The choice to use erasure as a poetic technique is not, strictly speaking, a new one: in 1969, for instance, Marcel Broodthaers erased Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard by covering lines of the poems with black stripes. As Vincent Broqua notes in Jacket, Broodthaers’s work was subtitled “an image”—indicating the way in which the text had, via its alteration, regained the quiddity of visual presentation, inched slightly closer back toward its origin as object. Over the past hundred years, however, and into the recent decade, erasure has proliferated as a distinct branch of avant-garde approach, and has even gone so far as to normalize itself—to shed claims to its “contrary” nature, and thereby some of its experimental heritage, as a practice equally legitimate to acts of ostensibly original composition. The tradition of erasure stretches wide, too, across the face of contemporary poetry: Jen Bervin, whose erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Nets, have achieved extensive attention; Lyn Hejinian has composed a book, The Fatalist, by compiling and linearly erasing her correspondence; the artist Claude Closky, Broqua points out in his article, has exhibited pages of a novel wherein every word except the article “la” is crossed out—what results is akin to a musical score where text is emphatically more sonic than physical material—and Jérémie Bennequin, too, has taken Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu as source material.
But why erasure? And why has it taken such a privileged place in recent years among the abundance of methods one can adopt to alter a text, as if the process of removing words from a pre-existing text, whatever the rules and regardless of how the resultant project appears, is a process called for by the attitudes of an age after modernism when all the epics have been written and the task of forging a narrative is supplanted by the task of coping with what narratives we already have? This is probably too grandiloquent a pronouncement (though Kenneth Goldsmith, with the assertion that our task is to navigate the infinity of digital text we already possess, might disagree), but the question remains. To answer it, perhaps we might say that our underlying desire is to make a new thing more directly out of the old, and thereby, tiredly, to make the old new; to offer history a newer, fresher site of presentation through reengagement; to do battle with the dogma of the untouchable, pseudo-sacred status of the urtext (and of the enshrined past); to confront meanings, traditions, lineages, and propositions not in the secondary battlefields of criticism or responsive work but in the fray of the page itself. But this seemingly singular approach culled from a plurality of approaches to altering texts contains its own plurality: in the series of blog posts leading up to this interview, I’ve considered the politics of erasure, of so directly borrowing or subsuming another’s voice to one’s own purposes, and what this decision to disturb the archive itself means; how the dual weights of literature and history which press down on any writer percolate up and through the surfaces of erasure, and how that lineage manifests; and what to make of works that appropriate source texts but which hide that fact, which keep it at least superficially extraneous to the reading experience. Most centrally, however, I’ve tried to think about the ways in which, as Dan Beachy-Quick has observed, erasure visually replicates the selectivity of the reading eye or “I”—by rendering tangible, and therefore visceral, the filters through which we encounter all texts. The result is both stifling and revealing: we see, in some ways, our own seeing, an encounter both stultifying and liberating.
In the interview below, I asked six contemporary poets who have produced significant works of erasure for their thoughts on the practical and theoretical concerns surrounding erasure as a technique. They and their works are as follows: Srikanth Reddy, author of Voyager, an erasure of Kurt Waldheim’s memoirs; Matthea Harvey, author of Of Lamb, which takes a biography of Charles Lamb as its source text; Janet Holmes, who erases Emily Dickinson in The ms of my kin; M. NourbeSe Philip, who interrogates the tragic and far too short text of the legal decision Gregson v. Gilbert in Zong!; David Dodd Lee, whose Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, [comma in title] appropriates Ashbery’s poetry; and Travis Macdonald, whose work, The O Mission Repo, erases The 9/11 Commission Report.
By necessity of time and geography, the interview took place electronically, in a Google Doc, allowing each writer to both continually craft his or her answers and respond to what others had written prior—a sequence of events which unfolded not dissimilarly from the accumulation, disbursement, and editing of cultural tissue that furnishes the ground for the erasures themselves. The poets (if they consider themselves poets first and foremost, and not erasurists, or writers) answered my questions in the order they saw fit and to the length they preferred; I myself have erased nothing they have written, though their works—like the effaced works of Tom Phillips and Brian Henry—have certainly prompted me to put down the pencil and pick up a black marker instead.
KR: Critic Harold Rosenberg, in an essay from his 1975 collection Art on the Edge, wrote that an “art mode, new or old, is for the creative mind essentially a point of beginning. Content is brought into being by the activity through which the artist translates the movement into himself.” Each of your works situates itself in an existent postmodern tradition of erasure and effaced text—how and why did you decide to appropriate erasure as a technique? What’s the story? Were there any works you took cues from?
Travis Macdonald: When I began The O Mission Repo, I was studying at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. But my first exposure to erasure poetry didn’t come in the classroom. A fellow student, Michael Koshkin, gave me a chapbook of his called Parad e R ain from Big Game Books. It was a tall and slim volume of spare and engaging verse that he had culled from the pages of Milton’s Paradise Regained. I was immediately intrigued by the idea and we got to talking about erasure/subtraction as a poetic form. He told me all about Ronald Johnson’s Radi os (which I promptly checked out of The Allen Ginsberg Library and devoured) as well as Jen Bervin’s Nets (which took a little longer to lay my hands on). Later, another classmate, HR Hegnauer, suggested I check out Tom Phillips’ A Humument, which opened my eyes to the physical possibilities of erasure as something applied to the text rather than removed from it.
So those early influences were already in place the day my eyes fell on a thrift store copy of The 9/11 Commission Report. The title of and the initial idea for my own work emerged simultaneously at that moment, fully formed and demanding realization. So I grabbed a pencil and started dissecting the text right then and there.
Janet Holmes: Before my erasure project, I had worked often with appropriated texts, and I was sensitive to the idea of taking other voices into my own work. Any time I do that, I’m aware that I am giving someone other than myself a chance to speak through my work, and that through that I am changing my own voice, adopting other patterns of expression and vocabulary that I wouldn’t ordinarily use. I knew A Humument and Radi os, and several erased versions of Shakespeare’s sonnets (including Bervin’s), as well as some of Jenny Holzer’s work with redaction. It didn’t seem to me that there was a lot of similarity among these works, but there was a thread, a connection, there. I didn’t seek to copy or imitate any of them—though I did talk over the presentation of the erasure with Jeff Clark, who designed Radi os for Flood Editions and who did the cover for The ms of my kin.
There are two approaches to this “existent postmodern tradition,” one of which is dependent upon the palimpsest text for a level of meaning, and another that exists without paying much attention to the palimpsest except as ground. I preferred the first, because I thought there would likely be resonances between the underlying text of Emily Dickinson’s work and my own. When the second Iraq war started, I was reading Dickinson, aware of the violent edges her language could have, and I got interested in seeing whether she was using more of this kind of language during the Civil War’s beginning. I myself had had a very difficult and unsuccessful time trying to write about the war, and was seeking a way to do it. Her writing opened up a way for me, and seemed to permit a collaboration with my intentions.
Srikanth Reddy: It’s so interesting to hear about the origins of Travis and Janet’s projects, as there’s a lot that resonates for me in both accounts. Like Janet, I was have a heck of a time trying to write in the wake of political developments with Bush in the White House, and I started fiddling around with erasure as a way of getting words on the page as a result. I myself wasn’t very conversant with the growing tradition of erasure poetics at the time—I’d heard about Radi Os and A Humument, but hadn’t really delved into either text—but after building up a head of steam on my own erasure, I went back to those texts and was quite blown away by them.
Travis’s remark about Phillips’ work showing how erasure can be an additive, rather than a subtractive, process seems right on the mark to me. Erasure isn’t just a way of making language disappear—it’s a kind of technology of writing, I think, just like collage or any number of other methods. As I dug deeper into Kurt Waldheim’s memoirs—the subject of my own erasure—I also felt more and more that erasure is in itself an inexhaustible practice. That there are countless texts hidden within any text is a kind of platitude, I know, but somehow erasure made that familiar notion feel alive to me all over again. So I decided to “erase” Waldheim’s book not once, but three times, to see how many different poems I could find within that source.
M. NourbeSe Philip: When I started to work on Zong! I didn’t conceive of erasure as a technique. I was confronted by a two-page report of the case Gregson v. Gilbert that dispassionately recounted the massacre by drowning of some two hundred enslaved Africans on board the eponymous slave ship Zong in 1781. In keeping with insurance law then the “cargo” of enslaved Africans had been insured and on return of the ship to Liverpool, the owners of the ship, the Gregsons, made a claim for compensation for the very Africans their ship’s captain had had murdered. The insurance company, run by the Gilberts, also residents of Liverpool, refused to pay and were in turn sued by the ship’s owners, the Gregsons. At the first trial the court agreed with the plaintiffs, the Gregsons, that they should receive compensation for the murdered Africans. The Gilberts appealed and were granted a new trial. The case was high-profile and seminal in the abolitionists’ struggle against the slave trade and slavery. The two-page report referred to above sets out the fact situation and the reasons for the decision. When first faced with the decision granting a new trial, I was convinced that the stories of the events that took place on board the Zong were locked in those two pages: my challenge was to figure out a way to get to those stories. My conviction arose from my having studied and practised law for several years and knowing how a case’s progress through the courts worked to squeeze all extraneous material including emotion and context from an event until you arrived at a desiccated principle of law which, in this case, was simply whether the ship’s owners were entitled to destroy their “property” and then claim insurance monies for that very destroyed “property.” I initially tried many different techniques—cutting up the text; cutting holes in the text; whiting out and blacking out text—and trying to understand whether there was any difference created by the method of erasure. I soon became aware of Tom Phillips’ A Humument but thought of his project as very different from mine. For starters, he had the entire text—a novel—at his disposal, while I had some 500 different words to work with. There were times when I absolutely panicked since I couldn’t see how I could fashion poems from this abbreviated, compressed record as case reports often tend to be. While case reports vary in length, the report is inherently an erased document: it usually contains a very succinct head-note which succinctly states the facts, followed by synopses of arguments from both sides as well as the decision and its reasons. The Gregson vs. Gilbert report was appallingly abbreviated and essentially all it reported was the court’s reason for granting a new trial to the insurers, the Gilberts.
