How To Steal Your Way To A Stellar Poem


A lot of you have been asking, so here’s a little more about how I craft a klepto-collaborative poem.

My most recent efforts (available in the previous posts) for TEDx have been created from TED Talks by writing down words, word pairings and phrases as the event is going on in real-time.  During the breaks, I use the words like puzzle pieces–whose shapes adapt to any piece they’re put next to–to juggle the text and ideas around until I have something that I like, that’s different enough from the speaker’s usage to be fresh, unexpected, inventive, and yet still hold some of the spirit and flavor of each speaker’s intent.  I only have so much time during the breaks to play with the building block puzzle pieces of text, and then after the very last speaker of the day I have to go right up to the stage and read what I’ve crafted.  All the text I’ve lifted from the last session has to be woven into the overall tapestry without any break time in which to prepare.

It’s challenging; it can even be scary; it’s always exhilarating.  It’s one of the most creative and all-out adventuresome and gloriously fun experiences that I have. Here’s one of my favorite klepto-collaborative poems from a TEDx thus far, You Strike A Woman, You Strike A Rock.

This adrenaline-zipping live-action version of klepto-collaborative evolved from the  original version of “stealing” text from the printed page, as I did with the poems of Sylvia Plath. An excerpt of which lives here.  Right under that excerpt is the basic How To, written for Ann Leary‘s Wicked Good Life blog readers who were interested in understanding how I arrived at the end product .  Which is this:

I made copies of about a dozen of my favorite Plath poems, then took a pen & went through them underlining words, word pairings & phrases that I liked & felt drawn to. I typed them all up & then cut them out (though you could simply use the cut & paste feature of a word processor), then arranged & rearranged the strips of paper on my desk – like a flexible kind of word puzzle. Instead of a picture, the puzzle pieces will form a story; instead of the puzzle pieces only fitting together one right way, they will fit together in almost-endless ways. You get to decide, in the end, which words/phrases will go next to each other, to create images & ideas – to tell your story in poetic form.

I use this as a poetry exercise when I teach. Children,especially, respond to the hands-on interactivity, to the wide-openness, to the surprising mix of images & ideas that can occur. For example, if a handful of words chosen from a text list among them, say, black, pillow, dog & shadow – it’s common, and quite OK, for black to end up the describing word for the dog or the shadow, even the pillow. It gets exciting, though, when the more unpredictable choices happen – like shadow dog or dog-black shadow. And isn’t the idea of a pillow dog much more fun than the every day dog pillow?

Often, I’ll pair two kids, have one choose the text & write it down on strips of pre-cut paper – then have the other kid arrange the word puzzle into a poem. They write that poem in their notebooks, and then the word-chooser gets to mix up & then remake those same words into his/her own poem. They always seem to think it some kind of wonderful magic that such different poems/images/stories can be crafted out of the same group of words. And, truth be told, it is magic. my favorite kind.

A klepto-collaborative found poem can be created using any kind of existing text, from books to songs to newspapers to the words taken from billboards as you pass them on a road trip (only for passengers, of course!). It can be a therapeutic exercise, “recycling” words/phrases from your divorce decree, or taking a stack of letters from your child & re-crafting a poem/letter/story back to them. It’s similar to refrigerator poetry magnets, except you get the freedom to steal choose the words/phrases from any source you like. Use a group of Tweets, take words from Ellen Degeneres’ or Jimmy Fallon’s monologues. Eavesdrop in your favorite local coffee shop or bike shop. Films, songs, shows, a collection of commercials. There are no limits, which makes the universe–everyone & everything in it–your everlasting source-material!

I’ve also created poems where I both “klepto” from and “collaborate” with myself.  One such poem was published in Luna (a literary magazine I love & highly recommend) by Ray Gonzalez, a poet I greatly admire.  Having him deem any poem of mine reader-worthy was quite the thrill (and still is, every time I think about it, if I’m being honest!). Here’s a variation of that poem published in Luna.  What I love about this hop-scotching form is that I can create thousands of variations. Take note of when the original given set of lines/words/ideas leaves off & the new permeations of those words begin:


There was an immaculate home, plastic over the furniture.

There was a freckled girl, shadows along her arms.

There was a beloved dream, horses across a beach.

There was a volatile mother, a silver-plated hairbrush.

There was a forgotten dollhouse, echoes inside the attic.

There was a Bewitched lunchbox, secrets on a merry-go-round.

There was a blue closet, a flashlight beside books.

There was a beleaguered father, Jack Daniel’s by the TV Guide.

There was a blind church, Christ on her tongue.

There was a pale woman, stories behind her eyes.

There was a stray cat, grace against the window.

There was a broken promise, blood on her hands.

There was a lost baby, hope down the river.

There was a falling sky, breadcrumbs in the woods.

There was a volatile grace, plastic on her dream.

There was a Bewitched cat, a silver-plated promise.

There was a blind father, hands across tongue.

There was a dollhouse mother, echoes over horses.

There was a stray grace, blood over secrets.

There was a falling cat, a promise in a lunchbox.

There was a plastic mother, TV Guide on a merry-go-round.

There was a freckled cat, a woman by Christ.

There was a stray father, grace in the secrets.

There was a broken flashlight, horses in the church.

