Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Blackout Poetry Q&A: An Interview with Jessica McHugh

As we near the end of this year’s #NationalPoetryMonth celebrations, we wanted to highlight the diversity and creativity that the entire genre can offer to new and old fans of poetry alike. We’re absolutely honored to have Jessica McHugh chat with us a little bit about her Bram Stoker Award-nominated collections of blackout poetry, and to give us some information on what “blackout poetry” is in general!

We loved learning more about this unique format of poetry, and are so appreciative to Jess for hanging out!

Interview with Jessica McHugh

Cassie: Can you tell us a little bit about what “blackout poetry” is, in your own words?

Jessica: Blackout Poetry, also known as Found/Erasure/Micro Poetry, is created by taking an existing page of prose, finding a poem hidden within the text, and then using different artistic methods to remove the unused text. This can be as simple as literally blacking it out with a marker, or as complex as using papercraft with moveable parts to bring the poem to life, like I did with a couple of Alice in Wonderland commissions last year. It’s a blast!

C: What got you started with blackout poetry? Do you remember the first book you used to create one of your poems?

J: I’d tried it once a few years before I started making it in earnest. Inspired by a blackout poem given to me by John Edward Lawson and Jennifer Barnes of Raw Dog Screaming Press, I tried it with a Game Informer magazine . . . and I’m pretty sure I was terrible at it, so I’m not sure why I decided I would make blackout poems as thank you gifts after a bunch of people donated money to help dig my husband and me out of a financial crisis in 2019. But I’m so glad I did. At the Dollar Tree, looking for a book to play around in, I was incredibly lucky to find Let Me Tell You: Stories, Essays & Other Writings by Shirley Jackson. Once I started making pieces from that book, I couldn’t stop. I made around 30 pieces that first week, some of which I’m keeping forever to remind me of when my life changed forever.

C: What is the typical process of creating one of your poems, from start to finish? Does the process differ for commissions versus personal work?

J: Ha! I’m going to try to be as concise as possible here, so bear with me!

I open the book and let my eyes run wild, latching onto various words to serve as a possible anchor word or phrase/subject of the poem. Some pages yield nothing. Though, oddly, they might yield something at a later date. The first time I tried to make poetry from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I couldn’t find anything. A little over a year later, I made enough for a Stoker Award nominated collection.

Once I find my anchor and figure out the driving force of the poem, I explore where it can take me, like an artistic word search. Sometimes every word is perfect as is, and sometimes I have to build the words I need. Sometimes the reading direction is left to right, top to bottom, and sometimes it’s more atypical. That’s where the blackout designs come in. Not only do I want them to embody the feeling and topic of the poem, I want it to steer the reader’s eye as naturally as possible.

I’ll often sit with a poem for a bit before adding any of the artistic elements. With consideration to the position of the words I’ve selected, I ask myself what colors and shapes come to me when I read the poem. If nothing comes to mind, I consider whether it would work best as a collage, or if something more illustrative would best serve the piece. Because every poem has a different personality, they require different approaches, and I love experimenting with methods to best exhibit them.

The only difference with commissions comes from me asking the client if they have a specific color scheme or theme in mind. It’s funny, I find I’m often tasked with looking for themed poems that feel like the opposite of the source material. For instance, looking for romance in Where the Red Fern Grows and extreme horror in Charlotte’s Web. But pushing boundaries with artistic experimentation is one of the things I love most about this medium.

C: Do you feel a difference in the way you’re able to express yourself creatively via black-out poetry as opposed to a more “traditional” type of written poetry, or writing in general?

J: I feel like blackout poetry is . . . I hesitate to say “easier” because writing a great poem or piece of flash fiction, as these sometimes feel, is certainly not easy, especially with word/space limitations. But I do feel like it eliminates some of the stress of starting with a blank page. It’s comforting opening a book you’ve known all your life and discovering a new sort of magic inside. I’ve also craved making visual art since I was a little kid but believed I wasn’t good at drawing, painting, or sculpting (I’ll expand on this in a bit), and blackout poetry finally satisfied that lifelong need. The process, while not without its anxieties, is more relaxing than any other writing I do.

C: I know that you’ve spoken publicly about how working in this medium helps you process and deal with grief and personal things you’ve been through. If you’re open to it, would you be able to talk a bit about what you find healing or therapeutic about the practice?

J: Absolutely. Because of word constraints, blackout poetry urges you to use metaphor in a unique way that has personally allowed me to access and communicate feelings that prose has not. And because it’s an artform built around omission and deconstruction, it allowed me to work through the complicated grief over my brother’s death from an overdose in January 2021. When he passed away, I knew I had to cope differently than I did when my cat died a few years prior, because writing through my grief caused me to utterly ruin the end of the novel I was working on.

