FEATURE: SEAN BISHOP ON ERASURE POETRY
[Poet Sean Bishop talks to iO Editor Wendy Xu about erasure poetry and his to-be-completed project
RES---ECTIONS (an erasure of The Origin of Species) which this interview contains selections from.]
Q: Tell us a little bit about this project, RES–ECTIONS, and specifically how/why you chose The Origin of Species as a source material for erasure?
A: When it’s finished, RES—ECTIONS will be a chapbook-length poem that tries to explore some of the less-strictly-scientific implications of Charles Darwin’s theories, both as they were intended and as they’ve been misinterpreted. Since its publication in 1859, The Origin of Species has not only been a vehicle for a more accurate biological understanding of the world, but also a touchstone for some really tragic eugenics-based ideas about race, social class, and capitalism. So RES—ECTIONS is partly my attempt to make the source text “talk back” to Darwin’s popular reception after his death. I want to make Darwin speak from the grave, with the sort of creepy omniscience that is often ascribed to the dead in classical literature, and to repurpose the original text toward differently intentioned lyric and philosophical ideas.
These are all goals I developed after I began writing the poem, though; I chose The Origin of Species mostly by accident, just because I had an old and beautiful edition of the book gathering dust on my shelf. It was only after I’d begun erasing that I realized what I was doing: The process of natural selection is itself a form of erasure, after all. Animals die. People die. And then we’re left with just a few surviving life-forms, which we use to construct an incomplete narrative of the world. So the job of making form and content speak to one another—something any decent poem has to do—was done for me almost before I started.
Q: How did you first develop an interest in erasure poetry, either reading or writing it? What is it about erasure versus traditional poetry that appeals to you?
A: I tend to be over-controlling in my writing; I have a tyrannically logical brain that has to be outwitted if I want to make anything of creative merit. So I look for poetic forms and devices that derail my tendency toward sense-making. It’s impossible to make complete sense or to be in total control when doing an erasure, because you’re restricted by whatever words are on the page you’re erasing. I suppose a villanelle or sestina might work just as well, but I’m especially drawn to erasures because I believe the form speaks directly to the moment in which we live: every day we’re overwhelmed with information, and we have to excerpt that information to make a story. Complete and unchallenged narratives are almost never given to us anymore, or rather, we’re (correctly!) less and less inclined to accept them. So erasures appeal to me because they mimic the way that internet-lurking twenty-first-century people like myself make sense of the world: we filter things out, and assemble disparate chunks of information. Moreover, erasures engage in the same varieties of resampling and pastiche that most groundbreaking works of musical and artistic value have done for the past decade. On a more personal level, I also like erasures because they aren’t done-to-death; many people still don’t know what an “erasure” is, and the form has only gained momentum in the past forty years, give or take. So when writing RES—ECTIONS, I genuinely feel that I’m doing something that has never been done in quite the same way before. It’s nice to feel relevant!
Q: The above section, “Introduction”, directly addresses “the reader,” and seems acutely aware of itself as erasure, pulled out of some parent-text. I find this in most erasure poetry—a keen meta-narrative that acknowledges a continuing conversation with the source material, so it seems no coincidence that your source text dealt with origins. Can you talk about your experience with this, and perhaps in a broader sense, how you feel the source text and new text inform each other in this project?
A: Sure! But I should say, to begin with, that I don’t think meta-consciousness (or meta-narrative, or meta-lyricism, or whatever you want to call it) is unique to erasures. At least since Eliot, most flowers have the look of flowers that are looked at, and most poems are at least partly about their own making. In the case of RES—ECTIONS, though, “erasure” really is the subject of the poem: how the annihilating forces of death and extinction are actually the vehicles of evolution. For these reasons, I hope that I can successfully skirt the accusations of navel-gazing that normally accompany meta-consciousness in poetry, while still getting all of the guilty, narcissistic pleasure a poet gets from looking at himself in the mirror.
Q: What was the process like for working on these poems, or for your erasure projects in general? As these poems are surely pieces of visual art as much as text, how does that element figure into their creation?
