By the time this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Fiction was announced on April 15 — it went to Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son — a band of enterprising poets around the world were already halfway to their goal of creating 2500 poems from the Pulitzer’s back catalog. They’ve been incorporating text from the 85 previous prizewinning novels into their own work as part of a National Poetry Month initiative called Pulitzer Remix.
Two of the Remix poets are Vermonters: James W. Moore, 37, of Winooski; and David Krilivsky, 36, of St. Albans. (Moore, also an actor and playwright, is cofounder of Steel Cut Theatre.) The two friends, who both work for HowardCenter by day, signed on for the extra occupation of Pulitzer Remixer, committed to posting a poem a day throughout April. The text of one prizewinning novel, selected by them or the organizers, is the sole source for their 30 “found” poems.
Pulitzer Remix is the creation of Jenni B. Baker, editor of the Found Poetry Review, a biannual literary magazine that showcases “poetry in the existing and the everyday.” She says she organized Pulitzer Remix to raise awareness of found poetry, the literary equivalent of collage, in which words, phrases and lines from preexisting texts are fashioned into new poems.
Stunt? Yes. But Pulitzer Remix has also proved a surprisingly effective springboard for the production of genuine art.
Along with the 85 Remix poets sprinkled throughout the U.S. and five other countries, Krilivsky has been hard at work. He’s tinkering with the pages of his chosen text, Bernard Malamud’s 1967 winner The Fixer. Krilivsky, who admits he never finished reading the book, says of his process in an email: “I look at the page for a while until certain words start jumping out more than others and then go from there. I simply use a Sharpie and erase all that I don’t need, leaving behind a poem that was already there to begin with.”
This technique, known as “erasure,” has been used by writers as various as Annie Dillard, Jen Bervin and poet and Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty member Mary Ruefle.
Meanwhile, Moore has been playing with the 1929 prizewinner, Julia Peterkin’s Scarlet Sister Mary, which he did read, and found thorny and complex.
Although both writers use at maximum one or two pages as the source of each poem, their approaches diverge sharply. Krilivsky physically alters the pages with his redactive black pen, takes pictures of the erasures with his iPhone, optimizes the images and posts them each day on the Pulitzer Remix website.
Moore is more protective of his source, declaring on his blog, “No books have been harmed in this process.” Scarlet Sister Mary was not easy to find, he says: “I paid $15 for a flimsy paperback — one of the few that still exists. It’s water stained and stamped throughout with ‘Property of L.A. Martinez.’”
To avoid damaging the book, Moore scans each page and does his work on its printed reproduction. For his April 12 poem, “Night all starlit,” Moore scanned the page, cut out the words he wanted, and then stitched them on Irish linen in a nod to the importance of tactile, handmade things in Peterkin’s book.
Both writers have found the limitations and discipline of the Pulitzer Remix strangely liberating. “Oftentimes a restrictive form can really breed creativity,” Krilivsky writes. “Having the novel as a starting place is a welcomed relief from just staring at a blank screen, cursor blinking.”
Moore finds that “It’s fun to play with someone else’s toy box — all of us have a certain set of words that we keep coming back to. Julia Peterkin uses the phrases ‘Thank God’ and ‘over and over,’ well, over and over.”
As the Vermont Remixers prepare to post their final poems, Moore says he hopes the project gets people interested, opening doors to both poetry and the award-winning novels. Krilivsky aspires to maintain the discipline and momentum of the project when he returns to his unmixed poems.
“You can see it as a gimmick,” Moore admits. “But it works.”