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Poetry Exercise: The Cut-up

posted: 2.11.09 by archived

This assignment was submitted by Frances Richard, a poet and art writer who teaches at Barnard College in New York.

Here’s a poetry exercise that basically guarantees a lively in-class writing session and also helps students to disrupt habitual writing patterns, get away from cliché, and expand their imaginative use of language.

You’ll need to do a bit of hunting and gathering (or have your students bring supplies for themselves). Needed are:
* A pair of scissors for each person in class
* Blank paper
* Glue sticks
* An assortment of printed matter—the weirder and more motley the better. My best score was a stack of economic-development journals being deaccessioned by the Barnard Library. The recycling bin beside a copy machine is a good source too.

Have students choose a line from a poem of their own that has failed. Or, from a published poem, or a poem by a classmate, that they admire.

Ask them to copy that line at the top of their piece of blank paper.

Then break out printed materials, glue sticks, and scissors. Pass out magazines and tell them to rip out a page. Drop a pile of loose sheets in the center of the table and tell them to grab one. Etc.

Explain that they may cut out any and all language they like—words, phrases, or whole lines. Discourage capturing full paragraphs, since this becomes unwieldy.

They will quickly get the idea of how to snip words from the source material and begin to construct their own poems, building off the established first lines. As they finish with a page of source material, they can pass it on or drop it back into the general pool.

Eager sorting, culling, cutting, arranging, discarding, and gluing follows. I give them forty minutes or more. Fast workers can make a second poem, using a line from their finished cut-up as their new first line.

A round-robin reading wraps it up with much delight and laughter.

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