Click here to make a digital blackout poem
(works on desktop/laptop only for the moment and not on Firefox browser. New version coming soon!).
Blackout poetry: not something you write to occupy yourself when there’s a powercut, but poems created from other texts by obliterating most of the original words. I’d never actually tried this – although I’m a long-time fan of Magnetic Poetry, which is somewhat similar.
But looking at some blackout poetry recently, I thought it would be interesting to code a digital blackout poetry-making tool. This avoids having to destroy your books, and is handy if, like me, you can never find a pen when you need one. If you want to try it out click here.
I hadn’t written any PHP before either, so there was a fair amount of shouting at the computer, and at one point googling “why are all the PHP tutorials so rubbish?” in a fit of irritation at my failure to get it to do what I wanted. Despite this, I did manage to get the system working and in the process made some blackout poems. It’s also quite reminiscent of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, which I’ve always found fascinating. Except here it’s you making holes in the text rather than the ravages of time and people from the ancient world.
The fact that I used the same text a few times (because I hadn’t got the “next page” button working yet) and came up with totally different poems brought to mind something Christodoulos Makris was saying at a talk at StAnza, where he was the Digital Poet in Residence.
The project he had devised for the festival was called “Browsing History”. It involved making poems from lines and phrases pieced together from his internet browsing history over the previous few weeks — one example he gave us was a poem made from the text of an article on shark attacks. At various points in the weekend he created poems in real-time with an audience present; essentially “live-coding” a poem.
Makris said that one feature of using the same base material at different times meant that he noticed that the words in a text he picked up on were dependent on his mood. Effectively his emotions had become part of the input to the poem. I suppose this is always the case, but it’s more obvious in this situation as there’s a distinct, limited set of words to choose from. It’s also not something you would be able to observe with analogue blackout poetry, where the act of creating the poem destroys the text.
The texts I’ve used are all copyright-free, mainly from Project Gutenberg. I’ve used several textbooks as the idea of making poems out of very prosaic prose appeals to me. And I often write poems based on some fact I’ve read or heard on the radio – frequently scientific.
At the moment the app only works on desktops and laptops (I’m using mouseup/mousedown rather than touchstart/touchend), and the only way to share a poem is to screenshot it. (I did try the very effective html2canvas but, as its creator points out, it’s not currently designed to support a lot of CSS.). However, after initial user testing, Jonathan has suggested I try making a version using the Canvas API which might solve both problems. Watch this space…
Here are some of my recent blackouts: