Issue 35, Final Fringe

Austin Kleon: Playtime on Canvas

by Austin Kleon, David Duhr Issue 25 02.28.2011

newspaper_blackout

When Austin Kleon grabbed a newspaper and a Sharpie one dull day in Cleveland, he had no idea that his blackout poetry would soon become an Internet phenomenon. Three years later, his Newspaper Blackout became the sixth best-selling poetry book of 2010. Now it’s [almost] all fun and games for this “writer who draws.”

Recently, Fiction Editor David Duhr met Kleon and his wife Meghan at an Austin watering hole, where they chatted about cutups, mashups, the avant-garde, and how some art—like the Ramones—is deceptively simple.

So, the #6 best-selling poetry book of 2010.

(Laughs) I think that it doesn’t take a lot to get on the poetry bestseller list.

Good point.

I have friends in publishing that are like, “If you’re on any list, be thrilled.” And I am. But it’s a relative thing. Poetry sales are so relatively low.

How did you get started with blackout poetry?

I was about 22, right out of undergrad, and I was trying to be a short story writer. Short stories are what they teach you to write in college—

Sometimes the only thing they teach you to write.

Right. But when I got out of school I didn’t have an audience anymore.

In the meantime I was kind of rediscovering my love of drawing and we happened to have this surplus of newspapers lying around the apartment. So one day I just picked up one of the markers I draw with and started playing.

At the same time I was discovering blogging.

And basically they were a lark and I only did like a dozen of them and I quit for a year, and what happened was a few people on the internet found them and reblogged them and all the sudden I thought, “Oh shit, I should probably do some more of these.”

So it didn’t wow you at first.

At first I thought it was just a total side thing, just a writing exercise. It wasn’t until we moved down here [Austin] at the end of 2007 when everything blew up.

How did that happen?

Jason Kottke is probably who I owe my whole career to. He picked them up, and he just has such an insane fan base that he gets so many eyeballs on you. An NPR Morning Edition producer saw the poems, and she called me and said “We want to do a 20-second segment—how do you pronounce your name?” (Laughs) Then the next morning, we’re driving to work and we hear it on NPR, which was crazy. After that I heard from my editor at HarperCollins.

I thought we’d have an intro about the history of the technique, and then the meat of the book will be the poems, and the end will be an invitation for people to try their own.

That’s one of the things I really like here, your “Anybody can do this” mentality.

My favorite artists, that’s just the way they operate. They’re not like magicians, they’re not afraid to show their tricks. The bottom line is everyone can do it, but not everyone can do it well. I’ve been asked before, “Are you worried about someone being better than you?” Well, you know, if someone’s done like 1,000 blackout poems, if someone wants to put that much time into it to get that good at it, please be my guest.

Earlier this year [2010] Tumblr released this feature where you can submit posts. So suddenly people could upload their own poem, and I could go through and say “This one’s good, let’s publish this one.” So right before the book release we started this Tumblr that’s just taken off like crazy.

What makes a good one?

They have to be readable. You still have to operate on the rules of how people read. So for instance it’s really important that people can read them left to right, top to bottom, and that there’s a flow. If you want to use a word that’s out of place, one of the tricks I use is to create these little rivers between words, and that’s something I stole from Tom Phillips, the guy who did Humument.

What Tom Phillips does is fine art. It’s really beautiful and colorful, and there’s obviously a painter’s hand in it, so I always think of Humument as like Sergeant Pepper’s—people listen to Sergeant Pepper’s and they’re like “Oh my god this is amazing, how can anyone do this?” I always think of newspaper blackouts as the Ramones. You hear the Ramones and want to start a band. But the Ramones are deceptively simple. They still wrote brilliant songs, and not everyone can be them.

It’s tricky though because you have these notions of what makes a poem “good.” It’s really dependent on media, because on the Internet what’s good is something that’s very immediate and very visual. The poems that go over well on the Internet are probably only 10-20 words long.

You only use the New York Times, right?

That’s the paper we’ve always subscribed to. But on a practical level, the typography on the Times is really good, it’s got that classic look and there’s a lot of fucking words in it. Everyone kinda laughs when I say that, but it’s hard nowadays to find a newspaper that has a ton of words.

