Effaced Ballads: An Interview with Matthew Rohrer, Anthony McCann, and Joshua Beckman on Erasing the Romantics

Andrew David King
November 30, 2012
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KR: It makes sense to me why a group of contemporary poets with more avant-garde than conservative aesthetics (though I use those terms with some trepidation) would choose to erase Romantic-era writers—but I wanted to ask what the motivation was for selecting these source texts. Was it random? A decision to interrogate the canon? An experiment to see how the traditional lyric would hold up when taken as fodder for modernist praxis?

Matthew Rohrer: Joshua and Anthony and I had gotten really hooked on the Romantics that year, after reading Richard Holmes’ The Pursuit, which is a biography of Shelley and probably one of the best books ever written. We got really hooked, and started reading everything we could get our hands on from that era, and talking about it. We kept a little secret blog where we uploaded things we found, quotes, comparisons between Shelley’s and Coleridge’s poems about Mont Blanc, and stuff like that. In fact, for that year, I made myself a promise not to read anything but the Romantics, and the newspaper. And my students’ papers. But really, in terms of our immersion, it was total, and that’s about all we read—I know for myself that I read nothing else. But then, it’s hard to write poems when you’re reading Coleridge and Shelley and Keats all day, every day. It’s hard in terms of you have this different, and kind of archaic voice in your head, and it’s hard because they are such titanic figures. I even had a vision or something one night, lying in bed, I saw Coleridge stretched across the sky over Brooklyn, looming over me, leering. So then one of us said, “What if we do some erasures.” Probably those are not the exact words. And probably it was more like one of us just did one because that’s all we were really up to, and it worked, and the others started to do it too. So it wasn’t about doing anything to the Romantics, or even doing anything at all in the way that some people have a project in mind; we had no project in mind, we just wanted to write and hadn’t been able to in awhile and found that this was our way back into it, while still engaging with the Romantics.

Anthony McCann: I’ve encountered this idea before. That there might be any number of reasons for our engagement with the Romantics but it certainly couldn’t have been because we liked reading them. If there is something we wished to interrogate it seems to me that it was that reading experience. Erasure is, when you think about it, just an intensely interactive form of reading. Which brings up the possibility that that’s what writing might be. It’s an understatement to say that that is an overstatement—still, the line between reading and writing often seems blurry to me. I also wonder if people give too much value to the aggression inherent in the word “erasure.” Not that our erasures weren’t also aggressive. I just always saw the aggression as being about my resentment of the extent to which all these dead people had personally taken over my life. It just wasn’t possible for me to write my “own” poems at the time. All that was coming out of me was their lines, their sentences. Which reminds me of something else, something that probably would fit better in an answer to one of the questions that comes after this one. But I’ll just say it here. The real collaborative interest that motivated each of us in these erasures is that we wanted to collaborate more intensely with these dead people, or with the language traces they’d left us. I say “more intensely” because reading and writing one’s “own” poems is, for me anyway, already collaboration with dead people. After all, the language was there before us.

Joshua Beckman: I think we wanted not only to collaborate with our living and dead friends, we wanted to be with them. Matt was in New York. Anthony had moved to Los Angeles. I had moved to Seattle. This was a way of making a shared creative life feel more present. Something thriving and social. We felt in the mix with each other—that presence you feel when reading and really getting with an author and that presence of writing and sharing what you’ve written. And while Lyrical Ballads is central, so is Frankenstein—not only the story (reanimation etc.) but how it got written, the conversation that sparked it.

KR: As an addendum to that first question, is erasing the Romantics a political act as well as an aesthetic one? How do you see it? Can you tell me, also, about the emergence of political theses in the collection, such “simple pleasures rule America” from “FAKES”?

MR: I don’t think the act of doing it is political at all, but as you point out, lots of political stuff comes out of it, and that’s just because that’s what we were really engaged with at the time. It was during the Bush years, and we saw a lot of parallels between those times and the times the Romantics were writing about. There was a lot of fear in England at the time, fear of foreign influence and revolution, and strict controls on what was said and printed; lots of publishers like Leigh Hunt going to jail. Living under the Patriot Act was and is maddening and that’s what we were thinking of all the time. I assume the same is true for many, many people.

