How John Carroll discovered blackout poetry and accidentally built a community of hope

"There’s such a hopefulness to blackout poetry. It’s uplifting and can bring some lightness in a dark world.”

Word Art

Photograph by John Carroll

Eight years ago, John Carroll was writing and editing profiles for a local arts website about people more interesting than him doing more interesting things. His own fiction writing was going nowhere, and he had just gotten out of a relationship. Carroll, then 30, felt purposeless, passionless, hopeless, and alone. He’d never felt this way before.

Late one night, while looking at blogs during a break from writing, Carroll discovered a book called Newspaper Blackout by Austin Kleon, a Texas-based writer who created poetry by blacking out words in discarded newspapers with a marker. Kleon started by drawing a box around words that had meaning to him, then connected words until they made phrases, which turned into poems.

Word Art

Photograph by John Carroll

Carroll found other artists were working from books, not just newspapers. Pulling a Sharpie from his desk and a book from his bag, he set to work cannibalizing the text, obliterating all the words with black ink except for a chosen few that would survive in the form of a new poem. It was creative and destructive, and, within days, he was hooked. Within months, the “hidden messages”—the words his subconscious mind called out—had become less forlorn. Within years, the poems were downright positive. Carroll wasn’t just blacking out words with blackout poetry; he was blacking out his depression. “The daily, meditative process of searching a page for meaning gave me the opportunity to reflect,” he says. “During those hard times, I felt like if I just kept hope in my heart that tomorrow would be better, that I could persist through today. Making blackout poetry opened the door to feeling hopeful again.”

“His poetry made me want to turn something broken into something beautiful.”

In 2013, Carroll wanted other people to experience the catharsis of the craft, so he launched @MakeBlackoutPoetry, an Instagram account that showcased his and others’ works. Within five years, the account had attracted more than 66,000 followers and produced enough material for a book, Hidden Messages of Hope, first published in 2016. Last September, Abrams Noterie released Carroll’s interactive blackout poetry workbook, MAKE BLACKOUT POETRY: Turn These Pages into Poems.

The best part for Carroll: The Instagram account followers didn’t simply follow—they created, tagging more than 45,000 blackouts with #MakeBlackoutPoetry and, in the process, found solace and even salvation. Colette Love Hilliard (@Colette.lh) of St. Louis, Missouri, was struggling with infertility and dabbling in blackout poetry when Carroll’s account liked one of the pieces she posted. Hilliard took a closer look and loved what she saw. “John’s work and the community he’s built were essential to my healing process,” she says. “His poetry made me want to turn something broken into something beautiful, and I owe much of my peace to his inspirational words and guidance.”

“There’s such a hopefulness to blackout poetry. It’s uplifting and can bring some lightness in a dark world.”

In 2015, Carroll embarked on what would become a creative bender, cofounding the immersive literary theater series Transgression with Laura Relyea. Two years later, he cofounded the Atlanta-focused literary podcast Lit & Bruised with Matt DeBenedictis and launched the website Figure & Ground with local photographer Wesley S. Cummings to tell the stories behind Atlanta’s lesser-known creatives.

All the while, Carroll has been creating new blackouts and shining the light on the established and budding artists of the community by reposting their work on the @MakeBlackoutPoetry Instagram account. Bridging the gap between his online and in-person worlds, Carroll has conducted blackout poetry workshops for TedX, Mailchimp, breweries, and schools in metro Atlanta. For his students, Carroll’s message is the same: Regardless of whether or not you feel creative, you are. By trusting the subconscious to pick out words with meaning, people can create cerebral poetry.

Word Art

Photograph by John Carroll

Online and in person, Carroll is demystifying what it means to be an artist, a poet, and a person who struggles with mental health issues. “John’s changing the way people think about poetry, making it more accessible,” says Kate Whitman, vice president of author and family programs at the Atlanta History Center, who partnered with Carroll to host Transgression events. “Plus, there’s such a hopefulness to blackout poetry. It’s uplifting and can bring some lightness in a dark world.”

Through his work, Carroll has given people a way to become more creative, positive, and connected. He gave and received hope. “When you hit rock bottom, sometimes hope is all you have,” Carroll says. “Hope is kind of like the final backup plan when all else fails. If you don’t have hope then what do you have?”

This article appears in our February 2019 issue.