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 help you continue to explore concrete poetry and how you can make your own by hand! No special materials are needed aside from things you probably already have laying around your house – paper, pencil, marker, magazine, phone.
Refresher: What is concrete poetry?
In my last column, I explained some of the subtypes of concrete poetry, but when you are making something by hand (and even more so if it is in 3D), you’re going to be moving further away from things that can be easily categorized. For this column, let’s just stick with a simple definition: concrete poetry is words in a shape. There are as many ways to make it as there are shapes that you can imagine; meaning, an infinite number! I’m going to show you some basics and you can take the ideas and run with them as far as you like.
Concrete poetry using a stencil
A stencil is a guide—either something you draw around or within, that you can take away later and just be left with your artwork. You don’t even need to make a stencil if you want to do something like this—write in the middle of cookie-cutters, lay down your cellphone and write around it, draw a stick figure and hold it up to your window with a paper over it so you can write in that shape… there are so many things you can do with stencils, but I want to show you something a bit more advanced.
Step 1: Choose an image from print media
What we’re going to do is combine poetry with a photo or piece of art. I have a lot of old magazines laying around for exactly this purpose (if you don’t you can pick up bundles of them super cheap on Ebay or similar websites in your country—or just go buy a cheap new magazine). First, choose an image that speaks to you:
I chose this page from the September 2016 issue of National Geographic, and it is a photograph by Brent Stirton.
Step 2: Create your stencil
Choose a section of your image that you are going to replace with words, and carefully cut that section out – don’t throw it away because you might want to reference it:
You see, for my example, I cut away the shirt and the glass. When I’m working on visual poetry, it’s a very instinctual process; at this point I still don’t know what I’m going to write, but you might want to plan out your poem first. There’s no wrong way to do this—do what works for you!
Step 3: Draw some guidelines
I want the words I will eventually write to emulate the shape of the shirt, so I put a blank piece of paper behind my stencil and sketched in the very basic parts of the shirt that I had cut out—I referenced the part of the photo I had cut away to make sure they were pretty much in the right place. This guideline sheet of paper will not be your final piece so don’t worry if it’s a bit messy. Set the remaining parts of the magazine aside for now.
Step 4: First attempt at adding words
With digital visual poetry (vispo) you can always go back if you make a mistake, but with handmade pieces you need to be careful—do as many draft versions as you need before attempting the final one. No one will know if the end piece was draft 5 or draft 25. Use the guidelines you sketched as a map and have a go writing your words on a fresh piece of paper—I am a bit devil-may-care, so I just go direct to using a marker pen, but you might want to use light pencil first. If it’s daytime, you can work against your window so you can see through the top paper. At night you might need to get creative: I don’t have a fancy light-box at home, so I’m including here my very silly yet workable set-up; a glass coffee table with a cushion underneath, upon which I rest my cellphone with the torch/flashlight turned on. The torchlight shines through my guidelines paper so I can see it though my fresh new paper on top.
Use your guidelines and have your first go adding your words—Here was my first attempt:
I also sketched the guidelines again on this version just to see where I could place the words. There were some issues as you can see—words that didn’t fit where I wanted them to go, misspellings, the lines of letters not falling where I wanted them— – but at least I got down the gist of what I wanted to accomplish.
Step 5: Redraft until you are happy
This step could take 5 minutes or 3 days; just keep playing with fresh sheets of paper until the words are where you want them to be. You might have to change some words that aren’t fitting, so don’t get too attached! Just as in any editing process, let go of what isn’t working.
Step 6: Stick your poem to your stencil
Once you have the words where you want them, time to bring back your stencil (in my case, the page from the magazine). Carefully stick them together—I recommend a glue stick as they are more forgiving and less messy than liquid glue:
Step 7: Presentation
Congratulations on your concrete poetry! You can leave it just as it is, but if you’re going to submit it for consideration to magazines and journals for publication, it might need just a final touch to get it ready. In most of the photos above I literally took a photo with my phone, but when submitting work like this I try to get a good scan using my printer scanner function (you can get phone apps for this too). I also added a red background sheet of paper to make the red words ‘pop’ a bit more:
And that’s how to make concrete poetry using your own homemade stencil! I call this piece, ‘Promises promises.’ Here is the text for accessibility:
All your toys are broken
All your songs unsung
I’d sooner scream than say your name
How quickly they all forget
I saw you go down smiling
Concrete poetry: Words as shading
Now I’m going to show you something a little bit further outside the box—making a concrete poem using only one word, and using the word as shading. This is more avant-garde than work you might have seen before, but it’s fun and there are plenty of places wanting to publish work like it!
Step 1: Choose a shape and do a quick sketch with shading
I don’t have an art background so had no idea how hard it was to shade a ball until I was doing it— but oh well! Choose something that appeals to you. This is going to be your guideline, so again you’re going to need either a daylit window, or your coffee table or other solution for the evening.
Step 2: Start lightly adding words
Pencil is best for this. I wanted to just use one word: rapscallion. I don’t have a reason—if I needed a reason for everything I do I’d never get anything done—I just liked it and here we are.
You can just about see my guiding shape through the top sheet of paper and how I added the repeated word, following the lines of the shape and the shading.
Step 3: Keep adding words and varying the pressure to create shading
And there you have it! Is it a visual poem? Is it art? Is it meaningless scribbles? This is all in the eye of the beholder and quite frankly not something I get too concerned about—I enjoyed making it and it’s called, understandably, ‘rapscallion.’
3D concrete poetry and final thoughts
I’m going to do a future column about ‘found poetry’ which has some crossover with what I’m about to show you, but basically the difference is that for 3D concrete poetry you can write whatever you want. Consider this example of mine, called, ‘Catch Me’:
There are a variety of ways to read this—each quarter left to right (e.g. and I knew safety), or the whole thing left to right (see below), or even use it as you would a cootie-catcher and choose your own words as they appear. I had to do a few versions to work out how to get the words at least vaguely straight so I could photograph it, but this was a quick concrete poem again really only created because I felt like it. You might feel like making some paper swans and writing on them, or on a paper chain wrapped around a tree. You might write on balloons, or on a mirror, or on an old dress. You might scratch your words into the veneer of an old dressing-table; and why not? As long as it’s yours, make it yours.
Text for accessibility:
And then I knew you were
In the dark and
I’ve been asked more than once how to “get into” visual poetry. Here’s the big secret—make something. Make something just because you want to. Make something because you feel you have to. Make something that takes ten hours of planning and disappears when you set it on fire, aside from the one photograph you managed to take. Make something, document it, and send it out into the world for people to see. We’ll like it—I promise.
Arden Hunter is an ND aroace agender writer, artist, and performer and the EIC of Cutbow Quarterly. They have words, audio and art hosted by Full House Literary Magazine, Steetcake Magazine, Kissing Dynamite, and Ice Floe Press among other places, plus published books of experimental hybrid work and poetry. Find them on Twitter @hunterarden, Instagram @thegardenofarden and at ardenhunter.com.