Blackout Poetry in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: An Editor’s Introduction — by Amjad Majid
Kashmiri blackout poet and artist Asma Firdous presents sixteen blackout poems and works of word art that she has produced over a specific time. While more commonly practiced and developed around the world, blackout poetry and its adjacent art forms are less known at a mainstream level in Kashmir. A blackout poem or blackout artwork is produced when a poet and/or a visual artist uses a (usually black) marker to erase or black out particular textual parts of a newspaper, a magazine or even a book, while preserving key phrases, terms, and words.
Such textual elements that are omitted from such erasure create or assemble new meanings in the form of scattered words on a page that put together and construct the verses to a blackout poem. A refined visual sense or acuity is to be observed in blackout poets and artists who choose to erase entire sentences and paragraphs from texts while only keeping specific words and phrases to present a form of poetry born out of erasure at the expense of emphasizing only specific words that form these special verses.
The erasure that results by running black marker over major parts of texts is also a means to highlight whatever remains after the blackout process has been completed. Such creative productions are excellent examples of juxtaposition, contrast, and exemplify a form of poetic articulation that is textual as well as visual—an inverted graffiti of sorts taking shape on all kinds of paper with printed text already on it that is erased or wiped out the way angry neighbors or municipal workers erase graffiti (text) from walls.
Nevertheless, there is no anger in the erasures produced by blackout artists and poets. The practice may offer a silent meditation and a simple joy—opening up a space for critique and commentary on alternative uses of print media and on the ephemeral or time-bound utility of newspapers that become practically useless and material for recycling or repurposing from one day to the next. In that sense, the erasure that forms the basis of such work produced on everyday print material in actuality brings about such a material’s permanence through such artistic mediation and creative metamorphosing of such a medium.
Whereas the newspaper is made obsolete from one day to the next, the creative interjection of a blackout poet retrieves it from such utilitarian and mundane uses—elevating it to the stature of a canvas for artmaking and an object of art in itself. It would be interesting to see what Viktor Shklovsky, one of the founders of Russian formalism, would have had to say about the ordinariness of newspapers that causes their erasure from one day to the next being re-shaped into a permanence through yet another kind of erasure employed by a blackout poet. In that mode, one could even argue that black out artists are agents of defamiliarization and the object that they perform or articulate ostranenie on is the newspaper, a textual object that otherwise comes with a clearly delineated short shelf life.
Shklovsky’s words from his 1917 essay “Art as Technique” could easily be about newspapers, magazines and such print media, particularly when he writes: “The object, perceived thus in the manner of prose perception, fades and does not leave even a first impression; ultimately even the essence of what it was is forgotten.” Blackout poets essentially retrieve such objects of print from such a fate by employing a blacking out technique on them that transforms such materials from newspaper, magazine or print media clippings to objects of art and poetry. In their original and raw form, such print and paper objects could be used to hold your pakoras, fistfuls of warm peanuts, fried fish from Laezbal, or a week’s worth of natural tobacco for Gulle Maam’s shop. However, in the world of a blackout poet and artist like Asma Firdous, such objects are not just a canvas but the means to fish for very specific words and phrases in a sea of words that are otherwise destined to be forgotten from one day to the next—especially when greater priority is given to the digital word on a device with a screen. After all, a digital bookmark these days has acquired greater value than an actual bookmark.
Beyond such interpretations of what weight blackout poetry can carry and what it actually does for us as an artform, are questions of interactivity that are confined to specific spaces in newspapers and in magazines. Consider, for example, the case of crossword puzzles. On that one page and space in a newspaper, in an orderly, structured and procedural manner, the reader is allowed to interact with a series of boxes that must be filled out with letters to form words to complete the crossword puzzle. Similarly, now we also have games like Sudoku that instead of words employ numbers. In both cases, a ludic element characterizes such spaces in newspapers and magazines where the reader is now a disciplined and controlled writer who can pick up a pen or pencil and interact with that particular space of the crossword puzzle or Sudoku puzzle.
