“You stick a line from a B52s song into the middle of everything”:
A Conversation with David Dodd Lee
by Nick Sturm
How did you first come in contact with erasure poetry? Why did you decide to “write” a book of erasure poems?
First of all, I want to make it clear that my “erasing” John Ashbery’s poems came out of a struggle to find a new direction for my poetry, that ongoing poem in progress, my autobiography in verse, as it were. That’s the immediate story. But while considering your questions I found myself thinking about early influences as well. The idea of erasing stuff and using chance procedures in art has been around for a long, long while by now. But it’s true recent books of erasure poems have made “Erasure Poetry” relevant in a way it hadn’t been before, say, the year 2000. Suddenly everyone is doing it, and I expect a small explosion of erasure books to burst onto the scene any day now. As for me, I never really decided to write a book of erasure poems. I never planned one anyway. It wasn’t until I’d (rather spontaneously, I must say) erased close to sixty Ashbery poems that I decided to put a manuscript together. The idea of publishing a book came after the fact of the composing/erasing. And why I began doing that is a bit of a mystery. What triggered this “project”? My best guess is I wanted to learn something new about my own writing and I understood I could find it in Ashbery’s work. I needed to find a way to actively read his poems (beyond reading and musing and annotating). Next thing I know I’d erased several Ashbery poems. But let me say something about those early influences I mentioned above.
My undergraduate degree is in painting. I drew and painted throughout my adolescence (and fished--for years I thought I might make a living as a tournament fisherman). Then I spent the years through the early to mid-eighties working away in paint-splattered studios--one at Western Michigan University’s campus, and after that in my house--ten hours a day, building twelve foot long stretchers for canvases, painting mostly with anything I could find that wouldn’t produce a brush stroke. A spatula, for example. Trowels, certainly. Or wads of paper towels. Clothing suddenly turned to rags: Tee shirts, old bath towels, a pair of underwear one time (I eventually stapled the underwear right onto the canvas after dipping it in yellow duplicating ink). I dug the Abstract Expressionists, Kline and early de Kooning especially. But I was truly inspired by the wave of painters that came just after the AE painters, namely Jim Dine and Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. I liked how they all played with reality in certain ways—sometimes actually affixing a piece of “reality” onto a canvas (for example, an entire broom, or a working doorbell).
The thing is, as novel as this art-making was, I came to understand such appropriations as nothing more than an addition to one’s palette. When Johns makes a painting with an object in it the resulting picture is still a very beautiful painting. Irony and context are important, but the work isn’t tyrannized by the conceptual. Same goes for Dine, etc. A lawn rake. A faucet. A light bulb. Of course, whole sections of a canvas’s surface might be covered in paint--splattered, realistic, vibrant (these artists knew how to paint)--but the act of picture-making itself had become part of the narrative. Objects, corrections, words. So, early on I experienced the joy of placing pieces of the “world” in with the paint to make art. A painting was something cumulative—a series of attempts to get something down that felt new but also true. In my own work I loved removing painted images (the first “draft”) from a work in progress; I loved the process of erasing them (with solvents, a butter knife, etc). What was left on the canvas was usually far more interesting than the shoulder or head of whatever figure had been there before. Soon that under-painted surface--erasure on top of erasure--became the texture that comprised the “all-overness” in the finished work. And there was no attempt to hide that which revealed the story of the Making of the Picture. I’m really talking here about the romance of the palimpsest. Old ideas bleeding up through new ideas, layers of present tenses, everything broken into fragments, the rejection of the too-polished artifice one might associate with representational painting, an unabashed love of process, etc. Here are some lines from a poem of mine called “Monograph” that tries to say something about the imagination, the making of art, and erasure:
Serra--the rust is a pigment, he has sealed himself in
Frankenthaler--awash in blue seas with no raft
Rothko--tropical islands of cemetery light
Tapies--burned rubber and the blood underneath (an eye at the keyhole)
Keifer--sex in the straw, old pages, a bayonet
Bourgeois--the placenta waits underground
Rothenberg--dust at the feet of a writhing horse crossing over a dyslexic horizon
Guston--the Klu Klux Klan drowning in pink oceans of flesh
Francis--fall’s here, primary and cool as the love
Stella--unsprung, an anima, a parrot in sequins, costume on fire
With the trowel he scrapes off the canvas whatever looks like the world
What so impresses me about Johns’s paintings, his paintings of flags for instance, is the way they are thick with romance, thick with the muck of life. The flag paintings are suggestive of everything that is and is not a flag. Benjamin’s “aura” glows out of those pictures—up close you feel like you’re falling into those fucking things . . . they are so full of weather and luster, the pigments suspended in encaustic (which is wax, and transparent) creating depth, like landscapes, or time, repeating itself in a mirror, luminous glaze over glaze. The paint, like words, can act as a receptacle for all the mortal sensuousness and sloppiness of life itself. The forest of the present tense grows deep and scary, and a narrative begins to haunt that space as consciousness (trapped inside the sensuous body) struggles to transcend itself. Then, for contrast, and to make it feel REAL, you stick a line from a B52s song into the middle of everything . . .
