Happy National Poetry Month!
I’m super proud of my intermediate creative writing class and the project we just finished, which culminated in a show in the Kenneth J. Shouldice Library Art Gallery at Lake Superior State University. While I was at Vermont Studio Center over winter break, I collaborated with collage artist Jay Phillips, whose process reminded me of erasure. The process of finding poems in the pages of his art criticism magazines was super satisfying. There is a forbidden sort of pleasure in taking a permanent marker to a published text, and erasure requires an intense form of concentration, like solving a difficult puzzle or playing Tetris.
After I came home, I found myself wanting to experiment more with the visual elements of erasure. How could visual elements enhance or complicate the found poem’s message? Since I was teaching an intermediate creative writing course intended to encourage student experimentation, I thought we could experiment with visual erasures as a class project.
Before the semester began, I researched erasure poems with visual elements to find some inspiring examples to show my students. It seems Doris Cross may have created the first visual erasure poem when she painted over the pages of a dictionary in 1965, or Tom Phillips, when he began to treat the Victorian novel, A Human Document, with painting and collage in 1966. Whatever its origin, the form has been quite popular lately, with examples appearing in recent issues of Poetry and Thrush and Diagram. One of my favorite recent examples is Poet Niina Pollari’s erasure of immigration Form N-400 last year.
My class and I began the semester by closely reading a number of erasure poems with visual elements together, including Sarah J. Sloat’s startling Misery poems in Thrush and Diagram and Sonja Johanson’s gorgeously textured poems in Menacing Hedge, which use bamboo segments and florets to cover text instead of erasing it. We watched and discussed Mary Ruefle’s inspiring craft talk on erasure from the Tenth Annual Palm Beach Poetry Festival, trying to put our fingers on what makes a good erasure poem compelling. Then we spent a whole class day making erasures using old reference books scheduled to be destroyed by the university library and copies of pages from classic and popular novels. At the end of the class, we shared our first attempts and discussed the obstacles we encountered during our first experiments with the form.
After that, everyone went out and chose a source text, from which we made copies of pages that we proceeded to plan erasures in. We learned to run copies first, to search for words and circle in pencil with a practice draft, so that first-draft mistakes wouldn’t be fatal. Once we had each found a draft poem, we set out to find the appropriate visual elements to enhance or complicate its message. What has stunned me about this project is how different each of the students’ pieces are! There is an erasure buried under soil; an illuminated erasure of a page from A Room of One’s Own; an erasure of an Edgar Allan Poe story juxtaposed with an image from a Wonder Woman comic; an erasure of a hymnal; an erasure from a book of quotes and covered with bloody-looking handprints; an erasure found in Hamlet; erasures found in novels by Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson, Arthur C. Clarke, and J. K. Rowling. I got to participate in the project as well, collaging a page from a guidebook for medieval anchoresses into an illuminated astronomy manuscript…
Once everyone had drafts, we used Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process to develop the pieces and our own understanding of our aesthetics. What did each of us expect from this sort of poem? How did our expectations differ? Liz Lerman’s process was magical as usual. Most of the pieces went through three or more drastically different drafts. Students listened carefully to one another’s feedback, then experimented with visuals, compression, titles, erasing words and adding them back in, and the results were marvelous!
The culminating show at the library gallery, which my students aptly named LOST & FOUND, kicked off National Poetry Month at Lake Superior State University. I’m so thankful to everyone who came out to support the students and the Creative Writing Program. I’m also grateful to my Dean for her support, and everyone who helped with setup and publicity, from the university librarians to Don Bentley at The Art Store who is scary good with an X-Acto knife!