Friday, May 6, 2011

The Equation of Erasure

Erasure poetry is a form of found poetry. Here is how an erasure is created. Take a page from any text. Find words that leap at you, words you want to consider, or words that speak to one another. Then cover up or remove the rest of the words, which usually means covering-up or removing most of the words, leaving only a few.

For example, if you cover your unchosen words with a red Sharpie, what remains is a page with selected & scattered words, plus, some horizontal red stripes. Essentially, the act of erasure is one of creating new relationships via form. If erasure were written as a mathematical equation, it might look like this:
(Text + Visual art) – text = Erasure Poetry

Last month, I attended a program about erasure. It was held at the Walker Art Center, and co-sponsored by Rain Taxi Review. While Eric Lorberer gave a brief introduction to the evening and the artists, Travis McDonald, Janet Holmes, and Matthea Harvey, I perused the program-brochure for background information.
In What We Make of Fragments, Heather McHugh says, “All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages, at every turn. It is the very art of turnings, toward the white frame of the page, toward the unsung, toward the vacancy made visible, that wordlessness in which our words are couched.” In a sense, erasure is continually taking place in our landscapes, living amongst elements that both litter and wear down—newspapers, billboards, graffiti. Over and over again, humankind adds and subtracts words, but never more than now, the beginning of the 21st century.

The “Global Information Age” makes available information in such quantity and with such speed as to overwhelm the thoughtful reader. Words are misappropriated for corporate and political purposes, and in this way they are rendered of their once precise meaning. Hailing from different disciplines, the practitioners of erasure seem united only in their goal of reclaiming the significance of language, a reductive poetics that concerns itself with the removal of words, but the simultaneous binding to a particular lexicon, that of the original author.

Travis McDonald used The 9/11 Commission Report to create O Mission Repo. With horizontal black lines of varying width words were completely hidden, partially hidden, nearly not hidden, and not hidden at all. Thus, McDonald’s erasures were not so much language or image driven as sculpted, as if to reveal secrets.
So too, Janet Holmes felt called by the political events of 2003 to 2006. Her first consideration was copyright, for Holmes was using The Poems of Emily Dickinson, and Harvard University owns the copyright. Ultimately, Holmes was allowed to use Dickinson’s lexicon—even retaining words in their same intratext location—but she could not publish Dickinson’s words in their entirety (as do some erasure artists, alongside the new form). Holmes also set her own additional rules: she would use one word from each Dickinson poem, but could not use an entire line from any. During the creation of her book, The Ms of My Kin, Holmes felt she was in dialogue with Dickinson, and says, “I was surprised when Abu Ghraib showed up in Dickinson’s poetry.”

Choosing whimsy over politics, Matthea Harvey was the outlier of this evening. She found a used copy of A Portrait of Charles Lamb, and as she paged through the words “Mary” and “Lamb” appeared repeatedly. Suddenly Harvey had an idea, Of Lamb, a bawdy retelling of Mary had a Little Lamb. “This is a story of star-crossed love,” Harvey says, mischief in her eyes. She executed the mood fully by hiring a watercolorist to paint over one hundred illustrations of costumed Lamb and his beloved in various states of ardor.

During the Q & A, McDonald acknowledged feeling freedom doing something with a book “other than reading.” He called erasure “a mad creative act.”

Harvey added, “Even though you are working with someone else’s language, your own opinion comes through.”

Asked if there were any texts they would not use, Harvey said, “I’m not sure I’d do any poetry.”

Holmes asserted, “I don’t do anyone living”—to which Harvey quipped, “The dead are already erased.”

The evening concluded with our authors’ endorsement of erasure, “It’s fun. Try it.”

And as we left, I heard the audience murmur, “Yes. I think I will.”

Erasure Poetry Festival at the Walker:

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