TOPICS > Arts

Texas Poet Twists Newsprint Into Verse

September 14, 2010 at 8:01 PM EST
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Austin Kleon is a Texas-based poet, writer, cartoonist and designer. He's found a playful way of making poetry from discarded newspapers, as demonstrated in his new book "Newspaper Blackout." Jeffrey Brown reports as part of the NewsHour's poetry series.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally: another in our series on poets and poetry — tonight, Texas-based writer Austin Kleon, who finds poetry in the prose of daily news. His first book, “Newspaper Blackout,” was published this summer.

AUSTIN KLEON, author, “Newspaper Blackout”: My name is Austin Kleon. I live in Austin, Texas, with my wife, Meghan, and our little dog, Milo. By day, I design Web sites. And, by night, I write poetry and draw cartoons.

“Do you sit in a cubicle all day? Do you mess around in front of the P.C., and do you find yourself always looking for the millions of hours killed?”

I was your typical kid who wanted to be a writer. I went to college and to — to learn how to be a writer. I went through creative writing workshops and wrote my double-spaced, Times New Roman, 12-point font manuscript, had my fellow students critique them in workshop.

When I got out of college, I was struggling. I didn’t have an audience anymore. And I just hit what is just a basic old case of writer’s block. I thought, you know, I just don’t have any words. I kind looked over at the recycle bin next to my desk, and it was piled full of newspapers.

And I thought, I don’t have any words, and, right over there, millions of them. So, I picked up a newspaper. I pulled out one of my markers that I draw with, and I started — started deleting words from the paper and letting some just float there. And I thought, I must be on to something.

This one is called “Anything Goes.”

“Anything goes in America, the rules not really rules, but a kind of guesswork.”

When I first started taking the marker to the newsprint, I thought it was just a writing exercise. I thought it was just something that would lead to bigger writing. It would lead to a short story. It would lead to a novel. It might even lead to a graphic novel or a comic strip. But, slowly, as I kept doing this, I would show them to my wife. And she would say, well, you’re writing poetry. It’s compressed language. It makes use of the page. It’s poetry. And it was a big surprise to me.

This one is called “All You Can Do.”

“In love, all you can do is fail so badly the first time, the rest you don’t mind at all.”

I came to the method because I love to read newspapers so much. But what I found out is that I need to treat the newspaper as a blank canvas in order to really come up with a good poem. So, what I’m — what I’m doing when I’m looking for a poem — Allen Ginsberg has this line in “Supermarket in California.” He says, “shopping for images.” And, so, that’s what I’m doing. I’m actually scanning the newspaper. I’m not reading it. I’m just kind of glancing over it.

I’m trying to look at the newspaper as one of those old word-find puzzles we used to do in school where we had to circle words that were kind of just left in this field of letters.

This one is called “Foreclosure.”

“9:00 a.m., they’re at his door with papers. There must be some misunderstanding. He has lived here for six years, peaceably and happily. He has a job. And it’s not fair, this song and dance. Leave town, they say. Go live in a train station or peddle fruitcakes, because a house is not a home.”

I’m a 9:00-to-5:00 guy. I have had a 9:00-to-5:00 job. So, a big — a big part of my creative life has been finding the time, finding the little spaces in my daily routine to make work. So, my book, I actually wrote the entirety of my book on the bus commute to and from work every day, and then in the basement on my lunch break for an hour.

This one is called “Take a Holiday.”

“Take a holiday. Go on strike. Decide not to wear pants. Only now does the flowering begin. Threaten the economist with the unimaginable.”

My joy when I’m making them is to somehow really play off that article, to either completely transform the raw material of the article into my own poem, so that the poem doesn’t even resemble the original article, or to in some way kind of parody the article or twist — twist the article into a different meaning.

But it’s really about the transformation of the material. If I was taking the article and just summarizing it into a poem, that wouldn’t be very interesting. But it’s the transformation of this thing that’s a very — it’s this nonfictional journalistic artifact. Taking that and turning it into something very personal that’s mine, that I feel could have come out of me, that’s the real — that’s the real play of the activity and that’s the real joy.