New York City, Summer 2022

Language is a limited resource. Contrary to commonly held conviction, the reservoir of speech is forever on the verge of drying up, or worse, calcifying into cliché. Like a farmer rotating his crops, I periodically plough words back into the mulch of meaning. Romanian émigré DADA poet Tristan Tzara (aka Samuel Rosenstock, 1896-1963) gave it a name: cut-up (or découpé in French). He revealed his original prescription in a text titled “How to Make a Dada Poem.”[1]

I revert to cut-ups when I’m too distracted, depressed, dumbfounded or deranged to write in the regular manner. My sources include newspaper articles, sacred and profane texts, assorted print ads, packaging copy, and pretty much any other reading matter that comes to hand. In lieu of computer keyboard, pen and ink, my primary instruments are a razor blade, scissors, tweezers, and glue. With little or no initial conscious intent, I skim the source text vertically and let my eye idle down the page, thereafter circling, cutting out, or copying seemingly random words and word combinations that strike my fancy. Telling snippets come together by what I call magnetic imminence.

As the isolation of virtual lockdown during the seemingly interminable Covid-19 pandemic stretches into its second year, I feel increasingly cut off from the word – a telling Freudian slip: I meant to write the world. These days the words run ragged, like misfired fireworks, often exploding before they hit the page. A modern-day monk languishing in the solitude of my cell, I long for meaningful communion. But absent belief in a transcendent being, cut-ups take the place of prayer.

Initially I worked quickly, believing in the virtues of the haphazard. Cutting and pasting shreds of text with an experimental haste, I ignored glue splotches, misshapen letters, and bits of broken type. But what began as a game of verbal solitaire never intended for publication soon evolved into a method. In time I became more careful, more conscious of and conscientious in placement, concerned by the look as well as the content.


[1]   “Take a newspaper./Take a pair of scissors./Select an article the length of/the poem you intend to compose./Cut out the article./Take care next to cut up/each of the words in the article/and put them in a bag./Shake gently./Then remove each severed word/one after another./Copy them out conscientiously/in the order in which they emerged from the bag./The poem will resemble its maker./And there you are, an author of infinite originality/and a charming sensibility, although misunderstood/by the mob.” (The translation from the French is my own.)






Photo credit Ricky Owens

Dubbed a ’20th-century Brother Grimm’ (Bloomsbury Review) and ‘a delinquent Hans Christian Andersen’ (by playwright Mark O’Donnell), Peter Wortsman is the author of works of fiction and nonfiction, stage plays and poetry. He is also a translator from the German and a travel writer. His publications include, most recently, Stimme und Atem / Out of Breath, Out of Mind, a bilingual, German-English book of stories (Palm Art Press, Berlin, 2019), the second edition of his first book of short fiction, A Modern Way to Die (Pelekinesis, Claremont, Cal., 2020), a book of doctors’ profiles, The Caring Heirs of Doctor Samuel Bard (Columbia University Press, New York, 2019) and English translations of Intimate Ties, by Robert Musil (Archipelago Books, New York, 2019), and Hinkemann, a tragedy, by Ernst Toller (Berlinica Books, Berlin and New York, 2019). A former Fellow of the Fulbright (1973) and Thomas J. Watson (1974) Foundations, he was the Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin in Spring 2010. His travel writing was selected five years in a row, 2008-2012, and again in 2016, for inclusion in Travelers’ Tales’ The Best Travel Writing. His travel memoir Ghost Dance in Berlin, A Rhapsody in Gray was short-listed for a 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award and won a 2014 Independent Publishers Book Award (IPPY). His novel Cold Earth Wanderers was a finalist in Foreword Reviews’ 2015 INDIEFAB Best Fantasy/Science Fiction Book Competition. He lives in New York City. More here.