It All Started With A Sneeze: The Origin Story Of Magnetic Poetry
When was the last time you used a magnetic poetry kit? I recently discovered that magnetic poetry can now be experienced through the magic of the internet. There’s something dramatic about watching the jerky word salad, words freed from paper prison and stuck to fridge doors alongside family photos and lists of important numbers. Slightly angled word magnets give any text an experimental vibe, and typing in pre-chosen words allows for inspiration without overthinking.
Even in its digital format, something about the process works. Is it a poem or a collage project? Is it the easy way out or the release of your creativity? A magnetic poetry kit gives you the aesthetics of an innovative work of art, but you don’t have to find the words yourself.
I wrote poetry when I was younger. Raised on fairy tales and romantic comedies, I was a dramatic thing in my youth, full of idealistic notions of true love, grand gestures, and tortured romance (capitals very much wanted). Even though I never felt like my poetry was particularly good, that didn’t stop me from scribbling love odes on the pages of my notebooks or on the backs of scraps of paper. Eventually, I quit – after taking poetry writing classes in college and getting confirmation from the prof that, unfortunately, it wasn’t a genre of writing where I excelled. Since then the only poetry I’ve tried has been magnetic and stuck to a fridge and somehow it still makes me feel brilliant. So think of this as both an exploration of magnetic poetry as an object and an ode to its enduring goodness.
The History of Magnetic Poetry
As a kid in the 90s, magnetic poetry was everywhere. I can’t remember a time before fridge poetry existed, but it turns out it was 1993. Once upon a time in Minneapolis, a songwriter named Dave Kapell had a fortuitous case of allergies. Look, Magnetic Poetry might not have the craziest origin stories, but it’s a damn good anecdote.
In a 2015 interview with Atlas Obscura, Kapell explained how he came up with the first model. One night he was battling an attack of writer’s block using the cut-out writing technique. He sneezed, and it accidentally caused his sheets of paper to explode, mixing up the words. To prevent this from happening again, he had the idea of sticking the words on magnets. Originally, magnetic sheets had their home on a cookie tray; at some point he moved them to the refrigerator. Friends loved it, and he thought he might have something. Then, according to lore written on the kits official website, Kapell was inspired by the enthusiasm of his friends to try and sell his kits at a craft fair. It sold out quickly and soit had started.
But let’s back up because some of you might be wondering what the cutout writing technique is.
The cut-out writing technique
It’s a writing exercise that encourages creativity by putting words together. First, the writer finds an article or a job. Once the text is chosen, the writer then cuts the text into smaller chunks of one or two words. It is appreciated by artists and writers. One of the first to popularize this method was Tristan Tzara, an avant-garde poet and one of the founding fathers of Dadaism. Tzara wanted to spread his method of poetic writing and created “To Make A Dadaïst Poem”, a short list which describes the method divided into ten steps. According to William S. Burroughs’ essay, “The Cut Up Method,” “At a Surrealist gathering in the 1920s, Tristan Tzara…proposed to create a poem on the spot by pulling words out of a hat. A riot ensued…”
Burroughs goes on to explain that the next big name to practice the technique was a painter, Brion Gysin, who “cut newspaper articles into sections and randomly rearranged the sections.”.“Burroughs popularized the cut-up method and musicians like David Bowie and Kurt Cobain used it to regularly create their songs.
In terms of inspiration from Kapell? He started using the method after seeing David Bowie talking about it on television.
The Current Existence of Magnetic Poetry Kits
Now, it’s been 29 years since Kapell’s fateful sneeze. You can still buy all kinds of magnetic word mixes – in addition to the original, there are kits for children, in other languages and on themes like nature, books and the apocalypse. In the Atlas Obscura article, Kapell explained that the company tries to stay relevant and keep up with popular memes (see their Bacon kit). And while Magnetic Poetry may not be as ubiquitous as it once was, it has survived a major refrigerator overhaul. According to a 2013 article by Business Internhomeowners switching to stainless steel refrigerators have significantly reduced Kapell’s business.
Yet he survived because the call remains important. The cut-out writing style is for everyone, regardless of their own skill level. It gives you the words to write and do, instead of spending time choosing the “perfect” words. Magnetic poetry made the technique of decoupage a collective art – so many times I would write something on a fridge and later come back to find it slightly altered. Its meaning shifted by a word or formatting change. There’s always been something quite beautiful about it, and I think that’s why the kits have endured.