There are attention games I play with myself as I go from place to place. These are various strategies for attempting to notice my surroundings more, to sharpen my awareness. One of them is just being aware of how much text is in my visual field at any moment. Sitting in a coffee shop writing this, I see a wall of posters, a billboard, two street signs, a hat with "Delta" on it, a t-shirt with a slogan — and that's without even turning my head to look out another window.
This game always makes me marvel at how inescapable text is in an urban environment. It sometimes seems you could write whatever you'd want just from the words you see in the course of a day. And assembling poems from other texts is an age-old strategy. It's another kind of attention game: going through words like a magpie, picking them up and rearranging them into your own poem-nest. You can discover different angles, different threads, in an existing text.
I learned the term "cento" when I saw Simone Muench read from her book Wolf Centos, a collection composed entirely from other texts, many of which are about wolves. Here's one example, with endnotes sourcing each line. This pastiche approach, combining many texts, leads to surprising contrasts in diction, from the abstract loftiness of "the time allotted for disavowals" to the abrupt declaration "This is a woman's confession." A more traditional approach is to draw entirely on a single author's work: Virgil, or Homer, in the first examples of the form.
I wrote some centos using lyrics from Carly Rae Jepsen's albums E•MO•TION and E•MO•TION: The B-sides. It was a fun exercise in seeking out the more equivocal and even unnerving angles of pop songs. For instance:
Look real close
You might not see me anymore
Somewhere out there someone is breathing
The breathing someone becomes distinctly menacing when you put it next to the speaker's disappearance, like a rattling doorknob while you're alone in an empty house.
I've done erasures before, too: the distinction I'm making here is that centos can rearrange lines, while an erasure usually operates with a text in its original order. The often-fascinating online journal Entropy is currently publishing a series of erasures from Wikipedia, like this one about Björk. It's a good illustration of some of the constraints people often use in erasure. My tiny mini-chapbook Nickels is an erasure of the lyrics to Double Nickels on the Dime by the Minutemen, done with similar constraints: everything had to stay in the original order, and I had to preserve the capitalization and punctuation as they appear on the record sleeve.
I find song lyrics to be a really enjoyable medium for remixing into new poems. I've always gotten into music based on an affinity with the words (it's why I'm a Mountain Goats superfan) and there's a lot of interesting material you can draw out by taking the sound away. It's another component of the context to play with.
Recently I picked up a couple volumes of Colette Arrand's zine You Have to Deal with Me Breathing. In addition to having one of my favorite titles for anything ever, the poems in these zines illustrate the power of a fresh context. They're each subtitled with the name of a professional wrestler, and the full text of the poem is taken from a promotional clip that wrestler made. But thoughtfully applied line breaks turn them into something new, as in this excerpt from "A Technicality (Dean Ambrose)" found in You Have to Deal with Me Breathing #2:
You can't get a car loan
because on a technicality
you don't have a good enough credit score.
So now you've got to walk to work,
your children have to walk to school,
on a technicality. Your boss pushes you
around even though you're better
at his job than he is, and he talks to you
like you're an idiot. But he's the boss
on a technicality. […]
I've never seen a pro wrestling promo in my life, but this poem sounds to me like a close cousin to "What Work Is," which, as previously discussed, is one of my favorites. It punches up the parallelism between "you've got to walk to work" / "your children have to walk to school" and between "your boss pushes you" / "and he talks to you." It makes a good, solid shape on the page, and it offers thoughtful pauses. If I was teaching poetry I would use these poems as an example of how line breaks change the way you read something. So I've really enjoyed these zines; go buy some copies from my friend Ed's zine distro.
What are you reading, what's new? I like hearing back from you.
PS: I'll be watching 20 very talented poets compete in the Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Awards tomorrow evening. Come join me if you're in town!