Cut Up Poetry

Photo Aug 10, 12 38 49 PM.jpg

Cut Up Poetry 

by Melanie Sweeney Bowen 

My first and oldest creative love is writing fiction. I particularly love the long haul of writing a novel, which I'm doing right now. But even when I'm enjoying working slowly through a big project, sometimes I need a boost. I need to sit down and play for a few hours and walk away having completed something. In other words, I need the mini high of accomplishment.  

I may be a writer, but I'm not a poet. I married a poet. I have friends who are poets. I enjoy reading poetry. But I think I am destined to always feel a little intimidated about writing poetry. I have found, though, that sometimes the best smaller creative exercises for me are the ones I don't expect myself to be good at. The pressure is off! It's just fun. Which is why I occasionally like to create cut-up poetry. It's like training wheels for people who want to write poetry but are too intimidated to begin.  

There is more than one way to make cut-up poetry, but the gist is that you take a text source, or multiple sources, and you take pieces, rearrange them, and create a new text based on whatever creative leaps and associations you find in the language. I find it easiest to work with physical paper and scissors, but you can also cut and paste from an electronic document or use a marker to black out words instead of cutting the text. You can isolate whole lines, phrases, or single words. Another method is to take two texts, fold them vertically in the center, and place them side by side so that the left text reads straight into the right.  

 Materials for cutting 

Materials for cutting 

For my cut up poetry, I selected three texts -- the first page of a blog post I wrote the day after the last presidential election, a few pages of a craft essay on writing fiction by Charles Baxter called "Making a Scene," and a portion of an article about contemporary embroidery artists. I printed out the pages I wanted to use and cut out single lines, sometimes further isolating smaller units of words if I saw an interesting turn of phrase. I don't establish any rules about how I decided what to cut. Since I had no idea what other pieces I'd end up with, I just went with my gut about where to cut. Some of the most interesting pieces were usually comprised of the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next, so I largely ignored punctuation.  

After the cutting process comes the assembling. If you have about a hundred fragments like I did, this part can be overwhelming. I spread all my tiny scraps around until a few stood out. From there, certain pieces felt right together. I'll admit to being a little too stuck on making coherent sentences, but if you can stand it, don't worry about the parts of speech matching up.  

Photo Aug 10, 10 46 12 AM.jpg

Once you've assembled a new text (the length of which for me was determined by the amount of space I had on my sewing table), take a picture. Then you don’t have to worry about your toddler or your cat or a draft from a window scrambling the whole thing, and you can also dive right back in and make another poem. From my pictures, I transcribed my poems into a notebook and went ahead and started editing and determining new lines breaks. You can see in comparing the photos to my final texts that I didn't make many changes to my first poem, but with the second, I rearranged and replaced some words. My "poems" are not complete, of course. They don't quite make sense as they are. But there are some neat phrases in them, some interesting images that I doubt I would have come up with if I'd simply sat down to Write A Poem. Maybe I'll develop them further at another time, but I'm happy with these rough little drafts and the fun I had making them. 

Poem 1: 

I’ve never gotten developed 

and open spaces with a lot of 

light. I crave choice – the thread 

breaks and breaks – connection 

with people. Not everyone:  

the younger girls and older 

women. Exposed geography,  

found when I called. A way 

to tailor and mend, ink or paint, 

money in a parking lot, someone 

who turns out to be art.  


A shame that 

with scissors to my throat 

for appearance I was  



Poem 2: 

He avoids scenes, 

even of looking directly at me, 

when he says, “We have lost  

control.” Who gets connection 

with people? Not everyone 

understands what we feel – unbearable 

shame, our inner geography, 

the repellant character there found 

out, the pain fresh as this man 

in some significant way has  

already left me. 


Interior scenes mimic control, 

a way to tailor and mend years. 

Choice? That thread turns out to be 

just an accent, a jokey Independence 

Day beauty, decorative ink, 

or paint for making spaces 

with a lot of embroidered rugs 

and planters look bigger. My mother, 

out of breath and shaking, trying 

to be a still life. With scissors 

to my throat, I, too, was polite. 


Plan B: to create 

a scene that my heart breaks  

and walk straight into it. 

The figure running around 

the story, inspired by her 

own light.