Anyway, I like the anti-romantic implications of Johns’s flag paintings, the fact of the “found” subject being used, the more familiar the better, and how Johns pushed in both directions—toward serialization and repetition on the one hand, and toward the sublime emanating out of a work of art on the other.
Yes, yes, there’s the famous Rauschenberg erasure of the de Kooning drawing. A real Duchampian moment. A wonderful gesture, a repudiation. But I can’t say I am particularly inspired by it (Not in the way I’m inspired by Rauschenberg’s “Monogram.” Not in the way I'm inspired by Johns's target and map and flag paintings). But it says something about a new attitude appearing in the world of art. This attitude later appears all over the place in the work of the New York School poets, including Ashbery.
Perhaps this answer seems to circle your questions in unsatisfying ways. But I think some of the ideas
stated here really speak to how Sky Booths came to be. I think it’s important to give credit where credit is due, however, and it’s true that Mary Ruefle’s Little White Shadow intrigued and energized me. It especially moved me because I so respect and enjoy Ruefle’s original poetry (and have for years),
and the fragments in LWS resonated with her other work—the tone and attitude, her sense of the absurd
and sense of humor.
In the introduction to Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, you explain the rules of your erasure process, admitting that the project was “complicated by self-interest” and that you were motivated by the “desire to construct new meanings via syntax and content.” You even ended up accidentally “inventing” letters in order to construct a word here and there. Can you talk about any difficulties or revelations you encountered in the erasure process? Did you abandon or re-erase any poems?
Yes, I abandoned poems, or re-erased them, especially toward the end of the project. I chose source poems rather randomly (deliberation wasn't a big part of this project—at least not until I got to a certain point in the actual erasing/constructing of the manuscript overall, at which point I began revising certain individual “erasures” pretty intensely). But I wasn't looking for anything specific in the source poems. What I labored over was the dismantling/building itself, regardless of the particular Ashbery poem. I really wanted each erasure to work as a piece apart from the source text. So I played around with each draft, often tweaking the new structure line by line, typing a phrase into place and then taking it out, selecting language with an eye toward absurdity/humor, trying out different ways of putting Ashbery's words together until the new “poem” felt done. Sometimes I’d scrap what I’d made and start over. (I often Xeroxed A’s poems for this purpose. So I’d be able to start fresh on a poem I’d already marked up.) More often I'd simply find another Ashbery poem though—clean on its page—and begin again with the circling and the crossing out, creating new lines . . . I will say I wasn’t trying to ruin Ashbery’s originals—it felt to me like I was simply trying to take advantage of A’s genius (he’s got plenty to spare) and make something wholly separate seeming (stress here on the word “seeming”). But I was also reacting to A’s volubility. I was trying to write, as someone who’d read some of the early erasures remarked, “Bite-sized versions of Ashbery poems written by David Dodd Lee.”
I made the rules up as I went along. From the outset I knew I'd be typing each erasure poem into new lines without regard to the source poem's configuration on the page (a departure from how Ronald Johnson and Janet Holmes and Jen Bervin, to name just three poets, use the original poems as a formal template for their Milton and Dickinson and Shakespeare erasures). I wanted the first reading to leave an impression not connected to any reference to the source texts. The subtitle of the book (“The Ashbery Erasure Poems”) tells the reader what she needs to know, and there is plenty of information in the notes, etc. But I wanted the poems to be read as if they were translations run amok, or anti-translations. And not imitations. Improvisational collaborations comes closer. But that doesn’t cover it either. I kept thinking of the erasures as “simplified cubist” versions of A’s poems. In the end I suppose I simply wanted the reader to decide for herself what they are and mean. I know I didn’t want readers to start off comparing the two texts.
