Katy Didden is the author of The Glacier’s Wake (Pleiades Press, 2013). She earned a PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Missouri. A former Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, she is currently an assistant professor at Ball State University. Four of her erasure poems “From The Lava on Iceland” can be found here. Four more erasure poems appear in the May/June 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Lava Erasures”?
What does it mean to write in the voice of lava? For my first book, The Glacier’s Wake, I wrote a series of persona poems in the voice of a glacier, a wasp, and a sycamore. The personae began with the wasp. At a writing residency, my studio neighbor took a shine to a lethargic wasp that floated around the halls at eye level, freaking us out. The day it died, she scooped up its body and slid it under my door on an index card on which she’d written: RIP Rafael. For a week, I studied the wasp’s body and wrote a series of poems in which the wasp defines things, like archangels and Renaissance painters. I found that I liked working in a series—it was nice to have a clear starting point each day—and I loved working in a different voice. I found it effective to think of the poems as “double personae”—if the wasp is an art historian of sorts, the secret secondary persona of the sycamore is a minister, and the glacier is also a former Hollywood starlet. Somehow, that second mask gave the poems more versatility and a productive combination of vocabularies. To achieve a different voice for each character, I would work in different forms. I used cinched tercets for the wasp, Welsh syllabic forms for the sycamore, and a jagged free verse line for the glacier. After I published The Glacier’s Wake, I wanted to write in the voice of lava. When I was thinking of what form would help me achieve a lava voice, erasure came to mind: I saw a parallel in the way that ink flows over the original text in erasures and the way lava adds layers to the land. In my mind, the lava is also a kind of artist, or a being concerned with creation and destruction.
Each of your pieces features both a found poem (as it exists in its original text with the addition of an overlaid photo) and the same poem lineated and extracted on its own page. In this layout, is your intent for the reader to first unearth the poem from the image and then read it in isolation? To you, what does it mean to have both versions side by side? Are they doing different work?
It’s true that I put the image-text on the left-hand side of the page, so most readers encounter the image-text first. One can read the image-text multiple ways. Some readers might encounter it primarily as a visual image, taking in the composition of the photographs, or engaging on the level of spatial arrangement or color palette or tone. For those aspects, I have my collaborators to thank—all the photographers who have contributed to this work including Larissa Borteh, Maureen Horgan, Jennifer Leung, and Diana Khoi Nguyen, and my main collaborator, Kevin Tseng, who designs the image-texts. Other readers might be drawn to the prose text that we’ve preserved in grayscale. I did select those texts carefully; they are traces of my research on Icelandic geology, culture, and history. On another level, I do hope readers will try to unearth the poem. In his outstanding series of posts about erasure for this very blog, Andrew David King argues that erasure is a kind of monument to reading: “the erasurist resembles the reader: there is something about any erasure […] that mimics the sensory experience of encountering those source texts themselves.” I would like to invite readers who like “unearthing” to follow the trail of highlighted text so they might feel what I felt: a suspenseful stumbling from one letter to the next, and then the euphoria of landing in bonafide words and sentences. Ultimately, I was hearing a voice and a rhythm in my head (and rhyme), and I’d like for readers to encounter that as well, which means I need my own punctuation and lines. Maybe the stand-alone poem becomes a kind of subtitle or soundtrack to the image-text. I’m after the interplay of the two experiences, and I don’t think you could get the full sense of the text with just one or the other element.
How did you select your source texts and images? Is there something in the peripheral language that exists around your found poems that also may contribute to their meaning and impact?
The peripheral language does influence the body of the poem, but not always in a predictable way—sometimes the poems answer back, sometimes they question, sometimes they riff on the language or sound patterns in the source text. If the erasures are a monument to reading, the anthology of source texts is a monument to my research process, and the rabbit holes I’ve been following for five years (so far). W.H. Auden and Louis MacNiece’s Letters from Iceland inspired me; the chapter “Sheaves from Sagaland” is like a commonplace book of quotations Auden kept from the books he’d read about Iceland. If you were to see the whole manuscript of “The Lava on Iceland,” you’d recognize recurring obsessions: Icelandic poetry, Norse mythology, pop culture, the history of women’s movements and women’s leadership, volcanic activity, and above all art, literature, music. I admire the astounding wealth of creativity in Iceland, and I’m also investigating why so many artists and writers from elsewhere (including myself) are drawn to Iceland. My mystical suspicion is that it relates to the humming of the lava underfoot—an energy vortex of tectonic force. Maybe it’s the constant threat of catastrophe that helps Icelanders keep things in perspective. In Ólafsfjörður, one Icelander explained to me that growing up, when the winter snows blocked the mountain passes, there was no way for them to leave their valley unless by boat, and in the winter, even that was impossible, so they made their own entertainment—everyone made art, organized festivals, recited poems, or sang. That explanation makes sense to me.
Currently, I am working on a longer section of the manuscript that will be more focused: I’m working with a collection of source texts relating to the 1783 eruption of Grímsvötn volcano and Lakagígar fissure system that decimated Iceland’s population and lowered global temperatures, causing widespread drought in Europe, Egypt, and India (some claim this drought was an originary cause for the French Revolution). I am studying how Icelanders made sense of the eruption in scientific, religious, and mythological terms. The accounts I’ve read of the consequences of this eruption have unsettling resonances with the current effects of climate change, so my current anxieties about the environment plays into the poems. One last thing I’ll say about the research process is that it has led to so many unexpected connections and conversations. This project is also an homage to all the people who’ve helped me learn more about Iceland, from my Icelandic dentist in Eugene, Haffstein Eggertsson, to the people I met in Iceland last summer (especially my language teachers at the University Centre of the Westfjords, and everyone I met at the Listhús residency in Ólafsfjörður and the SÍM house in Reykjavík), to the many friends who have traveled there and given me leads on what to do, see, and read.
The photos look as though they’ve been applied to the page as an ink blot, only partially blocking off the unused letters to draw out the text of your poem. Can you tell us a little more about this process? How and why did you make the decision to leave all the text at least partially legible underneath the photo?
As I said, the visual composition is Kevin Tseng’s domain. I’ve heard him describe it as “carving [the image-texts] into continents, islands, lakes, seas.” The image-texts would not exist without his vision for how to make the text look like lava. It was important to me to preserve the source texts in gray-scale, because I want to honor the authors and their work, and encourage people to seek out those texts. Kevin figured out how to do that. I’ve heard people describe erasure as a kind of sampling, in this case the manuscript is a mix-tape of samples, but I’m hoping to entice the audience to listen to the originals too, especially since many of the texts are available online. The final poems are poly-vocal, as maybe all poems are, but these showcase the process of their making.