“These aren’t as pretty as some of the pictures on your blog, but then, my studio ain’t as pretty as most of the other studios, either. You’ll see I have two desks: one’s digital, one’s analog.”
Austin Kleon is a writer and artist. He’s best known for his Newspaper Blackout Poems–poetry made by redacting newspaper articles with a permanent marker. His first book,Newspaper Blackout, was published by Harper Perennial in 2010. New York Magazine called the collection “brilliant” and The New Yorker said the poems “resurrect the newspaper when everyone else is declaring it dead.” He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Meghan, and their dog, Milo.
FROM YOUR DESKS: How do you work?
AUSTIN KLEON: I have a 9-6 job, so I have to be really structured about when I make stuff. I have three different blocks of time every day: my 20-minute bus ride to and from work, my hour lunch break, and two or three hours after dinner before bed. I wrote my first book just on the bus and in the basement at my old job.
On the bus, I’m usually doodling in my sketchbook while I listen to podcasts, trying to come up with ideas that I’ll work on later. Sometimes I’ll whip out my iPad and my Boxwave stylus and make blackout poems with the NYTimes app and Brushes, or I’ll make a stupid song up in Garageband.
Lunch is usually for reading. When I get home, I have two desks in my office — one’s “analog” and one’s “digital.” The analog desk has nothing but markers, pens, pencils, paper, and newspaper. Nothing electronic is allowed on the desk — this is how I keep myself off Twitter, etc. This is where most of my work is born. The digital desk has my laptop, my monitor, my scanner, my Wacom tablet, and a MIDI keyboard controller for if I want to record any music. (Like a lot of writers, I’m a wannabe musician.) This is where I edit, publish, etc.
I’ve always liked the library more than the classroom.
FYD: Name your three favorite working tools.
AK: That’s easy: newsprint, Sharpie, and legal paper.
FYD: Favorite Sharpies?
AK: Fine tip + Chisel FTW.
FYD: For those who don’t know your work (or have perhaps been living in a cave) how was your Newspaper Blackout project conceived?
AK: Newspaper Blackout started in 2005. I was struggling with a plain ol’ case of writer’s block, and I started cutting pictures out of the newspaper and collaging them in my sketchbook, hoping to get ideas for short stories. I soon realized that I was neglecting the biggest chunk of the paper, that is, the words. So I took one of my drawing markers to the paper, and what I ended up with were little poems. I started posting them to my blog. Slowly, ever so slowly, people started noticing them, which encouraged me to make more. Three years later I had a book deal, and two years after that, I started a blog where folks could post their own poems at Newspapser Blackout. It now has a pretty large following — larger than most literary journals.
FYD: What newspaper do you use?
AK: I almost exclusively use The New York Times -- my wife and I have subscribed since we were in college, it’s got nice typography, layout, and a bunch of words in it, which sounds silly, but it’s not too easy to find a paper with a lot of words these days…
FYD: When words are inked out; how does it change the page?
AK: It adds a layer to the reading experience — folks see the words floating in the sea of black, and they string those together, but then they start wondering about what’s underneath. It’s changed the way I read — when I read now I hunt for areas of text that I can file away. It’s a type of marginalia — I’m not sure it’s any different from when readers underline passages in books.
Reading is everything.
FYD: Your “How To Steal Like An Artist” has been a big internet hit. How did you concept the idea?
AK: “How To Steal” is the result of half a decade of wondering about how to be an artist. I originally wrote it for a convocation speech I was giving to a group of students at Broome Community College in upstate New York. I’ve written about all 10 of the points before on my blog, but it took me a few weeks to collect all the material, organize it, and shape it into one coherent piece.
AK: This line from Charles Portis’s Gringos: “The trick is to make yourself first useful and then necessary.”
FYD: What advice would you give to Charlie Brown?
AK: “It gets better…kinda.”
FYD: I was just glancing at your Reading Year. Is reading a continuing education or maybe we’re still in school learning from other masters?
AK: Reading is everything. Once in a while someone will say to me, “Oh, I like to write, but I don’t like to read,” and I immediately know they won’t be any good. How could they be?
I heard The RZA say in an interview, “Whether I went to school or not, I would always study.” Education is one thing. School is another. They don’t necessarily overlap. I’ve always liked the library more than the classroom.
For me, reading leads to the desire to make art. I read a lot of dead writers and writers who live far away, so the only way for me to have a conversation with them is to write something of my own.
Nothing electronic is allowed on the desk —
FYD: Ghostbusters remains the most quoted movie in my family. Here’s one from Ray: “Uhhh… this magnificent feast here represents the *last* of the petty cash). What is your favorite GB quote?
AK: Oh, that’s so tough. Ghostbusters is my favorite, of course, but Ghostbusters 2 has more quotable one-liners. I like to quote Janosz and his accent a lot: “He is Vigo! You are like the buzzing of flies to him!” and “there are many perks to being the mother of a living god” and at work, we like to point at work and say, “Everything you are doing is bad. I want you to know this.” But I think, overall, I’m going to have to go with Egon: “Print is dead.”