AM: We were definitely always talking about this project, which at first was only a reading project, in terms of providing new dimensionality to our own fear and rage. The conditions of empire, the rise in power of industrial capital, the post-French Revolution political clampdown—all these resonated with us. I think of the project often in the terms that Benjamin uses in his Theses on History. I’m personally very interested in how poets, and other artists, as well as those engaged in explicitly political forms of struggle, look for guidance, transformation and companionship to those among the dead who faced similar moments of aesthetic and/or political crisis. And I’m interested in the different kinds of constellations these new relations form. Think of Ginsberg and Whitman, Spicer and Garcia Lorca. Garcia Lorca and Greek tragedy. The French Revolution and Ancient Rome. Eileen Myles in seventies NY reading Sappho—who was already herself a translated erasure. I think we all can and do make relations like these, even if they aren’t as aesthetically or politically world-transforming. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is still a big part of my life and work. (Though none of my erasures of his poems ever came out well! ) A lot of the political work I see being done in anarchist circles, among folks involved with Occupy, involves creating precisely these kinds of relationships with the dead. I am with Benjamin. I think this is a proper, non-reactionary way to historicize!

JB: It’s easy to imagine that erasing is the political act because it can be seen as so assertive (people always imagine it is a resistant act), but the erasures seem to me to be the remnants of a more communally involving experience—the growth in our intimate space of an intellectual, spiritual, imaginative, and philosophical context that was expansive and liberating. I think the listening was the political part—Anthony’s examples are all kinds of revolutionary listening—debates and conversations that don’t result in power, but meaning—that those conversations spark creative responses (of which one is erasure) is just what happens when people get together and listen.

KR: The informational pages of Gentle Reader! don’t answer much about how, exactly, the process of erasure unfolded, or which one of you is responsible for which passage. Why leave out a more detailed description of that process? And why have readers encounter information about which works were erased at the end of the volume and not the beginning? What do these choices mean for the final version of the project?

MR: A lot of that was in homage to the Lyrical Ballads, wherein Coleridge and Wordsworth didn’t claim authorship of the first edition, and in fact pretended it was written by one author. A lot of it comes from our not really wanting people to focus so much on the fact that they are erasures, which I think gives certain readers an “out”. We actually wanted people to read the poems and consider them as poems, the way they would any other poem. Because they are poems. They are also Erasures [sic], and it would have been weird not to acknowledge that somehow. But we didn’t want it to be the only thing about these poems that people noticed.  I think we decide that if people wanted to get all the way to the back of the book and find out these are erasures, and where they come from, that’s great. Hooray for them.

AM: Exactly.

JB: Also, specifically about leaving them unsigned—while the poems were not written in a “traditionally collaborative” way, the experience was constantly collaborative—at no point was any given poem being written with fewer than three other people present (the other two of us and the author of the original work), so that even though I may have done the erasing of my copy of Keats in my apartment and brought whole the work that is in the book, it seems just as false (or nearly as false) to present sole authorship over it, as it would be false to accept sole authorship over a poem all three of us had written word by word by word. For many readers there is an instinctual assumption of traditional authorship and with it what falls away is the nuanced reality of communal artistic creation. With erasure I think this is even more a concern—you either end up with someone being impressed that X made something from the work of Y or someone complaining that the good parts of X’s work are what Y had already done (a sort of “Look what I did” or a “He didn’t do that at all”). Leaving our names off allows at least a little more of that authorial ambiguity to vibrate.

KR: More on process: how did the three of you navigate the construction (or deconstruction) of the work? Did you each complete individual pieces, or alternate between stanzas or lines—or both?

MR: We each did our own poems, but then got together and edited them together, and did final touches on them together.

KR: I wanted to ask about the approach to titling the pieces, especially seeing that the titles seem to be the only bits of the project that aren’t salvaged from the source texts themselves. (Though in some cases they are, like “I FANCY THE FLOWERS,” which is taken from the last line of the poem created by erasing Keats’s letters.) Also curious to me is that one of the pieces is titled “BYRON” while it itself is an erasure of Don Juan; what was the intention behind this, and what do you think its implications are? I’m reminded of John Clare’s “Don Juan A Poem,” which he wrote while at Northampton Asylum. Was your title an invocation of Byron’s voice, an even-more-explicit appropriation of the voice of the Romantic “I” that goes straight to the author’s name (and thereby implies endorsement, or even ownership)?

