IMPROMPTU #18: Amaranth Borsuk

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Amaranth BorsukAs a poet, scholar, and book artist interested in text’s materiality, I have done a number of erasure projects over the years, both digital and print-based. I was first drawn to erasure as a way to joke around, finding funny phrases hidden within the discarded photocopies we used as scrap paper in middle school. When I started doing it in earnest, during college, it unlocked for me the notion that words are just material–collections of sounds to which we attribute meanings based on our social context. That realization shaped everything I wrote afterward. Banal as it may sound, it broke my transactional relationship with language and my certainty about the way poems communicate with the reader–in the best possible way. I also realized erasure was a great way to jumpstart my creative practice–it primed me to find unusual turns of phrase and to reconfigure my notions of how words function. Sometimes erasure is an end in itself, but sometimes it’s a beginning, a starting point for collecting a Robert Smithson-like “Heap of Language” from which to construct poems. In that spirit, I’m providing a few prompts for collecting words.
Robert Smithson's "Heap of Language"

Robert Smithson’s “Heap of Language”

A) The Dictionary Assist

My just-published book of poems Pomegranate Eater includes a series of conversations with fruit in which I play the role of both interlocutors. Even when I’m addressing the pomegranate, I’m addressing myself. I started making these poems because there were things about myself I didn’t know how to confront–things I disliked about myself, didn’t understand about myself, or wanted to believe. The personas of these poems freed me up a bit, as did the constraint of using fruits that had particular significance to my life. But the thing that really helped me formulate the poems was the gift of the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Word Roots, which has been my companion for more than a decade.

  1. Pick a word that vexes you. Look up its Indo-European word root and transcribe all of the language in the entry. That means not only the words that share the same root, but the definitions and explanations folded into the entry. If your word doesn’t have an Indo-European root, pick a synonym that does.
  2. Make a list of false cognates of your word: anagrams, homophones, pararhymes and the like. If your word is “mean,” you might include “main, man, moan, mien, mine, neem, mon, men, and, for kicks, Eames. Draw from any language that’s meaningful to you.
  3. Make a list of associations around your word, including synonyms, puns, references, jokes, and titles: “Mean Streets, meander, meaning, meanie, A Prayer for Owen Meany, etc.”
  4. Write a prose poem in which you use as much of this language as possible. You can either write as your word, letting “Mean” speak in the first person, or write to your word, telling “Mean” what’s what.

 

B) The Deletionist Assist

The Deletionist is a JavaScript bookmarklet that Nick Montfort, Jesper Juul and I made. It converts any webpage into an erasure using a series of constraints from which it selects the one that reveals the most interesting “Worl” within the World Wide Web.

  1. Go to http://thedeletionist.com/ and drag the icon on the page into your browser’s bookmarks bar.
  2. Go to several website you’d like to erase (gmail will let you get personal, Project Gutenberg will provide interesting source material, and nyt.com will provide contemporary flavor–open a number of sites in different browser windows).
  3. Click the “Deletionist” bookmark and watch the dutiful Deletionist remove most of the language on your page. Harvest any phrases that interest you (you won’t always get phrases, so if you don’t like the results, try another site).
  4. Use this material for poems or screencapture page results you like.

 

C) ABRACADABRAssist

Abra: A Living Text is a magical poetry spellbook for iPad and iPhone. Ian Hatcher, Kate Durbin, and I made this free app to put the text of Abra (1913 Press, 2016), a poem that mutates on the page, in readers’ hands, troubling the boundary between author and reader. In the app, the text of the book mutates slowly on its own, and you can accelerate that process through touch: “Mutate” words, “Graft” new words into Abra‘s vocabulary, “Erase” to open holes in the text, and “Prune” to trim away excess. You can also cast the “Cadabra” spell, which will transform the words on screen in surprising ways. You can write into Abra using any character set, including emoji, on your device, and the app will mutate your language too, bringing it back to you on later readings. The “Share” feature helps you make screen captures and save them to your device or post to Facebook and Twitter. But you can also use Abra to generate starter poems any way you see fit. Here’s one approach:

  1. Open the settings menu in the toolbar at the top of the screen by touching the icon in the upper right corner. Turn off “autonomous mutation” to give you more control.
  2. Spin the dial on the bottom of the screen to be taken to a random poem, then use the “Erase” function to drawn openings in the text with your fingers. Don’t worry about being purposeful–just run your finger through the lines at random.
  3. Switch to the “Mutate” spell and run your fingertip across the words to see them transform.
  4. Use the “Graft” feature to fill in gaps in a way that threads the poem together. You can also “Prune” to close up spaces. If you like to make sense, do it. If you like to revise, as Brenda Hillman says, toward strangeness, then do that.
  5. Screenshot your resulting poem or transcribe interesting turns of phrase and use them to seed a new poem in your journal.

Amaranth Borsuk’s most recent book of poems is Pomegranate Eater (Kore, 2016). She is the author, with Andy Fitch, of As We Know (Subito, 2014), an erased and redacted diary. Her intermedia project Abra, with Kate Durbin and Ian Hatcher, received an NEA-funded Expanded Artists’ Books grant and was recently issued as a limited-edition hand-made book and free iPhone and iPad app. A trade edition has just been released by 1913 Press. She is the author of Handiwork (Slope, 2012); and Between Page and Screen (Siglio, 2012), a book of augmented-reality poems created with Brad Bouse. Borsuk received her Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California and served as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at MIT before joining the faculty of the University of Washington, Bothell, where she is currently an Assistant Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. More on her work can be found at www.amaranthborsuk.com.

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