An Expedition in Condensational Poetry

by Michael Prihoda

How small can a poem get while still retaining a critical meaning, an essence of depth? This, essentially, is the question that led me to blackout, and, eventually, to a form of conceptual redaction that is the purest expression of condensational poetry I can conceive of.

I’ve always been fascinated by architecture, especially the inner workings of a structure. The supports, the columns, the cladding, the interior workings. And in approaching art, it is the book that becomes the structure, the individual pages rooms to tour, all of it adding to a beautiful architectural mass. I think there’s a lot of cross-pollination between something like Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness whose premise boils down to how we surround ourselves with spaces that blossom pleasure and the way humans surround themselves with art that produces pleasure. So it is with the projects I attempt to create. I surround, condense, and reflect back.

I’m certain most readers will be familiar with the famous six word story about baby shoes that may or may not actually be Hemingway’s and examples abound of minimally constructed prose and poetry across the net and in anthologies such as Flash Fiction Forward, Hint Fiction, Twitter fiction, One Sentence Poems, Monkey Bicycle’s one sentence story feature, and others. Basically, too many to bother naming here.

In thinking of architecture and how it blends with poetic brevity, I keep mentally returning to a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago, specifically their miniatures section where I was fascinated at the detail, the care, the artisan-ship that went into each magical house on perhaps a Lego-man scale.[1]  While all of those aforementioned publications and forms have a place in the world of how-small-can-writing-get-while-still-being-impactful, they all left something to be desired. They are the photographs to the expedition I always seek in my work. They were glimpses up the side of a mountain I wanted to climb every peak of. Ultimately, this led me to wanting to build out a redaction of an already full work of fiction. To make a full miniature house instead of just a gorgeous table or, say, a cornice or a gargoyle[2]

I started with the general blackout method using Camus’ The Stranger, moved to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and finished my initial blackout trilogy with The Great Gatsby, all three portions having now been published by Sein Und Werden Books. I took a Sharpie to every page in each of those books and am still quite pleased with what I produced. But it still left something on the table. Those projections didn’t fully capture what I believed redaction work might achieve, not to mention the tedium in crossing out unused lines of text with a black marker.[3]

How to proceed? Well, I returned to the way I constructed my own poetry. Often using couplets, short lines, clipped phrases, lowercasing. All things redacting from a source text allowed and even encouraged. So I began to leverage a siphoning process, a lifting of words from a source text to create structured, original poems. Of course rules would still apply. Each poem comes from exactly one page, or as near as possible to that. Each poem can only use the words that exist on the page before me and I do not change the order of the words on the page. I also do not pull more than three consecutive words as I’m not interested in quoting and my projects do not apply to the same brainwaves as someone like David Shields or Kenneth Goldsmith. The poems themselves always stay small (they could hardly be otherwise), often not building beyond a few lines, probably at an average of twenty-five words. When I lift them, they still retain their architecture, as if I were pulling bricks from a wall. Another builder might come along, see my bricks, and be able to easily slot them back from where I took them. Pulling words in this way allows me to employ my own structure while also lending each poem a higher readability.[4]

Something else my new trajectories wanted to get at was the essence of the source material. Not just retaining the words of the original authors but the ethos, the scope of their writing, the themes. I wanted to write the story behind the story. The condensation on the windowsill from their rain shower. For this new method, I started with The Road by Cormac McCarthy, then proceeded to Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. In each, the central conflict, the ideas, and the philosophy transferred into the poems I made while redacting. They are McCarthy’s words. They are Calvino’s sentences. But they become my poems. Something that I could not have written without their productions, but also something they could not have conceived of either. I think of these creations as companions to what those authors have written. An homage of sorts, as I would never bother to do this with work I didn’t believe had incredible merit.

I went beyond feeling inspired by these authors. I explored their universes and I reported back what I found in glimpses, in pastiches, in broad strokes and achingly small units. I went to fiction to find my poetry. I went to fiction to find just how small I could get while still retaining not just beauty, but purpose, philosophy, a consistent heartbeat.




[1] Looking for a more elegant comparison than chunky plastic? Perhaps the new movie Downsizing might have characters who would be right at home, those conservationally-conscious denizens. Though at this point I can’t help but point out Honey I Shrunk the Kids might have gotten there first with the shrinkage idea. Those kids would have fit perfectly in a late 18th century tudor abode or else the early 19th century duplex (here my accuracy may be waning).

[2] I can hardly claim to be original in this sort of endeavor. There’s one quite well-known work of an author fully blacking out a classic work of fiction (name and title escape me) though in that project the author beautified the process and made each page into a work of art alongside finding choice words. In another instance, I stumbled across an author with a blog called Erasing Infinite whose goal is to create a poem from each page of Infinite Jest. I imagine that project isn’t finished yet.

[3]  Doing blackout means destroying the source text, something I quickly overcame, especially considering, while they were masterworks I took to task, millions of other copies were floating about the world and the destruction of one would hardly jeopardize Camus’ status as widely read and historically necessary. However, books, when well made, do not come apart easily. That kind of deconstruction is not something I crave.

[4]  Something blackout poetry struggles to achieve is a guidance for the reader. While doing away with stanzas and line breaks and all that tradition, it loses any structure to tell a reader how to proceed and in so doing, becomes stilted, sometimes awkward, however illuminating the words on their own might be.




Michael Prihoda is a poet, editor, and teacher, living in central Indiana with his wife and the dream of having a pet llama. He is the author of five poetry collections, the latest of which is The First Breath You Take After You Give Up (Weasel Press, 2016).