I began making blackout poems when I was co-teaching a workshop that combined visual arts and writing with visual artist Susan Webster at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina in 2016. One of our exercises was to create a piece of writing by placing a template over a page from an old discarded paperback book, isolating phrases or words. I had never worked like this myself, but Susan suggested it as a way for our students to create language to combine with visual art.
I decided to work along with the class, and after I had blacked out words, it occurred to me to add rubber-stamped text to the mat above and below. I remember the first one. The words I left on the page were “even a small pond.” I stamped the word Thoreau’s above the rectangle of text and Dream below it. In that moment, I could see it as a call and response. The two texts could speak to each other to create an emotional synthesis. In six words, I was by the shore of Walden Pond.
Following that first leap into blacking things out, I got more books at the Take It or Leave It Building at the Deer Isle Transfer Station. At home, I began moving my template over the pages. My process was a little like working with a Ouija board, letting an unknown force guide my hands. After finding what felt like the essential words to respond to, I used a Sharpie marker to blackout the rest of the text.
It happened that my blackout experiments coincided with our national descent into darkness, which began with the Trump campaign and continued during his term. Darkness, it seemed, was everywhere. The blackout lines themselves had a power of darkness, and the words that remained were a small light shining through. Stamping the other words with my hand gave me a physical connection to the work. The form could lend itself to irony, but I wanted each piece to evoke something greater than irony. Perhaps the world has always been in flames, but when they are the flames in your lifetime, the end feels closer. I wanted the work to evoke a bigger idea about who we might become.
What difference can art make when we are facing darkness? What difference can one person make when we are facing global challenges that are beyond imagining? In Judaism, there is a precept called tikkun olam. The English translation of this is to repair the world. According to tradition, it is our obligation while we are here on this earth. You may not know where the work will end, but you must begin, or carry on what’s begun. Right now, I’m letting that guide me.
Looking around, it’s obvious that we have been responsible for what is broken, and there is a lot of breakage. Many days I’m waiting for a cosmic meteorologist who will forecast continued light. It’s a perfect time for despair, but given the state of things, repair is its own spiritual growth industry. It can begin simply. Think torn. Think needle and thread. Remember imagination. Sometimes it may be the best tool for the job.
Image at top: Stuart Kestenbaum, Repair the World, 3.5 x 4.5 in., blackout poem with stamped letter text, from Things Seemed to Be Breaking (Deerbrook Editions, 2021).