erasure poetry

Changes of State. That’s the working title of my book-length manuscript of prose + micropoetry, which draws equally upon my lived experience, dreams, and nightmares. In the last category, I have a section of seven untitled found texts from the CIA’s Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual, which was used to train right-wing counter-insurgency interrogators throughout Latin America during the last and most brutal phase of the Cold War. I extract a haiku-length erasure poem or two from each text and place them below it, haibun-style. Last month, an online journal called The Other Bunny, which specializes in experimental haibun, published a selection of these under the title “Human Resources.” Then two days ago, the Australian multimedia artist Marie Craven surprised me with this damn-near perfect video version. I strongly recommend expanding it to full screen and using good headphones:

Marie describes it on Vimeo as “A video about mind control and hidden meanings.”

The original text here is sections of a CIA document from the 1980s, concerning mind control techniques. […] The video is made up substantially of this text on screen, overlaid on a delirious blend of movie images from the Prelinger Archives. I chose to ‘mash up’ two different films for this background. The first, and most visually recognisable, is ‘Duck and Cover’, a famous documentary film from the 1950s containing advice on how to take cover in the event of a nuclear blast. The second film is ‘Destination Earth’, an anti-communist animation also produced in the 1950s. Both films were ‘doubled up’, making four superimposed layers, sped up considerably, with some parts appearing in forward motion, others in reverse, and some images rotating so that they appear at odd angles throughout the piece. The rapid melee of images is designed to express the hallucinatory effect of mental confusion engendered by mind control. The music is a psychedelic piece by The Night Programme (aka Paul Foster), with whom I’ve collaborated musically for over a decade, all via the net (he’s in Wales, I’m in Australia). The track is entitled ‘Cxx2’, from his album, ‘Backup 010318’. In a contemporary sense, the poem and video seem timely in this era of rampant fake news and unabashed propaganda.

Human Resources is Marie’s fifth videopoem based on my poetry. This is the sort of collaboration the web was built for, I think, and it’s always deeply gratifying to me as a writer to have been able to inspire an artist of Marie’s caliber.

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Delusions of an Erasure Poet

Rows of targets on the side of a barn with an arrow in every bull’s-eye. “An expert marksman must live here!” Or a fool who fires at random and paints a target where each arrow lands?

It’s difficult not to make sense—not to find meaning in words or see faces in the forest. The truth is that wherever an arrow lands, something like a bull’s eye opens. Bulls aren’t terribly perspicacious. Wherever one charges, something like an enemy crumples. It might be a matador’s cape or china in a shop, who knows? But the bull sees as well as he needs to and shits anywhere he wants. Let his B.S. dry out and you can burn it, use it to cook a can of beans.

A poet is more than just a fool or a bull-slinger, though. Our job is not simply to make sense, but to make it beautiful. That requires a selective kind of vision. You have to not only find the bull but also un-find it, and ultimately forget about it. Pastures are so much more beautiful if they haven’t been grazed.

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Delusions of an Erasure Poet

Just as (we are told) there are no atheists in foxholes, so the erasure poet comes to believe that there are no truly prosaic passages in a passage of prose. You can only look at arrangements of words on a page for so long before you completely lose track of which are the expected sentiments, the set phrases. Strangeness affects them all. You look deeper: within words, and between words widely separated on the page. New possible poems spark with electricity, like Frankenstein’s monster just before full reanimation. But it’s a zero-sum game: for one poem to open, countless others must remain closed. Syntax, like time, only flows in one direction. Knowing this, you hesitate over the source text. The poems are parallel universes, each with their own laws. And as in physics, any pretense of the observer to a god-like standing above the observed phenomenon is impossible; to observe is to recognize, and to recognize is to implicate oneself in an inherently contingent origin. Perhaps the Daoists are right, and the only perfect art object is the uncarved block.