I soon abandoned the physical erasure and removal of text (Travis’ idea of erasure being application to as well as removal from the text is very apt as I came to understand my own process over time) and decided to lock myself in the body (the very limited body, I might add) of the text as a way of finding my way into the story or stories. That was when I decided I would rearrange the words as they appeared in the text to fashion the poems. It was as if I had locked myself in the hold of the ship with the “cargo ” of bodies, words and memories—all erased by time, by history—the better to find the story that couldn’t ever be told, yet had to be told.
Physically manipulating the text helped me in the process over the long run: the very fact of physically mutilating the text broke the spell that the completed text has on us. I use the word “mutilate” with great deliberation here since I was deeply aware at the time I worked on Zong! that the intent of the transatlantic slave trade was to mutilate—languages, cultures, people, communities and histories—in the effort of a great capitalist enterprise. And I would argue that erasure is intrinsic to colonial and imperial projects. It’s an erasure that continues up to the present. The idea of mutilation and the violence it implies also resonates with Janet’s reference to Dickinson and the violent edges of her poetry—and perhaps the violence at the edges of her poetry.
In my own case I didn’t have a lengthy document to work with. In an odd and interesting way, though, you could say that what I was doing was attempting to erase the layers of erasure to get to that ghostly palimpsest to which I could then apply techniques of erasure, if that doesn’t sound too confusing.
Matthea Harvey: I tried erasure on a lark and then found myself drawn into many years of erasing. I first fell in love with Tom Phillips’ A Humument, which I read about in Heather McHugh’s book of essays, Broken English. I also love Jen Bervin’s Nets—the way it’s presented on the page (with the “erased” original in grey and the words selected for her poems in bold) seemed a very beautiful way to keep a dialogue between the original text and the erasure.
David Dodd Lee: My first experiences with erasure were as a visual artist, and I don’t mean because I was engaged in anything particularly conceptual. My art was executed in the shadows of influence of other painters, especially the Abstract Expressionists, and the wave of painters following the Abstract Expressionists, painters such as Jasper Johns and Jim Dine. My journey had been one in which I evolved from being a traditional representational artist into an abstract painter who appropriated objects, stenciled words onto canvas, began to think of the junk in the alley outside my office as the stuff of art, taking a cue from Rauschenberg. To me this was all just an obvious way of getting more “world” into the piece of art; why bother doing an imitation? At the same time I was still painting, drawing, manipulating materials; I was still making marks on canvas, or on fabric (recycled clothing quite often) stretched across a canvas, and craft was still part of what was going on. My identity as an artist was wrapped up in the visual syntax I’d developed from years of making art, mostly doing drawings early on, and then painting—biomorphic orange shapes on similarly orange fields interrupted by skirmishes of quickly painted words, or a crude noose hanging beside a scratched-in figure (for instance). The point here is that part of this process involved painting quite representationally—cows in a field, or an orgy of body parts (nod to de Kooning’s “Excavation”), or two Arctic Terns quarreling above a nest (painted from a photograph), or an imitation (sketched) of a painting by Chaim Soutine—and then taking a huge metal trowel and scraping everything off. A ghost of the original image remained on the raw canvas and was what guided me through the rest of the work. What emerged grew out of whatever original image I was fetishizing or obsessing over . . . pornography or Audubon alike. The point of departure remained an essential part of the painting even though the original forms weren’t recognizably apparent to a viewer. As I painted and collaged over the original image it was important to leave small sections of that “ground” visible through the glazes of paint. When the painting was finished it was as much about that original picture as anything else, and I loved the idea that somehow that mysterious substance, that triggering subject, fueled the artwork, gave it its particular fire, this thing I had negated but used as an underlying outline for a mostly non-representational work. In the end, perhaps the word “cow” would appear on the canvas. I think Frank O’Hara’s “Why I am Not a Painter” expresses well this dynamic, flirtatious and free-flowing, the thing beginning at point A and ending God-knows-where, whether one is using paint or words.
I was very aware, and admired the spirit of, Rauschenberg’s act, his erasing of a drawing by de Kooning, but the violence of the appropriation, at least the perception of the erasing as a destructive act, a kind of one-upmanship, wasn’t particularly helpful to me creatively, at least early on. But I think it planted a seed. I realize now how Rauschenberg’s erasure was also a somewhat playful act and so a bit more complicated than I originally believed…
Jump ahead some thirty years or so: I must have been ready to react when I first picked up and studied some of the erasure books that happened into my hands, though I wasn’t conscious of such. My list is the usual one—erasures by Bervin, Johnson, Ruefle, Phillips. I was particularly struck by Ruefle’s use of whiteout, the way the page was painted over so that the text shown through. But I can’t say any of these were models for Sky Booths. I mean, I suppose they ignited something. But what I remember is simply being swept along while reading Ashbery and feeling both the power of the work (that egolessness!) as well as finding myself frustrated with the poems. At the same time I had been struggling to figure out a way to write a different kind of poem myself (that’s a whole other story). I’m not even sure what happened—it wasn’t a calculated decision at all—but I remember one night I was reading in my office after failing to write anything worthwhile, and the next thing I knew I was literally on the floor marking poems up with a pen and then typing them on the computer, erasing/writing what I immediately labeled Ashbery erasure poems. The process was so liberating and absorbing. What I learned writing those poems informed my next two books, The Nervous Filaments and Orphan, Indiana.
KR: Usually, the literary self seems to be a positive construction, but erasure challenges that notion, expropriating and subtracting in lieu of adding. Do you think it’s still possible to excavate an identifiable self from your erasures? What about your work is distinctly “you,” if anything?
Janet Holmes: Why does there need to be an “identifiable self” in the poems? The poem is in the voices of many people involved in the Iraq invasion, including soldiers from both sides of the conflict, civilians, journalists, families, and others. It is a literary work. The concerns of the resultant text are my own, and I think are identifiable as such in the context of my other writing, but I did not explicitly seek to create “a self” that could be identified as me, and have the erasure speak its words.
Travis Macdonald: I agree with Janet here: why should the act be dependent on the actor? I think that the idea of the poem as strictly a construction or declaration of self is one of the last vestigial leftovers of Romanticism. The act of erasure on the other hand, seems to transcend the traditional boundaries of authorship. Of course, I still identify positively as myself, so maybe “transgression” is more apt than “transcendence.” In any case, I see no need to impose that personal construct on the poem. In fact, just the opposite.
For my own part, the act of erasure leads toward the discovery of otherness. You use the term “excavate” here and I think that’s it exactly. My own role as poet in this process has more closely resembled that of an archaeologist much more than that of an architect. After all, the subtraction of text is, at its core, a sculptural act in which the goal is to reveal the form or framework rather than impose it upon the page. I see The O Mission Repo and the work of my fellow erasurists on this panel as having existed long before their unveiling… something lying dormant beneath the surface and waiting to be pulled and extracted from the grasp of a nearby potentiality.
Srikanth Reddy: I really like the idea of the erasurist as an archaeologist. I think that connects up with what Janet was saying about discovering a panoply of voices within the source-text. When you erase a text, you’re “unearthing” possibilities of phrasing, voicing, and thinking that are already embedded but somehow buried or hidden within the language. Oddly, though, I did find that as I erased Waldheim’s book, with its ghastly bureaucratic language, I kept finding “my” voice within it. So while I agree with Travis and Janet about the possibility of moving beyond one’s own voice or self through the work of erasure (or through any creative work whatsoever), I’d also note the funny way that one’s selfhood resurfaces at those very moments when one is most trying to elude it. At least, that was my experience of the process!
Matthea Harvey: That’s what interests me about erasure—Srikanth Reddy’s erasure, Voyager sounds like Srikanth Reddy. Mine sound like me. This may come with practice or it may happen right away and it’s probably partially dependent on the text you choose. Erasure is like any other form—it shapes the content and also leads you to say things you wouldn’t have said without its strictures, but I think some very distinct particles of “you-ness” get caught in that sieve. In the case of Of Lamb, I’d say that the focus on animals, hybridity and the amalgam of despair and delight is something that exists in my other book of poetry.
