I couldn’t read until I was 9 years old, I stared at the words and imagined all sorts of things, longingly filling in the blanks for myself. I pretended to read out loud, I loved the sound of words and how it felt when I was telling a story, but the idea of words was something I only ever enjoyed in private, in places where there were no consequences. School was a treacherous place, and words were hostile, they humiliated me, they played cruel tricks. At the age of nine, after weeks of unsuccessfully tackling the classic b and d problem (confusing one for the other that is), in a fit of intense frustration, I marched up to the white board in front of my entire class and wrote ‘Amy is dumb’, or that’s what I meant to write, what I had in fact written was ‘Amy is bum’. There was of course much laughter, the creation of a new nick name ‘Nunn bum’ and an ongoing practical joke involving a peanut butter sandwich left on my chair. Okay so not my finest moment, but one that began a strange and significant chain of events. This was the moment I quietly promised myself to get even one day, to use the enemy’s weapons against them, wreak havoc, to show them all.

At the age of 12 I moved with my family to Australia, where unfortunately dyslexia is barely recognised within the education system. I was put into a ‘special needs’ class with children who had severe mental disabilities, and spent my days feeling utterly lost, isolated and deeply ashamed. After a few years of my mother pleading with teachers and doing everything in her power to bend a very rigid system, it eventually became clear that my best option was to live with my father back in London for a trial period, where I could attend a dyslexic school. Read more…

Myth: the essence of a poem is expressing emotion.

The Word Vomit Technique. Illustration by Chris Giles of My Beautiful Paintings.

Before I get all grr on “emotional poetry,” I want to say this: I’m all about poeming in the diary, discussing heartbreak and daily doings, but that doesn’t make a poem great.  And great poems can express big feelings.  In fact, any good piece of writing should evoke emotion in the reader.  It’s what connects the reader to the work.  But just as in novels and essays and all that prosey stuff, a good poem has a story first.

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  A story uses sensory detail, characterization, setting, and narrative to work its magic on the reader.  And why should a poem be any different?  A story is all the good stuff that brings us around to the feelings.  It has to come first.  It’s like Step 1.  And much like Ikea furniture, it’s a good idea in poetry to perform step 1 before trying to install step 2.

So my theory is this: A good poem isn’t about emotions, it makes the reader emote.  It evokes emotion in the reader by using emotive imagery.  And to achieve this, you’ve gotta start at ground level or else your whole poem is going to fall apart just like a poorly furnished college apartment.

Now, emotional poetry is definitely a thing and a lot of writers love it and it’s where a lot of us start as poets.  There’s a reason I recommend Sylvia Plath to many beginning poets trudging their way through the perils of high school.  I think she is the original emo kid — she’s got her heart on her sleeve and she’s not afraid to use it.  But the thing that Sylvia has that a lot of journal poetry doesn’t is the sense of story that I already mentioned, the imagery and sensory detail.  Plus, you know, that haunting voice.  Here’s an example:

“April 18″

the slime of all my yesterdays
rots in the hollow of my skull

and if my stomach would contract
because of some explicable phenomenon
such as pregnancy or constipation

I would not remember you

or that because of sleep
infrequent as a moon of greencheese
that because of food
nourishing as violet leaves
that because of these

and in a few fatal yards of grass
in a few spaces of sky and treetops

a future was lost yesterday
as easily and irretrievably
as a tennis ball at twilight

–Sylvia Plath

SO.  Love or hate Sylvia Plath, we can all agree on a two things:
1. She tells a story with her poem.  It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
2. She makes us feel things.

Sylvia Plath leads an emo band. Illustration by Chris Giles of My Beautiful Paintings.

Imagine if the poem were simply a list of feelings, though.  Would that be interesting?  I don’t think so.  Anyone can list feelings and use a thesaurus to come up with a few extra S.A.T. words for “grumpy” and “tears” and throw in some linebreaks and call it a poem.  What I want from a poem when I’m reading is a reason to feel for the narrator, a sense of what the narrator feels and why.  And, duh, I want that story.

So, Sylvia Plath nails it with that  #2. She makes us feel things.  And she uses all those tricks that I believe make a poem work.  I mean, wow, that first couplet?  It’s dark.  It’s creepy.  And it’s so, so sad.  Even better, in this and in so much of Plath’s poetry, there is space for the reader to go in, suck in the words, swirl them around in his mouth, and taste what he needs to taste.  He may or may not like the poem, but he hasn’t just had to consume word vomit.  Which, really, is what happens if you just let your feelings dance around unhinged while writing.

I’m sorry, folks.  But your word vomit — or soul vomit, as I’ve come to think of some of the more, er, emotional poetry that, yes, even I wrote back in the day — belongs in a first draft or in a journal.

And really, I have to wonder, where does this myth that poetry = emotion come from? Is it our schools, where overworked and underpaid teachers are given a single week in which to teach poetry by the Powers That Be?  Is it the fact that contemporary works are physically inaccessible to young people and are, indeed, less read than, say, Shakespeare’s soppy (if lovely) sonnets?  Regardless, I’d say that emotions in poetry is a good thing, and I’d encourage any poet endeavoring to make his readers feel something to use his words to do just that. Make the reader feel it.


