Review: The Blackout Poems of Christian Shockley

by John Ellispoetry

Nineteen years ago, I took an “Oral Interpretation of Poetry” class. The class is exactly how the name describes it. The professor, or whoever named the class, gets an “A” for truth in advertising. To get an “A” in the class was almost as easy; it was a well known secret that the student should go to the professor’s office, ask which poem he or she should perform for the next assignment, and then allow the professor to show him or her exactly how to perform the poem. Mimic the professor’s interpretation, and the student was assured an “A.” Attempt to interpret the poem under his or her own power, on any level, and the student would be lucky to get a “C.” If I hadn’t skipped the final exam, I would’ve gotten an “A” in the class. In other words, the only class that I’ve ever had that was specifically about poetry, I learned how to mimic my professor and pretty much nothing else. Which probably raises the question, why in the world am I reviewing a book of poetry?

I’m of the strongly held opinion that poetry should be a part of people’s lives. Unfortunately, stringent literature teachers[1] have scared many away from enjoying poetry. Billy Collins, the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, explaining how high school is often “the place where poetry goes to die,” pithily wrote, “literary devices form a field of barbed wire that students must crawl under to get to ‘what the poet is trying to say,’ a regrettable phrase which implies that every poem is a failed act of communication”[2]. Don’t worry if you can’t tell the difference between iambic pentameter and ballad meter, poetry can and should be read and enjoyed on bright sunny days, gray days, and all the days in-between. Taking the time to sit down with Edward Arlington Robinson or William Carlos Williams or whoever is your favorite poet will almost never be a waste.

If you’re short on favorite poets, allow me to recommend Christian Robert Shockley. I should probably point out that Christian is a friend of mine. And lest you falsely and hurtfully accuse me of being unethical, know that writing this review has been difficult (and I haven’t even gotten to the actual review). Not because it pains me to recommend him, but because I’ve never written a poetry review before and am still, almost five hundred words in, trying to figure out what I’m doing. My selfless efforts should tell you how much I like Christian; I mean, should tell you how much I like Christian’s poetry. It should also be pointed out, in the issue of journalistic integrity, being Christian’s friend didn’t score me a free copy; I paid full price[3] for Found: A Collection of Blackout Poems, and it has proven to be money well spent.

Blackout poetry was foreign to me until Christian Shockley began posting some of his creations on Facebook. I was fascinated and loved reading them, and began looking forward to each new poem. As a storyteller myself, the compactness and completeness of the medium impressed me, and Christian exhibited a knack for creating pithy stories that resonated with me. If you are unfamiliar with blackout poetry, the poet creates a story using the words from another text – often a newspaper. The poet blackouts the unnecessary words, leaving behind a stark image that has a poem as its heart. In Found: A Collection of Blackout Poems, Christian has provided a helpful explanation and example of how he works. I would encourage you to buy his book, not only for the poetry, but because he explains the process much better than I did.

I do have a minor quibble with Christian’s otherwise interesting explanation. He wrote, “In many ways, this is lazy art and writing.” Well, Christian, sorry, but you’re wrong. In no way can your blackout poetry be classified as lazy. The talent and effort that it takes to read through a story on the trial of murder suspect Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter[4] and see another story in the form of a poem is not only admirable, but the artistry and effort involved are worthy of praise.

The book’s poetry is divided into three sections: “On Art, Beauty, and Books,” “Life and Other Stuff,” and “Her (Whoever She Is).” For me, the first section, “On Art, Beauty, and Books,” is the most inspirational. Inspirational in terms of reading Christian’s poems and not only being given the desire to create, but also to take the time to enjoy the creative acts of God and other Image Bearers more frequently than I do. And it’s not that the other two sections don’t inspire me in similar ways, because they do, it’s that by confronting me with short yet beautiful stories about art, beauty, and books, Christian stirs the artist in me.

The second section, “Life and Other Stuff,” is not only my favorite section, but also the meatiest. If you don’t believe that poems, much less very short ones, can possibly deserve the descriptor “meatiest,” I challenge you to buy Found: A Collection of Blackout Poems and, after reading “Life and Other Stuff,” explain to me why not. For me, the vivid images and possibilities conjured by “Fragment,” to name just one of my favorite poems from the collection, afforded me the doorways to getting lost in my imagination and thoughts. With a mere nine words, Christian Shockley succeeded in creating an imaginative challenge that I go back to on a regular basis.

“Her (Whoever She Is),” as can probably be guessed, contains the collection’s most personal poems. One of the things that become clear reading Christian’s confessions is that his idea of beauty is centered on the ability to communicate. Of course, as a poet, the vulnerability for “Her” to communicate with all aspects of herself, including her lungs in “Rhythmic Calm,” for example, is where beauty finds interesting layers for him. It becomes apparent that while beauty is important to Christian Shockley, his definition of the word doesn’t jive with pop culture’s oft-trumpeted definitions that are frequently and selfishly one-dimensional. Rounding out Found: A Collection of Blackout Poems, the poems found in “Her (Whoever She Is)” are warm reflections on relationship that will speak to anyone who understands that humans weren’t created to be alone.

But, as I’ve already mentioned, I’m probably not qualified to recommend poetry. It does mean something, however, that Found: A Collection of Blackout Poems created a desire in me to tell others about Christian Shockley’s poetry. The best thing to do is buy the collection for yourself, which can be done here, and make up your own mind. Whether it’s the poetry of Christian Shockley or not, and I’m sure that he’ll agree with me on this[5], find a poet that resonates with you. Sitting down with poetry is a good gift from God; but is, unfortunately, a pleasure that few allow themselves. Don’t allow your mean high school literature teachers to win.

[1] Not all literature teachers are stringent. In fact, only one of my literature teacher friends can be described as “stringent.”

[2] Billy Collins, Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry (New York: Random House, 2003), xiv.

[3] Including shipping and handling. I did get a short note from him in the package, but I was left with the impression that he does that with every order. If he doesn’t, he’s going to have to now.

[4] If I actually knew something about poetry and the barbed wire that Billy Collins wrote about, I could probably wax eloquent about the levels of irony found in a creator with the name Christian finding inspiration in the telling of the destructive exploits of someone named Christian. But I don’t, so I can’t, and I’ll just have to appreciate the dry humor of it all without defining any of it. Your loss, I guess.

[5] I don’t agree with me on this; Christian is just being polite. Buy his poetry! And buy it here!


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