M. NourbeSe Philip: By the end of the work I came to understand that I had, as I wrote in an accompanying essay, Notanda, entirely absolved myself of “authorial intention,” so much so that I asked the publishers to allow another name to accompany mine on the book. That generated some very interesting discussions regarding placement in libraries and whose name would be catalogued, the possibilities of confusion with more than one name and so on. They eventually went along with my request. Setaey Adamu Boateng is the other name on Zong! and represents the collective voice of the ancestors.
For me poetry is an act of supreme risk-taking and my earlier books, She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks and Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence, represent this approach. If I were to discern traces of what is “distinctly” me in Zong!, it is to be found less in the writing itself and more in the willingness to risk—to sail in the dark with no compass. With only one’s heartbeat to accompany one.
David Dodd Lee: I agree with Matthea, especially the part about the text you choose… I chose to erase John Ashbery because he’s John Ashbery. And it did feel confrontational. I thought Ashbery’s importance might create the assumption in a reader I’d be swallowed up whole. I thought I might be swallowed up whole. But it also felt possible I might craft something, using Ashbery’s work as source material, that sounded nothing like Ashbery. I mean, I had no idea, at first, what would happen, which was partly the point… But then, after a while, the poems started to seem like they were mostly mine (I just started feeling that they were). My preoccupations with sexuality, nature, and religious experience in the erasure poems are certainly evident, preoccupations very much on display in my earlier books of poems. I wasn’t consciously trying to spin things a certain way though; I wasn’t aiming to highlight any particular subject matter. Hell, in the beginning I had just been reading John Ashbery, drawing nourishment from this work that seemed so other than mine. I don’t think I was aware I’d be erasing his work ten minutes before I actually began doing so… I was simply, gloriously it seemed at times, immersed in the process to the point I was unaware of any particular “you-ness”… Erasing Ashbery allowed an escape from the self, then. But in the end that “escape” allowed me to write an entirely different kind of poem. I will say the earlier erasures were executed quickly, while the last few I bled over, as I do with most of the poems I write. But, as, as oblivious as I may have been, swept away in the experience of this project, a great amount of “you-ness” began to emerge, indeed, as time went by.
KR: If erasure is a purposeful, orchestrated encounter with a text, what was your first actual encounter with your source text like? How has performing and publishing the erasure changed that relationship (or your relationship with text in general) since?
Janet Holmes: I should say that, of course, I had read Dickinson’s work for years. But my first encounter with the text as a potential palimpsest for erasure was reading the words “If it had no pencil, / Would it try mine – ”—the first words attributed to Dickinson in 1861. I took a pencil and circled those words. In the next three poems I circled phrases: “a Flag”— “Victory”—“Martyrs”—“Streaks of Meteor – / Upon a Planet’s Bond” and realized that I could work with these beginning poems as erasures.
Writing The ms of my kin has likely deepened my relationship with Dickinson and her work. But I don’t think it’s changed my relationship with text in general—that is, I don’t read something and immediately think of it as source material. I would not be surprised if I never wrote another erasure.
Srikanth Reddy: My first encounter with Waldheim’s text was completely chaotic. I really didn’t know where to begin—what to erase, what to keep, and how to proceed. But I started to circle interesting words in the morass of neutral administrative language that pervades Waldheim’s memoir, and those words served as stepping stones for me to proceed. Again, I find it so interesting where this sort of solitary work converges with what somebody else was doing—I had no idea, when I first read The ms of my kin, that Janet had circled language too as a way of getting into the work of erasure.
Anyway, that’s to say that erasure, at first, was anything but a purposeful, orchestrated encounter with a text in my own experience. But it became increasingly so, as I developed a more sure sense of what I wanted to do with the method. That stage came once I started erasing with a kind of literary model in mind. In other words, it’s very hard to find something worthwhile in a text unless you’re looking for something in particular. I found that things moved along much better when I knew I was “looking” for philosophical propositions in Book I of Voyager, for first-person narrative in Book II, and for Dante-esque allegory in Book III. In that respect, for me at least, erasure became like a form of reading, or detection. Which made me feel, as I do now, that writing itself is a form of reading.
Travis Macdonald: I also began each page, each section by circling words and phrases, looking for the thread that connected them, so I can definitely relate to Srikanth’s characterization of erasure as a form of detection. In many ways, the act of composing (or decomposing) this book has forever changed the way I approach the page both as a reader and a writer.
Where my own experience most sharply diverged is that I found, time and time again, that the preconceived intents I entered the text with really just got in the way, resulting in fragmented, incohesive [sic] sections. It wasn’t until I consciously relinquished that authorial control and began to look at the whole process as one of ongoing discovery—letting it lead me in its own way through the story as it unfolded—that the work really began to take on an intelligible shape and cohesive narrative of its own.
Matthea Harvey: I bought the book on 12th street in New York City for $3, and I didn’t even really look at it, because I’d decided I would choose a book at random. As I started erasing the book (reading and erasing simultaneously is a schizophrenic way to enter a text), I started learning about the tragic story of Mary and Charles Lamb. It wasn’t until I’d finished most of the erasures that I started reading everything they’d written—Charles Lamb’s essays (Essays of Elia), their collected letters, their joint project retelling Shakespeare’s plays for children (Tales from Shakespeare) as well as Sarah Burton’s A Double Life: A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb and Anne Fadiman’s wonderful essay, “The Unfuzzy Lamb” in At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays.
Because I spent so much time carrying A Portrait of Charles Lamb around, I don’t think there’s another book in the world that I know better in terms of its physical attributes and the text within. When I made the first full erasure of the book (whiting out each page), I also whited out the cover, the spine, the copyright page and the blurbs, so I paid equal attention to parts of the book I usually mostly ignore.
M. NourbeSe Philip: I had first read about the Zong case in James Walvin’s Black Ivory. I was shocked by his recounting of the facts of the drowning of enslaved Africans and recall making a note of the case, Gregson vs. Gilbert, with a promise to myself to go to the law library and look it up. When I did actually find it, I was again shocked—this time at the paucity of the information that the report contained. Two pages! A modest recounting of the facts with the accompanying arguments.
I should add here that Walvin expressed the view that Black Ivory was intended as an intervention in a trend in the scholarship on the transatlantic slave trade at that time—a trend that appeared to favour demographics over what he saw as the more human stories that comprise the history of the trade. In other words, it could be said that he saw the scholarship favouring demographics as erasing something that he felt was crucial to the understanding of the history of those cataclysmic events that lasted some 500 years.
There is a sense in which I understand better and more deeply how events leave their marks and traces on language—my conviction that the stories of that horrific event were indeed lodged in that brief report was eventually bourne out. So, I’m not sure that my relationship with the text has been changed except that I now understand that the paucity of the text is no indication of the resources that may reside within it. I am also less enthralled by the idea of completion as it relates to texts. The idea of the fragment has always interested me as an organising principle of Caribbean aesthetics and Zong! has solidified that idea.
David Dodd Lee: My relationship with Ashbery’s poetry is hard to trace. I don’t remember when I first came in contact with his work. Early on, anyway, there was a lot of ambivalence, then at a certain point I began to respond to the work as a whole, as if it were one enormous, ongoing, conceptual art event. I do recall coming to Ashbery somehow via Bishop (I believe Ashbery says somewhere he really loves Bishop’s poetry) and reading and liking the strange casualness of “The Instruction Manual.” I wrote something in prose once about “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” but it was the Ashbery of The Tennis Court Oath that startled me, and got me interested. (Understand, I read the books out of sequence, and it probably wasn’t until the middle 1980s that I came into contact with TTCO. For quite a while I recall simply having been annoyed with the inscrutability of much of his work. Then, suddenly, I loved it.) So TTCO did really wake me up. I thought Ashbery was wildly brave at first, but pretty quickly realized he didn’t give a shit if people liked the work or not. That was the real beginning then… Now I’ve got a good two feet of shelf space devoted to Ashbery’s books of poems. And it’s with a mixture of envy filtered through annoyance, a sense of coming into contact once again with this swarm of an Other, and a kind of unbridled joy in encountering the journey with no ending that is the river of Ashbery’s work—these wonderfully flowing sentences that appear to be heading somewhere but never get there—that makes encountering Ashbery’s work so captivating. It’s all very liberating. It can also feel overwhelming. It’s in this spirit that I erased, and then assembled, the Ashbery erasure poems. They became their own thing, as I mentioned above. Yet they are still the result of my very active reading of John Ashbery. I’d almost say the project taught me how to be influenced without fear… by simply asserting myself… And Ashbery, as an artist, isn’t diminished at all by any of it. His work is such that it lends itself to continuation.
KR: Warhol’s soup cans, Duchamp’s Fountain, and many of Bern Porter’s founds don’t alter their source material all that much; they present it in an alien context instead. Is there an extent to which something should be modified before new claims on its authorship can be made?
Janet Holmes: Appropriation is a valid form of creation, as your examples show. It is a transgressive act. Ideally, it makes the reader or viewer re-engage surprisingly with an object or text. I think you have to give artists a lot of leeway in the process of creation; rules only help when they’re made by the artist.