There was a volatile home, a hairbrush across hands.

There was a beloved baby, arms in the sky.

There was a TV Guide hope, Jack Daniel’s tongue.

There was a broken girl, a merry-go-round in her mother.

There was a Bewitched attic, horses in her lunchbox.

There was a freckled flashlight, grace inside books.

There was a beleaguered hope, secrets against the shadows.

There was a forgotten girl, breadcrumbs along Christ.

There was a Jack Daniel’s sky, stories in hands.

There was a falling home, a baby in the closet

There was a promise window, freckled beloved.

There was a blood church, the Bewitched woods.

There was a Bewitched father, broken by the mother.

There was a dollhouse mother, attic inside the woman.

There was a lost woman, blue over the baby.

There was a plastic baby, blood on the girl.

There was a pale girl, beloved by the father.

There was a forgotten father, falling across Christ.

There was a beleaguered Christ, broken over secrets.

There was a baby secret, blind inside the closet.

There was a closet girl, forgotten by grace.

There was a grace river, broken furniture.

There was a merry-go-round grace.

There was a silver-plated stray hope.

There was a window behind her tongue.

There was a pale promise in her stories.

There was a freckled sky inside the lunchbox.

There was a hairbrush behind the blind secrets.

There was a dream falling across dollhouse eyes.

There was a blind Christ in her merry-go-round arms.

There was a flashlight father inside Jack Daniel’s church.

There was a pale blue church cat beside a girl.

There was a TV Guide girl by her mother.

There was a shadows mother against her father

There was an echoes father lost across a river.

There was a blood river inside the baby.

There was a breadcrumbs baby inside the woman.

There was a sky woman inside a church.

Who was a mother.

Who was a girl.

Who was a cat.

Who was Christ.

Who was a baby.

Who was her father.

Who was the sky.

Who was.

Who was.

Who was.

OK, now, if you want to keep innovating from your original creation, you can also invoke Wheel of Fortune’s pantry of for-sale vowels convention & “buy” a few words that aren’t in your primary/original text.  Like this:

There was a father

whose baby girl

had pale blue freckles.

Immaculate sky


behind her dollhouse eyes.

Grace shadows


across her dreams.

Bewtiched hope


inside her.

Forgotten secrets,

silver-plated stories,

rivered along her blood.

Her mother’s plastic hands

were like broken furniture

in the attic.

Like lost lunchboxes,

beleaguered promises,

stray fallen breadcrumbs.

Her father’s church arms

were like books

about beloved horses.

Like a cat waiting in the window,

Christ’s hairbrush,

a flashlight in after-dark woods.

I klepto-collaborated that poem, just now, for you–that’s how easy it is 🙂

I’ll post some more examples soon.  I hope you’ll happen upon words & phrases worth klepto-ing and “collaborate” with some artists–writers, poets, songwriters–whose visions wake you up & make you want to play about with artifacts of the worlds they’ve created.

Please share your klepto-collaborative poems with me, if you’re so inclined.  I’d really, really love that ~

About deniselanier

I am an educator & advocate, poet & performer, speaker & storyteller who believes in the power of narrative to transform & transport, create & connect. I was the shy, awkward girl who didn’t fit in, was often bullied, happiest with my nose in books, whose best friend was my dog. After being cast in a play in my teens I discovered a way to be comfortable in my own skin, bringing to life the words of a character. Costumed in make-believe I dared to be more of myself than I ever allowed off-stage; I claimed my voice. I spent most of my adult life teaching others to raise their own voices, through acting, creative writing, even slam poetry. When the diagnosis of MS intervened in my 30s I had to let go of acting, which is why most of my storytelling is now expressed through page and less “formal” interactions with stages. I devote much of my time to kids, teaching them to use words & imagination, developing authentic, resilient, remarkable voices. I endeavor to grow in my students the belief, the truth, that we are all artists & the change-makers in our own stories. My best friend still has fur & four legs. My mobility assistance dog is my constant companion, teaching assistant & muse to many. Luke is also chief partner in crime; I’m getting a reputation for stealing things. As inventor of a poetic form called klepto-collaborative, I pickpocket words & phrases from others, reshuffling & reshaping the puzzle-pieces into a colorful, storied mosaic of diverse voices. Taking something from every speaker at a conference in real-time, I craft a collective poem that highlights the messages of the day, repurposing ideas & refashioning stories, weaving them together in a manner that never loses the originality & spirit of the speakers’ themes. So while I may be a word thief, I figure being eco-conscious makes up for it. I’m available to facilitate wordy goodness in your community, school, workplace or play space. I like to think I have way of transforming annual meetings into something interactive, cooperative & memorable. Through my klepto-collaborative poems I aim to delight, to ignite conversation, and maybe even incite innovation. I earned an MFA from Florida International University, where I edited Gulf Stream Literary Magazine. I’m the founder of WordPlay, a poetry-in-the-schools project inspired by Dave Eggers. My poetry has appeared in Bloomsbury Review, Cake, Luna, Best American Poetry blog (a collaborative poem with the phenomenal Denise Duhamel), Wicked Good Life, and various anthologies. My non-fiction has appeared in the Miami Herald and my fiction has been nominated for Best New American Voices. &

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