With blackout poetry, the space of interaction and gameplay breaks away from such confinement when it comes to engaging with such media. The area of execution of a blackout is the entire newspaper and not just the section for crossword and other puzzles and the boxes designated for writing in letters and numbers. For a blackout poet and artist, the entire newspaper as a space of interaction and gameplay allows them to run wild with their imagination like a child running amuck in a toy store—in this case in an improvisational word-search to see which words are to be preserved, and which are to be discarded. Each instance of creation of a blackout poem is unique, rare and non-replicable because the body of text (a newspaper clipping or a page of printed text) that it is created upon and from is unique.
In the age of mechanical reproduction, the blackout poem as a textual and visual artform speaks volumes about making a medium and a canvas out of a newspaper that is meant for mass consumption and (photo)copied and replicated thousands of times over. The blacking out practice on a newspaper actually takes that replicated object and creates from it an object of art that is unique and set free from a mechanical reproduction that traditionally devalues its uniqueness given its purpose for mass distribution be mode of photocopy. In a parallel mode, if a contemporary textile artist were to take a shawl that is mass-produced on a machine and in an assembly line setting—and exercise their creativity and craft on it by using it as a canvas of sorts—to make extensive modifications to create something new, one could easily conceive the deeper significance and importance of blackout poetry.
One is reminded of the exceptional uniqueness and rarity found in artist Jagdeep Raina’s textile work and upcoming works by artist Khytul Abyad that explore producing art from everyday household textile items. Nonetheless, this analogy between the elaboration of a blackout poem and what such Kashmiri artists do is not perfect given the uniformity of blacking out in a poem, which is why such works are called blackout poems and not blackout art—given the emphasis and priority on the textual over the purely visual. Such nuances notwithstanding, one cannot ignore the visual aspects of a blackout poem because of the way they are wrought into a unique non-replicable form on a (newspaper) material that is mechanically reproduced and meant for mass consumption.
In what concerns the space of interaction provided in a newspaper’ crossword section, the mode of interaction is explicitly regulated and set by the press or publication house, while as the mode of interaction that comes about from practicing blackout poetry is set by the blackout artist themselves. A liberating anarchy is somewhere to be found in such creative undertakings. In all this, there is again a distinction between writing and marking or blacking out. The act of blacking out such media is not drawing or sketching, nor is it painting, nor sculpting with a marker. It is truly an activity and an act of its own that produces an artform that is peculiar as it is unique—and somewhere in such undertakings is a form of playing and having fun. It is important to also note that one doesn’t write blackout poetry, one practices it by means of a visual craft, a marking or blacking out. Perhaps the fact that blackout poetry is not produced through writing per se is yet another quality that makes it stand out as a distinctive artform with a growing subculture of its own all across the globe.
Beyond Kashmir, blackout poetry is common to the extent of becoming the subject and matter of a book by Austin Kleon titled Newspaper Blackout that the author describes as “A bestselling book of poetry made by redacting newspaper articles with a permanent marker.” Kleon’s book also represents the culmination of a worldwide movement of blackout poetry that is compiled on a website titled Newspaper Blackout. As such, there is a lot more to a young woman and blackout poet like Asma Firdous engaging with such a creative practice in her free time. By means of such a creative disposition, Asma is connected to a creative practice that spans continents and crosses over seas and oceans, to bring together a variety of people from all ages and backgrounds who are immersed in this artform and its practice.
What they share in common is an engagement with print media that in one way or another also compensates for that nostalgia many of us feel when we reminiscence on the past decades before the digital and internet era took over. One thinks of the softness and texture of paper, the concentration and distribution of ink on it, the spacing between columns and rows of text, the tenderness and fragility of such pages so easy to fold or roll, their utility in killing a pestering fly, and so much more. In a digital era where information is presented on a mobile or computer screen, Asma’s blackout poems remind us of reconnecting with text on actual paper, to smell ink, to experience reading from a material engagement of having a newspaper, a magazine or a book in our hands (as opposed to an iPad or a mobile, which again serve a parallel yet altogether different purpose).
