Poets by their nature tend to be people with their empathy and pattern recognition on overdrive. When picking up an old book, I can’t help but feel it is alive and that it has a secret message for me. While such beliefs will most likely lead me to wearing a tinfoil hat and living in the bushes by the library, for the present I purge my uncontrolled animism by letting old books speak through erasure poetry. My book of erasure poetry Hope Tree (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), was such an effort. I made it by erasing the text of a book titled How To Prune Fruit Trees. While the book was a simple, functional manual, it kept telling me that it had something deeper to say about the the brutal emotional pruning we humans are forced to do to thrive. I am always trying to listen to texts in new ways. The method I have been experimenting with recently is described in the activity below.
Erasure poetry can be created in two ways. The first way is to erase or black out the words that are not part of the poem. This is the most popular method of erasure, the one that nearly every published book of erasure has used, my own included. But in its essence, erasure is just the idea of selection, and there are other methods to select. Highlighting the words you do want to keep instead of erasing the ones you don’t is another method of creating an erasure poem. While this method would seem the same on the surface, it creates new possibilities in poetic dialogue and polyvocal erasure texts.
Polyvocal text and dialogue in poetry is nothing new. Frank Bidart’s work comes instantly to mind. Bidart distinguished the voices in his poetry through typography and space, but erasure poetry shouldn’t change the typography or space of the original text. Luckily, erasure poetry can use another method of visual differentiation – color.
For this activity, you will need three different colored highlighters. I suggest the primary colors – red, blue, and yellow.
Find an erasure text from a usual source – the book rack at Goodwill, a newspaper, an old manual. When you approach the erasure text, however, don’t think that you are trying to uncover just one voice. Think in terms of creating a dialogue. Highlight some phrases or words in one color, then feel if there might be a response to those words somewhere else in the text. How many voices do you hear in the text? Two, three? If so, highlight them each in their own color. What is the conversation that is happening between the colors and in the text?
One of the most interesting things about this method is that there might also be places where you feel the two voices overlap. In this case, since you are using primary colors, if you highlight the same words in two different primary colors, they create a new color, a secondary color representing a choral aspect of the erasure.
This is something that even typography can’t represent, a trope that is usually reserved only for the chorus of Greek plays or the feeling of depth and double readings created through skillful line break.
A fun aspect of this activity is that it can collaborative. Two or more poets can work on the same erasure project by handing a book back and forth and creating a conversation.
In normal erasure projects, we act like archeologists. We use our delicate White Out brushes to sweep away the dirt until we start to see the jawline of a strange creature that lived millions of years ago that we want to resurrect again. And this is a great project. But when we use highlighters, we change the underlying metaphor of the project. Instead of archeologists, we are more like codebreakers listening to what at first sounds just like noise or some innocuous report on a banal subject. Our job is to listen for the secret code, the individual voices in dialogue hidden under the original text to reveal the scandalous and shocking conversation we always suspected was there.
Frank Montesonti is the author of two full-length collections of poetry: Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope, Winner of the 2011 Barrow Street Book Prize, and the book of erasure, Hope Tree (How To Prune Fruit Trees) by Black Lawrence Press. His poems have appeared in journals such as Tin House, AQR, Black Warrior Review, Poet Lore, and Poems and Plays, among many others. A long-time resident of Indiana, he now lives in Los Angeles and is the lead faculty of the MFA program at National University.