Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Breaking Things (Or How to Write Collage Poetry)

What is collage poetry? The idea is to take an existing text or texts and make it into something new.  The process is also called Unoriginality in studies of poetic movements and began in the 1990s almost as a direct consequence of the advent of the Internet and the growing uneasiness with Modern and Post-modern poetry tactics among the avant garde set. Most practicers of Unoriginality stumbled upon the concept independently, although some developed it within groups of writers. It seems like a simple enough concept to execute, leading many to disregard it as valid poetic practice - until such ones attempt it themselves. It is actually a complicated process that requires intense focus and a lot of trial and error to develop the skills of discernment needed to honour the original texts while reshaping the texts into something completely unfamiliar. It's also a wonderful way to explore the contested concept of authorship, because the words one is using belong to some one else and the final text of the collage poem cannot be guessed at by the poet assembling it until the reorganisation is complete. A collage poem is fun in the sense of wordplay and delving into the unknowable that the poet has only the most minimal control over, but it is hard work and slow-going.

To illustrate, I am going to use a simplified example of collage poetry work that I did as an assignment that the instructors called "Breaking Things" for a class I'm taking on Shakespeare. I started out with the text of the Bard's play "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and two blog posts I had previously written related to the course which can be found farther down this page ("On First Lines" and "Comparison: 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Layla and Majnun'"). First I selected a specific passage from the play to use, which is the conversation with Hermia about her father's selection of a husband for her. Instead of copying out the entire dialog, I left out her responses and chose specific lines that appealed to me due to their expression of a father's absolute authority over a daughter, possibly one of the most overtly serious moments in the comedy. Thus I copied this out on a sheet of paper:

"Be advised, fair maid.
To you, your father should be as a god,
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
For whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted, and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.
In this kind, wanting your father's voice,
The other must be held worthier.
Your eyes must with his judgement look.
Look you arm yourself
To fit your fancies to your father's will."

Lots of assonance in these lines to play with and it would be fun to dismantle this outdated notion of male dictatorship.

Then I proceeded to comb through the two blog posts for phrases which could be repurposed. Hence, on the same sheet of paper I copied this:

"virgin love
consummation (or lack thereof)
love cannot exist without sex, but sex can exist without love
attain to the status of a lesser god
roams the wilderness
spouting poetry for
first lines are the spine on which all hangs
security cameras and spying eyes
choking like flame without air
somewhat mantic
poetry cannot survive
meandering masterpiece
the most primal of human needs
worn out subject - elementary thing -
much glorification of the giving and the taking of the maidenhead
amourous rites
hood my unmanned blood
love grow bold
no love at all"

Now that I had broken things, I was ready to reassemble them. This is where trial and error comes in. You must expect that the first attempt will not result in a finished poem. Usually these things take many drafts and can sometimes take years to work out. A person who writes collage poetry must be one who thrives on challenge. The work involved is the point as much as the finished product. In this example, however, it took me about three hours. You will notice that in reorganising, sometimes I broke the phrases down further and rearranged them into new phrases as well as rearranging the actual lines. I began, crossing off phrases as I reused them. This is first draft:

"much glorification of
elementary thing - most
primal thing cannot survive
as a god somewhat mantic
arm yourself your fancies
the spine on which all hangs
choking flame without air
virgin love grow bold
wilderness spouting repetition
by him imprinted
meandering masterpiece
be advised to leave the figure
or disfigure it in this kind
consummation (or lack thereof)
first lines are security cameras
spying eyes, love without
sex without love amourous rites
that composed whom you are
a form in wax within his
power: the other must beheld poetry
look you to fit unmanned blood roams
no love at all
with his judgement look
the giving and the taking
status of a lesser god
poetry for maidenhood"

I largely avoided punctuation or consideration for line breaks, etc. because at this point it didn't matter. At this stage, the goal is just to see what surprising new combinations can be made of the phrases. Look for juxtaposition and delightfully new, unlooked for ideas. Phrases I liked here are: "First lines are security cameras" and "your fancies/ the spine on which all hangs". There is no clear formation of meaning in this new text yet, but the suggestion is that the meaning will be highly sexual. That is not a route I wanted to go. Although Shakespeare is very candid and even rude in such matters, I wanted to focus on poetry itself as a way to better honour the common perception of Shakespeare's work. On to the second draft:

"As a god somewhat mantic
Much glorification of elementary thing
Arm yourself your fancies cannot survive
Wilderness spouting repetition by
Him imprinted meandering
Masterpiece, be advised to
Leave the figure or disfigure it
In this kind consummation (or lack thereof)
Virgin love grow bold with his
Judgement look the giving and the taking
No love at all the spine on which all hangs
That composed whom you are - a form
In wax within his power, look you to fit
Unmanned blood roams: the other
Must be held poetry, security cameras
First lines are spying eyes
Love without sex without love
Poetry a lesser god for maidenhood
Amourous rites choking without air
No consummation at all"

As you can see, on the second draft, I paid a little more attention to poetic devises, such as line breaks and further fractured and rearranged some phrases. I also inserted some personal stylistic preferences, such as extending line length and capitalising the first letters of lines. Here, I began to sense clearer meaning and that it was closer to my intention of a metapoetic reading. Encouraged, I forged ahead to what would be the final draft:


As a god somewhat mantic,
Much glorification of elementary thing.
Arm yourself! Your fancies cannot survive
Wilderness spouting repetition, by him
Imprinted meandering masterpiece.
Be advised leave the figure or disfigure it
In this kind consummation
(Or lack thereof).
Virgin love grow bold with his judgement.
Look! The giving and the taking -
No love at all, the spine on which all hangs
That composed whom you are - a form
In wax within his power. Look you to fit.
Unmanned blood roams: the other must be held poetry.
Security cameras: first lines are spying eyes -
Love without sex without love.
Poetry a lesser god for maidenhood,
Amourous rites choking flame:
No consummation at all.

The title used here is a working title. It was good enough for the assignment for which it was written. This final result is both metapoetic and I believe a fitting tribute to Shakespeare while creating something entirely fresh from his (and my) words with a 21st century feel.

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