A side note here: I'd been writing ekphrastic poems (based mostly on abstract paintings) since the late nineties in this same spirit (you can see “In the Black Kitchen,” done after a Howard Hodgkin painting, in Abrupt Rural).* I'm still doing them. It wasn't that much of a leap, then, to start using the work of a poet in a similar manner. I just saw the erasure process as an opportunity to make a different kind of poem. I wanted something that would push me “away” from my old self-conscious ways of being on the page. Still, unfashionable as it is to say these days, I think of my poems as being narrative poems, whether or not they are necessarily accessible being beside the point (or, perhaps, exactly the point). Of course, part of the narrative that stretches all the way from the first poem I ever wrote to the last ones--the poems I am currently writing--has to do with moving away from more conventional ways of telling a story. Which is why the erasure process is so intriguing. It seems to me the poems in Sky Booths can't NOT tell a story, even though they do other things poems can do as well (which I’ll get to in a moment). It’s important to me that the Ashbery Erasure poems be considered in context with my other books of poems, as one part of a progression that will lead me, someday, who knows where . . .
I should mention the sheer number of Ashbery poems I could choose from allowed for a kind of casualness in regard to the selection of the source material. Most of the poems I chose to erase came out of three books
from A’s middle period--Hotel Lautreamont, And the Stars Were Shining, and Flow Chart (in which I erased single pages from A’s book-length poem). Favorite books, yes, but these three just happened to be on hand when I started erasing, and then I stuck with them. Whatever the case—Ashbery has written many, many poems, to put it lightly. I chose what I chose mostly for the sake of convenience, and because the large, discursive, wandering poems in these three books suited my purpose. I really wasn’t that concerned with what readers might conclude from my choices. Interestingly, one erasure comes from Some Trees. It was fun to selectively stray from the three main texts in such a tellingly perplexing manner. Without explanation. That’s Ashbery.
Still, think about it this way: imagine trying to erase the work of someone like Elizabeth Bishop, whose entire book of The Complete Poems is 272 pages long. You might begin with “The Man-Moth” (which I seem to recall was a misreading of the word “Mammoth”), but what would you do next? And how would you defend including “Sestina” but not “The Moose?” Do you include all the poems in Geography III, and if not, why not? Etcetera, etcetera. Talk about pressure. I think the confrontational aspects of such a project would eliminate any chance the erasures could be read simply as “poems” without reference to the source material. Not enough indeterminacy floating around in Bishop’s body of work. The fact that Ashbery’s poems are so BIG (you constantly find yourself lost inside them) makes his work perfect for erasure, at least for my purposes.
As for my “inventing” letters—I only discovered this later, comparing a poem to A's original, and I was, to say the least, surprised. I'll keep the actual instance (the one I'm recalling) a mystery. Let’s just say I found the letter “s” where none existed in the source poem. I guess I really needed it. I love that it happened though, as if I’ve broken some law of erasure etiquette. It’s perfect, really. It’s very Bloomian, and that feels right to me. It was a very push/pull experience. Sometimes I was composing a compliment to a particular Ashbery poem. Sometimes I was trying to write something that I'd hope would surpass a particular poem.
*(I later saw that Sharon Dolin wrote a poem using that same Hodgkin painting (and you can find it in her book, Serious Pink).
The poems in Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere are alive and robust, thriving on juxtaposition and the incredible storehouse of language which is a John Ashbery poem. That being said, the poems of Sky Booths engage the world in their own right and are not contained or limited by the content of Ashbery’s original poems. Is this expansiveness due in part to what you call “the ongoingness of Ashbery’s language”? Did you find Ashbery’s work to be particularly ripe for the erasure process?
Well, that’s it exactly. And you put it perfectly. “The incredible storehouse of language which is a John Ashbery poem.” I did find A’s work ripe for the erasure process. The night I “constructed” the first one, I had simply been reading John Ashbery poems. I write a lot about trees and rivers and weather and violence and sex--I knew that wasn’t going to change. But I had to figure out a way to get other kinds of tonal registers into poems, to get a little pop culture into the mix, and to write more inclusively (that aspect of Ashbery's work is important in this instance). Also, I wasn’t having that much fun (and that suddenly seemed important, the fun, what happened to the fun?). Whatever the case, my reading, suddenly, became a very active form of reading, as I mentioned earlier. Forget notes in the margins—I began to excerpt Ashbery, and then I was channeling the man. But that wasn’t quite it either—I was making something other, pushing against A’s intent, breaking his flow into condensed but crooked little bursts of language.