Srikanth Reddy: Yes, I agree that it’s pretty much impossible to come up with rules for regulating what counts as authorship in any meaningful way. Though it feels like Duchamp didn’t alter or modify the urinal in his most famous work, for example, by now most art history courses will point out that he signedit, which is in itself a powerful gesture of modification. So I think authorship can take all sorts of forms, whether it be simply putting your name on something, or relocating it to a new context, or erasing parts of it, or writing a poem on a piece of paper. That’s the revolution occurring now in our artistic culture—on all levels, from popular culture’s use of sampling or whatever to the theoretical work happening around the idea of the “commons.” It’s exciting, and daunting, but mostly exciting, I’d say.
Travis Macdonald: That’s a curious bit of curation (Warhol/Duchamp/Porter)… I see the work of each artist listed above as serving very distinct functions and intents but the thread that connects them is a common insistence that authorship, originality and ownership are false grounds for any creative foundation. Artists and writers are—always have been—the cultural equivalent of hunters and gatherers. How many centuries have the world’s sculptors, painters and poets sought to capture, frame and RE-present the world exactly as they saw it, often with painstakingly realistic precision? From the cave paintings at Lascaux to Michelangelo to Chuck Close and the Photorealists (and that’s just a small handful of examples from the Western/Eurocentric Tradition) throughout all of human history, the role of art has been to appropriate and recontextualize its surroundings. But no one ever accuses sculptors or painters of plagiarizing landscapes or stealing the human form. What’s changed? Technology and technique. As difficult as it may be to believe, we are all, even now, in the midst of an epic transitional moment: we are moving slowly from a transmutable tribal/oral tradition of cultural transmission to a more static global/written record. As the available means of reproduction become increasingly automated due to new technologies of transmission (photography, radio, television, internet, etc.) writers and artists must adapt accordingly. We must recognize the creations of our predecessors (and, perhaps, contemporaries) as elements of our surroundings equally available for capture and representation as any landscape or nude. We must continue to question and reexamine these ideas of artistic ownership in response to shifting power structures. After all, the first copyrights (literally, “the right to copy,” lest we forget) were granted by kings and bishops as a way of controlling the means of production and therefore the dissemination of information. What happens now that the means of production and dissemination are more widely available than any other time in human history? I don’t know but I’m looking forward to finding out.
Matthea Harvey: I’m happy to embrace all the permutations of erasure and to let the artists decide themselves about authorship.
M. NourbeSe Philip: This begs the question as to what is, in fact, “authorship.” I think it’s entirely up to the artist to make this claim and the critic to challenge it. Having said this, however, I do think that placing something in another context can create a radical shift in perception, and the insight or intuition about how context may make or unmake an object can be a creative act – radically creative in fact.
David Dodd Lee: Well, Travis gets it right. He says, “We must recognize the creations of our predecessors (and, perhaps, contemporaries) as elements of our surroundings equally available for capture and representation as any landscape or nude.” Everything’s “nature” and it’s all fair game. I used Ashbery’s work rather selfishly, allowing his process to bald-facedly influence my process. Then I offered up poems in which the question of authorship is unsettlingly up for grabs. At least that’s one interpretation. I ever only imagined JA would find it interesting and totally acceptable (if he cared much at all one way or another). Modified, unmodified, it depends on the single instance, I guess. There is an element of parasitism to erasure that I continue to find appealing. Matthea says, “I’m happy to embrace all the permutations of erasure and to let the artists decide themselves about authorship.” And I agree. That pretty much covers it. Although, personally, I may find some “erasures” more moving or stimulating than others, just as I would any work of art. I suppose I prefer art that is more than simply conceptual. Arnulf Rainer, the Austrian artist, whose overpaintings and doctored photographs feel violently destructive and beautiful, strikes an interesting balance between representation, ownership, and a statement of self in his work. Painters, often, come to mind when I think of erasure–the constant act of revision right there on the canvas for all to see, the overpainting that is transparent enough to allow a viewer to see what is being corrected, whether it be a silkscreened newspaper article or a fragment of a literary text.
Cy Twombly, Robert Motherwell, and Larry Rivers (see his “George Washington Crossing the Delaware”) are artists I’m endlessly fascinated by. I’ve written many ekphrastic poems due to this accumulation of glazings that create multiple threads of meaning.
Janet Holmes: The question here seems to be somewhat related to the idea that comes up in my graduate classes: is erasure a form of cheating? Is it less creative than writing something “out of your head”? When my second book came out, appropriating portions of a diary my father wrote in the 1920s, an elder poet came up to me and dismissively said, “I suppose all we need to do now to write poems is to steal someone else’s writing.” It was an expression of the same kind of feeling: real poetry has no sources. That elder poet’s work is largely dependent upon classical mythology, but somehow that does not, in his mind, diminish it. Erasure work brings up questions like this and gives us a perspective from which to discuss them.
KR: How do you see methods of alteration/finding-as-art transforming as more publications move online? How are potential source materials changing, and does this affect the way they can be tampered with, or not?
Travis Macdonald: I started The O Mission Repo by literally dissecting the original book, cutting out pages with an X-acto knife and performing my eliminations via photocopy and black sharpie marker. This method quickly became unsustainable as the problem of reproduction became apparent. After searching the labyrinthine virtual hallways of our nation’s bureaucracy, I managed to get my hands on a free PDF download of The 9/11 Commission Report. Without online access to this public document, The O Mission Repo would never have been possible.
On a higher level, I think one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of the “information age” is the plasticity of language that has resulted from the rise of the internet, the 24-hour news cycle and the many accompanying phenomena. Of course, as any politician will tell you, language has always been a malleable thing, subject to the will and skill of the mind wielding it and the perceived status of the mouth from which it’s emitted. In some ways, throughout much of history, I think that was always a sort of unspoken truth…the impolite and impolitic recognition of which might stop all dinner party conversation cold. As the aforementioned 21st-century forces make this physical manipulation more and more apparent to a greater swath of the population, the recognition of language as a material substance like any other has begun to take hold in our cultural consciousness. As that process unfolds and evolves, every instance of the written word becomes a potential source, subject to creative appropriation, revision and redistribution.
Srikanth Reddy: That’s interesting to hear about The O Mission Repo coming into existence because of the PDF file—I also would have to say that technologies like the photocopier, the word processor, and the like powerfully shaped what I was doing. It’s also interesting to think about earlier erasures, like Phillips and Johnson’s, which utilized different technologies. As technologies change and develop—which is of course happening at a dizzying rate right now—new formal features will start to appear in the erasure, collages, samplings, and other appropriations created by new writers and artists. That will be very interesting to watch as it develops.
Matthea Harvey: On the one hand, it’s easier and cheaper to present scans of some of this work online. On the other, there’s a concurrent move toward making these precious objects that can’t be reproduced, like Jen Bervin’s The Desert, which exists in an edition of forty copies, where machine stitching erases each page. Then there are magazines like Esopus and Filter that do a beautiful job of reproducing artist projects in a way that preserves the sense of the original materials.
M. NourbeSe Philip: I think the internet works encourages a much more matter-of-fact approach to text. The thrall of the completed text is waning and can’t but affect how artists deal with this material. The sheer availability of online materials has and will continue affect how artists deal with these materials.
I do confess, however, to not being overly savvy when it comes to the internet. Having said that, however, I must add that I believe that Zong! could only have been written with the assistance of computer technology. Is it the way the text floats on the screen as on a virtual ocean? I don’t quite know since I haven’t devoted much time to thinking about this, but I do sense there is something that bears more analysis there.
Janet Holmes: This puts me in mind of two things. The first is that I was a computer typographer before the days of wysiwyg, which meant that as a typesetter, you looked at the physical codes for font name, size, leading, and line width, as well as the codes for manipulating all those things (kerning, line spacing, and letter spacing, for example). There were many more options than we are usually given by computer software packages nowadays, and those codes were visible on the screen along with the text being typeset, in the green-on-black display of those days. Typesetting was an art largely done in the imagination, as you tried to gauge what things would look like when they came out on the photosensitive paper. You didn’t want to waste that paper. So I think I learned from those years of experience that creating something electronically was not terribly removed from book artistry. When the technology moved to the world of wysiwyg and then to PDFs and websites, more obstacles to creating the look one wanted were added; html and xml just aren’t that flexible, and browsers are all over the place when it comes to so-called “standards.” I find these methods more democratic (both in terms of who uses them and who has access to them), so I’m still intrigued. How might a website be source material for a poet in addition to using (as Flarfists do) the content of what they contain? Would the result be poetry or visual art? I hope it might be both.
The second thing derives from the first: I am a publisher of other people’s work, and I want to make that both high-quality and highly available. Expensive, one-of-a-kind creations don’t interest me (as a publisher or as a writer) so much as something that everyone might have, or have access to.
I was able to experience something unusual, purely by chance: during a semester teaching in England a decade or so ago, my husband and I befriended a couple who lived down the block from our flat, which belonged to a fellow who taught at Goldsmith’s academy, the art school. I noticed when visiting them that they displayed several of Phillips’ Humument prints in their home. It turned out that the prints for the first edition of A Humument had been made “in the back garden” of that house, and that the husband of the couple had provided the press. I had a sense, then, of the physicality of the creation of that work that I had never had before.
