Why erasure poetry deserves to be studied

By BESSIE LIU | April 20, 2017


Steve Johnson/ CC BY 2.0 Erasure poetry involves removing words from a previously published source text.

As many of you know, here at Hopkins, you can take “Introduction to Fiction and Poetry,” (IFP) if you’re interested in developing creative writing skills. I enjoy the class;  IFP exposes you to a wide range of poems and short stories from different literary eras. But I feel that not enough emphasis is being directed toward more unconventional styles of writing — poetry that doesn’t rhyme or follow strict meter, poetry that isn’t afraid to delve into complex emotions.

The following will be my attempt to pitch a new form of poetry that I recently learned about and that I think is amazingly refreshing and innovative.

“Found poetry,” by definition, is when a poet adapts a previously published source by borrowing words and phrases from that source and creating a new poem. There are several different types that fall under the category of found poetry, but the most interesting and evocative for me was erasure poetry.

An erasure poem is formed by deleting words and letters from a previously written document, which can be anything from previous poems, books and letters to more interesting and unconventional sources like product packaging, junk mail and court transcripts, according to The Found Poetry Review.

The poem “Dear Grace” by Collier Nogues is one of my favorite pieces of erasure poetry. Nogues includes the poem as part of her collection of erasures in her book The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground, in which she erases primary documents written during the Pacific War, examining the effect of that war on people from the different countries impacted.

In “Dear Grace,” Nogues erases the same letter (written in 1942 and addressed from Assistant Attorney General James Rowe Jr. to Grace Tully, the secretary of President Roosevelt) eight times to create a series of eight distinct poems all from the same document.

All of the variations reflect the progressing emotional states of two people separated by war. There’s an immense grief and sense of impending doom lingering through all the poems that lies partially in their brevity (erasures are usually not very long).

What snapshots of a relationship Nogues chooses to reveal through her erasures leaves readers asking questions about the speaker and his situation. She keeps the letter format and uses pared-down language in terms of imagery, which is expected since you can’t add any images of your own within erasures.

One cool thing about some poets’ erasure poetry is that instead of conglomerating their words into the familiar shape of a poem, they leave the spaces where the text has been erased. Some of Nogues’ poems online have been designed so that mousing over the empty spaces causes the erased lines and phrases to reappear, allowing you a glimpse of the original document.

This is an interesting feature of digital poetry that reminds readers of the origins of these poems and that they are intertwined deeply with the source texts.

Of course, the easiest way to visualize what I’m talking about would be to search her poems online. As a side-note, on other websites, you can create your own erasure poems by choosing from pre-uploaded source texts and then clicking on words to make them disappear, in a fun and interactive exploration of the erasure process.

In context, these physical “spaces” within the poem serve an interesting purpose. When read out loud, these spaces force readers to pause between phrases, not only giving them more attention but also giving the piece a desperation and emotional rawness that feels unique to poetry.

Nogues does this especially in the later poems of “Dear Grace,” in which she leaves spaces not only between but also within words, a painful representation of the physical distance between the two individuals.

The concept of political erasure is just beginning to take hold as well. In Solmaz Sharif’s thought-provoking essay on the political implications of erasure, she draws a parallel between extinguishing words on a pre-existing text and extinguishing people from a pre-existing culture, pointing out that “historically, the striking out of text is the root of obliterating peoples.”

The duality of interpretations behind the erasure process leads me to think about how erasing something really just highlights it even more. But perhaps most interesting to me is what Sharif writes about erasure showcasing the “nearly infinite possibilities and infinite centers of a single text.”

One reason I wanted to highlight Nogues’ poetry in particular is because I know her and have worked with her before. She’s the reason why I’ve come to love writing so much. So as National Poetry Month comes to an end, I’m writing this to say thank you to the woman who first introduced me to contemporary poetry, in all its imagistic and contemplative glory, and to poetry itself for existing.

Finally, I wanted to end with a quote from Paul Engle that I think describes poetry beautifully: “Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words.”

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