Wwartime, language game, act of restorative justice, conversation – erasure poetry can play all of these roles and more. A branch of rediscovered poetry, erasure poetry starts from an existing document, erasing parts to leave a new, finer text. While this type of worm is experiencing a resurgence in popularity due to its “Instagrammable” nature, cutting and collage techniques have been around since the mid-20th century. And the parody, the parody of another poem by borrowing words and ideas and giving them a comedic twist, must have existed long before the poems were even written.
There isn’t just one way to create an erasure poem. The only “rule” is that words should be removed from pre-existing text, rather than written as new. American poet Erin Dorney defined six different types of erasable poetry in a 2018 blog post. “Crossouts,” where sections of newspaper articles or documents to make a poem out of the remaining text, are probably the most famous type, popularized by Austin Kleon’s Newspaper Blackout Poems. Other writers have been more creative in the way they block out the text, using things like sand and flowers to erase chosen passages. An Instagram poem Dorney quotes, by Jaime Mortara, blackens out all surrounding text, ending with “my brain / is / a / stunning / joking.” Many erasure poems offer such cryptic snatches of wisdom, tongue-in-cheek jokes that make it important to bring them to light.
At its best, erasure poetry goes far beyond the playful. In her cycle of poems, Zong !, M NourbeSe Philip uses period court reports to expose the case of the 18th century slave ship that dumped 150 African slaves alive in order to collect insurance. Philippe, as she puts it, “assassinates the text”. His poems overturn conventional syntax and tear words into pieces to create iconic, even audible, expressions of angst and abuse. It is as if the demolition of a statue has become an art that can reveal every micro-cruelty committed in the name of the person commemorated.
Cruelty and ignorance are also targets for Raymond Antrobus, poet-lawyer of the D / deaf community. Antrobus made a powerful statement against the ignorance he perceived in Ted Hughes’ Deaf School poem when he included it, fully edited, in his (Ted Hughes Award-winning) collection The Perseverance.
Kate Baer, author of New York Times bestselling What Kind of Woman, takes an almost conversational approach to erasing in her new collection, I Hope This Finds You Well. Baer’s strategy was to “respond” to the trolls and fanatics of his blog, using the technique of erasure to turn deadwood into thorny poems. Previously, she had always deleted abusive comments. But when one day she read a message from a woman who disagreed with her about the responsibility of the police, she said “words hit me in a new form.”
“On a whim, I took a screenshot of her post, erased a few lines with the pen tool, and hit the post,” she explains. The context of the resulting poem, Re: Holding Police Accountable, was the murder of George Floyd.
The original post read, “I wish you’d stick with poetry instead of being constantly political, just a reader preference / Have you ever thought about what would happen if the police disappeared? / Will what you say change anything? (No) / when you stay in your lane a better connection happens / I know staying silent is not cool but just a thought.
“I wish you // disappeared / that’s what you say / when you stay / silent” is Baer’s retort.
Not all messages are hostile, and Baer responds kindly when the writer is sympathetic. When a fan complains about the difficulty of most other poems, her response is, “I wanted the art / poetry to be / hidden / in / so many / in so many ways.” And poetic art remains important to her. She speaks for her community as well as herself when she says, “I hope that by sharing these songs we will continue to hold on to the truths that sustain us, and when we encounter the inevitable noise – we tune in. our ears to hear the song “.
The poetry of erasure, including that of Baer, is seldom only a “song”. Poet Jennifer S Cheng, writing in Jacket2, said that “maybe erasure poetry is always inherently a political act, maybe it is always an inherently violent act.” The first is surely right: the language is political, and writing with a doubled context doubles this resonance. Erasure can be an ugly weapon. It can distort and destroy the work of another writer. There are certainly ethical issues to consider when another author’s text is reused. But “violence” can also take positive forms by showing how easily the ideal can tip over to injustice, as when Tracy K Smith, in her poem Declaration, scorchingly revises the United States’ Declaration of Independence. United.
While some types of erasure poetry are enabled by Instagram, a medium not typically associated with the art of reading up close, erasure can be a tricky, non-lethal probe rather than a weapon. Especially when it comes to challenging dusty prejudices and received opinions, it has the potential to be transformative.