“things seemed to be breaking: visual poems” by Stuart Kestenbaum; Deerbrook Editions, Cumberland, Maine, 2021; 136 pages, paperback, $18.50.

“Found poetry” is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. It’s made when words, phrases and sometimes entire passages from texts such as newspaper articles, advertising copy, government documents or anything else are selected out and re-arranged as poetry. Or whatever.

It’s been around since about the time Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal for an art exhibit in New York City in 1917. “The Fountain,” as he called it, was the first celebrated piece of found art. Dadaist and Surrealist writers did similar things with words through the 1920s, ’30, ’40s. By the 1950s the Beat poets, under the influence of William S. Burroughs’ determined efforts to expose the vacancies in common sense, made “cut-ups,” in which lines, phrases and strips of words are clipped from manuscripts, magazines or books, shuffled, then pieced together randomly, or in whatever order seemed appropriate. Or inappropriate. In Maine’s wing of avant-garde poetry in the 1970s, Portland’s Contraband poets made cut-up experiments of their own.

A form of found poetry called erasure (aka blackout, aka redaction) poetry appeared in 1965 when New York City artist Doris Cross painted over parts of an old dictionary and published it. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics claims that on the rising tide of the internet, “in the 21st century, it is difficult to find poetry that does not have some ‘found’ component.” I can only say, this is not my experience. Of all the poetry that comes onto my radar, found poetry is not a frequent visitor.

But, a new book by Stuart Kestenbaum, who has just concluded his term as Maine’s poet laureate, is just such an endeavor. In “things seemed to be breaking,” he offers a collection of erasure poems, each of which is an image of a block of text with all but one word or phrase blacked out, or “redacted” to use a term suitably ironic from government document secrecy processes. The poet then places at the top, or top and bottom of the redacted text a few words to create a whole new context for the unerased word or phrase. So for one example, in one block of blacked-out text remains the phrase “what’s wrong. I’ve got everything”, and the poet has placed at the top the words “GIVE SOME” and at the bottom “AWAY”. Delightfully ironic and morally instructive.

Each one is a little blast of humor, irony, sometimes homely sentimentality, sometimes, as required by literary law now, covering sociopolitical themes. “HOW TO BE A POET / I reached for the nearest piece of paper  — “. “HOW ABOUT NOW? / the time for justice”. “MODERN / He could not understand what was happening / TIMES”. “FIRST / choose to love. / COMMANDMENT”. The black and white images are artfully presented, quality we’ve come to expect in Jeffrey Haste’s Deerbrook Editions books.

Stuart Kestenbaum, of Deer Isle, served as Maine poet laureate 2016-2021 and ran Maine Public Radio’s “Poems from Here” program. His previous collections include “Only Now,” “Prayers and Run-on Sentences” and “How to Start Over,” among others, available from Deerbrook Editions and online book sellers.

The Maine Arts Commission reports it will be accepting applications for the next poet laureate until June 1. Among the committee members is Gov. Janet Mills, a poet herself. For information contact the Maine Arts Commission.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].

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