And the Times might be one of the last to go away.

That’s the other thing. If you’re thinking about future-proofing it, that’s the one that’ll probably be the last to go.

Otherwise I think all the rules of poetry apply. Images. I always think of that line in “A Supermarket in California” when Ginsberg says, “Shopping for images.” You’re looking for that image that puts something in someone’s mind. That appeals to me because I’m a visual artist.

But despite the form, there’s not really any abstract poetry here.

I always respond to the more narrative kind. What’s fun for me is taking this avant-garde technique and trying to make something fairly traditional out of it. Something you can send your grandma. Or your mom, maybe. Maybe not your grandma.

Meghan, we learn in the afterword that you found a narrative in here where Austin hadn’t seen one before.

(Meghan) Once he was done with the bulk of the poems he printed them out, four to a standard sheet of paper. They were almost like playing cards, but he was so intensely involved in the creation of the poems that he couldn’t really come up with an order to put them in.

(Austin) Because it wasn’t a collection. I wanted everything in the book to be new.

(Meghan) And I think that was hard for you, because you were so used to having immediate feedback.

Right, “This one’s good, this one …”

Yeah, you can kinda tell what’s really resonating with people. It would’ve been a hell of a lot easier to just do a collection.

I like that you said they were playing cards, Meg, because I really did think of that as card-sorting. We have these really funny pictures of us with all of these poems spread out all over the office.

When we were finishing up the book we’d just moved into our new house, so we finally had a space where we could—

(Meghan) And we didn’t have any furniture yet—

(Austin) The room was just blackout poems everywhere. It was wild. That was a wild end of the year.

But there are definitely themes. You start with childhood and memory, then love and sex, a bit of politics and religion.

I wanted it to—

Some UFOs.

(Laughs) Once Meghan picked up on that, I saw it too. It’s really like making an album and trying to come up with the words. I’ve heard it said that it’s really hard to escape doing a coming-of-age book, just because you’ve got all this stuff up until that point. I think it’s a coming-of-age book.

It was weird to go from being someone who published everything online and got instant gratification from readers to all of a sudden you’ve got this book, this object, and it’s just out there and you have no idea what’s going on with it.

How do the poems translate to the e format?

There was an article in the Times today about how the displays are getting better for the e-readers, and they’re finally at a point where I think they can handle this.

So you read the article, you didn’t black it out?

(Laughs) Yeah, I don’t always black them out. But I don’t own the rights to the book, HarperCollins does, so they have to decide whether they’re going to publish it or not as an ebook. But I’d love to see it as an ebook.

If presented with the original articles, do you think you could discern which poem each one led to?

Probably not, because some of them aren’t even an actual article. The Times is really great because two columns is the width of a paperback, and the width of a blog column, so it worked really well. So sometimes I would use one column from one article and one column from another.

Do you make copies of the articles first?

No. I probably should.

(M) There would be less cursing.

(A) Definitely less cursing.

That’s what I was wondering, what happens if there’s an error? The poem’s just out the window?

It just sucks.

There are no drafts?

There aren’t any drafts. But I don’t black everything out right away. I make boxes around words, I’ll put little dots next to words. I won’t do the full blacking out until I’m ready to go.

So you don’t just start blacking out and then stop when a word interests you. You map it out beforehand.

I basically figure out the canvas first. This is where the poem is going to happen and then I just start going around looking for combinations.

Do you hang onto the originals? As souvenirs?

There’s been interest in the originals. I’ve been really loath to sell them, because they’re going to deteriorate, and I haven’t really figured out a good way to preserve them. We sell fine art prints of them, but I don’t want to sell someone something that’s not going to last. You’d be surprised at how many people want an original. I’m like, “Really?”

Yeah. Buy an original and then watch it yellow and curl up at the edges.

(M) Sharpie on newsprint is like the least archival safe material.

(A) I should start using archival markers.

Would it be fair to say that this is akin to an art book that’s made up of photocopies of paintings?

