They are some of our literary favorites: Richard Russo's Empire Falls, John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News. They are winners of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and this month (along with the other tomes on that illustrious list) they will serve as fodder for Pulitzer Remix, an online initiative sponsored by the Found Poetry Review journal as part of National Poetry Month.
Eighty-five poets from across the country are involved; each of them was assigned one Pulitzer-winning novel to work with during the month of April. They are tasked with posting one poem per day, its language scavenged from their assigned books. The result will be about 2500 "found poems," described at pulitzerremix.com as "the literary equivalents of collages, where words, phrases and lines from existing texts are refashioned into new poems."
According to Found Poetry Review editor and Pulitzer Remix organizer Jenni Baker, who discovered the genre in graduate school and wrote her first found poem "using words on a box of teeth whitening strips," found poets typically start their explorations with a short section or passage. "They then black or white out lines of the text, leaving only single words and short phrases visible which form a poem when read consecutively down and across the pages. This type of writing is more constrained because you're forced to work with the words as you encounter them on the page." Another, looser method is to simply make note of interesting words or phrases while reading and then rearrange those in a structured or experimental form.
"It might seem like a simple task, to pick and choose words from a given text, paste them together, and call it a poem," says E. Kristin Anderson, a Westbrook native who currently lives in Austin and is participating in the project (she's riffing on the 2011 winner, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan). "But in order to create a poem, no matter your method, you have to say something. There has to be a story there. And when you're working with a limited palette — which is how I view found poetry — you have to find a new story within someone else's text."
The uninitiated may wonder whether this sort of creative pursuit transgresses copyright or intellectual property boundaries. But enthusiasts maintain that publishing found poetry falls under fair use standards: "a poet may make use of quotations from existing poetry, literary prose, and non-literary material, if these quotations are re-presented in poetic forms that add value through significant imaginative or intellectual transformation."
"The biggest misconception about found poetry I hear a lot is that it's plagiarism," Baker says. "People don't understand the process that goes into creating it — they think found poets open up a book, pull out a nice paragraph, add a few line breaks and call it their own poem. They don't understand that the best found poets excerpt just single words or short phrases and spend a significant amount of time reworking them into a new piece whose meaning differs from the original."
Which, in turn, can lead to a greater understanding or appreciation for the original work, even — or especially — for Pulitzer-winning classics like To Kill A Mockingbird or American Pastoral.