Another beautiful, artistic erasure poetry project: Erasing Infinite, which the creator, poet and Found Poetry Review editor Jenni B. Baker, describes as “A found poetry project erasing David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest one page at a time.” I love the presentation. Baker uses Creative Commons-licensed photos onto which she juxtaposes the words of her erasures in the same arrangements in which they appeared in the original text (though oddly, she copyrights the results, which violates the “share alike” [SA] terms of photos so licensed). The poems are usually satisfying as texts in themselves, but gain in effectiveness by their association with images — especially the shorter, more enigmatic poems. I’m also intrigued by her decision to use Tumblr as a home for the project (there’s also a Facebook page and of course a Twitter feed). Check it out.

(Thanks once again to Maureen Doallas for the link.)

If Tom Phillips’ A Humument is the gold standard for artistic erasure poetry, Will Ashford’s new work The Gospel According to Art should be a platinum hit. His erasures are not only image-rich, but use the text in varying ways: often for didactic purpose, but sometimes in more decorative/suggestive ways as well (a rain of “I”s, a swarm of “o”s). If I had a better developed sense of shame, I guess I’d be abashed I’d never heard of Will Ashford until he contacted me yesterday, prompted by a perusal of my Pepys erasures. But I’ve very glad (and flattered) that he did.

There’s a lot of good stuff in the Flash-based portfolio at his main site, too, but I found The Gospel According to Art easier to use at my relatively slow connection speed — and as a fan of the literary charms of the Bible, I was entranced by this re-purposing of the Gospel of Mark. It’s full of wonder, humor and delight. Go have a look.

A review of the 5th edition of The Humument at The Found Poetry Review:

To call it a novel would be a misnomer; to categorize it as a poetry collection would be just as false. This brings us back to the role of the work as a monument or, more appropriately, testament. As a testament, it has to witness the peculiarities of the age to which it is a witness. With the rise of the Metamodern in world literature, it is strange that a book such as A Humument stands the test of time and vision better from edition to edition as it ages. But, Phillips’ commitment to the revision, a true “re-seeing,” creates a compelling collection of which every edition is a must own.

Or, maybe it is truly the first and last edition of a “human document,” paralleling the human spirit — it wanders like us, wends like us, it changes into ever-morphing forms. Each edition a deletion of memory, even with flaws — just like us.

(via Maureen Doallas on Twitter)

The Rain in My Purse:

I don’t buy the oft-touted view that one must find something totally new in erasure poetry, that the found poem should be completely independent of the source text. If that’s the case then why do erasure at all? The source is going to offer possibilities and choices. The source is at the poet’s disposal, and will set limits. The source is not going to predetermine, but it is going to influence.

I love Bervin’s note at the end of the book: “When we write poems, the history of poetry is with us, pre-inscribed in the white of the page.”

Readers of my Pepys erasure poems might be interested in Pulitzer Remix:

Eighty-five poets are creating found poetry from the 85 Pulitzer Prize-winning works of fiction as part of Pulitzer Remix, a 2013 National Poetry Month initiative. Each poet will post one poem per day on this website during the month of April, resulting in the creation of more than 2,500 poems by the project’s conclusion.


Pulitzer Remix poets are challenged to create new works of poetry that vary in topic and theme from the original text, rather than merely regurgitating the novels in poetic form. Posted texts will take the form of blackouts, whiteouts, collages and more, and will range from structured to more experimental forms.

The website’s design is a bit confusing: it’s not immediately obvious how the category and author index pages work, with identical images turning into links to different posts only on mouse-over, and there are no “next” and “previous” links on single post pages. On the other hand, the email subscription options are terrific, if you want to follow just a few of the participating poets. (Since it’s a WordPress site, you can also subscribe in a feed reader by adding “/feed/” to the end of any author or category URL.) It’s hard to imagine anyone will have the time to read all 85 poems every day, but based on what I’ve sampled from the first two days’ worth, the archive is going to be — as the kids would say — epic. Pulitzer Remix is likely to become a real milestone in the history of erasure poetry. Check it out.

In accordance with Marly Youmans’ suggestion in comments, I want to share a few observations about my on-going erasure poetry project with the Diary of Samuel Pepys. First, I should say that the encouragement of a number of writers, bloggers and readers whom I respect has been a great boon, and probably plays a larger role in my continued commitment to the project than I’m willing to admit. Thank you all.

