Poetry Prompt: William Burroughs Cut Up


This post is part of a series of weekly found poetry prompts. If you have an idea for a found poetry source, email Senior Poetry Editor Beth Ayer.

The cut up method brings to writers the collage which has been used by painters for fifty years. And used by the moving and still camera. In fact all street shots from movie or still cameras are by the unpredictable factors of passers by and juxtaposition cut ups. And photographers will tell you that often their best shots are accidents . . . writers will tell you the same. The best writing seems to be done almost by accident but writers until the cut up method was made explicit– (all writing is in fact cut ups. I will return to this point)–had no way to produce the accident of spontaneity. You can not will spontaneity. But you can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors.

February 4th, 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of William S. Burroughs, Beat Generation writer and artist, and champion of the “Cut Up Method” of writing poetry. In honor of William Burroughs, choose any text and use some version of the cut up method to create an original poem. Burroughs describes one approach (source here) this way:

“Take a page. Like this page. Now cut down the middle and cross the middle. You have four sections: 1 2 3 4 … one two three four. Now rearrange the sections placing section four with section one and section two with section three. And you have a new page. Sometimes it says much the same thing. Sometimes something quite different…”

You may also choose to fold pages of text, or cut out lines, words, and phrases to mix together forming an original poem. Or try Tristan Tzara’s method, cutting out the words in a newspaper article, shaking them in a bag, and then removing them one by one and recording them in that order.

Please share the results in the comments!

For more on the 100th birthday of William Burroughs, see this recent piece from NPR about the author/artist’s later years spent living in Lawrence, Kansas.

All writing is in fact cut ups. A collage of words read heard overhead. What else? Use of scissors renders the process explicit and subject to extension and variation. – William S. Burroughs 


Scissors image by James Bowe 

Comments are closed.