MR: That’s you, Anthony.

AM: The poem sounds like a description of the demonic-Byron personage that was haunting me at the time. I think the implications of haunting for notions of any kind of discrete, coherent subject are fairly clear. I think they were also fairly clear to many of the so-called Romantics.

I doubt that that specter that was haunting me at the time was really Byron. But it has to have emerged somehow from the words he left, in lines and sentences that were shaped by the actual heat of the sentience that animated his demented aristo-body. Which I guess means that that specter was as much Byron as anything else. And then calling that ghost an “I” is pretty funny, and even pretty fun.

JB: I would like to point out that one of the things that happens in the actual physical experience of making an erasure is that the author’s name appears and reappears (ghostly, no) on every page, so you must erase or leave it. And as far as the other titles go, I think they are actually probably all (or mostly) erasures—the word “poem” appears all over the pages of the books we were erasing.

KR: Where did the title of the collection come from? How did you arrive at it, and how do you think it colors the collection?

MR: If I remember correctly, it is an erasure of an entire book by William Godwin, Joshua will remember which one. That’s the first line in the book, so we “erased” the rest of the book, and that became our title. We also liked the exclamation mark; it seems oddly inappropriate for that phrase.

AM: That doesn’t seem right. I think it came from Erasmus Darwin. But I might be wrong.

JB: Erasmus Darwin, “The Loves of the Plants.”

KR: “HE HID” and “SPLENDOR OVER GAIN” are both erasures of Don Juan, but I find them fairly distinct in both tone, syntax, and even spatial presentation—“HE HID” moves away from the left margin at times. Likewise, phraseology of certain pieces in the collection are fairly different, I think, and there are differences on the level of punctuation, too; “A POEM” employs the period while “CONFESSIONS” doesn’t. Are these shifts due to intuition, a decision made prior to the erasure, or attempts to respond to something in the source texts?

MR: I think mostly it’s that Joshua is more comfortable writing all over the page than I am, and so those are his poems.

JB: Well, Matt, go back and take a peak, that’s not actually the case and more to the point—my guess is that it is all of the above (though the least likely is a decision made before the erasure) and the fact that there are many individual and communal intuitions at play here, things multiply echo and respond over the time of the endeavor. The act of reading creates a certain sort of page and the act of erasing another and the act of retyping another. The acts of talking and sharing another. The act of publishing another.

KR: Tell me about the experience of undertaking erasure—its “phenomenology,” so to speak. Do you consider anything more than sound or sense when determining what to erase, what to leave in place, and how to lay it out on the page?

[Unknown]:

                        out                               of                                 sure

omen               to speak                       i

sound

 

or

 

Tell me about                                      taking               it

 

or

 

the

you

so                                             mini

 

or

 

 

Do you consider a

sound               when determining                    a

place                                                   ?

KR: What was the most interesting text to erase—or the one that posed the most problems, was the thorniest, or had the most multivalent meanings? Did the difficulty of the project vary? Does erasing poetry require a separate set of expectations than those needed to erase prose?

MR: For me it was Frankenstein for sure. My erasure of it, “FAKES,” comes across like a confessional poem. I found so much stuff in there that seemed to be directly about me, and my life, that it became a little unsettling, and eventually I was just looking for stuff that came next in my life because that’s how the poem was working out. I decided that Frankenstein is inhabited in some way by a demon, like Philip K. Dick says the I Ching is. My wife read it and accused me of just writing a poem about myself.

AM: Probably Frankenstein. Because there was so much to work with.

JB: Yes, I would say Frankenstein was the most interesting too, but not at all the most difficult. There were dozens of other erasures that we struggled with and never found their way out (or way in, maybe).

KR: The most substantial pieces in the collection, to my sensibilities, are the three erasures of Frankenstein. They seem to resituate the novel’s themes of existential and ontological anxiety into a more modern-day framework, one that might even be autobiographical. There’s talk of “immutable laws” and a failed attempts to comprehend them: “my plan was to understand / the earth / the hearts of men… but / I am blind.” And this is in turn tied back to claims pertaining to the role of the author: “I faded when / I became a poet”; “I sought profundity / but I was overcome / by fatigue,” etc. How much of the novel did you take as material for the erasure—the whole thing, or specific passages? And was this thematic affiliation intentional, or did it emerge organically, on its own?