They didn't sound like Ashbery (exactly) and they didn't really sound like anything I had written before (at least, it didn't seem that way at first). Eventually I could detect the essence of Ashbery's eccentricities in my short pieces. And when I read Ashbery now I see the phrases and fragments that make a story inside of A's story, an absurdity to be extracted from another, Ashbery's, lengthier absurdity, an erasure poem just waiting to be placed on the page. But in the beginning I simply was curious to see what would happen if I kept going. The world was wide open. It was very intoxicating. I still wasn't thinking in terms of a “book” though. I just wanted to keep erasing.
And it all felt so reciprocal somehow! And I think this gets to the heart of something I admire about Ashbery, and that's the way he has democratized the single poems in his collections, especially the later ones, so that what you get are these passages and moments packaged in such a way that the overriding ego of the poet seems to merge with the ongoingness of the poems from book to book. There isn't any chest- beating anywhere in his work, and yet the poems move you through the world in such an endlessly entertaining and inimitable way. “Come on in, the water's great,” the poet seems to be saying. Single poems don't feel dead-set on making any claims for greatness (that would be off-putting). It's the work entire that does this, and the fact that the present tense has primacy over any resulting “finished” poem. What you want with Ashbery is to literally stay moving through the work (once you stop it's hard to explain what exactly just happened). Kandinsky's proposition that a line is a point set in motion seems germane here. What I get from Ashbery is endless-seeming movement, call it consciousness in motion. For my part, I tried to reach into all this movement and come away with something static—like a movie still, or a snapshot of language in motion, a static representation of what’s streaming by, a “poem” that contains an easily identifiable beginning, middle, and end (or seems to). But a poem that feels finite.
On the page, these erasure poems resemble David Dodd Lee poems; that is, they typically fit onto a single page, utilize space and short stanzas, as well as sparse use of punctuation. In fact, if a reader were to open Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, in the middle of the book, they might not notice any difference between these erasure poems and the poems of, for example, The Nervous Filaments or Orphan, Indiana. Was the shaping of these poems a natural process for you? How do you think the repositioning of Ashbery’s dense, sometimes page-sprawling texts into these swift, light poems affects the resulting texts?
That’s true, the resemblance, but the poems don’t so much resemble my poems if you go all the way back to Downsides of Fish Culture, or even, in many cases, the poems in Abrupt Rural. The fact of the matter is, I learned how to write the poems in The Nervous Filaments by writing the Ashbery Erasure poems. But I think the poems in Orphan, Indiana are informed as much by the various influences that informed Abrupt Rural and Arrow Pointing North as they are from my experience doing the Ashbery Erasures. They are more traditionally narrative, for one thing. I also want to say I think some of that Ashbery “movement” activated the poems in both TNF and OI. These erasures were a real learning experience for me. I'm stunned I had the intelligence and good luck to allow the whole thing to take place.
What happened next, really, in terms of how I wrote the poems in The Nervous Filaments, was I began “erasing” during my own composition process. Before a line could even make it onto the page I'd have cut it off at the pass (because it was predictable or too transparent or felt like the next idea one might expect in a narrative poem—that is, a narrative poem that is simply linear, and causal). I don't want poems to enact the logical sequencing of thought (made manifest in language) created by a tunnel of time. I want them to feel fractured, elliptical, impressionistic. I want to feel the disturbing logic of dreams at work.
As far as “the shaping of . . . poems” goes, the process did come naturally, or I probably wouldn’t have started doing the erasures in the first place. I'm not sure how to explain that. I already mentioned the ekphrastics, and my past as a painter. But I’ve also been writing timed drafts of poems for years. I most often choose a series of random words to include, maybe a phrase, and determine a set number of lines (usually around twelve lines), set a timer, and start writing. I stick pretty close to the originals when publishing these efforts. But in the case of the times poems and ekphrastics the poems were generated--words spilling from the mind--whereas the poems in Sky Booths were arrived at through omission. What’s amazing to me is how similar the process feels and how this similarity of feeling tends to show up in the resulting texts.
Note: A couple of the timed poems can be found in Abrupt Rural. One is called “Hickory Corners” (a city I lived in for a while) and one is called “The Trays Near the Sinks.” My next book, The Coldest Winter On Earth, which will be published by Marick Press in 2011, includes fifteen or so of these short, timed, improvisations, a few of which are also ekphrastic poems done after Hodgkin, Mark Rothko, and Richard Diebenkorn. “A Small Good Thing,” a poem that appears in The Nervous Filaments, is also an ekphrastic after Hodgkin.
*Editor’s Note: “I Love to Have Dreams and Have Them Come True,” found at the end of this interview, is an example of one of David Dodd Lee’s timed poems.
