The Remix Journal: Josh Medsker Talks with Found Poetry Review Editor Jenni B. Baker
by Josh MedskerPosted on July 21st, 2014 at 5:05 pm
Jenni B. Baker (@jennibbaker) is the founder and editor of Found Poetry Review, one of the leading literary magazines dedicated solely to found poetry as a form. I was part of the Pulitzer Remix project that Jenni organized for National Poetry Month in 2013. It was a wonderful experience, and a large part of this was Jenni’s vision for the project, and her ability to carry it through.
Back in October 2013, I had the opportunity to chat with Jenni over email about FPR and its history.
[Note: Due to LP editorial tardiness, FPR‘s fascinating recent projects aren’t represented in Medsker’s otherwise-thorough interview below—they are: OULIPOST, their 2014 National Poetry Month project, and Lá Bloom, a special online issue published in celebration of Bloomsday 2014. FPR‘s latest issue is volume 6.]
Josh Medsker: What was the impetus for starting Found Poetry Review? Tell Luna Park’s readers a little about the birth of FPR.
Jenni B. Baker: I started the Found Poetry Review in 2011 largely because I’m incapable of keeping any of my interests to myself. As soon as I really get into something, I can’t just continue to enjoy it privately—I have to turn the volume up to 11.
Medsker: For those who don’t know, what is found poetry? Also, I don’t think I have ever asked you how you came to found poetry—or what your favorite method of found poetry is.
Baker: The easiest way to think of found poetry is as the literary version of a collage. Just as visual artists tear pictures and swatches from different media and make them into something new, so do found poets excerpt words and phrases from a source text(s) and weave them into a piece whose subject and format can differ substantially from the original(s).
I wrote my first found poem from the words on a box of teeth whitening strips as part of an off-hours poetry group with some fellow grad students. It was a fun exercise and one that I found myself turning back to again and again as I’d sit down to write poetry.
As I started submitting these poems to literary magazines—occasionally receiving such unhelpful feedback from editors as “Try writing something original for a change”—I realized the need for a literary journal dedicated exclusively to the art form. I went online in the middle of the night, registered the URL, and started down this crazy path that I’m still on today—now with our Senior Poetry Editor Beth Ayer and a great group of bloggers and readers in tow.
In terms of my favorite method of found poetry, as an editor I’m much more invested in what poets do with their source text than the method they used to arrive at it. I want to see you turn a transcript from a criminal trial into a poem from your mom, or a football article into a commentary on economic disparity in today’s society.
As a practitioner of found poetry, I’m really big into erasures right now—taking on the challenge of starting with a single page of text and crafting a poem using words and phrases in order as they appear on the page.
Medsker: I love the William Burroughs quote on your site: “All writing is in fact cut ups. A collage of words read heard overhead. What else?” In what ways have computers made the selection of random texts easier?
Baker: Tristan Tzara, a Dadaist who inspired Burroughs, advised taking a newspaper article, cutting it up word by word, putting those strips in a bag and then pulling them out one by one to create your poem. I have the utmost respect for people who can create found poetry through manual methods—I certainly don’t have the patience!
So unless you’re sitting and slicing up texts with scissors, it can be a challenge to introduce spontaneity into your writing process or look at texts in new ways. Computers can do this for us, leading us to new ideas and word combinations we might never arrived at on our own. Seeing how people are using technology to aid the found poetry process is something I get really excited about.
My latest favorite is actually surprisingly simple—one of the poets I came into contact with through an FPR project records various lines from different poems in Excel spreadsheet cells, then uses a formula to randomize the order in which the cells appear. These new pairings are then woven into a cento.
Some of my other favorites include jGoetry, which allows you to input your own texts; Wave Books’ erasure tool, which enables you to practice erasure poems on pre-selected texts; and the Bonsai Story Generator, which helps you scramble your source texts.
And I’d be remiss to point out that now there are even tools that make this selection of texts so easy that we don’t even need a human poet anymore! Check out Pentametron and Times Haiku for examples of how people are using bots to find poetry.