David Dodd Lee: I think the acts of altering/finding-as-art will proliferate to a point whereupon those individual acts will begin to define themselves via the resulting newly expanded context of said numerous like acts, and become either more or less relevant to the culture at large, largely because of the internet. But it’s hard for me to get my head around this question since my experience is really still married to the romance of the book (including annotating and defacing them (by using pages as material for collages, for one thing)). That is to say, I don’t readily think of the internet when I think of erasure (because I don’t want to?). But the short answer is the internet makes everything easier. And the access to new material has changed everything as well. Materials are easier to erase. The spark of an idea can flow right into an action, and just keep going. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. So why even state something this obvious, right? Because it all feels a bit overwhelming to me. More isn’t usually better… I’d like to see more erased texts as part of larger, visual works of art one might encounter in a museum gallery. I’m working on collages now that include erased texts. They include whatever I can find around the house, in the yard. I do them when I travel and so they become manifestations of place, local material plastered beside excerpts of poems, creating new contexts… When I’m done working on a collage the area around me is a mess and my hands are covered with glue and paint. There is something intimate about this, something sensual, the result of the making being evident on my own body. It’s like “syntax” has splashed out of the frame. I’ve also done a series of dictionary sonnets (using dictionaries published half a century ago). Just turning the delicate pages is a thrill. I like the concrete stuff.
No surprise, any of this, in light of my answer to question number one. That said, I believe erasure artists will create profound works of art I can’t imagine and can’t wait to discover and experience, because of or despite the internet. I expect I’ll be floored by the audacity and the paradoxical beauty that emerges from these future projects.
KR: Erasures are often spoken of as deriving meanings “hidden,” “embedded,” or otherwise latent in the text they subtract from. Is this an accurate characterization? Disregarding the material connection between the two, do you see your project as somehow revealing insights into its source text, or as a piece with its own cadre of significations? Part of a lineage, or broken off from it? (Or both?)
Srikanth Reddy: Though I myself often lapse into this way of talking about erasure, I think it can actually obfuscate what’s happening when one uses a technique of this sort. It’s tempting to describe one’s erasure as unearthing hidden meanings or potentialities within a text—because it makes the erasurist into a kind of detective, or maybe even a sort of hero who descends into the underworld of the text to retrieve some sort of golden bough. Looking back on my previous answers to your questions, I can see that I fall into that way of thinking myself. But I think erasure is actually more complex than that, just as archaeology itself isn’t just an act of digging up hidden treasures. Modern archaeology involves all sorts of activities—statistical analysis, comparative philology, etcetera—that extend beyond simple excavation. Erasure is like that too. It goes back to what Travis originally said about erasure being as much an additive procedure as a subtractive one. Maybe even the term erasure is misleading, since it emphasizes the subtraction over the addition.
Travis Macdonald: Yes, this is a slippery trap, indeed! On the one hand, we must (I think) acknowledge that the work would not be what it is without the host text. On the other, I think it is important to recognize the erasure as having a living and breathing existence of its own. Which is to say that I feel like erasure is about opening up a line of intertextual dialogue rather than insightful revelation or critique. In that way, I think it’s more about creating a parallel narrative than uncovering some sort of hidden message from the “original” authors. Of course, all that having been said, the simple truth remains: the words we chose were always there… but were they waiting to be found? Now that they have been, it’s hard to tell.
Matthea Harvey: I’d say Of Lamb is a bromeliad perched on the trunk of A Portrait of Charles Lamband inhaling moisture from the nursery rhyme air of Sarah Hale’s “Mary had a little lamb.”
M. NourbeSe Philip: I have already talked about my conviction that the stories around the Zong incident were locked in that two page report, but my process of erasure had less to do with subtraction and more to do with shattering the words of the text into spore words which then arranged themselves into Zong! The “erasure” process—application and not subtraction—entailed making “dictionaries” of the different mother and spore words from the legal report. For instance, the word insurance, what I call the mother word would generate the following spore words: ran, sure, can, race and so on. Then I watched, waiting to see how those words would arrange themselves—always in the margin of the dictionary—into mini-dramas and stories.
My rules were that I could only use the words that arose from the words of the mother document. And often I would want to use a particular word and would have to go hunting through the dictionary to see if I could find that word within another word. If I couldn’t find the word I couldn’t use it. I was amazed and delighted at how often I would find a word that I wanted. The idea of detection was central to this practice and I often found myself scanning this now fragmented and rearranged text for certain words and phrases as relationships began to develop between them. There was a sense that I was scooping words and phrases off the surface of the text, as if I were gazing out over an ocean and looking for flotsam and jetsam. It was less an archaeological activity and much more a salvaging operation, but interestingly enough detection, as identified by Srikanth, played a role. Indeed, one of the epigraphs that appear in Zong! is: “The poet is the detective and the detective the poet,” by the writer Thomas Moore.
My final rule was that in terms of placement on the page, no word or cluster of words could come directly below another, but must seek the space above. This rule opened up spaces in the text and gives the book the look it presently has. It also solved a problem I confronted: the publishers wanted me to cut the book by one third and I had no idea how I could do that and not gut it. One this particular form presented itself, the problem of length was solved.
The fragmentation and gaps within the text continue a story of fragmentation, erasure and gaps. I’ve mentioned above the socio-historical erasures that mark African histories in general; there were also gaps in the actual story as it relates to the Zong incident. For instance, the logbook of the ship was never found, so from the beginning there were lacunae in the official written texts around this incident. The names of the enslaved Africans were all erased and they were referred to simply as Negro man, Negro woman or Negro child in the ship’s manifest. I did actually call James Walvin on one occasion to ask whether he had the names of those on board the Zong. In a very commiserative tone he reminded me that names were never recorded. I had known this but hoped that given the public attention the case had garnered, there might have been an exception. This led me to an act that is the opposite of erasure, or perhaps more accurately, I decided to erase the erasure by adding names at the bottom of the pages of the first section of the manuscript.
There’s a sense in which an originary erasure permeates the initial incident and echoes in my own work. It’s an idea that is best summed up by telling a story that must be told, yet can’t be told—what can’t be told is that originary erasure. So, there is a sense in which Zong! continues a “lineage” of erasure. I also think, however, that by the last section of the poem, Ferrum, English transforms into another language, a code if you will, that floats below the printed text of the poem, which possibly points to another type of “signification”—perhaps even a form of signifying?
Janet Holmes: I love this discussion of the “rules” for Zong! I too had “rules” for The ms of my kin, some of which were necessitated by my fear of copyright infringement: I depended upon the chronology of the poems as ordered by Franklin, and Harvard owned the copyright to that research. So I didn’t allow myself to use an entire line of Dickinson’s; beyond that, I also required myself to use at least one word from each poem, not skipping any. Because of this, I could make much more use of Dickinson’s vocabulary than of her syntax. My work was also complicated by the fact that ED moves from first to third to omniscient, with male and female and plural pronouns used in proximate poems.
It was her vocabulary that initially gave me entrée to the work, but the military nature of her words was often more spiritually constructed in the source poems. When she wrote of a spiritual “transport,” I had no scruples about appropriating that to speak of a military vehicle. I found the flexibilities of English extremely useful when collaborating with her on the poem.
David Dodd Lee: I never once felt like I was mining Ashbery’s poems for hidden meanings, but as Travis mentions there was a sense of an emerging parallel narrative, as well as a violence eating away at that narrative, which—the more and more I think of it—I’m beginning to realize was as much an extraction of words as an erasure, per se. The second step was the placement of those words on the blank page. My sense is that the harder the ghost of the original (Ashbery’s) narrative pushed against my emerging narrative (before I ever placed the words on the new page) I tried to boomerang off in another direction. There was no disrespect involved. It seemed to me Ashbery invited such treatment, and that nothing I could do would diminish his work. The process wasn’t so much analogous with the mining of gold from the earth. I guess it was more like smelting, combining materials to create something totally new. The iron and carbon are still there, though unrecognizable. In some ways, I think the fact I introduced language not found in the original source poems at times amounts to an admission that I couldn’t stick with the pure process of erasure. And that, ultimately, I was taking responsibility for the content of my poems.
KR: Is erasure in any sense a political act? Several of your projects have overt political motivations or focuses; but even for those of you whose projects aren’t covered by this description, how did you navigate the politics of appropriating another’s voice as your own?
Travis Macdonald: Political? No. I don’t think so. Not at all. Sinceriously [sic]. The business of politics is to politicize everything. The business of poetry is to poeticize everything. While these two equally assimilative gestures might appear suspiciously alike when defined on paper, their intents are (in my opinion) diametrically opposed and—though I’m no believer in the black and white dichotomy of good and evil—I know which side of that coin I’d prefer to land on…
As far as the appropriation of other voices is concerned, I would argue that the very idea of language ownership is a political act which erasure seeks to subvert.
Srikanth Reddy: I agree with Travis on both counts. It’s a really hard question to answer. But I like the idea of erasure poetry as poeticizing the political. At least that holds for erasure projects like Janet’s, Travis’s, and mine—there are plenty of erasures, like Mary Ruefle’s Little White Shadow, that have a less explicit relation to the political. (Of course Ruefle’s work can be read as deeply political, but I’d say its politics is more implicit than explicit). Anyway, poeticizing a political text is of course an act that has a political aspect—but one that is very hard to pin down. Is it reclaiming the political as a source for aesthetic work? Is it a way to show that politics itself has a kind of poetics operating within it? I find myself waxing pretentious here, but I think these are real questions. I just don’t know how to answer them.