A: Well, to answer your first question, I think I break some of the unwritten rules of erasure: I allow myself to add punctuation, and I also allow myself to reshuffle the pages of the source text and omit some pages entirely. This helps me to create longer discursive threads in the poem, whereas many earlier erasures that follow the rules I break are forced into a kind of language-poetry (I’m thinking primarily of Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os and Janet Holmes’s The MS of My Kin), loose narrative (e.g. Tom Phillips’s A Humument, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, and Matthea Harvey and Amy Jean Porter’s Of Lamb), or haiku-like, page-length lyrics (Jen Bervin’s Nets, and Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow). I begin each page by boxing out interesting pieces of diction or syntax in pencil, then constructing an idea or story from those pieces and whiting out the rest. The visual aesthetic of the page is a secondary objective at best, though I do love the way they look and I think the white space is important! Some younger contemporary poets (meaning poets of my own generation) have recently published erasures that aren’t acknowledged as such in the texts themselves—they are presented simply as original poems, sometimes with notes regarding the source text in the collection’s backmatter—and I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, yes, they are and should be respected as original poems. But on the other hand, it seems disrespectful of the source text not to acknowledge it. It also seems a little cowardly to avoid the common accusation that erasures aren’t “real poems” simply by refusing to state from the outset that what you’ve written is an erasure. If you’re writing erasures, it means you view them as legitimate poetic forms, and you should own that belief.
Q: Often you hear erasure poetry described as a sort of “uncovering” or excavating the poem from within a source text—the poet is cast in the role of archeologist, as opposed to creator. How did you perceive your role as it relates to completing this project? Did you see yourself writing and creating these poems, or was it more a kind of finding? Do you have any thoughts about the role of poets in erasure poetry across the board?
A: I’m so happy you asked this! I began writing RES—ECTIONS as an MFA candidate at the University of Houston, where I worked extensively with the poet Tony Hoagland, who responded to the erasure by saying, “you do realize that people will claim you’re simply uncovering the ‘secret text’ that Darwin always intended, right?” Admittedly, I exploit this assumption. The idea of “excavation” is useful to me since most of the evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution has been brought about through paleontology. But the voice in this poem is very much my own. My “Darwin” is a character or persona the same as in any other poem; he’s a sort of omniscient psychopomp explaining the living world from the perspective of the dead. In the hands of another poet, the same text could be erased to very different effects (imagine what a born-again right-winger might do with it!). So I believe wholeheartedly that the author of an erasure is the poet who erased it. There’s a gray area, obviously: would a poet who erased only half of the original text still be the author of a new text? Probably not. But this question of intellectual property is important to challenge; it’s an essential issue of the twenty-first century. If you look at a poet like Kenneth Goldsmith, who has published an entire, verbatim issue of The New York Times as a poem, I think you’d be wholly justified in saying, “this isn’t poetry.” I’d agree with you. But I’m really glad he’s out there doing it, regardless.
Q: Are there other erasure projects or collections that RES—ECTIONS is in conversation with? Other poets or books that either inspired you, or that you simply love reading?
A: Of course there are lots of poets I love, but when it comes to the question of influence in the form of previously published erasures: not really. I realize that’s totally egotistical of me to say. As I mentioned before, there are just so few published erasures out there, so it’s easy to feel like you’re doing something entirely new. Seriously, you could fit all of the “canonical” erasures (if there’s even such a thing) in your backpack with room left for you laptop, notebook, and a thermos of coffee. And this is one of the things I love about the form! It makes me feel like I did when I first started writing poems, and was largely ignorant of the breadth of the poetic tradition; I wasn’t squirming under the weight of my predecessors. Maybe I’m just not in-the-know enough… maybe there are a lot more erasures out there, in which case I hope someone will send me a list. But regardless, I think there’s just so much more that can be done with the erasure as a form. It has almost infinite potential, and I dearly hope it sticks around for a long time to come. One of the major difficulties in publishing erasures, so far, has been the fact that they’re best reproduced as scanned images in full color. This means they’re expensive and tedious to print. But with the rise and inevitable triumph of the e-book in the foreseeable future, as well as the increasing validity of online publications like iO, this will become less and less of a problem, and erasures might even get a boost in popularity just because they’re more visually pleasing than text-only collections of poetry.