At times, these poems seem to be aware of themselves as erasures. Lines such as “I don’t know what makes / the maker sacred” and “it’s true, a great fullness / waited at the end of my cobbled context” appear to be grappling with questions of authorial and conceptual risk that erasure poetry tends to incite. Do you recognize that element in this project? Was a goal of these poems to critique authorship or were they born of a more reckless intent?
I remember feeling grateful I'd found Ashbery’s text in this way. I remember thinking he might be pleased with the results. I remember thinking I hope he's pleased with the results. I remember thinking I don't care what he thinks of the results. I remember feeling reckless because I wasn't even sure of my own intent in all of it. Critique of authorship? Ashbery critiques his own role as author, as I've described previously. I like the ambiguity his process creates, and I’m excited to imagine my poems might have created even more of it. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit I had moments in which I really did feel I'd taken this already existing THING (this onward rush of language flowing through time) and transformed it for the better. But then, right away, I want to correct myself—not transformed but expanded it. And then, further, I expanded what exactly? I don’t really know. A's poems? Mine? Both? (Ashbery's presence certainly expanded (and improved) my work.) Either way, it feels best not to over-think it all. I read the Ashbery Erasure poems in Sky Booths (whether out loud at a reading or quietly, to myself) and I like what I read. I feel they succeed . . . and I like stopping right there. I feel honored to have written them. And reading Ashbery is still like tapping into an already existing river of textures and flowing sensibility, only it's easier to jump onto that fast-moving stream now.
But, you’re right, the poems are constantly commenting on the process, including ideas associated with authorship, although I think they refuse to worry themselves sick over such ideas. “I don't know what makes the maker sacred.” This could be interpreted variously. Is God the maker? The artist in general? Mr. Ashbery, Mr. David Dodd Lee? But it also can be interpreted as a relatively empty gesture. “Cobbled context”? I think you have a speaker here who makes all sorts of hyperbolic claims before he then settles down and lets the language carry him through to wisdom. “A pose I believe in” (from “Just What's There”) is another line that seems to authoritatively claim something purposefully hard to isolate. Basically, I feel like I'm speaking (literally, but also somewhat ventriloquistically) for Mr. Ashbery, but by implication for myself. That's one way to look at it. Ask me tomorrow I'll have a different take on everything. But it's great fun jamming all that hifalutin stuff into poems. I laughed out loud quite frequently while working on Sky Booths.
The previous question hinted at the conceptual element of erasure poetry, that provocative line between textual and visual art, which makes erasure such an exciting and dangerous poetic form. Of course, erasure can trace its literary roots back to Dada and the work of early Surrealists, such as in [---- ---- ------------] by Man Ray or Apollinaire's experiments with white space and shape. How do you see Sky Booths, or erasure poetry in general, bridging the gap between poetry and conceptual art?
I don’t really. Or rather I don't spend much time thinking about it. Sometimes I think it's about time poetry caught up with some of the formal and conceptual advances we clearly accept as part of what's normal in music and painting. I guess it feels like something is finally happening for poetry, and by that I mean even relatively experimental ideas are beginning to enjoy broader appeal (Rae Armantrout and Keith Waldrop have recently won major mainstream book awards). So much has simply leaked into the air about the various ways we can think about art. And that's good, because I don't want to revisit Man Ray particularly. And I don't want to read Perec's oulipian novel in which he excludes the letter “e” . . . because perhaps I don't have to. Because when I listen to an “alternative” band I like, such as Animal Collective, I get all the paradox I need, the conceptual banging up against the pure beauty of a well made series of formal musical threads. Buried inside those walls of noise are all the emotions and mesmerizing rhythms (and the fact that I can't explain why the songs are so moving; I can't “paraphrase” them) I can stand. I’m getting carried away, sorry. But once again I want to think back to painting, Jim Dine's art works for instance—his walls of tools, or his bathrobe paintings—beautifully painted pieces of junk, the banal infused with nostalgia, luminous symbols of the domestic . . . That lyricism! I think erasure poetry bridges that gap you’re talking about by allowing techniques that have been around forever into the stream of our present making that is the last poem you or I worked on, that poem that accepts as part of its existence in the world, populated with other poems and other works of art, a confluence of intention and accident, the conscious and unconscious mind.
