Fold It, Roll It, Rip It: Poetry’s Latest Trend

by Lisa Zerkle

I’ve noticed an interesting trend in poetry recently—some poems ask more from me as a reader than just reading. These poems utilize formats common to other realms, like Alan Michael Parker’s bingo card poems and Jay Ward’s Mad Lib poems. Poems might take the form of word search puzzles or lab graphs. In Jody Gladding’s work, the reader chooses their own adventure by following multiple paths through a poem that’s constellated across a page.

My curiosity led me to define these kinds of poems as a particular group: poetry whose design requires the reader not merely to receive it, but to collaborate or participate in the poem’s final form. This curiosity made me wonder why poets might choose to create poems this way. What might be the risks? And the rewards?

Poems in Tyehimba Jess’s collection Olio are meant to be ripped from the book’s binding and manipulated into three dimensions. In interviews, Jess has noted that books are an ancient technology, one created by humans to communicate. Books, for many of us, are sacrosanct objects treated with reverence. But if those objects communicate unreliable information, how might a writer emphasize that unreliability? Ripping a page out of a book allows the reader to, in Jess’s words, “deconstruct the text” and “re-understand the narrative”— actions that give the reader agency.

Leila Chatti’s “Cootie Catcher” asks to be folded into a specific shape before reading. It’s a paper machine constructed to produce poetic variation. Embodied nostalgia, it relies on a format familiar from childhood but maybe since forgotten. Like the childhood version, it welcomes a second participant to choose between the possible variations. It’s fun. And who couldn’t use more fun these days?

Interactivity can be a valuable tool—one that allows the writer to address an unreliable history, to employ the full plane of the page, to immerse the reader into nostalgia. A tool whose novelty heightens the reader’s awareness and results in a unique experience. While it’s not a substitute for a well-written poem, interactivity can elevate one into a new dimension.

Learn to Write an Interactive Poem with Lisa

TUESDAY, JANUARY 30: “Get Your Hands on This—The Interactive Poem,” 6:00-8:00 p.m., Charlotte Lit, 933 Louise Avenue (@hygge Belmont). Info and registration

Interactive poetry “requires the reader not to merely receive the poem, but to collaborate or participate in its final form.” Learning why some poets choose this device can expand your notion of what’s possible on the page. We’ll explore poems that specifically invite the reader’s participation beyond merely reading, then we’ll try our hand at some of our own.

Lisa Zerkle’s poems have appeared in The Collagist, Southern Poetry Anthology, Nimrod, storySouth, and others. She was the creator and curator of 4X4CLT, Charlotte Lit’s public art and poetry series. In January 2023, she was awarded an M.F.A. in Poetry from Warren Wilson College.