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

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.

April Diary 16: deer trails

river in November light between bare woods and mountain
This entry is part 16 of 31 in the series April Diary


the thing about erasure poetry is you don’t get a blank page to stare at

but if you keep looking ideas will emerge like deer trails in the woods, some petering out after a few dozen yards, others leading you to things you never would’ve seen otherwise

today’s raw material for erasure was short and relatively lacking in concrete imagery so my choices seemed few. interestingly for a process that might appear to be pretty far removed from anything confessional, it was only when I allowed myself to express some emotional honesty that it turned into something like a poem. or at least something good enough to blog

finished Charon’s Cosmology so it’s on to Simic’s next title with Braziller, Classic Ballroom Dances (1980)

this is one i don’t think i’ve read more than once before, and a long time ago at that—the least familiar of Simic’s early books. that’s what a difference it makes never to have owned it

on this current Simic binge i’m paying attention to how and how often he writes about the natural world. a lot of straightforward ecopoetry bores me after a while but the people mixing in surrealism often don’t appear to have much to say. when Simic writes specifically about nature he does appear very much to have seen or heard what he’s writing about, and there’s usually a point of view being expressed. and he uses language from natural history in poems that aren’t strictly speaking about nature, such as “Species” in Charon’s Cosmology — not prominently but it’s part of the mix

Peaceful Kingdom

The bird who watches me
from the branch of an apple tree
in bloom.

A black bird
for whom a strange man
gathers rocks
in the ruts of the road.


And among the willow trees:
before water made up its mind
to be water.

My sister says if I drink
of that water I will die . . .
That’s why the heart beats:
to waken the water.
Charles Simic, from Classic Ballroom Dances

i have strong feelings about the whole peaceable kingdom thing a purely colonialist ideal of a tamed and sanitized nature devoid of wildness but Simic’s deceptively simple poem exposes the violence and danger that always lurk just beyond the frame. and also the possibility…

the ending reminds me a bit of the way the legendary blues pianist Jimmy Yancey would always switch from whatever key he was in to B flat for the last few notes of a piece: less dissonance than wildness, an opening toward something other

i used to spend a lot more time in the woods after dark. but some time last summer i got tired of being snorted at by deer, squeaked at by weasels, chittered at by flying squirrels and once even run into by a fox (i think). the night creatures need time without what must be the incredible stress of having humans close by

so i still go for walks at night sometimes but i don’t sit out in the woods nearly as often after dark and mostly stick the porch

just as i finish that sentence the barred owl says who! as in who do you think you are

(which is slightly unfair because they are the friendliest of owls)

I don’t like to write about poetry i don’t like so i guess i won’t, other than to say that whether or not a book has been widely hyped seems to have little relation to whether i’ll end up liking it, except insofar as the hype is based mainly on what the poems say rather than how they say it. i don’t care if we align 100% ideologically, if your poetry is too didactic i will stop reading

such a serene experience taking a leak in the nearly full moonlight

gray rat of a cloud get away from my moon

a dove cries out in its sleep

Human Resources: erasure poetry meets videopoetry

still from Human Resources by Marie Craven

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.

Delusions of a erasure poet: the marksman

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.

Delusions of an erasure poet: the observer effect

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.

Jenni Baker’s “Erasing Infinite”

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.)

Will Ashford and the art of erasure

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.

The world’s greatest exercise in erasure poetry, now at 5.0

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)

Erasing Shakespeare

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.”

2,500 erasure poems for National Poetry Month

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.