Welcome to ‘It’s an experiment!’ Each month I’ll be introducing you to different forms, styles and methods of playing around with hybrid work. I’ll introduce the concept, give you some insight into its use, show you lots of examples and provide some practical tips and tricks for making it work.
This month I am going to introduce you to concrete poetry—what it is, what it looks like, and how you can try to make some yourself with various digital tools.
What is concrete poetry?
Concrete poetry (also known as ‘shape poetry’) is a poem in the shape of something. Rather than words running across the page from left to right (at least in English), they might go up and down, be a mixture of fonts and colors, and all come together to form an image. Concrete poems are therefore hybrids (pieces that use elements of two distinct artistic forms) because they need to include both words and shape.
There are various subtypes of concrete poem:
- Drawing concrete poem – using the shape and orientation of the words to form a picture of something recognizable. The line of text is used in place of lines an artist would draw.
- Outline concrete poem – similar to a drawing poem, but these ones stretch and bend the text to form the shape of the object. So if for example you drew a circle with a black pencil and colored it in with a yellow crayon, the drawing poem would be the black pencil and the outline poem would be the yellow crayon.
- Abstract concrete poem – the text is used to create shapes to evoke feelings/meanings, but do not form a specific or recognizable object/image.
I’ll show you some of my examples of all of these later on, but for now let’s jump in and have a go at the most common type—a drawing concrete poem.
Digital concrete poetry: useful software
We are going to do this digitally (next month will be analog), so you’ll need some kind of software that lets you manipulate text. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy; in my example, I use PowerPoint. You need to use a program that allows you to insert a text box and turn the text at an angle. You can use Google Slides, Google Jamboard, Canva, Photoshop, Procreate, Clip Studio Paint… Word is another option but in my experience it can get a bit glitchy when you try and do too much with it at once.
I decided to make my life easier and use an excerpt of a poem I’d already written—you can do the same, or write something new! Here is the first part of my poem ‘Wreck’, first published in Outcast Press V4:
you could calm the waves that seethed and roiled
you carried my fear through currents unseen
the waves roar now as you’re not here to hush them
I sink down deep far from harbor far from home
Reading the above excerpt, what shapes/images leap to mind? What kind of shapes would bring the poem further to life? What kind of shapes would make an interesting juxtaposition?
Steps to creating a digital concrete poem
- Choose an image
In this example I’ve already got my poem and will think of an image to go with it, but you can also do this in reverse—maybe you have the image already and will write a poem to go with it. Either way, you need your words and your image. I decided for ‘Wreck’ I wanted to use waves in the ocean.
- Find an example image to follow
You’re either going to use this image as a template and delete it later, or it will become an integral part of the piece. Either way, find an image online from an image bank specifically made for artists – images that you are free to use without needing to pay royalties and have been made available for people to play with. My favorites are unsplash.com (better for photos) and pixabay.com (better for illustrations and line art). Of course if you like painting/drawing you can use your own artwork! Here is the image I chose from an image bank:
- Add and manipulate your text
In my example I’m using PowerPoint, so first I need to open a new blank file and insert my image onto a slide. Then I need to insert a text box, choose a font (don’t worry too much about this as you can change it later), font size and font color, and type my first word. Yes, you read correctly – we need to do this one word at a time, because we need to change the positioning of each word to fit the image. The reason we are using software that uses text boxes is because with regular text, it stays in regimented lines. With text boxes, we can tilt them:
So in my example I create a text box, type the word, change the font etc., grab the text box, drag it over to the left of the image, find a piece of wave in the image to align it to, and drop it there. You’ll get faster at this, I promise! Then I insert a new text box for the next word and do the same again, adjusting the text over the image to follow the lines of the waves.
Make sure you keep saving your work! If you are having trouble seeing your text on top of the image, then right click the image and change the transparency:
This will have the effect of making the image fade away a little so you can more easily see what you are doing. You can also use this control panel (or similar depending on your software) to change the colour of the image if you want to.
Here is my piece once I have all the words in place:
- Final touches
Once you have all the words where you want them, duplicate the slide a couple times (or make multiple copies if using other software). That means if you do something wrong in the finishing touches (or can’t make up your mind) you won’t have lost anything.
I quite like this font and size, but if you aren’t happy with yours then click on the image (but not on any of the words) and type ‘Ctrl A’—this will select all your words so you can change the font, color etc. of all of them at the same time. Just be aware if you change the font or font size you might need to adjust the word positioning again. As for the image, you can take it away completely (either by deleting it or making it 100% transparent);
Or you can put it through a filter:
Or you can change the color completely, as you’ll see in my finished version below. I also copy/pasted the whole thing, made one copy almost transparent and layered it over the top a little out of alignment to create a shadow effect. You could do a lot more than in my example—you could change the size of the words, you could layer words on top of each other, you could make art just from oversized individual letters focusing on their shape, you could add further image layers…
Save your piece as a .jpeg (meaning it turns into an image, just like a photo), crop the edges to the size you like, and you’re done! Here’s my finished piece:
I quite like that the words disappear in places, but you make yours the way that appeals to you!
I’m going to show you some examples of other concrete poems—these are all my own work (so I don’t need to ask anyone’s permission) and done on Clip Studio Paint (CSP). There are loads of free videos on YouTube explaining how to use CSP—the techniques are a bit more advanced than we just used on PowerPoint, but easy enough to learn if you are interested. Here’s a link for example to a video by REM created showing how to use the mesh transformation tool to stretch your text into any shape: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7AE_2KhOpE&t=106s
‘Lotus’, an outline concrete poem first published by Moss Puppy Magazine Issue 1. See how the green text fills in the shape of the lily pads?
‘Incarceration’, a drawing concrete poem first published by Ice Floe Press. Note how all the words are in straight lines of different thicknesses to draw the shapes inside the prison cell:
‘Meet me in the infinite’, an abstract concrete poem first published in the Midnight Mass Anthology. The words don’t create a drawing but more a feeling of movement:
I hope you found some inspiration in this column and feel confident to start creating your own concrete poems.
Arden Hunter is an ND aroace agender writer, artist, and performer and the EIC of Cutbow Quarterly. They have words, audio and art hosted and with Full House Literary Magazine, Fifth Wheel Press, and Kissing Dynamite, among other places, plus published books of experimental hybrid work and poetry. Find them on Twitter @hunterarden, Instagram @thegardenofarden and at ardenhunter.com.