‘How to Find a Poem – With a Nice Pen’ By Wendi Bradshaw

‘How to Find a Poem – With a Nice Pen’ By Wendi Bradshaw

by Jun 1, 2021Past Writers in Residence

I like pens. Fountain pens. Sleek and shapely, made from a range of materials, contemporary and curvy, or traditionally classic and slipstream smooth. When my new one arrived, I was keen to try it out. I picked up a sheet of paper from the recycle stack and started doodling squiggle lines down the margins, and waves along the bottom. Then I began circling some of the words, practicing the grip line. Feeling the pen’s weight, watching the ink flow fast and thin. I liked the way the marks sat tight but clear, a beautiful dark, stormy violet ink. A tempest of colour – swirling, water tight. Then I blinked, and looked at the circled words. I’d been caught in the maelstrom of an inky mad moment; now the words began jostling for attention. A sudden memory came to me, from the once upon a rhyme when I was a poet. Of how a teacher, a great poet himself had taught exercises in finding poems. Straight away I began circling more words, keen to see what would arise from these inky depths.

Redacted text and blackout poems are interesting strings of words or poems found within an existent written page of text. Created from any page of type, from magazine pages, newspapers, discarded books, your favourite novel. Words are chosen purposefully or at random, by circling as many as desired; later the rejected words are redacted, struck through with a line. A final linking of the remaining words in order reveals the poem, or other wordy revelation.

The process is especially fun with a completely arbitrary page selection. As example, right now, look around you and pick up the nearest book or written document, within your vicinity. Open it once, and that’s your page. Provided it can be photocopied, copy it – yet not everyone has access to a machine: here, instead of circling, just write the words down. In a process akin to divining, allow yourself to find the desired amount of words, and see what you discover.

Recalling the process from years ago, now I started circling words, making up rules for the exercise. This would be a poem, comprised of the circled words as they arose in the original order, as found on the page. No later swapping word order. As I progressed down the page trying not to concentrate on the topic, I allowed the impact of the individual words to jump out at me. If a word ‘felt right’ it was circled. Now and then I’d recheck the previously few circled words so I could select the next appropriate article or pronoun, to make an interesting line of thought.

I noticed that some of the words on their own were intense. The particular piece of paper I’d casually picked up was one of several copies of a page retelling the event of a drowning swimmer, on a deserted beach, and of a lifesaver’s resuscitation attempts. The sadness of the few helpless bystanders and the continuation of the ocean beyond gave a powerful analogy of both despair and acceptance.

What I was left with after my word circling exercise, was an interesting distillation of some of the emotion, in to a short-redacted poem. Visually it appeared beautifully violet, printed, scribbled and white, almost a mini work of art, begging for decoration or embellishment. (I practiced restraint).  Once the page was completely ink altered, I transcribed the words in order, and the result is the poem “Vast Sand” as shown below. I’m not sure how successful it is as a poem yet it does have its own disjointed rhythm which I think fits the topic surrounding what it vaguely describes.

Then I had a second attempt with another copy of the same page. The rules were the same as for the first poem, with one addition: I wouldn’t select any words previously used, unless they existed in duplicate. As example “time” and “observe” occur several times in different places on the page, so each was chosen in both poems, as they arose.  I used the first poem as a checklist. The second resultant poem, “High Water”, is quite different to the first, yet retains a sense of the drama, due to the word selection. Both poems are sketchy and raw, and could probably be improved upon to enhance any real meaning – yet I like their ambiguity and the staccato rhythms which offer an unexpected impact.  

After a bit of research, I later found a book titled “Make Blackout Poetry”, by John Carroll, who advocates this creative process as an end to itself: as a therapeutic enterprise that forces the writer to be present in their writing, akin to a meditative process. He suggests that as well as generating unexpected ideas, the making of black-out poetry expands the writers’ imaginative potential, offering freedom to use a wider range of expressive terms than they may usually consider. A suggestively good remedy for writer’s block, or a simple and arbitrary exercise. His book overwhelmingly contains template pages that can be torn out or photocopied and used for blackout poetry creation, with a few examples of short pieces made by himself. Unfortunately, the book is chiefly introductory, most of the pages are for the templates – yet the exploratory possibilities in revealing unexpected word combinations through these exercises is immense.

I doubt I could have intentionally written any poems quite like these, through any other thought process, unprompted. The process seems to guide the final result, and the writer can decide what to do with the words. The comparison of these poems to each other offers two interesting views of the one event – a drama which is only hinted at, through the word selection and elimination process. Individually, each serves as allegory for an unsettling situation. I can imagine these two poems performed vocally, with their unexpected cadence and rhythm. I have double spaced them to slow the tempo, although part of me still wants to add some kind of visual imagery, in allusion to the beautiful ocean that can fast turn upon the unsuspecting admirer, to become lethal.

Ultimately the words we volunteer to our page or screen are linked through our personal sense of expression, from a subliminal synthesis of possibly everything we’ve ever read and every experience we’ve ever endured. When presented before us and removed from their former context, new words and combinations can be inspiring. They float free, swirling around the bubbly eddy of potential in our minds. And if they’re inky violet, all the better.

Vast Sand

Once Paradise in a rip carried

Lifesaver until drowning

Seemed beach put response time

Part gathered

Efforts beyond us whole

Focused small yet

vast sand far encircled our grief

Only matters for wonder

and the ocean roars our grief

we observe

self to time observing


High Water

Concerned without seeing context

I saw rescue caught on board through high water

Exhausted seconds he had attempting life

To reclaim the world on the beach

Concern only meters away

Stretched the whole coastline

The event to reflect is only that:

Away, reminders our part is placed

Remains with ourselves –

Observing, noting behaviour

And time

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