MR: Well, as I said, it seemed to come organically, and I used the whole novel. I don’t know about the other guys. Guys?

AM: That sounds like my experience.

JB: The whole thing.

KR: Have you done other collaborative work before? How was Gentle Reader! like or unlike that—and what are your thoughts, in general or with post-hoc reference to this project, on the values and drawbacks of such collaboration?

MR: It’s funny to think of it as collaborative because the collaborations I’ve done in the past, with Joshua for instance, seem like true collaborations: one word at a time, or one line at a time. This was more like a collaborative project and book, while the poems were done by ourselves. But then, on the other hand, the whole time we were doing it we all three kept talking about how we were collaborating with the Romantics, they just didn’t know it.

AM: I do think we were collaborating with them. I described my thoughts on this above in my answer to the first question. Now it’s all making me think of Whitman in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

WW: Yes, Anthony, it is not upon you alone the dark patches fall.

KR: In 1880, Emile Zola argued in The Experimental Novel that writing should move toward a more positivist, non-Romantic model: “No more lyricism, no more big empty words, but facts, documents…” Revisiting Zola’s thoughts more than a century after he published them, do you agree? Is there a middle ground between the “big empty words” of lyricism (maybe, even, a Romantic lyricism) and the reductiveness of “facts, documents”?

MR: It’s like the argument T.E. Hulme makes about imagination vs. fancy. I think it’s kind of a straw man argument to say that lyricism has “big empty words” and all the “cold, hard” poems that Hulme likes don’t. I think big empty abstractions are bad but they’re not solely the fault of Romanticism. And there are so many examples of facts, documents, and specificity in Coleridge—his conversation poems, for example. Even Shelley offsets his flights of imaginative craziness with extremely tactile, vividly specific poems. Wordsworth too of course in the Lyrical Ballads. I think it’s not that simple.

KR: Don Juan, Frankenstein, Shelley’s “Julian and Maddalo,” and De Quincy’s “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” are all used multiple times. Why? Besides showing that erasure could be used to produce numerous iterations from a single source text, what else did this allow you to do?

MR: I think one thing it showed us as we were doing it was that there is no one erasure of anything. In a way, there’s no one poem about whatever it is you want to write about—there’s just the one you happened to write. Probably most of us keep hammering away at that for our whole lives. But it was great to see how each of us dealt with the same text, or fought against it for instance.

AM: We also chose the erasures that we liked the most when we were putting the book together. We were all working separately on the poems, so often we didn’t know what the others were working on. And when we did, it seemed exciting to see what would happen if we all erased the same work. Certainly we were also interested in how each individual work could produce a limitless number of erasure offspring.

KR: In the erasure of Keats’s letters, “I FANCY THE FLOWERS,” a complex and vaguely Miltonic cosmology (there’s talk of “The devil” and “devils”) comes through, and with that cosmology some ethical sentiments. “I think Wordsworth is / the smoke of the poem / his sketchy truth is a little / imaginary,” the speaker says at one point. This seems to disown the grandiosity of the Romantic project, but at the same time the speaker seems uncertain about what should replace it. Of “Good and Evil” it’s said that “they both can be binding / and stupid,” and the speaker laments the separation of writing and moral sensibility: “I return to words again / fatigued, dirty, and with / my conscience called away / somewhere…” Did these phrases come out due to any conscious ethical commitment, or were they more a product of the process itself? What are your thoughts about them?

MR: I wrote those, and they seemed to come out of being alive in the early 2000s under the Bush administration and trying to make sense of what it means to be American—to be a part of the Empire—in a terribly unfair and sad world. Also after reading them all for a year I came to think of Wordsworth as sort of a clown. And then eventually he became a narc, essentially, ratting out his dinner party guests for their political conversations, and that too seemed to all fit into the political climate at the time.

AM: Wordsworth. He did become a narc in the end. Which really undermines his work for me in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen with the work of other writers from other times. Perhaps that is because one thing that I find most consistently appealing about many of the writers that we call “Romantics” is the intensity of the ethical and political commitments of their work. Especially in the work of the Shelleys, and in the work of the young Coleridge.

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