A brief observation on erasure poetry, ten years in

autumn leaves are still visible under pond ice frozen in feathery patterns on top of which star-shaped snowflakes are beginning to fall

Most guides to writing erasure poetry put so much emphasis on the mechanics of it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that that’s the main challenge. The blackout poets in particular act like the important thing is getting a copy of some suitable newspaper and going to town with a black felt marker.

For those who are genuine artists working in the tradition of Tom Phillips, like my friend Sarah J. Sloat, presentation is certainly key. When I started making erasure poems ten years ago, it took me nearly a month of flailing around with digital images before I settled on an HTML-based approach, imitating the greyed-out printed text in Jen Bervin’s Nets.

But the main difficulty I encountered initially was overcoming my frustration that whatever words I thought I needed just weren’t there, most of the time. There weren’t enough words! It felt restrictive, but in a useful way. For a few years, I had to really lower my standards, writing a lot of head-scratchy pieces rather than the merely chin-strokey poetic output I prefer. But now, making new erasures from the same material after ten years of practice, my main difficulty is almost the opposite: there are too many options! All those tempting words and turns of phrase…

In either case, though, it’s an exercise in humility no different from what’s required to write an ordinary poem. Don’t let experimental poets convince you any of this is easy. What it is is fun, and there are very few fun things that don’t require a significant outlay of effort. If you want to have any chance of occasionally writing something with genuine radiance, you have to leave your ego at the door. Which is still exactly as hard as it sounds.

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