Q: tell us a little bit about the following section [below], “Ferocities”. It’s remarkably different than the rest of the project, in that you’ve made a conscious choice to let the reader see its entire source text. Can you tell us the thinking behind this, or about obscuring/revealing source text in general?
A: I wish I had a smart answer to this. The truth is that I’m still trying to figure out the final form of RES—ECTIONS. I’m not sure whether I want the reader to be able to see the source material or not, so I’ve been experimenting, and this is one of those experiments. This really goes back to the dilemma I acknowledged earlier, which goes beyond erasure into almost every level of contemporary cultural production: to what extent is it necessary to acknowledge the source material from which you’ve sampled? Or more broadly, to what extent is one obligated to acknowledge one’s influences? And to what extent is the art of an erasure what’s left out, not just what’s included? I’m still on the fence about all of this. If and when I am able to publish RES—ECTIONS as a chapbook, I will likely standardize the means by which it is erased. Or maybe I’ll move from near-total erasure to near-total inclusion? Or vice-versa? I don’t know. The jury’s still out.
Q: “Ferocities” deals with America, American living, or as you say “this / home / where the savages / attack / attack …” The American man, “strange and odious,” is his own species, and fittingly revealed as odd, dangerous, and restless. Can you give us some more background on how such a contemporarily relevant poem like this came out of The Origin of Species? How is erasure poetry a process of updating and adapting for you?
A: What I’m trying to do in “Ferocities” is to view the human (and yeah, especially the American male) as an animal, the way a field-scientist might. It’s easy to forget that most people didn’t think of human beings as animals until Darwin. I think The Origin of Species has influenced everyone’s understanding of the world so pervasively that we don’t even see it anymore. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve read The Origin of Species or not (I mean, I’ve been erasing it but I can’t honestly say that I’ve “read it” in the traditional sense of that term), it has seeped into everyone’s consciousness without us knowing it. In “Ferocities” I also try to acknowledge—mostly ironically—the ways in which misunderstood theories of natural selection are often used to make claims for cultural superiority. I lucked out that I happen to be an American and Darwin turns out to have been particularly interested in the differences between American and European species of related plants and animals. This allowed me to use the word “America” as the center around which this section revolved, though an Englishperson might have used “England” just as effectively.
Q: What can erasure poetry do that traditional poetry can’t?
A: Not a whole lot—I mean, it’s a form like any other. As I said earlier, I do think erasures are uniquely fitted to the twenty-first century, because they mimic how the more privileged of us sort and assimilate electronically-delivered information. So in that sense, they can more accurately reflect the way people think in America today than sonnets or haiku or what-have-you. I also think erasures are unique in that they can be referential without being exclusionary: If you read The Waste Land (which I should say is a poem I love more than any other, the tone of which has a direct influence on RES—ECTIONS), it’s packed full of literary references that require footnotes, which suggest that a complete understanding of the poem is impossible if you aren’t intimately familiar with, for instance, The Tempest or “To His Coy Mistress.” But with an erasure, the referred-to text is already right there in front of you! And the form of the poem itself suggests that while the erasure is derivative, a full understanding of the source text isn’t necessary (and may not even be desirable) for a full understanding of the poem.
Q: Can you recommend one erasure collection we absolutely must pick up?
A: Honestly, I wish I could shoot this question back at the readers! My favorite is probably Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow, though I’m very excited to read Matthea Harvey’s Of Lamb, which was released just a month or two ago. Ruefle has a large body of uncollected erasures, which I hope someone will have the good judgment to publish sooner rather than later; I really think they’ll change the way people think about the form. Excerpts from those uncollected works can be found in the Summer/Fall 2008 issue of Gulf Coast, among other places. For anyone interested in erasures more broadly, Wave Books has a phenomenal webpage dedicated to the form, which includes an app that allows you to make your own erasure online.
Sean Bishop is the Associate Creative Writing Program Coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where from 2010–2011 he was the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow. From 2008–2010 he was the managing editor of Gulf Coast, and in 2007 he was a recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Fellowship. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Forklift Ohio, Harvard Review, Mid-American Review, Ninth Letter, Poetry, and elsewhere.