Found poetry is all about taking text from one source, perhaps an un-poetic one, such as a newspaper, instruction manual, or recipe, or a literary source such as a novel, and using them to create a poem. At one end of the spectrum the poet keeps all the words and the order, but adds their own line breaks, or they might add additional words and change the order. At the other end, the poet might harvest material which they quote within their own poems.
Noted and quoted famous poets took text from other sources and put them into their poems: Ezra Pound used official documents in parts of The Cantos, and Eliot included material from Shakespearean theatre and Greek mythology in The Waste Land. Evelyn Waugh took the title for his 1934 novel, A Handful of Dust straight from The Waste Land:
“And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
Chinua Achebe did the same, taking the title for his novel, Things Fall Apart from Yeats’s The Second Coming.
To create a whole collection based on found poetry is hugely challenging and time-consuming, but Pam Zinnemann-Hope masters the concept in her collection, On Cigarette Papers (Ward Wood Publishing, 2012). To find out how this book came about, I contacted Pam and her publisher Adele Ward.
“When my mother [Lottie] died in 1990, two years after my father [Kurt], I found an archive of letters, photos and objects that she had left me”, says Zinnemann-Hope.“Amongst them was a tiny pile of cigarette papers with writing in Russian, pencilled in her hand.”
The book begins with a foreword and dramatis personae. A chronology of events is included at the back of the book, as well as a list of her sources.
And I’m Clearing Up the House…
Now you’re gone, mother,
I wear your pink angora cardigan.
I like its softness against my neck and wrists,
your smell of cigarettes and Joy de Patou.
I find it edgy in the house without you.
You’ve put everything in order for me,
even tied the right key to each suitcase
in the attic. You would!
You know that Russian proverb?
It’s in Solzhenitsyn:
‘No. Don’t! Don’t dig up the past.
Dwell on the past and you lose an eye.’
It goes on:
‘Forget the past
and you’ll lose two eyes.
Up until this point she had only known the bare bones of her family’s history, but with help from three of her mother’s friends, Erna, Tilde Goldschmidt/Goldsmith and Elizabeth May, she began putting the pieces back together. Erna was a German Communist who ended up in the UK. Zinneman-Hope’s parents met her in Russia and her story is told in one of the poems:
Kharkov, August 1937
How come my husband is arrested
for ‘crimes against the state’?
I need to find comfort.
I want to see my friends.
I set off for Kurt and Lottie’s in the heat.
Their landlady doesn’t speak,
she points at their boarded up door.
So in 1996 Zinneman-Hope began her research and writing. The search for a family history and search for self-identity is what drove her on to write: “I have no brothers, sisters, cousins, no-one else to share the loss of ‘home’ with.”
Gathering the material together was a huge task, especially as it was essential that Zinnemann-Hope found not only her voice, but those of her characters. “It was a process of accumulation. Structuring it was the most difficult. It was workshopped at RADA with some fine actors, and this helped to pinpoint the gaps and pull the structure around. Workshopping with other poets also helped that process. Ultimately it had to fulfil its dramatic imperative.”
At her launch at the Poetry Cafe, she read alongside actors, Anthony Shuster (War Horse) and Deborah Finlay (Cranford) – bringing the book alive. Adele Ward said, “Hearing Anthony Shuster reading the voices of the German men, alternating with the various women’s voices read by Pam and Deborah Findlay, really made me realise how she had changed the voices for the characters and caught them so well.”
“I get a number of submissions about the Holocaust, but there is something different about this story,” says Adele Ward. “A woman who is the daughter of a Nazi is determined to marry the Jewish man she falls in love with, even though that means being disowned by her family, risking being caught, as her father puts in a personal phone call to Göring to close the borders, and putting up with prison under Stalin’s purges in Russia and then incarceration on the Isle of Man when they finally get to England. We would all want to find love like that, so it adds something positive to such an emotional depiction of an important part of history.”
Every Night In Her Sleep
(My mother’s dream)
It draws me down.
Deep under turquoise
the water is lapping me.
It keeps retreating.
I can feel the yelling
lodged in my chest.
I open my mouth:
no sound comes out.
I try to push it out.
I get no breath.
And it keeps coming back.
Day after day I grasp
at straws of sunlight; I’m
beached on hot dry sand.
Night after night I swim
and stand in this stifling sea.
I want to breathe.
I can feel the silkiness
of the water.
I can open my mouth.
I want to yell.
My face is bursting,
held in by the water,
the power of the water.
And it keeps returning.
On Cigarette Papers hooks you immediately and is almost impossible to put down. I read it in one sitting. I needed to reread it several times to take in the enormity of the project and the beauty of the individual poems. I agree with Zinnemann-Hope when she says, “It’s an extraordinary story, a cracking good story to tell and it takes in much of the turmoil of 20th century in Europe. It demanded to be told.”
When a poet uses found poetry, they should set their own constraints by analysing the material, selecting creatively and retelling something that needs to be told. It is up to the poet to decide whether or not to use only found material, with no words of their own – or to include just a few snippets from another source.
Writing found poetry can help a poet in a number of ways. It can act as a trigger – a playful way of releasing our creativity; join words together that we weren’t expecting and give a different slant to our writing, often taking us somewhere new. By responding to various genres we develop our interpretive skills; use language that might be alien to us and make something ordinary, poetic. Our editorial skills gain importance – we need to craft our piece; shape our lines; tighten the structure. It is not just collecting words; it is collecting the right words for our purpose.
So go on, start snipping.