It was sometime last year when Leha Biswas—then a student of Lady Shri Ram College, Lajpat Nagar—and her classmates were introduced to ‘blackout poetry’. On bearing witness to the students’ listless responses in class, the professor decided to make the lecture interesting. She asked everyone to pick a written document at random, scribble over the existing text, and retain a few words in a manner that the final output is coherent, and is meaningful on its own. “It started there, after which I went on to create poetry using a few pages here and there whenever I felt the need,” shares the 21-year-old.
Blackout poetry is a style wherein poets and artists practise erasure of a certain word/words from any existing text to derive poems with an entirely new meaning. A sub-genre of found poetry, Vinati Bhola, a published poet and lawyer—a Delhi resident who is currently living in Geneva—calls this “an art of finding poetry” and says that the original text can be chosen from a newspaper, magazine, or even book.
In search of new meaning
Blackout poetry explores both literature and art. Patrons of this literary art, therefore, exist across both mediums. As much as the process gives enthusiasts a scope for exploring this text to create verse, artists look for ways to use it as a playground for their creativity. Take for instance, Aakanksha R Gautam (27), an artist and model from Moolchand who creates artworks through blackout poetry.
Unlike the conventional form wherein a poet redacts a portion of the text using a black permanent marker, Gautam attempts to experiment on the document with colours, patterns, and textures. The result, she says, is an interesting juxtaposition of designs with words. “For me, it is about finding something meaningful from a text that does not carry much literary value. After experimenting with it for years, I now want to keep it simple and add my own designs that represent my style.”
Several people mention that the process of creating blackout poetry helps them unwind. A case in point is Prachi Mishra (24), a Saket resident who was introduced to this poetry style in 2018—her first year of college. Mishra soon started using blackout poetry as a creative outlet. “I had just heard of blackout poetry somewhere and I decided to try it. It is not always easy to share your thoughts. This poetry is something I turn to when I feel tired or overwhelmed,” she says. The technique served as a source of respite for Mishra, who—in her third year—went on to organise a blackout poetry competition for other students. “I resonated with the entries a lot. Reading the thoughts put in those works was very calming for me.”
Over the last few years, students like Mishra have also tried to introduce this form to university spaces. In the last few years, literary societies of Delhi University colleges such as that of Shri Guru Tegh Bahadur Khalsa College, North Campus, Janki Devi Memorial College, Rajinder Nagar, among others, have organised blackout poetry competitions as part of their annual fests. Noting the growing popularity of this form, Veio Pou, professor of English at Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, Sheikh Sarai, comments, “It is interesting. There is always scope to talk about something new and exciting. Students, I am sure, are interested in exploring this form of poetry.”
Boosting artistic creativity
Practitioners of blackout poetry often use text at random, specifically to get a desired result. While Bhola has used newspapers to create her poems, Mishra refers to literary texts from the nineteenth century such as the works by Jane Austen, Emily Bronte that, in her opinion, eases the process and helps her create something out of the ordinary owing to the vocabulary prevalent in said texts.
Gautam, on the other hand, has converted rather boring and technical guidebooks by government agencies into artworks. “It is very rewarding because you end up creating poetry from text that contains absolutely nothing literary,” she comments, adding that she believes in repurposing the texts she does not resonate with—almost as if elevating a mundane document into a canvas for experimentation.
Some artists feel that this medium of literary art can be restrictive. Bhola, for instance, sticks to conventional poetry. “I enjoy playing with a lot more words than what a single page from a book can offer,” she shares. However, both Mishra and Biswas feel that, without being a creative form as tedious as traditional poetry, blackout poetry helps one to find their personal voice.