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Monday, February 14, 2011


"Erasure is as important as writing." Quintilian

I was going to call this post "Embracing Erasing" but I noticed that four of the eight titles I have used so far are gerund phrases. I do love a good gerund phrase, but enough is enough.

So a few weeks ago I was listening to a podcast of the poet Mary Ruefle speaking at the Lunch Poems series at UC Berkeley on 4/19/2006. Besides reading some of her glorious poems, she discussed how disappointed she was that many people don't take her erasure poems as seriously as her other poems.

(Stop. What is an erasure poem? A writer takes an already finished text (hers or, more likely, someone else's) and deletes words until she is happy with what is left, and calls it a poem. In Ruefle's case, she takes Wite-Out corrective fluid to pages culled from old books.)

This caught my attention because I take erasure poems less seriously than other poems, but I am a huge fan of Mary Ruefle's work, and was willing to listen to her defense of them. Which was basically this: that erasure mimics the memory process, which deletes bits and pieces till the memory that we are left with (or the poem) is a remnant of what really happened (or was written). Give any two individuals/writers a memory/text, and what they eventually are left with will be an uniquely personal memory/poem. (In the spirit of the argument about memory, I have purposefully not gone back and listened to the podcast again before writing this post, so it is entirely possible that I have remembered Ruefle's argument all wrong. Therefore, anyone serious about this topic should click on the link I provided to iTunes-U above and listen to the podcast for herself.)

Shortly after listening to this podcast, I got my hands on the book Newspaper Blackout by the unlikely-named writer Austin Kleon. Here is how NPR's Morning Edition described Kleon's process: "Instead of starting with a blank page, poet Austin Kleon grabs the New York Times and a permanent market and eliminates the words he doesn't need."

Kleon's book begins with a charming history of erasure using the newspaper. It all began, according to him, in the 1760s with Caleb Whitefoord, who was (among other distinctions) a former next-door neighbor to Benjamin Franklin. Kleon then catalogs a brief history of 250 years of erasure poetry in Paris, London, and San Francisco, among other places. The poets use texts such as the Bible, Paradise Lost, bits of Shakespeare, and Emily Dickenson's work, to name a few. Many of them use scissors to cut the texts apart and reassemble them (a lack of Wite-Out and black markers being a characteristic of the mid 1700s).

Next Kleon gives us examples of his own work, some of which can be seen on his website. Lastly he gives tips on making your own erasure poems. He even recommends a kind of marker to use, and sections of the newspaper that have been especially fruitful for him (he favors the Arts and Metro sections.) These tips are also available on his blog, along with a link to a YouTube video demonstrating the erasure process.

But back to Mary Ruefle's argument. Does the form of an erasure poem mimic the form of memories? I think, yes. But the process of reaching the culled memory is far less deliberate than the process of writing an erasure poem. So while the analogy breaks down for me (and remember, I may not be recalling Ruefle's argument correctly anyway, but that's part of the fun of this post) I still gained enough appreciation for the finished work to want to try erasure poems for myself.

I haven't done so yet though. But if I get any interesting results, I'll post them here. And if you decide to try it and get something worthwhile, please do share as well. Likewise if you have any thoughts on erasure (or any corrections as to how I represented the podcast of Mary Ruefle at the Lunch Poem series.)

Update: More erasure links here.


Erin Malone said...

Hi there,
I've taught erasure before in a community writing class, and am about to teach it to elementary school students. I didn't know about this history, though--thanks for putting this out there. Fascinating!

I think it's a very cool exercise in and of itself, but I also like using it to show how we can revise our own poems. (I prefer the cutting and rearranging method for revision, the marker for blacking out text.) Rebecca Brown has done some beautiful erasure books, which are part of her personal collection--but I will look and see if they've been reproduced online anywhere.

Kudos on your blog, Jessica. I love reading EVERYTHING you write.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Hi Erin,
Thanks for stopping by my blog, and thanks for your insight into erasure. I remember seeing two complementary poems of yours, one a version of the other cut up and reassembled, but I hadn't realized that counts as erasure. Makes the whole subject more intriguing for me. I looked for Rebecca Brown online, and found places where she was reading, but none of her work, though in the same search I managed to see examples of other poets' erasure work, and now I understand that some of the reassembled pieces have visual imagery, making it a sort of collage. Gorgeous stuff! I tried a few of my own erasures the other day (just using a marker and book though) and found that it's hard! So lots of new insight from your direction, thank you!