In late 1920, the Dadaist writer Tristan Tzara wrote “dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love,” which included a section called “To Make a Dadaist Poem,” and it gave these instructions:
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are – an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
Decades later, the Beat writer William S. Burroughs took this basic concept and put his own twist on it. Between 1961 and 1964, Burroughs published The Nova Trilogy, a series of three experimental novels fashioned with his own cut-up method. Often considered his definitive work of cut-up writing, The Soft Machine, the first novel in the trilogy, stitched together pages from a series of manuscripts that Burroughs himself wrote between 1953 and 1958.
You can watch Burroughs demonstrating his cut-up technique above, and forever find this clip in our collection of Cultural Icons, which lets you see great writers, filmmakers, and thinkers talking in their own words.