Nicky Melville’s found poetry workshop on the 8th of March was a fantastic introduction to the genre – the very title of his talk (‘Freeze Peach’) was a demonstration that we can find new meaning in the language around us. Nicky takes the concept of free speech and breaks it down to the sounds that constitute it, then builds a new concept from the parts; a new concept that makes mocks the original in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
Nicky describes found poetry as, ‘a toolkit for dismantling the language of patriarchy, capitalism, and neoliberalism,’ and tells us of his decision to create found poetry from political manifestos around the time of the last general election. He uses black highlights to redact words, letters, and phrases from documents, and so creates an entirely new piece of poetry from the cut-up remnants.
A quote from poet Robert Fitterman helps to summarize the strategy of found poetry: it, ‘reframes works that already exist in new contexts to give them new meaning.’ (Rob the Plagiarist, p. 15) The aim of Nicky’s work, therefore, is to find new meaning in language, subvert what we are presented with and thereby create something original.
One way of thinking about found poetry is through the notion of ‘appropriation’ – which, Nicky tells us, is from the Latin proprius, ‘to own.’ The word ‘appropriate,’ however, serves two functions in language, as both a noun and a verb. If something is appropriate, then it is suitable, it fits the context it appears in. To appropriate something, however, is to take ownership of it – and thus Nicky brings us to the concept of ‘appropriate language.’ We look for language that is appropriate in the world around us, and then we appropriate it, take ownership of it, and so subvert it to create a new context and a new meaning.
What, then, is found poetry for? Nicky gives us several answers: to subvert, mock, or challenge; to discover what you didn’t know you wanted to say; to create unusual turns of phrase, sparking new modes of thinking in a reader. Here Nicky quotes French philosopher Jacques Rancière, to inform us that, ‘An artistic intervention can be political by modifying the visible, the ways of perceiving it and expressing it, or experiencing it as tolerable or intolerable.’
Nicky’s own poetry often looks to the trite slogans of shops and corporations, the way that empty platitudes are used to appear supportive, whilst their true goal is simple profit. ‘Every little helps,’ ‘Believe in better’ – for Nicky, the obviously-performative captions beneath company names can quickly become summaries of the current socio-political landscape: ‘very little help,’ and ‘lie better,’ are his examples, both of which apply far more to the corporations toting the original lines.
These alterations may seem like simple satire and mockery, but they feed into a concept that has existed for generations: Laughtivism, a portmanteau of laughter and activism. Nicky quotes journalist Peter Pomerantsev here, to explain it as, ‘the use of humorous stunts in revolutionary campaigns.’ Take for example, Nicky suggests, the notion of ‘Global Britain’ – a concept that has fed into British consciousness over the past few years as some kind of positive, but which in actuality harkens back to the days of colonialism and imperialism. With a simple use of redaction – Nicky tells us he used Tippex for physical poetry – one can easily transform this problematic concept into an insult against those who created it: ‘Global Britain’ becomes ‘G ob Br ain.’
We had a go at finding our own inspiration for found poetry at this point – taking the language in the world around us and transforming it into something new. Finding pieces to work from was surprisingly easy; I certainly never realised how pervasive these empty platitudes and trite slogans were until I went looking, and found, ‘heating the heart of the home’ on the packaging of a space heater.
Pomerantsev’s book, ‘This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality,’ has several useful quotes for understanding found poetry, but Nicky emphasises one particular one at this point: ‘…one has to look beyond just ‘news’ and ‘politics’ and also consider poetry, schools, the language of bureaucracy and leisure to understand, as French philosopher Jacques Ellul put it, the ‘formation of men’s [sic] attitudes.’
Found poetry is not a new phenomenon either, Nicky points out. The cento was a poetic form used in the 4th century C.E. by Ausonius, wherein he created a ‘patchwork poem splicing different lines from Virgil’s Aeneid.’ Cento itself means ‘patchwork garment,’ and the first record of its poetic rules state that its goal is, ‘to make pieces arbitrarily connected seem naturally related.’ More modern forms seem to emerge for example from Ezra Pound’s The Cantos and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
Nicky goes on to demonstrate various forms of found poetry: Dadaist poetry, the ‘manifesto’ for which describes putting together various newspaper clippings; the FLARF approach, wherein the Internet is mined for odd search terms, which are then reformatted into poems with new, often hilarious, meaning; or Tom Phillips’ Humument poetry, which sketches over previous work with a portrait and select words remaining clear, to create a ‘human document.’
The workshop as a whole introduced us to a broad variety of found poetry, its value, and how to get started on writing some of our own. Emphasised throughout, both by Nicky and by the poetry produced during the workshop, was the fact that redaction, erasure, and cutting are methods not of destruction but reconstruction, and can be used to reclaim the language of bureaucracy and put it to work for us, in mockery of and resistance to the language of power.
Enormous thanks to Nicky Melville for this workshop! Nicky Melville is a poet, teacher, musician and occasional artist. He makes found, visual, process and neo-lyric poetry that interrogates the imperatives of language and ideology. His most recent book is ABBODIES COLD : SPECTRE (Sad Press). He makes music as Fuck This. Here’s an example of his work: https://www.datableedzine.com/nicky-melville-issue-10.
Artwork by Nicky Melville