But I did need a distraction, so I started coloring old blackout poems I’d written and set aside. That helped amazingly, because my brain and heart didn’t have to do any heavy lifting. That eventually led me into making a few new poems. Two weeks after he passed, I was very superficially discussing what classic, woman-penned novel I might use as a follow-up to Frankenstein when The Secret Garden came up. For some reason, I glommed right onto that, and the next day, my friend Kahla gave me her childhood copy to play in. That’s how my most recent Stoker Award nominated collection Strange Nests hatched into existence.

Creating those poems not only comforted me and allowed me to unpack some heavy familial issues, it also evolved my art. When I started the design portion of Strange Nests, I was making collages using the book’s beautiful Graham Rust illustrations, but I stopped that immediately once Jacob Haddon of Apokrupha Publishing warned me those images probably weren’t legal to use. And he was right. I did speak to the talented Mr. Rust regarding using his work, but he was unable to grant me permission, so I took it upon myself to recreate the poems I’d made with my own attempts at illustration. It turned out I was more capable than I thought. Or maybe I’d been so traumatized by my brother constantly telling me I was terrible at art when we were younger that his death released me from the fear of being a failure. I know that sounds kinda awful, but maybe, in a way, grief set me free.

C: I’ve noticed that a lot of your poetry has gorgeous, brightly colored artwork to accompany it. What decision making goes into adding art alongside the poem? Is there a specific balance you try to achieve, or do you just go with feeling?

J: It’s definitely more of a feeling. If nothing comes to mind during the writing process, I will literally stare at the page and wait for the colors and shapes of the poem’s personality to present themselves. I interpret and execute that as well as possible while being mindful of the poem’s legibility. There are times when what I envisioned doesn’t work out, but I’ve had very few instances (honestly, I can’t only recall one) in which I had to trash the poem due to an artistic error. For the most part, even when I make mistakes, I’m able to fix them in a way I feel embodies the subject of the piece. It’s a very forgiving art form.

C: What sorts of tips would you give to someone interested in trying their hand at black-out poetry? Are there any tools of the trade or special rules that you’ve found yourself following as you work?

J: Start with light pencil marks when you’re building the poem, especially when using older books with fragile pages and ink that might lift out easily. If you’re having difficulty deciding how to start your poem, try phrases that might lead into metaphors like, “I am . . . ,” “Love is . . . ,” etc.

If you accidently color over a word you wanted to keep, you can usually find that word elsewhere in the book, cut it out, and glue it over the mistake.

And the only rule I follow explicitly when it comes to blackout poetry is: if it feels like hard work, stop and reassess. Blackout poetry should be fun and freeing. There’s no reason to force anything, because there’s always another page, or another way to look at the current page.

C: Can you recommend some of your favorite women (past &/or present) that are writing dark speculative poetry? If you have any favorite collections to highlight, that’d also be great!

J: I love every Stephanie Wytovich poetry collection I’ve read, but Brothel is my favorite. Linda A Addison’s work has been very influential to me over the last few years, and I’m constantly rereadingher collaboration with Alessandro Manzetti, The Place of Broken Things. Likewise, Sara Tantlinger’s Cradleland of Parasites and Cina Pelayo’s Into the Forest & All the Way Through has gotten me grinning like a madwoman and weeping like a baby within the same day. Also, Under Her Skin, the new Black Spot Books dark poetry collection edited by Lindy Ryan and Toni Miller includes dozens of the best women (cis and trans alike) in horror poetry working today! Everyone should definitely check that out.

C: Do you have any upcoming projects or work that you’d like to talk about?

J: This summer, Ghoulish Books is rereleasing my coming-of-age madhouse horror novel, Rabbits in the Garden, and in November, they’ll be releasing the 1970s cult horror sequel, Hares in the Hedgerow. And although I haven’t started coloring any of the poems, I have already written many of the pieces that will be included in a forthcoming blackout poetry collection created from the pages of Little Women. I hope to go full-steam-ahead on that within the next few months! I’ll also be opening at various times for blackout poetry commissions on my website McHughniverse.com, so follow me on IG, Twitter, and Tiktok at @theJessMcHugh. Thank you so much!

Jessica McHugh is a novelist, poet, and internationally-produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had twenty-five books published in thirteen years, including her bizarro romp, “The Green Kangaroos,” her YA series, “The Darla Decker Diaries,” and her Bram Stoker Award-Nominated blackout poetry collections, “A Complex Accident of Life” and “Strange Nests.” For more info about publications and blackout poetry commissions, please visit McHughniverse.com.


Cassie is one of our core team members, and maintains our site interviews with authors and creating monthly themed content.

Find her online at her blog www.letsgetgalactic.com, Twitter as @ctrlaltcassie, or over at her Etsy store, where she sells clothing, coloring & activity books, bookmarks, art prints, DIY craft kits, & more!

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