by E. Kristin Anderson
When I first saw Cotton Xenomorph’s call for six-point writer manifestos, I knew I was in. I like lists. I like rules. I hate rules but I really like rules. Give me a constraint and I’m here to tell you to get out and also hold my beer. And by beer I mean coffee because I have about ten thousand things wrong with my body that alcohol doesn’t agree with. But hold my metaphorical coffee-beer (yes that exists) while I take your list of constraints and turn it into exciting poems.
My love for a constraint might be why I love found poetry. Writing constraints—anything from formal verse structure to a list of words you have to use to a time limit—challenge you to get outside of your comfort zone and still say something authentic. Found poetry challenges you say something in your voice using a source text that began as something else. It’s kind of like a painter using a limited palette. You take this limited palette—a source text that you have no control over—and then you exert your control onto it. Like a grizzly bear with a padlocked cooler full of sandwiches, a practitioner of found poetry is bypassing the traditional way of opening a container to claw poems out of someone else’s cold dead hands.
Lots of poets practice found poetry and most of us who do will approach it in ways that are individual to us—which should come as no surprise, since we’re all individual people. So everyone has a different idea of the “right” way to write found poetry or approaches that work best for them. These are mine. I don’t have these rules tattooed on my lower back or anything, but I do keep these things in mind every time I approach a found poetry project. Here you go. This is my manifesto:
1. Read the source first
I like to know what the source author was doing or trying to with whatever text I’m using to write new poems. There are lots of reasons for this, but one of the main ones is related to one of the major tenets of writing found poetry: you have to intervene on and diverge from the source. If I’ve read the source, I know what to diverge from. When I’m reading a source text with intent to write poems with it, I’m also familiarizing myself with the author’s vocabulary, which I can use to my advantage later. I’ll know words, phrases, and themes I want to avoid and similarly I’ll know what words and ideas are often repeated and that I can use to develop a theme or mood in a larger project.
2. Tell a story
Some poems are more image than narrative and that’s okay. But my personal rule for found poetry is the same as my rule for all of my poetry: I want to tell a story. It might just be a vignette. It might be a reflection of something I’ve seen culturally. It might be something that happened to me last week. My body, my family, my health, my home, my experience. My poems, whether found or traditional, are meant to be narrative. And with found poems I’m actively working to write a different narrative from what you’d find in the source.
3. Be truthful and use your own voice
There are a lot of ways to be truthful in a poem—truth is subjective and so is writing poetry. And regardless of how you perceive truth in poetry, it’s important to me that my found poems are honest. I’m going to talk about things that matter to me and that are honest even when deeply ensconced in metaphor. And beyond truth, I want authenticity of voice—whether I’m writing erasure, remix, or cento, I want those poems to feel like E. Kristin Anderson poems, and I want them to have the same vibe and voice as my poems that are composed traditionally. I’m always working on this, and I hope it comes across in my work.
4. Know when to work with a source and when to work against it.
Different methods and approaches work better for different source texts. I’m going to approach Stephen King differently than I’m going to approach a speech by Ted Cruz differently than I’m going to approach Lana Del Rey. Sometimes, you’re choosing a source specifically because you want to get messy with it. Stephen King is my go-to guy for a long-term project I’ve been working on that challenges his perception of women as a male genre author. King is wordy, often vulgar, and his vocabulary is both predictable but nuanced. It creates lots of opportunities to subvert patriarchy and build a new narrative. Alternatively, when I write using Lois Duncan books, I want to celebrate her work, writing pieces about girlhood and magic. I approach Duncan’s work with a loving hand and gently push pieces together to create a new picture. These different approaches matter. Not all found poetry is meant to be disruptive or be a type of erasure. But.
5. Know when to step away from a source.
There are some source texts that are best left for other writers to work with. I’m a white woman. I’m not going to create an entire manuscript using Maya Angelou’s memoirs as source. Could someone create really cool work with those books? Yes. But I am absolutely not the person to do so. It’s important to me that I not erase voices that aren’t mine to erase, because even though not all found poetry is about erasure, it can become a different kind of erasure whether intentional or not. I feel like this is similar to the punch up, not down rule of comedy. Fucking up the work of a white dude is fair play for me. White men have more power in society and in the world of publishing than I do. But I’m not going to try to appropriate a woman of color’s narrative into my voice and my story. I always want to consider my source text carefully and know when to dive in and when to step back. I want to be sure to stay in my lane when it comes to the things I write about no matter what style I’m writing in.
6. Do something new every time you write.
This rule goes right back to “hold my coffee-beer.” I want to challenge myself in my writing practices and I want to challenge readers with my work. Yes, I could make erasures all day long every day and I’d have a shit-ton of fun doing it and I’d also make some cool poems. But I know I’m good at that. And I don’t think I’m doing my job as a poet if I’m not always trying to find the next goal post and kicking a ball at it. (Hold my Gatorade?) I often write in sprints—like #NaPoWriMo or other 30/30-type projects—and when I start one of these sprints I grab a notebook from my (way too big) stash and I write a few notes in the front re: what I’m about to do. Centos using lines from Anne Rice and you can only use one chapter for each? Pantoums that are also centos using Seventeen magazine? Okay. In March I speed-drafted a big pile of sonnets using Foo Fighters lyrics. Because I love Foo Fighters and I’ve only ever written like five sonnets ever and working with song lyrics is wicked hard, so why not?
Is some of this honestly just kind of ridiculous? Yes. Am I still just going to make some simple erasures sometimes? I wrote one earlier today. But I’m competitive and neurotic and I’m here for making things weird. I’d like to think that these rules can apply, in some ways, to other styles of writing, poetry or creative nonfiction or fiction or hybrid or songs or whatever the kids are doing these days. I enjoy my processes and the requisite tweet storms that ensue. I love writing twice as much as I need for a manuscript and throwing half away because I didn’t know what I was doing and a lot of the poems came out garbage. It happens. Go with it. I write this way because it works for me and it feels authentic. It’s interesting. I’m hardly the first person to do any of the things listed above but I do hope that some of y’all reading this found it interesting enough to consider some of these things in your own writing practices. Because why not? I’ll hold your Gatorbeer. Now go.
E. Kristin Anderson is a poet, Starbucks connoisseur, and glitter enthusiast living in Austin, Texas. She is the editor of Come as You Are, an anthology of writing on 90s pop culture (Anomalous Press), and Hysteria: Writing the female body (Sable Books, forthcoming). Kristin is the author of eight chapbooks of poetry including A Guide for the Practical Abductee (Red Bird Chapbooks), Pray, Pray, Pray: Poems I wrote to Prince in the middle of the night (Porkbelly Press), Fire in the Sky (Grey Book Press), We’re Doing Witchcraft (Hermeneutic Chaos Press), and 17 seventeen XVII (Grey Book Press). Kristin is an assistant poetry editor at The Boiler and a slush reader at Sugared Water. Once upon a time she worked nights at The New Yorker. Find her online at EKristinAnderson.com and on twitter at @ek_anderson.