I’m not ashamed to admit, however, that this began as a surprise gift for Rachel, whose long-standing enthusiasm for Pepys’ diary I did not initially share. Reading the Pepys entry of the day has since become part of our nightly ritual on Skype, and she enjoys seeing what erasure I’ve made of it when she wakes up in the morning. That’s a powerful incentive for me to keep going.

Tom Phillips, the author of the most famous erasure poem, A Humument, has said that he’s never actually read the text he uses (A Human Document by W.H. Mallock). That’s interesting, but it’s not my style. I view this erasure as an homage to Samuel Pepys as much as a new creation/discovery (or series of creations/discoveries). Although I make no particular effort to sound like Pepys or to avoid modern references, I want the “I” in the poems to reflect something of his interests and appetites — a son of Sam, as it were.

I’m also very interested in the two periods reflected in the online Diary of Samuel Pepys: the latter half of the 17th century, and the period from 2003-2012 when the online version made its first run. Because I started blogging in 2003 myself (as did Rachel and many other of the bloggers I still read), Pepys’ diary feels oddly like a piece of my own personal history. I was never an avid reader of it, but it was always there, and now I find that reading (or at least skimming) the copious and informative annotations left by readers ten years ago gives me a sense of inhabiting three historical periods at once. The diary is no longer just about them, those far-away Englishmen and women of the 17th century; it’s also about us, and about the many ways in which, over the past ten years, we’ve used the web to share and generate texts — and to present or invent our own daily lives.

With 51 Pepys erasures under my belt, my approach has changed in small but significant ways. The visual presentation itself has changed from “blackout” — using the highlighter tool in MS Word set to black to blot out all but the chosen words — to digital erasure. At first, I took a screenshot only at the end of the process. Now, the process involves copying and pasting the text from the online diary into a new file in my word processing program (Open Office Writer rather than Word these days); adding back any text censored from the 19th-century edition used for the online version, as supplied in the annotations by readers with newer editions; full-justifying the text; taking a screenshot with Screenpresso and saving it as a jpeg; drafting a poem below the text, in the same text file; and finally, opening the screenshot in Photoshop and using the eraser tool, set usually to a 15-pixel radius for a 700-pixel-wide image. Sometimes the text of the poem gets adjusted in the course of the erasure, but not too often.

My rule that I can only use words, or consecutive groupings of letters, in the order in which they appear in the original hasn’t changed, and won’t. (Contrast with A Humument, where Phillips typically constructs passages from words that are adjacent on the page, and links passages via umbilical-cord-like strings.) But I have loosened up: originally I only permitted myself to use words unchanged from the original, allowing for differences in spelling which I would correct in my text versions. But several weeks ago I began permitting myself to look for shorter words within longer words, which opened up more possibilities. For one thing, there are now a lot more potential indefinite articles!

Initially, my focus was completely textual, not aesthetic at all (and I think the blackout-style erasures were pretty ugly, too). But now I do pay attention to the look of the erasures, though I still try to keep the process simple enough that it doesn’t become enormously time-consuming. I try to preserve a scattering of un-erased marks to give the erasure a more physical, analogue feel, as well as to suggest the continued, shadow presence of a larger, parent text. If I have two or more options — duplicate words — in the parent text, I tend to pick those on the most natural visual route. And sometimes, as with yesterday’s haiku, I’ll allow myself to include an extra word (“west,” in that case) which the poem doesn’t necessarily need, but which gives the image a more balanced look.

Although I’ve entertained vague notions of building a collection whose component parts make some sort of consecutive sense, in practice each erasure stands on its own. I add the titles last of all, as with almost all poetry I write, but since they don’t emerge from the process of erasure, I think of them as quite superfluous — there because my blogging style at Via Negativa has been to provide original titles (as opposed to, say, “Pepys I.2.20,”  which is how I am saving them on my hard drive). Nevertheless, in some cases I think the titles have added something to the poems.