The heavy black marker provides such emphasis to the words that remain after the blacking out process that it also amplifies a vision of the material nature of text on paper and reminds us of a physical object and not a virtual one, even with Asma’s blackout poems presented here in a digitized format. The blackouts also remind one of the line between the physical and the digital (virtual) when it comes to engaging with books, texts, paper and that reading culture that is being lost in digital screen-driven e-paper era.
As for the artistic and creative merit of blackout poetry as Asma practices it, one could say that in its craft and elaboration in the present times, it is more labor-intensive than say May Ray’s 1924 work Le Violon d’Ingres where the photographer and artist superimposes two black sound holes of a violin onto the back of a semi-nude woman depicted in a photograph. One could equally argue that more craft-driven effort goes into each of these blackouts than might have gone into Marcel Duchamp’s 1919 L.H.O.O.Q., his signature, insolent and irreverent readymade where he takes a postcard reproduction of the Mona Lisa and draws a moustache and a goatee on her. In that same vein, one could look at the traces of an “art factory” production line in the 1500 repeated and redundant Spot Paintings by Damien Hirst and see the contrast that is apparent between their uniformity and the uniqueness of each blackout poem produced by artists like Asma Firdous.
An element of stream of consciousness is involved in blackout poetry with the mind and creative elaboration of the blackout artist operating with great precision and judgement to select specific words while leaving out a lot more to compose a particular blackout poem. One is compelled to make comparisons between recognized works of contemporary art and what blackout poets and artists do in case there are people who question the merit and value of creativity and artistry behind the blackout poet’s and blackout artist’s work and elaboration process. While contemporary art remains exclusive and, in many ways, inaccessible, distant and perhaps even vague, blackout poetry and art as a convergent practice between visual art and literature developed on objects of mass media and communications (newspapers) intended for daily use, remains far more accessible and within anyone’s reach. In that, it risks or takes great liberty in being less vague and less pretentious.
In this way, there is a lot more to be articulated and commented upon when it comes to blackout poetry as a contemporary artform that somehow can be traced back to the earliest incursions in the contemporary era of artmaking when considering elements of improvisation and experimentation. Beyond such art criticism driven inquiries—and in tune with Inverse Journal’s tradition of having artists speak for themselves—we have a few words from Asma Firdous—the blackout poet and artist—that serve as the actual introduction to the sixteen blackout works that she presents here.
Blackouts: A Statement by Asma Firdous
I laugh! Most times, when I create a blackout, I laugh. It brings with it that joy of serendipity. What have I done? Picked a passage, cut across words, and created something I wasn't even aware could exist in that passage. Something, which is technically called “found word art.” A text from a science journal suddenly turns poetic, and an advertisement of a Spa is now a battle cry against oppression. It is like tricking a text into speaking your language.
I considered the process of making these blackouts a detached safe space of creation when I began. It also meant for me a detachment from fear that comes with expression, with expression being one of the main ways we perceive words. It was as if I was finding within an existing text something entirely unrelated to me, and if you are struggling with the fear of writing, as I do, blackouts are a relief. You create something but neither you nor the final product have any expectations from each other. While making these, it took only a few attempts to realize how each blackout poem surprisingly had been all about me, as I was unknowingly venting whatever I had brought to the passages—unknowingly being the key word here. The detachment, after all, hadn't come from me but from my knowledge of expressing my ideas. I wonder if Eliot would appreciate that.
Creating a blackout might be similar to what, in theory, we call a "Bricolage"—creating from pre-existing materials and meanings. It might be an adventure into extending the possibilities within a text and its fictional space, which in literature we always consider as a living universe on its own.
But what I do is this: I pick a text, I do a blackout, and I laugh.
Here are some handpicked examples that reflect some of the times that the blackout poems seemed to manifest how I was feeling while making them:
Orignal Image Source: Mashriqi Anchal, May 2017.
And then one time it spoke back:
So while I, for no special reason, outlined the blackout I had just done, I came across this phrase in the text I was crossing out. It turned the process into a conversation.
This one is to be read bottom to top:
“Later that night
Whined in pain.
I shouted tears.”
“Please don’t cry”