I think it’s just as much of an art book as a poetry book.

So are you a writer or an artist?

Usually I steal Sol Steinberg’s term for himself. He said, “I’m a writer who draws.” I’m just a writer and an artist. It’s a simple thing. Just a writer and an artist.

Art with words in it, that’s pretty much what I do.

How much time does it take to make a blackout poem?

Anywhere from ten minutes to a half hour. Sometimes I put them away and then bring them back out, and then they take even longer. I hate to say it, but the best ones come in like five minutes, where it’s just like “boom.”

Do you have an obligation to put out a few a week for your followers?

That’s a good question. I would feel weird if I was just, “I’m not doing it anymore. Retirement.” One of the things that kind of alleviates that pressure for me on the blog is the fact that I can post something every day from someone else. If I don’t post something in a week I feel really guilty. Even though it doesn’t matter.

How do readings work?

I usually do a slideshow, and then we just make poems. I bring newspaper and markers.

You turn it into a how-to?

And it works really well. It’s very rare that adults are in a situation where someone hands you materials and says, “Make something!” We’ll do that for kids all the time, but no adults ever get that. So if you’re in a roomful of adults and say, “Hey, I brought these school supplies”—

“It’s playtime.”

Yeah, it’s playtime. It’s amazing to see who gets into it.

I don’t think it’s completely altruistic behavior. If you inspire people to make things, it just makes them love you all the more. I think more good artists would benefit by being more open and encouraging people to make things. I just think that there’s so much untapped creativity in people’s lives—so few of us make anything with our hands, or do things remotely creative these days.

Page 151: “Any idiot can do what I do.”

I made that poem and thought, “It’d be really funny if we stuck that towards the end, because that’s where it’s [the book] headed.”

Pablo Picasso: “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”

I have a whole collection of quotes on stealing like an artist. Everything from Picasso to someone like Chuck Palahniuk, who said “I’m just a mashup of everything I’ve read and everyone I’ve bumped into.”

So who are you a mashup of?

I love Vonnegut, probably because of the Midwest thing. I really like Charles Schultz and Lynda Berry. George Saunders is great. Probably music, too. Someone like Bill Callahan here in town, he’s one of my favorite songwriters.

I think on the whole I conceived of this book as cutups meet the Midwest. It’s poems about being a kid from the Midwest, with this weird cutup method. That’s the mashup.

Were you a nerd in high school?

A nerd in high school?

You’re the narrator of these poems.

Yeah.

I mean, you have lots of pieces about bullying, taking frustrations out on the tetherball, the humiliating shit that happens in locker rooms.

I grew up in a really small town where if you were remotely artistic or different you were kind of an outcast, which I think is fairly universal in a small town.

Yeah, I was a nerd in high school. I was valedictorian.

I feel like I’m best when I’m writing about … honestly I consider myself more of a love poet, if you can be that. I mean, human relationships are what fascinate me on a basic level. Family, your wife.

So what’s next for you? Will you continue to experiment with different forms?

I’d really like to attempt more visual books, something that’s really wacky. But I’m not sure it’s going to be a book, actually. I have a project right now that’s about art and marriage, but I’m not really ready to talk about it yet.

This is a fun time for me because I’ve got the poems and they’re not going away. I make a few poems every week, and then the rest of the time I can work on what I want to. It’s a good time. It’s like playtime for me.

Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon

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Austin Kleon is a writer and artist. He’s best known for his Newspaper Blackout Poems–poetry made by redacting newspaper articles with a permanent marker. His book Newspaper Blackout was published by HarperCollins in 2010. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Meghan, and their dog, Milo. Visit him online at www.austinkleon.com.

David Duhr

David Duhr

Managing Editor

David Duhr moonlights as Fiction Editor at The Texas Observer, and is co-founder of WriteByNight. His writing has appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Publishing Perspectives, Gulf Coast, Iowa Review and others. After having lived in Milwaukee, Denver, D.C., Boston, and Florida, he has found a (maybe-) permanent home in Austin; where he’s trying to grow a beard, because that’s what Austin dudes do. David was the Fringe Fiction Editor for two years.