© Claire Sambrook.


It all started with a box of teeth-whitening strips.

In graduate school, my friends and I coordinated a small, online writing group where we would take turns posting and responding to a prompt of the week. On the particular week in question, we were challenged to write a poem using only the words found on product packaging.

Initially skeptical, I reached for the nearest product in my apartment, copied down all of the words from the box and began rearranging. Within half an hour, I had unwittingly written my first found poem. Not only that, I’d actually had fun doing so.

Later, whenever I would find myself struggling to write something original, I would turn to found poetry as an exercise, a way to unclog the creative pipes. Eventually, I began practicing it nearly exclusively, crafting poems from speeches, menus, Twitter streams and more.

In 2011, my own experiences writing and publishing sparked the idea for the Found Poetry Review, a venue designed to showcase how individuals are finding poetry in existing and everyday sources, and to encourage people to write their own found poems.

So, What Is Found Poetry Exactly?  

Most definitions of found poetry – sometimes called erasure poetry or blackout poetry –  employ a collage metaphor to describe how poets cut out words and phrases from texts and stick them together to create something new.

Invoking safety scissors and glue stick projects gets the basic mechanics across, but  doesn’t do a great job of conveying found poetry’s intentionality and art. My favorite description comes from Annie Dillard’s introduction to her collection of found poems, MORNINGS LIKE THESE:

Those happy poets who write found poetry go pawing through popular culture like sculptors on trash heaps. They hold and wave aloft usable artifacts and fragments: jingles and ad copy, menus and broadcasts — all objet trouvés, the literary equivalents of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans and Duchamp’s bicycle. By entering a found text as a poem, the poet doubles its context. The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles. The poet adds, or at any rate, increases the elements of delight. This is an urban, youthful, ironic, cruising kind of poetry.

Not only does Dillard’s definition provide a clearer picture of both found poetry and the people who write it, but it also gives us a better understanding of its detractors. Editors who will inevitably cry “plagiarism!” and “unoriginal!” are but a few branches down the family tree from the conservative art critics who turned up their noses at readymade and pop art in the mid-twentieth century.


Finding a Good Poem

© Jake Bouma.


Imposing parameters or restrictions on experimental writing like found poetry is usually considered bad form; however, working on the The Found Poetry Review has forced me to make decisions about what I consider a quality poem.

I’d put the types of submissions we receive into three broad buckets:

1.     Reportage: These pieces excerpt sequential lines from a source text, with the primary intervention being the addition of line breaks or spaces. Photographs of juxtaposed signs or graffiti also fall into this group.

2.     Distillation: Poems in this category take words and phrases from a source text, rearranging them into a final piece that retains the text’s general message but is arranged in a new way.

3.     Reinvention: Submissions falling into this group take words and phrases from a text, but arrange them in ways so that the poem’s meaning has little or nothing to do with that of the source material.

Most of the poems we accept at The Found Poetry Review come from the second and third groups. When evaluating traditional poetry, editors look for originality in words and sentiment; in found poetry, I look for originality in arrangement. What can you add to the source material? What new story can you find within the original?

Poems from the first group are problematic for me, both as an editor and a writer of found poetry. Singling out a pithy paragraph in Lolita, pressing the return key a few times and calling it a found poem doesn’t do much for me on the editorial front – it’s not surprising or inventive. More significantly, as someone who writes found poetry and tries to build a case for it’s value and art, I see these “reportage” poems as walking too fine a line between plagiarism and ingenuity.

Where to Begin: Crafting Your First Found Poem

Because found poetry is experimental and so individual, I encourage curious writers to jump in first and read examples from the field later. You need to play around before you can get serious.

Since you’re presumably reading this post on the Internet, Wave Books’ erasure tool is a great place to start digging. There, you can choose one of 20 source materials to work with, then use an interactive tool to click and erase words from the text until you arrive at a final poem.

When working electronically from a web-based source (Project Gutenberg, with it’s wealth of public domain source texts, is a good place to begin), you can also consider pulling up two windows side by side – one with your source text and the other with a blank Word document. Skim through the text quickly, copying over into the document interesting words and phrases. Condense and reorder those snippets to create your found poem.

Offline, approach any text – from your morning newspaper to your favorite book to your pile of junk mail – with a pen in hand. As you read, underline or circle words and phrases, then try to work them into a poem. You also have permission to get out those scissors I referenced at the beginning of this post – cut up texts into strips, mix them up and then physically rearrange them on a board or table.

Enlarge Your Practice by Learning from Others

After you’ve taken some time to play around and understand your natural instincts when it comes to writing found poetry, take the time to read what others are doing in the field. Seeing how other writers approach the same art form – and perhaps even the same texts – will help you enlarge your practice.


