Imitation is the best kind of flattery. All creative people, whether they be writers, artists, dancers, singers or actors, know that. Think about the performers on a TV show like “The Voice,” who sometimes perform the song of a judge they are targeting. Sometimes, it is imitation that gets them on the team of their dreams. It is the same with poetry.
Once you decide to write a poem, it often feels as if you are on a quest for the perfect word, the perfect image, or the perfect idea. In many ways a poem is a treasure and the writing of a poem is a dangerous treasure hunt. You never know what you might happen upon once you start writing.
Let’s take a look at a kind of poem called the cento. Cento is a 16th-century Latin word, meaning “patchwork.” A cento is crafted from “stolen” or found sources. Each line in a cento is taken from a source and putting these lines together weaves them into a patchwork of lines.
Many people think of the cento as a sort of “collage-poem.” A collage is made by combining images, texts and textures of different mediums and sizes. Similarly, a cento is created by patching together many found lines to create a poem.
Of course, stealing is terrible and every artist must give credit where credit is due, so at the bottom of every cento is a note where the writer lists the names of his or her source texts in the order that they appear in the lines of the poem.
For your cento, you will be using the At Home section to create a poem of five to seven lines. Your lines can be phrases from articles, headlines, quotes or even photo captions. To cut and paste your cento, follow the steps below.
Hunt, or skim through the paper for lines that speak to you. Maybe your eye will settle on a sentence that uses interesting language, like a vibrant verb or a compelling adjective; maybe you will find a sentence that includes a description of an image you admire, or maybe you will find a line that refers to something that resonates with you, like a mention of a season, a color or an emotion. Keep hunting for your treasured lines. You may already have a topic in mind, or your topic may come to you once you have your lines cut out and you really examine them.
Though this poem will be your own creation, the lines are not. Take out a piece of paper, or you can use a laptop or phone and write each line down and then write down the author of the article that line came from. You will need this later.
Thieve (or Cut)
If you are working from the print newspaper, cut out the lines you have found and place them on a flat surface. Or copy them to a document on your phone.
Look at your individual lines and start playing around with their order, as you stretch them out like snippets of yarn on a table or floor. Could one line jump off another? If so, put that pair to the side. Keep finding connections. Imagine these stolen lines to be threads you are weaving together in meaning, image or emotion.
Once you have laid out your lines, think about how to put them together. If you are still deciding what your poem is about, perhaps focus on an emotion, a place or an image. Your topic is up to you. Let these borrowed words spark something creative inside you.
When you’re ready, decide what line you want to start with and what line you want to end with. Laying these lines out as a frame will get you motivated. Then, start laying out your other lines. If something seems wrong, move it around, or cut it. You may even want to look for another line to substitute for it.
Paste your lines on paper or on a document, and you have your cento. Make sure to carefully write out, or type your sources.
Congratulations. You have now written a cento with the generous help of others!
Sources for Leah Umansky’s cento, drawn from the Nov. 8 issue of At Home: At Home cover, Courtney Rubin, Anna Goldfarb, Tara Parker-Pope, Joseph Burns, Anna Goldfarb, Anna Goldfarb