Cut & Paste. Fold, Bend, Staple & Mutilate.

This past weekend I attended a reading of selections from William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch. I had not read the work before (it’s now on my TBR list), but I knew enough about the Beats to not be shocked by its strange, surreal and sometimes profane language.

In the discussion that followed the reading, someone mentioned there are now websites that will “translate” any text into Burroughs style and I have been eager to try them out. But first, a little background. Burroughs’ strange language is not merely the product of his mind, it is the product of his hands: after typing some of his text, he cut up the paper and rearranged the pieces, thus reordering the words and even inventing new words. That became the “final” version. This wasn’t Burroughs’ own invention (I learned that today by researching online), but he is the most widely-known practitioner of the technique. There’s a video of an interview with Burroughs that includes a short demonstration of the cut-up technique. You don’t need a demonstration, though; it’s easy enough to try it yourself with a printed text (that you’re willing to sacrifice for the sake of art) and scissors.

Or you can do it virtually using online tools. This is fun to play with. Open up a text file on your computer—the odder the better—and give it a try!

I started at The Lazarus Corporation, which has compiled several text-altering programs.

To begin, I ran a couple of paragraphs from a recent post through the Text Mixing Desk, which is most similar to Burroughs’ cut-up technique. Enter some text in the box, then scroll down to the filter options. “Cut-up Engine” is the Burroughs technique, so I used with that, but there are other options and you can even combine manipulations in a single go. Click “Process Signal Now.” The next screen asks you to choose a number of words per strip—basically how wide the cut paper would be. Then “Click Here to Finish.” This is what my first attempt produced (with some parentheses removed and capitalization tidied by me):

Read under the bedcovers with a not always straight; a b or couldn’t seem to soak it up fast the picture books and matched less than a b, the kind who to be asleep. it felt like there alphabet when I started myself to read. I’d memorized understood the words. I knew the remember, probably before I flashlight after I was supposed blame, of course. They read to enough.

My parents are to was so much to know and I kindergarten and then taught me at bedtime from before I can two might slip in, but nothing child–the kind who got as if I was a nerdy, bookish the words to the pictures.

Next I visited Language Is a Virus and spent some time playing with the Haiku-a-Tron. It’s totally random—no user input at all—so a lot of the results are nonsense. But after a few tries it offered me something vaguely evocative of a Beat poem:

strange lose angel
disappointed inhaling rhythms starbrite
hell jagged

At this point I should probably mention that if you’re at work it would be a good idea to bookmark a few things for later and get back to what you were doing…

Got time? The Non-linear Adding Machine asks for four text samples, then slices and dices them into nonsense. (Have we identified Col. Gaddafi’s speechwriter?) Or try the Shannonizer, which takes a chunk of text and “edits” it in the style of a famous author—you can choose from Dr. Seuss, Edgar Allan Poe, God or Miss Manners, among others. (Hint: Try editing the same text by choosing different authors and see what happens.)

Enough of this! I’m going to play with word games for a while… Do you have a favorite? Did I miss something? Leave a comment and help me waste, uh enjoy, even more time online.

2 thoughts on “Cut & Paste. Fold, Bend, Staple & Mutilate.

  1. Paula Lee Bright March 3, 2011 / 2:36 am

    Karen, for once you haven’t hooked me! I was sure I’d be sucked into yet more literary online endeavors when I started reading. And I almost was!

    But then I thought about my Evernote account, with over 350 rough draft posts, and the other 100 sitting on my blogs, and—miracle of miracles!—I withstood it.

    I am now the proud stick-to-it blogger who chooses real work above silly writing-oriented fun online.

    Well, proud for maybe an hour. Because you and I both know that right about then I’ll be all OVER that haiku site! So much for the best laid plans. ;) I enjoyed it!


    • Karen E. Lund March 3, 2011 / 10:04 am

      So you’re resisting temptation to play with words? A stronger woman than I!

      May I recommend that a little computer-generated haiku is the perfect way to reward yourself after finishing up one of those drafts and getting it published to your blog? And those drafts that never go anywhere might work as a dadaist cut-up.


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