Matthea Harvey: It certainly can be political. Ariana Boussard-Reifel made a stunning piece that I saw at the Museum of Arts and Design Show, “Slashed—Paper Under the Knife.” “Between the Lines” is a book displayed in a clear vitrine where all the words have been individually excised and are in a pile next to the dissected book. Only when you read the wall text do you discover that the original book was RAHOWA (Racial Holy War), put out by a white supremacist group. Boussard-Reifel has simultaneously made something beautiful out of something very ugly, but also expressed her outrage by slicing out every single hateful word. Of Lamb isn’t meant to be a political act—more of an homage.
M. NourbeSe Philip: I think any strategy, even the lyric, can be political depending on context and intent. In my case I wasn’t actually appropriating another’s voice because the voice of the case report is a neutral voice at best, although there are references to the arguments of the individual justices. The question, however, does give rise to an issue for writers like myself who come from countries and cultures that have been colonised: that is that many of our “master” narratives or documents are themselves the products of the coloniser, constructed on erasures of all types, who was physically exploiting the inhabitants of these countries and appropriating their cultures and their products for their own use. To be specific—to find the story of these drowned Africans on board the Zong, I had to resort to a legal document that did not even acknowledge their humanity. The word murder is mentioned once in the case report and the decision at no time dealt with the fact that humans had been murdered; instead it focussed on whether the ship’s owners could make a claim for property they had themselves destroyed. There is a sense in which it could be said that I was re-appropriating an event of significant import to diasporic Africans, but the entry point was through the legal document, which could be seen to be the quintessentially overdetermined example of the rational, Western mind. I think Zong! attempts a redemptive strategy to deal with these absences and erasures.
The process of writing Zong! was in two parts—both of which are mentioned above. The first phase entailed using the words exactly as they appeared in the case report, Gregson vs. Gilbert. That section is titled Os. The second phase entailed what I describe as breaking and entering the text which gave rise to creating dictionaries, described above. It took me a couple of years easily before I allowed myself to break and enter the text—I argued with myself and wondered whether I was breaking my own rule about only using the words as they appeared in the case report. Would it be cheating? Could I—should I do it? Once I made the decision, however, the text exploded into this cacophony of voices and eventually generated four sections: Sal, Ventus, Ratio and Ferrum. As the text exploded and as I began to witness the multitude of voices within the text, I slowly came to a place where I decided that I needed to ask “permission” to bring these voices forward. Of whom? Why? To answer these questions would move me to another dimension, but suffice it to say I made a trip to Ghana, Africa, where I visited a shrine specifically for this purpose. I also visited Liverpool where the ship’s fateful voyage terminated. You ask a question about intuition later on in question #9, and this where intuition played a part for me. It was simply something I felt I had to do.
Janet Holmes: Oh, I think perhaps it can be politicized. There are some theorists who believe (for example) that translation is colonialism, and equally abominable. Certainly an erasurist controls the source text in some regard. But my experience of it, as I mention above, was as if I were collaborating with the course text and its author. Matthea uses the word “homage,” but I think it was more than that for me. It was an experience not unlike wrestling at times. Dickinson asserts herself in her poetry! Largely, I found that instructive.
David Dodd Lee: I felt secure in my judgment that Ashbery’s work—the nature of the work itself—implied permission for the appropriations, the erasing. Though being asked to think about it does (and did) occasionally make me nervous. People who heard early on what I was doing thought it “audacious” to steal from our preeminent poet. And further, to do so while he is still alive. Is there anything macabre about this? I just kept thinking how interesting it might be to discover my own poems erased by somebody. This might be a good place to mention the existence of a poem that appropriates material from an email I wrote. The poem appears in a book that won a Pulitzer. Do I think I should get credit? I’ve not worried about it for a single second. But I love that that poem exists. And am honored some off the cuff email I wrote was deemed worthy enough to steal from. I do think there are obvious political uses for erasure simply having to do with the selection of texts. But is Ashbery’s poetry political? He would say no and that’s good enough for me. Are my resulting “poems” political? No, they are not. I also realize a certain amount of naivety went into this project. A publisher, in this case a pretty major publisher, wouldn’t care about my perception of the work’s “implied permission.” But nobody’s contacted me and complained at this point so I think I’m safe.
KR: Edith Wharton, in The Writing of Fiction, claimed that true originality “consists not in a new manner but in a new vision.” How do you think the artistic community—broadly defined—categorizes erasures or altered objects? Do these works, which seem to be “new visions” of found material objects (texts, in this case), receive different receptions than those perceived to be wholly “original”? Should they?
Srikanth Reddy: Well, I think there are lots of people who would dismiss any sort of erasure work as unoriginal. But there are people, like Marjorie Perloff, who are making strong claims that unoriginality itself can be a kind of literary virtue. Of course it depends on how original your unoriginality is! If you use found material in a shopworn way, that would seem uninteresting. But if you found a wholly new way to use unoriginal material, as Eliot did in The Waste Land or Picasso in his collages, you’re on to something. One problem for writers and artists now is to find new ways of using old things.
Travis Macdonald: I think Edith And Srikanth are both onto something here. Look, it all comes down to that one word: “material.” In some ways, I feel like there are certain vested interests within the more established literary and artistic communities of the world that would have us believe the use of “other people’s” texts as material is somehow against the rules of all creation and good taste. But, at its core, how is erasure or any other appropriative technique any different than a novelist stealing his or her material from overheard conversations, news stories or common literary tropes and themes? Writers have been doing that for centuries! The examples of literary thievery are too numerous to mention. In fact, I would challenge anyone to provide a single example of so-called “original” work! The only difference I can see is that erasure and appropriation take that fact at face value instead of politely tiptoeing around it and pretending “no one in the history of the world has used language in precisely the same way as this before. Ever.”
Matthea Harvey: I think there’s always a discussion of the making of an erasure, but that’s fine with me.
M. NourbeSe Philip: I tend not to pay too much attention to the “artistic community” mainly for my own mental health. I do think, however, that the reception differs depending on what part of the artistic community you’re speaking about. What is referred to as the avant-garde community welcomes this kind of work, but those who are wedded to a certain type of lyric poem, for instance, will, for the most part, resist these “innovations.” Also, is there anything that is ever “wholly ‘original’”? We are all as poets, writers and artists referencing others—some of us at times just do it more overtly and consciously than others.
Janet Holmes: I’m with NourbeSe and Travis on this: what is originality, after all? I go back to what artists do: the best of us, I think, confound the conventional. Often this is by simply providing a new perspective; other times, by deranging the old one. Poets aren’t around (contra Garrison Keillor) to make people feel comfortable in their lives; we’re disturbing the universe a little bit.
David Dodd Lee: I have to confess, I haven’t thought about it much. Maybe because I haven’t encountered anything but positive responses, nor have I ever heard anyone dump on the idea of erasure. It’s disappointing. I’d prefer more push back. Then again, I’m not paying attention. I’ve moved on to other projects (though I am still erasing occasionally). Erasing, chance procedures, these things are what they are. Is it a problem that they are perceived as such, apart from wholly “original” works? Not inferior, just different? Erasure books are being reviewed seriously, more and more, it seems to me, as “new visions,” particularly because of the process. On the other hand, I’m aware of several poets who appropriate pieces of texts for their poems, who once provided notes for these appropriations, but who no longer do. It’s assumed everyone gets that part of what comprises an original work of art these days is appropriated pieces of other works / texts. It’s the resulting whole of new and stolen pieces that’s considered “original.” So, decisions having to do with presentation are important. Anyway, it seems to me the artistic community can’t get enough of this stuff (at least the artistic community I’m tuned into).
KR: When you were composing your erasure, did intuition factor in more than formal strategy, or vice versa? Was your experience different from the process of writing a poem firsthand?
Srikanth Reddy: In composing my own erasure, intuition and formal strategy worked hand in hand. But of course that’s the case with all writing. I needed a broad sense of what my formal strategy was—I needed to know, for example, that I was looking for philosophical propositions in Book I of Voyager. But I also needed to keep my intuition open on a micro-textual level, to see what particular propositions might be there to be found. I think that’s the same when you’re writing a sestina firsthand—you have the broad formal strategy in place, but you try to stay intuitively alive to the productive accidents that arise as you put one syllable next to another in the writing of each line.
Travis Macdonald: I honestly don’t think I could possibly capture my own thoughts any better than Mr. Reddy has done for me already above, so I’ll just add: I’m not entirely sure whether I’m offended or delighted at the inference that erasure is somehow “secondhand” writing… given the option, I’m going with delighted!
Matthea Harvey: It was a bit like a mix of writing a poem and doing a crossword puzzle.
M. NourbeSe Philip: Formal issues were very important—I discussed these above regarding placement of words and which words I “allowed” myself to use. The decision to spread the words out came as an intuitive gut impulse and after my trip to Africa, but once I had decided that, I imposed the rule that words or clusters had to seek the space above and couldn’t come directly under another word or cluster. So, there was always some interplay between intuition and form.