The text versions below the erasure images aren’t as much of an extra as my decision to place them in brackets might suggest. (And I’m considering doing away with the brackets.) In part, they’re there for accessibility reasons: if I didn’t put them out front, so to speak, I’d include them as HTML “alt” text instead, so as to make the erasures accessible to screen readers for the visually impaired. But for those who are not so visually impaired as to need a reader, and who simply rely on increasing the font size, the 700-pixel-wide image by itself, available on click-though, would not suffice. Hence in part the gloss. More than that, though, I am obviously enough of a traditionalist to want to make standard-looking, modern lyric poems out of the erasures, punctuated and arranged on the page for maximum impact. And I kind of like the idea of having two versions of each erasure, neither one of them authoritative.

The writing has certainly gotten easier than it was for the first three or four weeks, when I was often drafting two or three different poems before deciding on a keeper. Now there’s usually just a single draft. That’s largely because I no longer put the cart before the horse (as I now see it) by trying to erase from the outset. I start with a list of attractive nouns and phrases, then see where the best verbs are and start matching them up until an idea occurs to me. Occasionally, as in the one I called “Revolution Revelation,” Pepys’ language is so vivid and exciting, I can’t resist lifting great portions of it almost unchanged, and the erasure poem becomes more of a found poem.

As I suggest in the category description at the head of the archive, I started this project at a moment of personal crisis, if that’s not too strong a word. Re-reading too much of my own poetry has always left me slightly nauseated, but recently it had gotten even worse. I needed to expand my horizons, get a transfusion of new vocabulary, not worry so much about making complete or even comprehensible statements, and most of all, stop imposing so much of my own preconceptions on my poems.  I wanted to give accident a larger role in my writing, so that perhaps genuine discovery could take place more often.

Judged on that basis, I feel this erasure project has been a success so far. It may seem ironic, but working within these fairly severe, self-imposed restrictions has taught me a lot about creative freedom, which is always a dance between some kind of rules (be they only syntactical) and total license. Thinking of my materials as given in some sense has been immensely liberating, though it’s something I’ve long felt, a bit more abstractly, about writing in general. The arbitrary restrictions I’ve imposed on myself for this project probably don’t limit me much more than would the challenge of writing, for example, a sonnet sequence, though in the case of an erasure it’s the material rather the organization of the material that is limited. And I’ve enjoyed indulging certain delusions of an erasure poet.

My initial expectation that these erasure poems would all be of a piece — semi-surrealist, full of eating and drinking and bodily functions — has not been borne out. Instead, the results have resembled my usual flow in their variety: sometimes dominated by word-music, sometimes humorous, sometimes metaphysical, etc. Probably I need to stop fighting my natural tendency toward variety in style and tone. Also, as Luisa can probably attest, writing a poem every day is enough work without trying to strive for a high degree of continuity yet. Still, I’ll be curious to see if Son of Sam’s voice ever develops a degree of consistency, or if he continues to suffer from multiple personality syndrome.

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Delusions of an Erasure Poet

There is — I’ve come to feel — a text within the text, made up of the words and phrases that lodge most firmly in our minds as we read and the hidden relationships we sense between them. Can it be brought into the light and given at least a minimal coherence? If so, what if anything might it tell us about the parent text?

I think this shadow text is based in part on semi-conscious, momentary misinterpretations which we are continually correcting automatically as we read. It’s of a piece with those false ideas and associations we all harbor based on misunderstandings that were subsequently corrected, sometimes very quickly, but still too late to prevent such shadow ideas from persisting, showing up in dreams and sometimes even influencing conscious thoughts. (This is, in part, how propaganda works.)

If I were able to read with perfect focus, perhaps a shadow text would not develop, but the imagination is an unruly beast, and fluent reading gives it latitude to stray to one side or another as I proceed, like a dog on a long leash inspecting things of interest while its owner plods straight ahead. It has, in other words, its own agenda. To recover the text within a text, do we not also need to be dog-like and follow our ears and noses more than our eyes? Certainly we need to be more active. Investigation may even require that we bark and listen for a response.