptu little lesson is done, let’s move on to Newspaper Blackout, Austin Kleon, and when it is and is not okay to talk about blogs.
The premise of Newspaper Blackout is simple. Have newspaper. Have marker. Find an article you like, hunt through it for the words you want, and black out those you don’t need. When you are done, you have a large black space in the general vicinity of which a poem has been born. I like the idea a lot. So did Austin, apparently. He feels the need to go on about it at great length.
I found reading the poems visually confusing. That’s because a lot of the time, Kleon was depending on article titles to add to the poems. A word here or there would suddenly be three or four times bigger than the rest of the words. Naturally, you want to put an emphasis on that word- and I don’t think it always works. Since I can’t recreate the actual format of my example, having neither a scanner nor the will to use it, I’ll type an approximation with the title words in caps.
make a run for it.
Are you picking up what I’m putting down, here? The title of that particular poem is ‘Roll and Run’. I can see the emphasis on rebellious just fine, but kids? Why kids? I’m not an analytical reader when it comes to poetry but I took enough classes in college to know that when you put emphasis on a thing it should be for a reason. Yet here I feel like the only reason he had was the word he wanted was in caps. One could argue that he must have done it on purpose- after all he could have made the word kid by blotting out other words to spell it. I can’t help but feel he did it because he was lazy.
I had the same sort of problem with random commas. There were only a few cases where the punctuation fit the poem. Most of the time, I noticed them as an afterthought and was forced to wonder why they were there. Of course space is important in a newspaper, and so commas are printed very close to words. Was it impossible to black them out? Perhaps. A poor choice made by a novice? That would be my bet.
The book’s layout was another downfall. While the poems in their original newspaper format fit well on the pages, the titles were nearly impossible to find, printed as headers in small font at the top of the page. Titles are a very important part of poetry. They lead you into the work, sometimes telling you everything you need to know before you even get the ball rolling. For example, if you read ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ without its title, you would feel an entirely different kind of terror than if you read it with its intended lead. The anticipation of the cremation represented is what makes the poem so suffocating. Why are some poems untitled, I hear you ask?
Well some things you should be able to figure out for yourself. You’re a big kid.
Poetry has to resonate with me. A really good poem gives me the shivers. There were only a few of those in this collection. Most of them relied far too heavily on the Epic Pause between the black spaces. A weakness of poetry is when the poet uses one device too much. The curse of a newspaper blackout poem, of course, being that its structure is also its device.
The newspaper blackout is a clever way to get over writer’s block, but I don’t think Kleon is a master of it; if he were, the poems would be great, phenomenal, even, not just good. The limits of the form outweigh its potential, for him. I think if everyone left him alone, then maybe he’d come into it a little bit more.
The book actually starts with an introduction by Kleon that does something like ‘oh hey I started doing this because I was trying to write short stories and wouldn’t you know it it was more fun than sudoku! let’s all do it!’. There’s even a how to guide in the back. Rule #3 in the Super Secret Writer’s Handbook: Don’t reveal your secrets. I feel like the intro and accompanying guide are Kleon looking for flattery. That might not be the case, but that’s how it reads- gee look at me, humble bloggerman, and now I have a book! how cool is that, guys? you should buy it and copy me.
I don’t think Kleon believes in himself the way I would like to believe in him. For a beginning chapbook, this would have been subpar, and selling a chapbook is hard enough. I honestly believe what got him published was not his work but the format of it, and I think he knows it, too. This is unfortunate. Kleon has the seeds of a great poet. Yet he presents himself as a man who tripped over success. A man I know once said ‘you need to simultaneously believe you are the best writer in the world and the worst.’ Kleon doesn’t believe he’s the best writer.
So, Austin. In your next edition, try some poetry without black spaces. Work on where your emphasis is, don’t rely on line breaks only. Don’t include a how to guide. Make them wonder how you did it. Keep some poems for yourself, and if you have a moment of doubt about even one, put it in a drawer for later. Most importantly, remember: You are the Best Writer.