Collage Techniques for Writers

College by Andrew Lundwall

Background

Collage is a technique that cuts up or excerpts parts of other things and reassembles them to create an altogether new whole. It is a technique that is perhaps best known in visual art, but it can also be used to create a wide variety of poems and prose.

Susan Howe collage poem

A literary collage is often characterized by its style. For example, there are collage works that deliberately show the original items being reused in the collage, and the “seams” between different elements. Susan Howe’s cut-up poems are examples of this technique.

Sometimes, writers use collage techniques to make the writing they have already done more strange or dissonant. Ted Berrigan’s sonnets are examples of this method, and this exercise on Global Voices Radio shows how Berrigan used collage techniques in these Sonnets.

The Cento (“patchwork”) is a poem composed entirely of lines from other poems, and the poem can be written to read as a seamless new whole. In other words, one would not know that the new poem was a collage of lines from other poets’ poems unless the author wanted to reveal this, just as Simone Muench does here.

Collages can also turn into large, book-length projects of fiction, nonfiction, or documentary poetry. William S. Burroughs’s novels are composed using cut-up techniques, literally cutting apart and reassembling text sources. The poet Edward Sanders composes book-length investigative poems using documentary collage techniques. The nonfiction writer David Shields writes books of nonfiction using collage that centers around a single topic.

Most importantly, collages can be a fun way to imagine new angles to familiar stories, such as the ransom-note retelling of the “Little Bo Beep” nursery rhyme below.

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Writing Ideas

Today, I have brought materials for you to choose what kind of collage most interests you. For any of the below, you can start with an idea or theme for your collage and find things that seem to fit, or you can freestyle it, finding what works in the midst of reassembling things.

  1. You can make a cut-up collage using scissors to cut out text and glue sticks to reassemble materials on construction paper.
  2. You can use the literary journals and books I brought to create a cento by copying and reassembling whole lines from other poets’ poems.
  3. You can make a ransom-note style collage that reimagines a familiar fairy tale or nursery rhyme.

Rationale

Collage writing techniques can be a great way to overcome times when you get stuck as a writer because you are using existing materials. Since what you are using is already “out there” for you to find, it takes the pressure off of you as a writer to generate new writing from inside your own brain.

Collage writing also makes you read poems and prose in new ways because you may be seeking out specific kinds of words or images that match with your overall theme. When you are finding the materials for a collage, you are actually doing a kind of intuitive research, making decisions about what goes with what and why, but it doesn’t feel like the research projects you are required to do for your classes.

Lastly, since collage is both a technique of visual art and writing, it can encourage you to pay attention to the visual aspects of the writing that you read, instead of just reading it for content or meaning, which is what you do most often in English class.

For Later

Using collage methods like the cento and the cut-up have a way of turning into bigger projects. Simone Muench’s “Wolf Centos” (see above) have become a book-length work. Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets is a popular book of collage poems. Many of the other writers listed have also used collage techniques to either create entire books or to use the collage methods to make large sections of books. Do you have a collage idea that you want to investigate and work on more?

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