My experience was entirely different from how I had written before. As said before, the poem actually wrote itself in the margins of the dictionaries and my role was to observe how the words came together and coalesced or didn’t. I was confronted with the newness of the process when I noticed that a voice was surfacing in the text that I wasn’t entirely happy with. This voice was clearly that of a white male on board the Zong. My thinking went something like this: this is a work about the transatlantic slave trade and I don’t want to privilege a white male European voice. This is linked to the issue I raised above about the role of the “master” narrative in formerly colonised cultures. Had I been writing this work in the way I had until then worked, I would have consciously reduced the presence of that voice, but because I was committed to watching, to waiting and to listening for these voices to surface, I had to allow that voice the space it demanded. It was a humbling experience and I am happy I did it because by the end of the text, that voice—that character who is unnamed—realizes that his redemption lies in joining the victims. He jumps overboard and in so doing signals the death of an old order, the sine qua non of any change for the better. The process also revealed how much baggage we bring to bear when we come to write—I saw myself as being “free” to write whatever I wanted to, but very soon confronted unsuspected positions within myself.
Janet Holmes: It wasn’t anything like writing my other poems. I never knew what I would find, and that’s why I think the process felt more collaborative. When I came across George Bush’s voice (“Mine—the election! Mine! Mine! Mine!”), or a soldier’s, or an Arab woman’s, it was a delight.
David Dodd Lee: There was a point, while reading Ashbery, that I understood that by simply dismantling a given poem’s syntax, an edgy, more emphatic line would declare itself. Then I began to erase words (by merely skipping over them with my eye). Immediately this morphed into a sense that I had begun writing something. “I like you, no question, / your body a down payment.” These lines, culled from the first forty-two words of “A Driftwood Altar” became, literally, the first two lines of a new poem. I was relieved of the responsibility of making (or not) a certain sort of sense—that all simply depended on Ashbery. So I was able to just write (so to speak). It soon became clear that certain motifs and ideas would repeat themselves. I planned nothing. If I suddenly capitalized words that hadn’t previously been capitalized in the source poem I was visited by great anxiety and a sense of excitement as the work continued to separate itself from the source text. Throughout I was aware of the source text as a gift of the most serendipitous sort.
KR: Some erasures exclude the removed text entirely, leaving blanks in its place (Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os); others cross it out, or black it out (Brian Henry’s Lessness); still others leave it partially visible (Jen Bervin’s Nets; Tom Phillips’s A Humument). How did you treat the erased text in your work, and what was the logic behind this?
Janet Holmes: The text I was using was copyrighted by Harvard, because the editor, Ralph Franklin, had published a newly arranged chronological order for the poems that was necessary to me; I was working from the Civil War dates. I did not have permission to reprint the entire text, so I left it blank, carefully accounting for skipped lines and missing words and letters.
Srikanth Reddy: I decided to close up the spaces between words in my erasure as a way of “covering my tracks.” I wanted to erasure the traces of my own erasure, I suppose. On one level, this was just a kind of Borgesian game—I wanted my reader to slowly discover that he or she was reading an erasure as they made their way through the book. But on another level I think there’s a politics behind those sorts of decisions.
Janet’s negotiation of the copyright situation with the Franklin edition of Dickinson’s poetry illuminates, for me, how writers can make productive use of political or economic constraints. The blanks in The ms of my kin that arose because of the copyright issue are, for me, part of the beauty and complexity of the work—but I hadn’t known the practical reasons for why those blanks came into being!
Travis Macdonald: As far as copyrights are concerned, I must admit: I never asked permission for fear of the answer I might have received. Since I was not erasing a literary text, I justified this act with the fact that my taxpayer dollars had paid for both the compilation and production of the document at hand so I consider myself by all rights, part owner of the original 9/11 Commission Report.
I set out to re-appropriate the tools of erasure by redacting the entire text with black bars in the manner of a censored government document. It quickly became apparent that this heavy-handed approach would grow rather monotonous and repetitive over the course of several hundred pages. So I adjusted my approach, treating each chapter with a different method of erasure. The final presentation moves from that dark initial redaction (preface) and recedes into a sort of strike-through (chapter 1) before becoming a blur (in chapter 2) that in turn recedes to the white page erasure (chapter 3) of Ronald Johnson before adding a musical staff component (chapter 4). The recently completed second (final) volume of The O Mission Repo takes a similar approach, using 4 entirely different techniques in an entirely different sort of progression. In each case, the method of erasure was chosen to reflect and enter into conversation with the content of the chapter.
Matthea Harvey: Of Lamb exists in two formats. There’s the original book I have at home, entirely whited out (with many, many bottles of whiteout) which is 192 pages, and then Of Lamb, in which we reordered the poems to provide a narrative arc, and winnowed the story down to 106 pages. The first version is clearly more tied to the text, since you read it in the actual book and can see where each word was found on the page.
Of Lamb is more removed, since Amy Jean hand-lettered the erasures onto her paintings.
M. NourbeSe Philip: I have addressed these issues above but let me add that for me the erased text was invisible—it surrounded the case report and I had to find a way to bring that erased text to light. It was the process of the dictionaries that brought that text to light. It was akin to immersing a dried object in water and witnessing it resuscitate and restore itself—in this case in all its horror.
David Dodd Lee: I circled phrases in the actual books some of the time. Once I got going I often stopped and just typed, editing with my eyes. I did not want anything to remain on the page that impeded an independent reading of the new poem. My theft would be made clear enough by the title and subtitle of the book, and by the notes. Also, I (in most cases) used Ashbery’s titles for each poem, the exceptions being, primarily, poems I culled from single pages of Flow Chart. I think my explanations above answer this question satisfactorily. I was admittedly being a bit difficult, prodded along in fact by Ashbery’s willfully blithe indifference and/or difficulty.
KR: On a similar note, some of your projects collapse the space between kept-in words, while others seem to want to preserve atavisms of the source text’s structure. How did considerations of shape and space play into your pieces?
Janet Holmes: I appreciated the airy look of the page—almost Olsonian. And I liked the sense that the text behind the erasure had become ghostly.
Srikanth Reddy: I guess I’ve kind of answered this question in my previous response, but I’d add here that this was a difficult series of decisions for me to make in composing Voyager. Originally, I tried to preserve the spaces between words in Book III of that work, but I ultimately found it became too unwieldy. Waldheim’s memoir was just too long—over 200 pages—for me to preserve the spaces in my erasure. So for practical reasons—though I, too, love the Olsonian ghostliness of other erasures that preserve the spaces they produce—I had to give up that aspect of the work. Fortunately, I found that Williams’ step-down tercets from Asphodel could provide some of that airiness, while also allowing me to economize the space of the page.
Travis Macdonald: Maintaining the shape and formal constraint of the page was important for me since I think the parallel narrative I sought to create depended on the evocation of the host text and the events it has come to represent. This was, in some ways, a commemorative act. There is a different sort of ghostliness at work here than the one Janet and Srikanth accomplish so well in their work… it creates a dialogue, I hope, a passage between planes; textual, dimensional and ethereal.
Matthea Harvey: Amy Jean and I agreed that we wanted Of Lamb to be a semi-secret erasure— that readers might not know the process by which the book came into being until they reached the authors’ note at the end.
M. NourbeSe Philip: Again I mentioned how I shaped the manuscript allowing for spaces between words and clusters. By the last book, Ferrum, I was also creating spaces within words and offering the reader a choice as to whether to read across the space or allow for the silence that is the space. I didn’t quite understand what those spaces meant and it took me a while before I realised that when I read out loud, I could honour those spaces by being silent. I came to understand that they work something like rests in music. The readings become prayer-like and difficult to do at times. I didn’t consciously intend this, it was something the work taught me.
David Dodd Lee: I believe I’ve answered this already.
KR: And how did you “enter” the page—did you move linearly through the text, left-to-right, up-to-down, in conventional fashion?
Srikanth Reddy: I moved linearly through the text, left to right, just as a reader would. That just seemed instinctively right to me with my own source text. I’d be curious to hear if other writers approached the page differently.
Travis Macdonald: I would say a little bit of both: I started every section by reading the entire text left to right in the conventional fashion, identifying words, phrases and correlations for possible exploitation. Then I went back through and read the page vertically, drawing connections within, between and across each page.
Matthea Harvey: Yes.
M. NourbeSe Philip: I initially entered the text in the conventional way but soon allowed myself to go any which way. Once the dictionaries were constructed, it was I who was following the stories rather than driving the process.
Janet Holmes: Linearly, as a reader does.
David Dodd Lee: Yes, linearly, left to right, though on occasion I broke my own rules, and in such cases I might find a letter I needed to create a word in the line above the one I had just appropriated. This sometimes happened subconsciously. But I failed the erasure test. This became partly what Sky Booths is all about. I wanted so badly to create poems that would stand on their own I cheated.
KR: Does the erasurist owe anything to the author she or he is erasing? Attribution, for instance, or some other ethical provision? Are there rules governing who can be erased, i.e. that the author must be dead, or their text obtained through either permission or public domain?
Srikanth Reddy: I do think I, at least, owe something to the author I erased. But I wouldn’t presume to say that others do. I think it’s a case-by-case sort of thing. For myself, I’d say that I felt I owed Waldheim a kind of respect. I didn’t want my erasure to be an indictment of him—plenty of people had already done that. I wanted to try and identify with him by entering into his account of the world.
