Words are fascinating; they are the very depth of our communication. Yet even though millions of words exist in the English language alone, we still find ourselves scrambling to describe what we think, see, and feel.
Whether you’re meeting a word limit for an essay in that one class you hate, or writing a love letter for someone special, writer’s block is a common epidemic. There’s nothing quite like the ultimate frustration of starting a really great project and giving up when the ideas just don’t seem to flow.
In the 1990s, Dave Kapell found himself suffering a frequent loss for words, one that eventually led to the creation of a popular household novelty: Magnetic Poetry.
Originally an engineering major, Kapell found himself unfulfilled and began spending time outside of college focusing on music. Despite being a singer-songwriter at heart, he soon grew tired of feeling uninspired and unable to say what he really wanted to through his music, so he drew upon the inspirations of his own idol, David Bowie.
He used the cut-up writing technique: taking a bunch of songs he and his band mates typed up, cutting each word out, and rearranging the words on a tabletop like a puzzle.
This simple idea gave Kapell the opportunity to focus entirely on communicating his messages without the pressure of accomplishing something completely Seussical or Shakespearean. Still, words didn’t flow as easily as he would have liked. Because focus was a huge factor, Kapell returned to school again, this time as an English major.
“It came down to these exercises, where a teacher would say a word and give us five minutes to free-write on that subject continuously,” Kapell fondly recalls. Eventually, he was able to convince his band mates to also try these techniques, which in turn led to a renewed interest in songwriting.
“Get the stream of consciousness going, then edit,” he says proudly through the phone.
Some obstacles to creativity, however, are inevitable–like allergies.
Kapell recalls a songwriting session in which he sneezed and all of his cut-up words went flying, destroying most of his work for the day. This incident led to the MacGyver-esque idea to attach all the word bits to a bunch of magnets Kapell’s roommate had brought home from work, and the birth of a greater idea called Magnetic Poetry.
A couple of craft fairs and 22 years later, and Magnetic Poetry has gained increasing success nationwide.
“It was definitely serendipitous,” he says with a chuckle.
Anyone is susceptible to writer’s block, but thanks to Magnetic Poetry, the ability to become a more avid writer or linguist is now more accessible than ever. Since its creation, Kapell’s business has released dozens of word kits, themed by language, holiday, or emotion, proving that one idea can go an incredibly long way.
When asked what his personal favorite kit was, Kapell describes his Wood Words tabletop kits.
“I’m very proud of that one,” he admits. “I worked on it for a very long time.”
Wood Words, a bamboo box of double-sided Scrabble-like word tiles, is perhaps the only addition to the Magnetic Poetry line that doesn’t actually involve the use of magnets, but still manages to provide the same playfulness as any other word-kit. Users are able to create poetry on flat surfaces together, enjoy a more classic aesthetic, and then flip over one or all of the tiles for a “surprise” poem.
In addition to accessibility, unity is also a beautiful result that seems to have stemmed from the “MagPo” craze. From local bands in Minneapolis to celebrities like Madonna or Tom Petty, mixing and matching words with Magnetic Poetry has inspired the masses to see their worlds in new angles, and has helped to build bonds that may have otherwise been unlikely.
Through fan mail and social media, Kapell is able to navigate through moments that he indirectly helped create. In one adoringly hilarious letter, a puppy dog had gotten a hold of the magnets and chewed his way into the word, “Meat.”
In a more touching narrative, Kapell recalls a couple who met at a friend’s house playing Magnetic Poetry and later married. The husband saved the original poem and had it engraved on a plaque for his late wife when she passed in the 9/11 attacks.
Even two decades after its creation, Kapell’s passion for his project has set a precedent for creative thinkers across the board.
“The blank page is incredibly intimidating, and [it’s] stifling to open up,” Kapell states. “We’re comforted by limits, just like little kids. […] But part of what we need as creators is limits.”
Feature photo courtesy of Joshua Barnett.