Technique Dada Cut-Up Burroughs

to-make-a-dadaist-poem-by-tristan-tzaraThe idea for this post came while watching an episode of Luther. In one scene, Luther has spread crime photos across the floor. A detective enters, asking why the mess. Luther says he’s using the David Bowie decoupage technique. (I’m roughly paraphrasing, so forgive any inexactness.)

Ah-ha! I thought. The old William S. Burroughs cut-up technique! Was Bowie really a practitioner?

I ran to the internet to verify that Bowie was, in fact, a cutter-upper, and then to see his application, if possible.

The first result was the jackpot. Read a great Open Culture article on the subject of the “Cut-Up Technique”, found here.

With the article is a video of Bowie in the act of cutting-up that is gold-plated gloriousness.  Seriously. Go watch it.

The article scratches the surface of the cut-up technique. O.C. offers another that explains in greater detail how Burroughs did it:

From “To Make a Dadaist Poem,” by Burroughs:

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are – an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

(thanks to O.C. for that)

Is Cut-Up (or Decoupage) a practical tool in your creative writing toolbox? Try and see. I find that cutting-up and reassembling text can spark interesting, unusual phrases or visuals (e.g. “A bread slice swimming the ocean floor”). Ultimately, the approach yields the most benefits in my poetry, where ambiguity and abstractness are more appreciated.

Here’s a Dadaist poem I constructed. I sliced a paragraph from Stephen King’s book, Danse Macabre, randomly reassembled the scraps, and added a word or two as necessary, for coherency’s sake:

by Russell Richardson

The vaguest imitations
Leave us only
With Blake’s haunter,
Mad with fear
In ninety-nine of
one hundred cases.

But, somehow, it’s a
Dreamlike effect.

The unified tell us—
Protagonist after protagonist—
“If I did, you would go.”

Of the best horror
May have been
To destroy—
I think both Lovecrafts
Understood that,
And wise men before him
Who opened the door.

“I cannot describe it.”
I doubt that.
But so the tale ends.

Meh. It doesn’t resonate with me, because it didn’t come from me. I was thrilled that “But so the tale ends” tumbled out as the last line, which is a perfect placement. And the exercise was fun–in twenty minutes, I had a poem. But, alas, the work feels flat.

For my next exercise, and you can join me on this one, I’ll apply the cut-up technique to one of my traditionally written poems. Perhaps the results will produce a greater reverberation in me.

That’s all for today. Read the linked articles, please God don’t miss the awesome Bowie clip, and post your own cut-up experiences in the comments section below. Good luck with your writing!

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