I don’t think there are any rules for saying what can be erased and what can’t be erased. It all depends on how you approach the process. Some erasures can take the form of critique, some can proceed as a kind of identification, some can be motivated by pure play. In each case, a kind of ethics attaches to the project, and that ethics will be validated or invalidated by the artistic success of the work.
Travis Macdonald: The anarchist in me says: there are no rules or boundaries that should not be broken on principle. The author in me, admittedly, bristles at that notion and insists, intuitively, that there is no form without rules to define it. In any case, it is clear to me that if there are rules to this game, they are still being written. That being the case, I would say that the need for attribution lies entirely within the judgment of each erasurist’s individual moral code. In fact, the only rule I can think of worth following would be that the work should understand it’s own code/form and abide by it at all costs.
Matthea Harvey: Lord David Cecil is dead, so I didn’t have to contact him, but I would have if he were still living. I would have loved to talk to him about the Lambs. I certainly think it was important to have his text acknowledged—Of Lamb wouldn’t exist without him. Amy Jean actually drew a picture of the original book at the feet of Mary on the page that reads, “A nervous autumn. / Mary in a mood: / Lamb had time to brood.”
M. NourbeSe Philip: I would tend to the belief that text should be obtained through permission or be in the public domain. I don’t necessarily think that the author should be dead—the author might be happy to have her work have another life and in cases like that there should be attribution. Indeed, I think that there should be attribution in all cases. In my own case, I actually had the case reprinted at the back of Zong!, which, given how short it is, was very possible.
Janet Holmes: I don’t see any reason for a poet to erase a text that has no significance to the poet, though certainly people do it all the time (for example, on the Wave Books website); no reason to besides playfulness, which is of course perfectly fine. But because the work and the time in which it was written are important to the resulting text that is The ms of my kin, it was enormously important to me to acknowledge it.
David Dodd Lee: I think it’s evident how indebted to Ashbery I am, and that I am a huge John Ashbery fan, so much so that I had to write my own poems using his. I discovered notes about my erasures in the online Ashbery Archives after I posted some erasures online. So I mostly erased Ashbery in the light of day.
KR: Do you see your works as “yours,” per se, or more as collaborations?
Srikanth Reddy: I’d say both, which is a cop out, I know, but it’s true. I see my own erasure as profoundly mine, because it was such a pain in the neck to produce. But I also feel profoundly indebted to Waldheim as a literary collaborator. It isn’t much different than someone who writes an original poem in a form associated with a prior author. Writing a rhymed sonnet is a way of writing your own poem, but also a collaboration with Petrarch and all those other sonneteers of yore, right?
Travis Macdonald: I’m going to cop out in the other direction and say: “neither!” While I cannot rightfully lay sole claim to a work that owes its very existence to the collective efforts of others, neither can I rightfully call it a collaboration per se since that term implies some degree of consensual participation from all parties. Nevertheless, I suppose I lean towards the latter and invoke a third mind poetics in which the final work belongs to neither creator so much as the liminal space that arises between.
Matthea Harvey: I see Of Lamb as collaboration with a number of people. Primarily Amy Jean Porter, whose paintings took my short poems and reinterpreted them (one startling moment in the book is when Mary and Lamb temporarily morph into preying mantises, “Face-to-face/ they ate.”) It’s also collaboration with Lord David Cecil, the author of the original book, with Charles and Mary Lamb’s words and their friends who are quoted in the book. Lastly, I think Of Lamb is also necessarily in dialogue with the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which isn’t in the text per se (it hadn’t been written yet), but I certainly found it there.
M. NourbeSe Philip: Zong! is a collaboration between myself, the unvoiced or devoiced and the ancestors as represented by Setaey Adamu Boateng.
Janet Holmes: Like Chicu [Srikanth], I see my work as my own, but also as a collaboration with the language and interests of Dickinson.
David Dodd Lee: I’m repeating myself at this point. I see the work as my own, resulting from a collaboration, if that makes sense. The implied permission I spoke of earlier is germane here. I was reading Ashbery poems when out of the total darkness a voice whispered “steal from me.” I obeyed. My future writings benefited immensely. I could even say, to some small extent, the ghost of Ashbery exists in my next book, The Nervous Filaments, which answers the next question. You’d have to read it. The poems look similar on the page, for one thing, though the poems in TNF tend to be a bit longer. In Orphan, Indiana, the book that came after TNF, I stole language from Ashbery again, for the poem “The Gentleness of Herbivores.” This fact is noted in the back of the book.
I also see my erasure project as collaborative in a larger sense, a collaboration with all the artists I’ve been influenced by, the ones I’ve mentioned earlier in this interview, artists I’ve responded to by writing ekphrastics, for example. Or artists such as John Baldessari, who erased his entire life’s work (he burned it all) and then entitled the resulting ashes, which he baked into cookies, then placed in an urn, The Cremation Project. This obliterative act was ultimately generative. It created a substantive second starting point for Baldessari, and the Ashbery erasure poems were similar in that creating them allowed me to begin writing a new kind of poem. The early work, whatever its merits, suddenly became conceptual in that meaning had been extended by the new work’s suggestion of a kind of renunciation.
KR: How has employing erasure affected your overall poetic practice?
Srikanth Reddy: It’s affected my overall practice in so many ways. First, I’ll never do another erasure again. So that had a big effect. But more importantly, I think I learned a lot about syntax from the process. Erasure is really, to me, a technique that orients one toward questions of word order. You have to find a sequence of words in the source text that works as a sentence of your own. So I’ve come to pay a lot more attention to grammatical construction, as a result of my work with erasure. I never really expected that to be one of the outcomes of this undertaking, but it’s stayed with me, and will influence whatever I write next.
Matthea Harvey: I’ve done one other erasure (of Ray Bradbury’s story “R is for Rocket”) as part of Adam Shechter’s show “Last Men” at Eleven Rivington. Now when I come across an old book with exciting language, there’s a moment where I consider erasing it and starting a poem with some of the erased language, but that hasn’t actually happened. I’m now much more aware of erasures out in the world, seeing a sign “ERFECT” where the “P” has fallen off, gives me a particular thrill.
Travis Macdonald: The process of de-creating The O Mission Repo was so totally engrossing and such a part of my life for so long that it has completely changed my relationship to the page and, at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, maybe to language itself. Like Srikanth and Matthea, I find myself reading and working with words in ways that I never did before. I’ve touched on this theme already in some of my previous responses, but I think it comes down to the fact that erasure has helped me to recognize language as a material substance. Words are no longer these vaguely sacred and intangible things that arise from some deep internal source to be captured on paper before they evaporate. They are messy, grainy, globular physical objects that we can reach out and grab, cut, shape, mold, rip and manipulate.
While I am grateful for that experience, I’m with Srikanth on this one: now that I’ve finished the second volume of this project, I can’t really imagine ever setting out to make another erasure… there are just too many other ways to play that I haven’t tried yet.
M. NourbeSe Philip: I have always been interested in limitation as a poetic practice and writing Zong! has shown me how powerful a resource limitation can be as a poetic device.
The challenge for me in making Zong! is best summed up by the following: how the tell the story that can’t be told, yet must be told. In other words, how do I untell the story of the Zong which, in turn, is a collection of many stories, none of which we know or can ever fully know? There is a sense in which erasure is a finely honed tool with which to do this sort of work. I don’t think I would necessarily do a similar project, but it has opened me up to looking at matter and material—written and non-written—that can be brought into poetry and writing in general in a very different way. Indeed, the work continues to teach me.
Janet Holmes: Heh, I never say never. But I don’t foresee any erasure work in my future. I am off to other work for now.
David Dodd Lee: I was wandering the desert. I had written what I had written, three books worth of poems. I was done with what I’d been doing in them. I felt stuck. I was sick of my own thoughts. I wanted less drama and more dailiness [sic], less landscape and more contemporary culture, real immediate stuff. And yet I suspected my poems would find a way to keep being about place, relationships, the existence or godlessness of the universe, human cruelty and beauty. Suspected enough to proceed with the Asbery project, that bolt of lightning coming out of the sky, after a lengthy drought in my writing life. I think I could safely divide my work into two categories: Before Ashbery, and After Ashbery. B.A and A.A.
But I’ve also continued to erase—via collage and painting, and in the dictionary sonnets I mentioned in question #5. These sonnets reflect a stubborn refusal to allow the source text to articulate anything overt through the overlaid veil of my erasure. Here is one of the dictionary sonnets. The text comes from two randomly selected pages in the B section of the dictionary I used:
In some districts someone’s black
Bottom, electronic, internal workings
The staying in this
A tattler (Milton); tattling the flag
Smuggling. Smut fungus
A deadly epidemic of Bubonic
Having black eyebrows
A vote against the various A policeman
Every two years
Used as classification of softness and bad-
Tempered milk Black Boycott
Not admitting any dark colored fruitcake
A poacher with cream pieces spawning
Blabbra, blab (bleb) Pastry eaten at New Year
The title here is made up. A reader would find the information about the precise source material in the notes (they haven’t been published in book form yet). The poem isn’t as concerned with issues of ownership/authorship as, say, the Ashbery erasure poems, but it does push back against the orderliness of language as something that can be defined and presented in a logical sequence. And the resulting text wants to be a poem first. Anything else it may be comes after.