Welcome to ‘It’s an experiment!’ Each month I’ll be introducing you to different forms, styles and methods of playing around with hybrid work. I’ll introduce the concept, give you some insight into its use, show you lots of examples and provide some practical tips and tricks for making it work.
What is erasure poetry?
‘Resurfacing’ by Arden Hunter, Half Empty Exhibition 2021
Erasure poetry (also known as blackout or redacted poetry) is one of the many kinds of hybrid between visual art and poetry. The idea is to begin with an existing text and “erase” some of the words, leaving behind a poem. Though erasure poetry is a form of “found poetry,” the latter term is more commonly used to describe pieces that are more like collages—the artist cuts and pastes words together from different printed sources. In contrast, erasure poetry only uses the words found on one page/text.
The struggle with erasure poetry is not knowing where you are going; the theme and topic only reveals themselves once you have begun. You bring your ideas, your methods of using language, etc, to the piece, but in order to find the poem, you have to engage with someone else’s words. It can be surprising, frustrating… and very fun!
Let’s look at how to get started.
There are pros and cons to using different kinds of texts when contemplating erasure poetry. As this hybrid form is challenging enough already, it is best to consider texts against the list below before starting out. Next month I’ll show you how to erase the words, but for now let’s find your poems!
If you usually enjoy writing narrative poems (poems with characters, plot, action), you might be more comfortable starting out your experiment with a page from a story. Things to consider:
- Frequent pronouns: by selecting “he,” “she,” or “they,” you immediately identify a character for the reader to empathize with and can follow them down the page.
- Verbs: to create movement and action.
- Additional characters: there may be the opportunity for dialogue in your erasure if the text includes different characters.
Yes you can use a poem to make a poem!
- Lyrical devices—you are already working with poetic language.
- High frequency of descriptors – poems tend to use adjectives more than nouns.
- Practical considerations—there won’t be as many words to choose from than if you used a piece of flash. Also poetry is often written in a column down the left side of the page: meaning less page space for you to play with (or if you are adding art to the blank right side, more space!)
This can be anything from a college textbook to a washing machine instruction manual. If it has a page of text, you can use it!
- Lexical density: this means the ratio of the number of content words (nouns, adjectives, verbs) vs. the number of function words (pronouns, prepositions, articles). The higher the lexical density, the more content words there are. Nonfiction is often more lexically dense than fiction, so when making an erasure there will be more opportunities to change topic, scene, theme etc. You can read more about lexical density here: https://www.analyzemywriting.com/lexical_density.html
- Note: The exception to this is transcriptions, e.g., written versions of speeches. Spoken language is less lexically dense than written language, so if you are working with a transcription, it will be less lexically dense than if the person talking had needed to write their thoughts in an essay instead.
- Higher rate of nominalization: this is when noun variants of words are used in place of other variants. For example, instead of writing, ‘Wait for the colors to react (v) and develop (v); results may vary (v),’ you might see, ‘Wait for the reaction (n) and development (n) of the colors; you may expect variation (n).’ This can make it difficult to “move the story along” if you are in more of a narrative mood, although it can be fun to erase half a word rather than a complete one in order to find your verbs again.
- Higher frequency of non-standard words. Are readers going to understand your erasure poem without a dictionary?
- Directives, “do this, do that.” Are those useful to you, or will they box you in?
- Practical considerations: non-fiction is often written in tiny font to use as little paper as possible. Do you have a good enough camera/scanner to be able to use it in a way that will be readable?
When creating a digital erasure, you need to get the text into a format you can edit on your computer. Check your scanner settings so it is scanning at a high resolution (300 dpi is good for anything that might be published in print in the future). You’ll also need to save the text in a file type that you can edit or digitally scribble on: .jpg files are good for this purpose. If all else fails, pull up the text on your screen and take a screenshot or ‘snip’. This will save the file in an image format, but might be too low a resolution if you zoom in closely. Make sure you can see all the parts of the text on the screen that you want to see before you take the screenshot.
For analog erasures, consider the strength of the paper. Too thin and your marker/pen/stitches are going to go through and may even rip the paper. How absorbent is the paper? If you touch it with a marker, is the ink going to ‘bleed’ into the other words, or stay where it is? Next week I’ll give you my advice on strengthening paper before using it, but for now, use test pieces of other pages from the same book with all your pens and pencils and see which is the best pairing for clarity.
Finding your words
You have chosen your text and now you want to start finding your poem. This isn’t like writing a poem from scratch; you can’t plan in advance what you are going to say, what the theme will be, what you would like the reader to take away… all of that is only going to become apparent as you go.
Therefore, you will need a few drafts. For digital, make sure you keep a clean copy of your text in a separate file so you can start again if necessary. If using the only analog copy of a text, get yourself some tracing paper, layer it over the top of your text, and work on that before you make any marks on the real one.
The first few lines of the text are going to guide you. Read them a few times and see if any of the words jump out. Is there an unexpected piece of vocabulary that appeals? If you had to say what the key word of the sentence was, which word would it be? Mark it on the tracing paper, highlight it on the doc, or just write it on your notebook. This word will be your starting point. When you are first trying erasure poetry I recommend selecting words from right to left and up to down, just as when writing in English. Later on when you are more confident you can start wherever you like on the page (go in zigzags! Go in spirals!) but it’s better to learn a structure first so you can break it later.
You have your keyword, now see if you can make it into a sentence that is unrelated to the original text by choosing words further down the page. Remember this is a poem, so you don’t need to be grammatically correct or even make rational sense – you’re experimenting, you’re playing! Enjoy yourself, see which words sound interesting if they are pulled out and placed next to each other. Keep your marks and notes, use different colors if you aren’t sure so you can go back and choose later.
Congratulations, you have made a mess! I am not joking here; it’s hard as adults to let ourselves make messes so learning how to let go and be creative in this way can be tough. If you have something in front of you with many crossings-out, scribbles, different colored highlights, etc, then be proud; you’re experimenting, and that is a brave thing to do.
Now, it is decision time. Look back at the words you were drawn to, see how they connect, see how the poem sounds if you read out loud. If you’re not happy with it, try a different route. If you’re still not happy with it, keep the mess of notes but switch to a different text. I often find when I come back later to the ‘failed’ one that it has become clear in my absence.
If you are happy with the words you have chosen, then it is time to actually make the marks and bring in the art side of things! In my April column, I’ll show you multiple ways to do this using free online digital tools and/or things you have around the house.
‘Drifting Bottles’ pg. 22 by Arden Hunter, Gutslut Press 2022
Arden Hunter is an ND aroace agender writer, artist, and performer. They have words, audio and art hosted and upcoming with Full House Literary Magazine, Fifth Wheel Press, and Kissing Dynamite, among other places. They have two books of experimental visual poetry coming out later this year, ‘Drifting Bottles’ through Gutslut Press and ‘Stop Fidgeting’ through IceFloe Press, and a book of poetry ‘Pull Yourself Together’ out through Alien Buddha Press. Find them on Twitter @hunterarden, Instagram @thegardenofarden and at ardenhunter.com.