Poetry hides in plain sight. Inspiration can be discovered in receipts, spam emails and to-do lists, according to followers of ‘found poetry,’ a literary trend fuelled by the pandemic.
Known as ‘poetic collage’ to some, and ‘remix poetry’ to others, a found poem is created by borrowing words, phrases and sentences from other sources or ‘texts’ and reframing them, imparting new meaning in the process. Words from a passage may be blacked out, or fresh words added, to reinterpet the text. The style is considered an outcome of Dadaism, a European art movement that surfaced in the wake of World War I.
“What is not a found poem?” asks Chennai-based renowned poet K. Srilata. Stating that all the words and sentences present in our head have been derived from elsewhere, she says, “In a sense, all poetry is found poetry... It is the juxtaposition of a new context against an old one that makes it inherently ‘found’”.
Shloka Shankar, a Bengaluru-based found poet and poetry instructor, acknowledges that although this style of verse is considered novel in India, the genre has enjoyed a gradual growth in interest. “Although it is more popular abroad, it has been picking up in India over the past year and a half”, she says. Her found poetry workshop ‘Poetry is everywhere’ is evidence of this. When she launched it in May 2020, little did she imagine that her pilot project would generate nearly 200 registrations. Today, she conducts hour-long virtual workshops on found poetry, and is all set to launch full-fledged four-week long workshops starting January 15.
An escape into poetry
It is no surprise that since the onset of the pandemic, poetry has come to the rescue of those processing stress and gloom. Addressing its therapeutic power, Srilata claims that writing is a way of staying hopeful. “We turn to poetry not for sympathy, but when we just want to be seen and heard,” she says.
She believes that this format is particularly useful in articulating life as it treats poetry as a conversation. “It acts as witness to a moment that you cannot otherwise share, regardless of whether it is a moment of personal or collective trauma”, she says.
Rohini Kejriwal, writer and founder of The Alipore Post, a community of writers and artists, says that found poetry has seen a reemergence during the pandemic. Her workshops, which she calls “meditative exercises”, give participants the chance to look at a page and find things that others cannot. Yet, Rohini believes that it is the words that find the poet. “The words come to you in very strange ways. They help you feel what is going on internally through the verses you find,” she says.
The genre is also a stressbuster as it shifts the onus from ‘writing’ to ‘finding’; there is less scope for error since the lines and phrases in a found poem are borrowed. This release from the pressure of originality can be liberating, especially during the pandemic, when days may seem monotonous. As Rohini says, “Poetry has always been about escaping the world and meeting myself on a page.”
Talking about how the process of writing can double as a coping mechanism, Shloka recalls an instance from a workshop conducted by The Poeming in October 2020 where participants were told to create a found poem sourced from Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel Jurassic Park . All the participants composed found poems based on the pandemic. “Subconsciously, all of us had been thinking about the pandemic,” she says.
Ramanujam, an amateur poet who began dabbling in found poetry during the pandemic, says he took to the genre since it was a great way to mitigate boredom at home. “Found poetry became an excellent productive outlet for me during this period”, he says. Online events became more essential since in-person classes had been suspended at this time.
As an instructor who conducts most of her sessions online, Shloka reveals that virtual platforms have been a boon in building communities, steering conversations, and clearing doubts. “Building a community ensures continuity in learning and sustains interest. Online communities also facilitate peer reviewing, which is another advantage”, she says. “I feel rewarded when asked doubts.”
The freedom in a lack of structure
The rising interest in poetry during the pandemic led poet Aswin Vijayan to The Quarantine Train, an online poetry community of which he is the managing editor. “It has been a happy tool for those who cannot find the right words”, he says, calling found poetry “a type of ventriloquism”. “It can be used effectively in any context where you feel trapped and wordless. You borrow words and insert your emotions into it”, he says.
The core appeal, however, lies in its malleability. It can take the shape of a found haiku, a found sonnet or a found acrostic. Even when inspired by the same source, the poem’s contours are sculpted by each poet’s present frame of mind and approach to the text. In fact, Shloka promises that a found poem drawn from a text today is sure to be very different from one drawn from the same text the next day.
While the community fostered by The Alipore Post is an active mix of students and professionals aged between 11 and 30, The Quarantine Train has drawn participation from those older than 18. Although The Alipore Post and The Quarantine Train have largely been operating online, they are eager to shift to offline forums. The Quarantine Train hopes to establish local chapters and slowly initiate offline meetings, while The Alipore Post is set to host a day-long event in 2022 for poets, musicians and artists. “After staying home for so long, poetry has become a very freeing space for everyone to explore”, says Rohini. “This pandemic has made poets out of us all”.