Medsker: I absolutely love that you brought in a high school teacher as a guest poster [for FPR]! That’s fantastic. The students’ work was so creative! The best ones, to me, were the duo poems, where two students collaborated. Did [the teacher] Ryan Blanck pick Wallace’s The Pale King as a text, or did you?
Baker: I know Ryan from indulging in another one of my interests I refuse to shut up about—David Foster Wallace. He runs the Letters to DFW blog and recently published a collection called Supposedly Fun Things: Essays Inspired by the Creative Nonfiction of David Foster Wallace.
In September, the Found Poetry Review marked the 5th anniversary of Wallace’s passing with a special online edition focused on found poetry created from his work. During this time, we also focused our weekly found poetry prompt on creating poems from The Pale King. Ryan saw it on our Facebook page and said, “This sounds like a great assignment for my high school students. Thanks for the help with next week’s lesson plans.”
I mentioned I’d love to see the outcome and that we could feature them on the site, and the rest was history. I was really impressed with what the students came up with. Several pieces were on par with—if not better than—some of the submissions we receive from more experienced poets, which goes to show you that anyone with a good eye has the potential to find a great poem.
These kind of posts are also important because they show that found poetry isn’t just this quirky thing that a few people like FPR are doing in the corners of the Internet—it’s a living thing. People are increasingly learning about it and getting a chance to try their hand at it in school or in community workshops. We look forward to highlighting more of these in future blog posts.
Medsker: What have been your biggest challenges so far with FPR?
Baker: The largest challenge by far is that we have infinite ideas for the journal, and limited time and resources to implement them. Beth and I have made a huge list of things we want to tackle in the future; but the reality is that we both have full-time jobs and lives outside of work that compete for our time and energy. So we often have to settle for selecting a few ideas per year and putting the rest on the back-burner.
It’s also an ongoing challenge to educate people who are new to the journal about what we mean when we say found poetry. Some people need to be told gently that finding poems “in your head” doesn’t count as a source, nor does that great poem by John Ashbery you found on a piece of loose leaf in a library book.
More often, we see people submitting “untreated” found poems—poems where they’ve spotted an interesting passage in a book or newspaper article, added line breaks and tacked their own name onto it. We know that found poetry can walk a fine line between originality and plagiarism, so it’s important to us that authors show some additional intervention in the source text(s).
Medsker: I have to tell you, my experience as a writer during the Pulitzer Remix project was one of the best I have ever had. Thank you. You deserve major applause for your organization and leadership on it. Everyone I have talked to who was involved in it has said the same thing, that you gave all of us the support we needed to be as creative as we wanted to be. Can you give our readers a little background on the Remix project? Was the result anything like your imagining?
Baker: Pulitzer Remix was a National Poetry Month initiative that united 85 poets to create found poetry from the 85 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction-winning novels. Each poet worked with an assigned text to create 30 poems during April, uploading one per day on the Pulitzer Remix site. The project resulted in the creation of more than 2,500 poems which garnered more than 12,200 comments and nearly 180,000 page views.
When we originally came up with the idea, we thought it would just be a fun exercise to promote what we do during a time when the country is paying more attention than usual to poetry. That is to say, we were thinking about it more in terms of the exposure it would get for us as a literary journal.
What came out of it instead was an important lesson in what it means to empower and connect people. Writing 30 poems is 30 days requires not just creativity—it requires tenacity and a belief in your work. And there are many milestones along the way. Some participants hadn’t regularly written anything in years and said that the project helped them regain the confidence to write and submit their work again. Others gained the impetus to put together complete manuscripts, a good number of which have been accepted for publication by external presses.
Beyond that, I know from my own experience that any creative pursuit—unless you’re fortunate enough to have the right personality and right community around you—is often a lonely endeavor.
Leading up to the project launch, we set up a private Facebook group for participants to interact and ask questions. That group took on a life of its own during April and is still going strong today. Participants still come together in the group several times a day to celebrate each other’s publication successes, share resources and get feedback. Being able to create a place where like-minded people can come together and feel some solidarity in their pursuits is by far the best outcome of the project.
If I may close with a little plug, Beth and I had a great time this year visiting college classes and literary festivals to give lectures and workshops on found poetry. We’d love to do more of these kinds of things in 2014, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you’d like us to work with your group or event!