Found Poem: The Cut-Up
1. To begin, take two pages from different sections of a daily newspaper. Then tear out (or open to) two pages from two different magazines or catalogs— preferably ones vastly different in nature: Newsweek and Sports Illustrated, for example; or Soldier of Fortune and Good Housekeeping, or Motorcycle World and Young Bride, or Muscle and Fitness and Better Homes and Gardens. If you don’t have paper copies, you can use digital newspapers and magazines, but print stuff out.
2. With a pencil or pen, begin circling phrases or random groups of words from any one of the newspaper pages in front of you. Circle whatever strikes you without spending any time hunting around for ‘interesting’ words or unusual phrases. Just let your eyes glance over a few lines and circle something there, then move on.
Let this part of the process be utterly uncensored and altogether non-critical. If you are stopping to make considered judgments about what to circle, you are letting your cognitive faculties get in the way. You might certainly want to circle phrases that seem oddball or interesting, curious or intriguing, but ultimately it doesn’t matter what you circle; just keep doing it in a playful, nonjudgmental manner. For example, using the phrases in the previous sentence, you might have circled: ‘phrases that seem oddball,” or “just keep doing it,” or “it doesn’t matter what.” Do not focus on the meaning of the phrases you are circling so much as their sounds, so that they become an abstract language, their meanings fading and their music becoming increasingly apparent.
3. When you have circled twenty or thirty items on one of your sheets, move on to on of the other three pages you have chosen. By the time you have finished circling the two newspaper and two magazine pages, you might have about a hundred items circled.
4. Then take your textbook and copy down at random three phrases gleaned from three different poems.
5. Now you’re ready to compose the first draft of the poem by connecting the words and phrases you have circled, adding, where necessary, your own connective and transitional words and phrases. Give yourself the liberty to change parts of speech wherever you need to in order to turn those phrases into what looks, syntactically, at any rate, like real English sentences.
For example, from the newspapers I am using you can connect “the scourge of elephants and hippopotomi” and “forever frozen” and “ mind-numbing levels”to form “He was the scourge of elephants and donkeys /forever frozen in mind-numbing levels of political game play.” I don’t know exactly where that is going. In fact, if I don’t like where things are going, then I might just push on and pick something else to circle.