How the Words Find Me: Cut-up Poetry as Collaboration
The Pita Pit flyer yields a surprisingly rich harvest. As soon as I begin snipping, possibilities jump out at me. “Every new,” for example. I feel a quickening when I consider the words, and I set the slip of paper aside.
Oh, look. “With.” If I start “With every new,” what might come next?
Each day I take time to play like this, finding words and textures and colours that delight me and then arranging them in pleasing ways. It’s a meandering, multilayered process. I usually start by dipping into my stash of newspaper and magazine clippings, letting small handfuls of words rain from my fingers, and watching for the ones that stand out. Then I sift through them again, on the lookout for combinations that are surprising, unexpected, or just plain right. I keep adding, subtracting, and shuffling until I have a poem. Finally, I search the many colours and types of paper I’ve collected through the years until I encounter the sheet that is meant to be the backdrop for these words.
Why this creative practice? Because it awakens deep playfulness. For me, facing the blank page can be daunting, and messing around with found words feels different. Instead of trying to draw ideas out of myself, I’m simply looking for connections that already exist. It’s more like curation based on moments of joyful recognition.
I sort the Pita Pit words into colour schemes. The ones I’m drawn to so far are black, white, and green. What if I narrow my options to just those hues?
Here’s the word “choice,” white on black. “With every new choice” has promise.
Wait! From the black-on-white pile, “adventurous” glows like a beacon. “With every new adventurous choice”? Even more interesting.
Found-word poems introduced themselves to me more than five years ago, when I collaborated with a friend on an art show. Some of my writing was incorporated into her woven wall hangings, and the two of us worked together on several pieces made of natural materials. But I needed to think of a large-scale individual contribution.
Initially, I envisioned a huge collage of overlapping words, and I spent hours cutting up every magazine and newspaper I could find. It was astonishing how much pleasure I got out of the search process, the zing I felt when I happened upon a word laden with possibility, or a pair with startling resonance.
I began grouping words together to see what clusters developed, and that’s when discrete poems starting jockeying for position. At first, I thought of these bundles of meaning as bonus prizes for anyone who took the time to look closely enough. Then more of them emerged, and it became clear they didn’t want to blend in. I decided to follow their lead, and the amorphous collage transitioned into a sunburst pattern of different-coloured paper segments, each with its own poem.
All right. What’s after “adventurous choice”?
I try to keep my mind receptive and unfocused. It’s like waiting to see one of those hidden 3D images, how you have to let it be blurry in front of you until it slowly materializes. I’ve discovered that as long as I’m patient and have faith, a message almost always arises from a collection of words. You might say it’s a linguistic Rorschach test: I find what is already inside of myself.
At the art show, we invited attendees to create their own found-word pieces and hang them in a community-generated web of ideas and insights. It was fascinating: all those words I hadn’t even seen as buds, blooming under the gaze of others.
When the show was done, I put away my scissors and glue and returned to novel-writing. A few years later, a series of life events pulled me away from my work in progress, sapped my energy, and left me feeling parched. Attempts to get back to writing faltered and fizzled. I began to chastise myself for my lack of progress and to make plans for greater self-discipline. In short, I became grimly determined to create.
Sure enough, another phrase attracts my attention. I find “you discover” in the green pile and place it after “With every new adventurous choice.”
It seems like I’m near the end. I want to finish with something that feels true but that I would never have thought of myself. Those are the best: poems that offer up the alchemy of everyday words mysteriously transformed into something entirely unexpected.
Every summer I take part in a novel-writing marathon to raise funds for adult literacy. Usually it’s the perfect opportunity to dive into a project and pound out page after page of rough draft. But last year, I decided that pressure to produce was the last thing I needed. Instead, I’d use those 72 hours reconnecting with my playful, creative self. While my friends typed away, I went for long, sometimes-barefoot walks, collected beautiful stones and leaves, and reunited with the beckoning words and paper left over from the art show.
By the end of the long weekend, I had a few found-word pieces and a renewed sense of the magic of looking for one thing and finding something even better. I’d been reminded that creating doesn’t have to be about coming up with something brilliant to say. It can be about paying attention, opening up, saying yes.
How about this black-on-white “can dream”? I could combine it with that “you” I see over there. Maybe “you discover you can dream” something?
My fingertip stirs the remaining words, exposing the ones underneath, but nothing seems to fit. I need to step away for a moment.
Flipping through a stack of Japanese washi, I find a thick, rough rectangle the colour of an evergreen forest. It’s the same shade as the letters in “every new” and “you discover.” Plus, it’s dark enough to emphasize the white background of the word “adventurous.” I place the poem-in-progress onto it, and immediately the piece is inviting and lush.
Having patches of colour and texture behind the words makes them feel finished and really brings them alive. A few times I’ve even glued poems to natural objects like stones or birchbark; they just seemed to belong there.
One winter morning, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I came across the photo of a gift I had given to a fellow novel marathon participant. It actually took me a minute to realize it was an image of my own handiwork. I thought, “Oh, look, found words. On a stone. Wait a second!”
During the marathon, I had been moved to pick up that tiny chunk of granite and affix the words “the way home” for a friend who felt a profound connection to the Canadian Shield. I was glad he liked the gift, but I didn’t expect anything more.
Yet here it was, months later, in a blog post by another marathoner, who said my stone poem had stopped him in his tracks and possibly helped him decide to write the novel that ultimately won the competition. I realized that you never know who your words and images might touch. Once you put them out there, they live on. You don’t have to publish a novel to make a difference; there is value in small offerings.
Hold on. That “you” I was going to use with “can dream” is part of a longer phrase: “what you.”
Oh. Yes. This is it:
Paula Boon is a wordsmith living in small-town Ontario, Canada. She has been both winner and runner-up in the Binnacle Ultra-Short Story Contest, had two essays broadcast on CBC Radio (Canada’s NPR), and received several Ontario Arts Council grants for novel-length projects. Paula wrote this essay before switching to a new, more visually striking style pairing words with natural objects. She recently started selling canvas prints of selected pieces at a gallery in her town. Two of her newer poetry collages appeared in Issue 6.4 of Star 82 Review, and Blank Spaces will be featuring a collection of them in September. Paula will also be mounting her first solo show and participating in a public library art exhibition before the end of the year. To see how her work has evolved, check out her Instagram gallery @foundwordart.