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The art of stealing: Blackout Poetry workshop by Reem Al Qenai
March 14, 2015, 5:36 pm

Last week, on my way to the Blackout Poetry Workshop at the ‘Center of the Arts’ in Shuwaikh, I was not able to relate the two words —blackout and poetry— together; not wanting to kill the suspense, I did not bother to Google it up.

Upon entering Center of the Arts, which is nothing less than an oasis for creative people, one immediately gets the impression that this is place where art and its expression are treated very earnestly. Unfortunately, the location of the Center is less known, and this is a shame considering the brilliant work that goes on here.

Since the workshop claimed, "Whether you are a seasoned writer or have never written, this workshop, by instructor Reem M. AlQenai, is for everyone," I went there wearing my cynicism on my sleeve. However, I was totally unprepared for the diversity I met there.

First off there was the lovely Reem, from Kuwait, who teaches English at the Kuwait International Law School; there was Dhari Buyabes, an accomplished Kuwaiti writer and author of the book What's Wrong with Faris? There was Mohammad AlNakib, a Kuwaiti banker by day and a writer, the rest of the time, attempting to pave his way to authorship. Meet Fajer, a teacher at the Australian College of Kuwait who is pursuing her thesis, Hawra AlQallaf, a dentist who is on a 100 reads challenge, and then there was Farah AlWugayan, a petite student from Kuwait University with her own sense of humor and sharp inclination towards originality of creative expressions. Meeting this artistic assortment I realize that I am in for something interesting besides a simple workshop.

What makes a bunch of people gather at a place for a workshop on a Saturday evening, when most others would rather be out shopping or watching a movie? Instructor Qenai explains, "I noticed a pattern among the people that came to the workshop — first, they had a good grasp of English, which is really important since the workshop involves reading through English newspapers. I also noticed that they are interested in reading – literature, poetry – most of them were writers or wanted to write, some of them were teachers and others were students really attracted to the concept."

So, what is this Blackout Poetry? In short, it is about artistic stealing. A detailed explanation is that it has been happening for about 250 years; a lot of artists and many successful writers, have been efficient stealers.

Here are a few citations: All the way back in 1760s, when newspapers were fairly new and the columns were skinny, a neighbor of Benjamin Franklin, named Caleb Whitefoord, read across the columns instead of reading from top to bottom and came up with funny combinations to crack-up his friends at pubs.He eventually published them as a broadsheet column. 

Poet Tristan Tzara (1896-1963), went on stage with a hat full of newspaper cuttings, which he pulled out one by one and then read them as a poem. About 30 years after Tzara, an artist named Brion Gysin (1916-1986) mistakenly cut through a stack of newspapers while he was preparing and cutting up a canvas. The way the newspaper strips floated and the way the words worked together gave him an idea of how to make poetry.

In the Paris Review interview, William Boroughs (1914-1997), who picked-up the idea from his friend Gysin, spoke of his cut-up method of writing. Then in the 60s, British artist Tom Philips, who got the idea from Boroughs, walked into a bookstore and picked up the first Victorian novel, he went home and he started drawing and painting over the pages but he left words floating in his art pages.   

David Bowie, on the originality of his music said, "I am more like a tasteful thief." Picasso said, "Good artists copy, great artists steal." Similarly, T.S. Elliot said, "Imitation is not flattery. Bad poets take what they steal and they deface it and the good poets turn it into something better or at least something different."

And finally, the present day "creative kleptomaniac", the famous blackout poetry author of Newspaper Blackout – a collection of poetry made by redacting words from newspaper articles with a permanent marker – Austin Kleon said, "Transformation is flattery."

With the literary gods intelligently legalizing stealing, "the result of the workshop was beautiful. The result was actually getting the participants to sit down and express themselves with the use of techniques, and that is exactly what they did. Seeing the attendees very excited about their work and wanting to take their work back home was the most exciting result. Some of them even asked for the next workshop," confessed Qenai.

She was also happy with the workshop's reception the next day, which was meant for the younger ages: "While, the workshop with the adults was an interaction and introspection on the concept of artistic stealing and why it was severely criticized and its originality, the workshop with the younger participants was truly amazing. It was more about them being able to express, play around with the words and getting a little messy with the colors. To them, it was their own work that reflected on their identity." 

Being the first person in Kuwait to conduct such a workshop, I asked her if she had a soft-corner for Blackout poetry and in particular if she indulges in it. She revealed, "I was actually inspired by Austin Kleon. He was the first one who started Blackout. Also, the 250-year old history is amazing because it shows how it started, how it was more of a political movement instead of doing it for fun."

In a political context, Qenai refers to Dadaism, the artistic and literary movement during the early 20th century. The movement rebelled in wildly diverse ways — ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage — against cultural snobbery, materialistic convention, and political support for the war. 

Referring to her venture of taking the technique forward in Kuwait, as a part of the English language activities of the Kuwait International Law School students, Qenai seemed to be flattered, "When I started taking it up in class, the students completely enjoyed it and I enjoyed it too. Not only were the students reading but they were actually looking up words that they did not know. That is where the techniques came in; they could go across the newspaper or, use more than one article; it just became more and more creative since we started." 

She notices that "lately there have been more workshops and creative activities; they have been increasing dramatically. People are intrigued by new ideas and new art. 

Elaborating on the prospect of holding a TEDx event in Kuwait, Qenai says, "I think TEDx would be a wonderful platform for those in Kuwait to talk about what inspires them; it would be a great idea and platform. If I get more of these workshops done; have more information on how people react to it; get a bigger audience and more people to participate in this, then I would have a clear idea of how a TEDx talk would be received in Kuwait. For the moment, I am really happy for the younger generation, because they have something really interesting to do, to look forward to."

By Ghazal Praveen/

Staff Writer

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