Below is a short list of some published works of found poetry to buy online or request from your local library:

  • A HUMUMENT by Tom Phillips (began in 1970)
  • RADI OS by Ronald Johnson (2005)
  • A LITTLE WITE SHADOW by Mary Ruefle (2006)
  • THE O MISSION REPO by Travis McDonald (2008)
  • THE MS OF MY KIN by Janet Holmes (2009)
  • NETS by Jen Bervin (2010)
  • NEWSPAPER BLACKOUT by Austin Kleon (2010)
  • OF LAMB by Matthea Harvey and Amy Jean Porter (2011)
  • VOYAGER by Srikanth Reddy (2011)

Online journals such as The Found Poetry Review and Verbatim Poetry also feature plenty of examples from other poets that may spark an idea for your own work.

Finally, be sure to let others learn from you. Post your found poetry on your blog or website, introduce it to your writing group and submit your works to online journals for publication. If you’re a teacher, try a found poetry exercise with your class.

If you’ve written found poetry or have favorite pieces from others to share, be sure to post the text or a link in the comments section below!

Jenni B. Baker.

Jenni B. Baker is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Found Poetry Review. Her poetry has appeared in over a dozen publications, including InDigest Magazine, The Newport Review, qarrtisiluni and BluePrintReview. She is currently working on a manuscript of found poetry derived from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, titled Fest.


So back when we started this blog, we were filling out our bios, and under influences I listed Chris Carter — creator of one of my favorite TV shows, The X Files.  Sarah messaged me and said “oh, wait, I thought we were just filling in our influences as poets.” And I was like “Um, yeah.  Chris Carter is totally one of my poetic influences.”  Sarah and I have long had a relationship in which almost nothing we say to each other is all that weird — at least to us — so we continued with putting together the blog and haven’t spoken of it since.

Illustration by Chris Giles.

Until today.  I want to talk about my X Files poetry.

First, I want to get this out of the way: TV is a brain-rotting time-suck of the modern world and no good things can possibly come from a 90′s show about aliens and poltergeists and sewer monsters.   Look, y’all — a story is a story, writing is writing, and inspiration is inspiration.  I really don’t care what form it takes.  There’s good TV and bad TV, good books and bad books.  I have no shame in finding inspiration in the stories written for television and film.  Among other influences I count Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Scrubs, John Hughes’ body of work and this teen movie from when I was in high school called Can’t Hardly Wait.

Art by Chris Giles.

I think what makes the shows I love so brilliant and so inspiring is how, whether comedic or tragic, realistic or speculative, they get the nature of humanity.  The dialogue in Buffy is snappy, Scrubs knows how to take a big, epic theme and smoosh it into a 30-minute episode while following multiple plot threads AND J.D.’s dream sequences, and for as much as I’ve rolled my eyes at some of those oh-so-Chris-Carter monologues delivered at the beginnings of of all of the Very Serious Episodes of The X-Files, damn they’re poetic.  And I think that’s when I got it — that there is beauty in science, science fiction, and back around again to science.  That the way we connect to the weird and wonderful and wondrous is something worth writing about.  And I wanted to write about it myself.  I needed to make poems about the Sasquatch and el chupacabra.  So I did.  I wrote those poems.  I wrote a novel about the Jersey Devil.  And I researched Christopher Columbus and the Bermuda Triangle and wrote that poem, too.

Art by Chris Giles.

Recently I’ve started collecting my paranormal pieces for a chapbook I’m working on.  Ghost hunters, UFOlogists, lake monsters, teenage necromancers and urban legends.  I think I learned how to write about these things with tact from Chris Carter.  It’s a place where fantasy and reality meet and while I consider myself a skeptic, well, like Mulder and Scully, I want to believe.  I want to tell the stories about maybe and could be.  And poems are story distilled down to the hardest bits — which is one thing I love about writing poetry.  X Files poetry, then, is these what ifs in their hardest bits, with me doing my best to make it lyrical and beautiful.  I wish I could say it was hard — but I love it too much.  A challenge, though.  I’ll say it’s that.

I have maybe 15 or so pieces for my would-be chapbook.  I have no idea if it will ever see the light of day.  But on my hard drive, it’s fun to look at, to read aloud, to speculate upon.  Below is an excerpt, my poem “The Leeds Baby.” Meanwhile, readers, do you have any unexpected influences for your work?  Please feel free to list them below! And, you know, ask Chris Giles to illustrate them on his tumblr.

“The Leeds Baby”

I couldn’t keep the child – the nurse said as much
as the doctor pulled its body from inside me.

Of course I’d whispered curses on these lips.  But this is quotidian
in the cold North East, standing mere moments from witchery.

The child, though – shouldn’t he be innocent?  Even when Hell
has molded bones into wings,  stretched the eyes red,
hunched the body’s back into a desperate “U.”

I loathed the thing, and yet, as Mother, I sent the nurse away,
clutched my baby, nursed him. Here is humanity, I thought.

Nights, I watch him sneak out his window at the side of the house.
Look, I think, God’s little gift is off to play in the woods.

He believes me ignorant. But mothers have a sixth sense
when it comes to wayward sons.

– E. Kristin Anderson, 2012.