Friday Prompt: Erasure

Erasure
Erasing. Erasure. (In this case, some partially-erased lines from "The Raven").

Today’s prompt asks you to write an erasure poem. The exercise itself is straightforward and accessible: take a piece of text (any text), and erase, cut, or obscure words from it in order to excavate new constellations of sound, image, and meaning.  But the simplicity of this method belies both the complex political implications of the act of erasure and the aesthetically and critically evocative possibilities of its results.

On the level of craft and aesthetic practice, erasure is an exercise in creative disruption: it approaches a text not as an authoritative tome, but as a playground. It pulls apart syntax and meaning, joyfully discarding the scaffolding of the author’s original intent, in order to generate new and often delightfully spontaneous meanings from the chaos that results.  It gets our brains to think outside of existing constructions of language and argument, and playfully diffuses the authority of the published (public) page, instead placing agency and ownership of a text into the hands of the reader / artist who rearranges and re-imagines it.

On another level, though, the practice of erasure is also deeply subversive in a political sense. To author a text, to be among the ranks of those whose voices are heard in the public sphere (through public oratory, through publication), necessarily invests a speaker with a measure of social and cultural power, and so to engage in creating new texts by erasing portions of another one can be to participate in a type of protest against  formal systems of language and power.  The practice of erasing, or silencing, marginal voices is a tool that has long been wielded by those who seek to propagate and maintain systems of injustice, and so to uproot and disrupt, to excavate and re-write texts that come from unjust powers by erasing and reclaiming them is to turn that tool against itself.

Early this year,  I began reading Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager, in which he uses the exercise of erasure to excavate and subvert the memoir of former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, who in 1985 was revealed to have been a Nazi SS officer. Reddy’s (to quote Marjorie Perloff’s blurb) “using, abusing, recycling, and reformatting [of] Waldheim’s own words” in multiple, complex configurations destabilizes the authority of Waldheim’s text by deftly using the framework of its language to construct transient arrangements that are by turns at odds with, and at times, utterly irrelevant to, the presumed argument of the original memoir.  By doing this, Reddy enacts the shifting identities and masks that Waldheim claimed in his lifetime, laying bare the multiplicitous/duplicitous nature of the public persona he constructed for himself.  From the remains of Waldheim’s shredded sentences, Reddy carefully excavates and floats before us a man whose seems utterly alienated from—even coolly oblivious to—the import of his ostensible mission.  The narrative of peacemaking betrays itself, and, having splintered, the voice Reddy produces hovers in the space of the page, transmuted, antique, foreboding, and at times, almost faceless.

Reddy’s book is not the only erasure project that has caught my attention recently.  When I read LR Issue 2 contributor W. Todd Kaneko’s poem “Quarry” a couple of months ago, I was also deeply intrigued by its use of the technique.  First published to the blog 99 Poems for the 99 Percent back in January, “Quarry” engages in the unusual act of erasing portions of itself.  Kaneko cleverly uses HTML to apply black backgrounds to sections of the text, in order to make them appear to have been “blocked out” or “censored”—that is, until the reader highlights the missing text with his or her mouse, and the missing words are revealed.  “Quarry” thus exists as two simultaneous poems—the first, a public poem, notable for what it is missing, and the second, a “hidden” poem, which is accessible to the reader only if he or she possesses the curiosity to engage in some investigative work during the act of reading.

Indeed, asking the reader “dig” appears to have been at the heart of the Kaneko’s intentions for this piece. In the description that follows the poem, he writes:

I was thinking about how a writer often has to dig around in a poem
to figure out what it’s doing and what it wants to do. I was thinking
about how we kinda have to dig around in the OWS movement to figure
out what precisely is happening there. I was thinking about how so
much of this decade’s unemployment rates and economic woes are tied to
decisions and practices that people have been overlooking for decades.
I was thinking about using HTML to make a reader dig around in a
poem—use your mouse to select the text and unearth the rest of the
poem.

“Quarry,” then, in inviting the reader to reverse the poet’s act of self-erasure, brings us closer to the process of excavation inherent in creation and challenges the notion that to read uncritically and without careful investigation is to understand a whole picture (of a poem, of a political movement).  To generate meaning, the artist, the politician, the protester, must engage in a process of thoughtful culling and “digging”—but to responsibly interpret that meaning, the reader must also engage in excavation, too.  Neither art, nor politics, then, exists exclusively on the surface. It is only by digging through what has been hidden or erased that we can approach a fuller understanding of what we see before us (whether dinosaur, poem, or  protest).

Prompt: Create a poem from the words of another text by erasing portions of the source until something new and evocative is generated.  OR, create a poem that engages in doubling back on, negating, or even physically erasing, portions of itself.

Review: AALR, VOL. 2, ISSUE 1

The Asian American Literary Review | Volume 2, Issue 1 | Winter/Spring 2011

In Gerald Maa’s interview with Arthur Sze in this issue of the Asian American Literary Review, Maa quotes from Auden: “Many things can be said against anthologies, but for an adolescent to whom even the names of most of the poets are unknown, a good [anthology] can be an invaluable instructor.” The same can be said of this 300-page journal, with its wide range of material including: a forum discussion with some of the editors about the “check all that apply” race option on the 2010 Census, an enclosed DVD of Kip Fulbeck’s video short Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids, and a complete bibliography of Carlos Bulosan provided by the Library of Congress’s Asian American Pacific Islander Collection. This is all in addition to fiction, memoir, poetry, interviews with Arthur Sze (on editing Chinese Writers on Writing) and Chang-rae Lee (on his most recent novel, The Surrendered), book reviews, documentary photography, and a short graphic piece.

This issue’s theme is “Counting Citizens” and begins with a discussion about the question of multiracial self-representation on the Census. Jeffrey Yang takes a stance against the very structures of any representation and rejects claims for a ‘post-racial’ present: “not representation but transmutation, alchemy. . . . Representation is the impossible ideal of our democracy, where influence rules.” Srikanth Reddy uses the development of Walt Whitman’s poetry as a model, charting his expansive ownership of multitudes to his subjective position as an individual: “This progression—from the poet as a vatic representative of everybody to the poet as a specimen capable only of registering her own experience—might in some ways be a natural progression, from the exuberance of youth to the epistemological modesty of old age.” He suggests an alternative perspective: that of the Other. Yang riffs on this and together they broach the aesthetic of language arts and “the problem of form—the ‘logic and order’ of an artwork” which seems to find friction between the canon and the margin. A different take on Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” perhaps, in which the artist is in constant tension between the codified mastery of forebears and the yet unnamed mystery of the present/future individual. Linguistic and cultural transplantation complicate loyalties, heritage, assumptions about audience, and formal considerations. Reddy writes:

To write a haiku or a ghazal in English does not bring us any closer to shifting the grounds of literary representation. In Yang’s memorable formulation, such a literary gesture would fail to “reposition the frame structure.” Rather, our formal labor [as Asian American writers] has to occur beyond the frame, in the abstract conceptual space where form is given particular shapes suited to the particular historical moment.

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