Headline Poetry is a good introductory project to get students thinking about using words in artistic and unexpected ways. An interesting aspect of this project is that it asks students to create a personal stream of consciousness poem out of randomly found words of everyday culture.

The project can be easily completed in one or two class periods.

Newspapers and magazines
Glue or glue sticks
Construction paper—deep or vivid colors usually work best

Introduce students to the work of Dada artists and poets. Discuss why artists in the beginning of the 20th century began appropriating words and images from printed sources. Ask whether students consider this a valid way to make art. Have students suggest and collect examples of popular culture—music, TV shows, or rock videos that make use of appropriated, re-contextualized images and words.

For an introduction to chance poetry, try Tristan Tzara’s recipe for writing Dada poetry. (See the Context Chapter.) However, this may irritate students too much and thus may be unwise as an introductory activity.

Divide students into groups—three or four students at each table or grouping of desks.
Ask students to randomly cut out words from the headlines. Tell them not to be consciously selective. Allow their minds and hands to freely wander. Have students stand on the same side of the table so that as they select words and lay them down on the table the words will all be facing in the same direction.

Begin by asking each student to gather 20 or 30 words. This will take only 5 or 6 minutes. After students cut out the requisite number of words, survey the words and then ask them to cut another 20 or 30 words. You may want to repeat this procedure several times. You could, of course, ask the students to cut out 50 to 75 words at once, but if you do this many students will complain this is too difficult. It’s actually not that time-consuming or difficult—most students start to enjoy the process and cut more words than required.

It’s a good idea to suggest that students use different sections of the newspaper in order to get a range of vocabulary. Also, suggest that each student spend one “cutting session” cutting words from the headlines of magazines. It can be interesting to discuss how the vocabulary drawn from various newspaper sections or magazines creates a different vocabulary to describe experience.

Each student selects a piece of colored construction paper. Deep colors will have a tendency to emphasize the rectangular structure of each word rectangle. Words on white paper may look lost unless the space on the paper around each word is closely cropped and the words are then closely spaced.

Pre-cut the paper for the class. When cutting the paper, consider the relationship of the scale of the paper to the scale of the words. In the first version of this project, we used 9-inch-square paper. This allowed space for enough words to make an interesting poem, but the regularity of the square did not seem to encourage experimentation with the layout and composition. In a later version, we used long, narrow sheets and this tended to produce more visually dynamic pieces.

Students begin writing poems by selecting words and laying them out on their papers. Do not stop now to glue the words down. This inhibits the unconscious flow of meaning making and prevents spontaneous re-arranging as the words of the composition of the poem continues.

Explain to students that there can be no failures in this project. All that the project requires is surrender to the process. If the student artists “go with the flow,” the projects will be an automatic success because the intent of the project is to introduce students to historical (and still valid) methods for tapping the creative imagination.

Explain to students that when they are in the initial stages of a poem or artwork, they can use Dada and Surrealistic techniques to mine the wealth of the unconscious, rather than sitting and fretting about not having any ideas today. When artists don’t have a clear direction in mind, they engage in creative play.

After the poem is complete, suggest that students may wish to fine-tune the arrangement of the words as they glue it down.

Each student reads his or her poem to the class. Students should “stand and deliver” with style and conviction. Tell students about Dada cabarets and provocative performances. Encourage students to read in strange or experimental styles. (Many teens will draw on knowledge of rap and hip-hop styling.)

If this project is used early in the year, it can set a climate for un-self-conscious experimentation and for students taking responsibility to engage in idea generating activities throughout the year. It also teaches students to immerse themselves in a process and then to step back, consider, fine tune, and then judge the results.

Organizing a classroom "poetry slam," helps students understand that they are part of a creative community and that part of their task in the artroom is to share art and ideas and respond to the work of other students.

Consider submitting some of the poems to the school’s literary magazine or newspaper.

Consider creating a Dada performance for a school assembly or talent show.

Consider creating small poetry posters and posting them in unexpected places around the school and community.

Consider reproducing the poems as transparencies using a xerox machine or scanner and printer. Using an overhead project, create a changing poetry installation on the school hallways or cafeteria walls.

Click here to print out process plans for the Headline Poetry project.