A made thing. To make. Recognizing what has aesthetic value has become as important as actually making something else that does. In other words, to build a large beautiful thing out of smaller already existing beautiful things (including the sound a fence gate can make, which is a sound the mockingbird has been known to use to create its song) is as much at the center of creativity as is making a shape out of pure “mind.” I find myself thinking, really, of Rilke, and his experiences with Rodin, his conviction that a poem could be objectively THERE, a thing . . . a well made thing, regardless of what ideas are brought together prior to the making . . .
I really like the idea of a poem as object, of it being as much of a well made thing as it is a piece of discourse. Sometimes I pick up a Graham Foust book and just marvel at the way the poems feel so—somehow—substantial. It’s enough to just look at them all, one after the other, in order to experience satisfaction and delight. And where did that come from? How is it that Foust’s poems are so singularly (and collectively) arresting as mere shapes on a page (and how many novels give you that feeling?). Well, those shapes become suggestive of the content and attitudes one finds so appealing in Foust's poems of course. They become a reference point for everything you dig about Foust’s work. Form and content: Foust's poems don't read like anyone else's. And the way they go about being—right there on the page, the shapes we see—is also what they are about. These things merge. Everything they ARE comes back to you merely from the LOOKING. What poems look like matters these days, more than ever.
I think we’ve learned a lot about how to make a poem (no ideas but in things) that is somehow as original (conceptually) as one of Duchamp's urinals, but still, “takes the back of one’s head off,” to revisit and paraphrase that old idea of E.D.’s.
In addition to Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, erasure work from Janet Holmes, Jen Bervin, and Mary Ruefle has gained attention in the last few years. Do you see Sky Booths as being in dialogue with these other projects? Where do you feel erasure “fits” in contemporary American poetics?
I haven't said much about those texts, have I? As I mentioned earlier, I ordered Mary Ruefle’s Little White Shadow pretty much as soon as it was published (I was a bit disappointed when I received it. It had the feel of something dropped out of a gumball machine--a toy book. It was tiny, and cost twelve dollars!). But, you know, it sure looked like a lot of fun, slathering all that Wite-Out on the pages. I could feel how cathartic that process must have been—going out and finding old books to doctor—all those words from so long ago, but antecedent to whatever each of us might want to say in some future publication (and so many words in the world already, TOO many in fact—why not get rid of some?). I do wish it were longer, fatter, a bit more ambitious. But I like the playfulness in Ruefle’s erasures, and the weird way she makes this old cast-off book feel contemporary again. It’s definitely Ruefle’s voice you hear coming in through those fragments (and that's rather amazing). So why not, with a few strokes of a miniature brush, make an old thing come alive again, while at the same time taking it over, like a parasite (like laying your eggs in another bird’s nest, like a cuckoo)? (A big difference in our two projects to be mindful of, however, is the fact that Ruefle erased a long out of print book by a now forgotten author. I erased the works of the still writing and breathing John Ashbery, and, believe me, I was conscious of that fact every step of the way.)
But I'd also started reading Laynie Browne’s Daily Sonnets, and had just reread Burroughs’ The Ticket that Exploded. And had been on a Ted Berrigan binge (I’d recently purchased his new Collected Poems). But erasure poetics was not something I was actively engaged in in any explicit way before doing the present erasures. The need to erase arose because I needed (or wanted) to discover a new way to make a poem.
Anyway, I own the books you mention. I teach them in fact. I also have students write dictionary poems. They try writing flarf. I have them erase poems or texts from pages in a magazine. And they really do an amazing job. It opens them up. And it's such a great way to READ a text, by doing surgery on it (it's the best way to read Ashbery, I'll tell you that much).
What I like about teaching this way is how you can learn to write via subtraction. It's the opposite of intimidating. How can it be anything but a good thing?
But despite that, it all being very good, many contemporary poetry erasure projects feel too freighted with predictable intentions and I can’t find my way into them without feeling like I'm being educated. I guess you can find whatever it is you want to say in almost any source text. But I find the act of excavating a consistently thematic “message” out of a text as if it were buried inside it all along to be a bit presumptuous (although obviously, literally, it IS buried inside that text). I don't know what to think about the meaning created by the reciprocity between texts implied by thematically based erasures when the intent of the new “poems” feels forced, or too “of the moment” (as is the case in Holmes’s erasures of Dickinson, which take on the war in Iraq. I do understand that that's partly the point of Holmes's project. I guess I'm more interested in a more reckless kind of approach to erasure, something less predetermined).
I do like Tom Phillips’s The Humument. It's like the imagination exploding into fireworks. The text is clever, and an interesting fictional world opens up, all framed by the color and drawing. It’s endlessly compelling, and reminds me of a really fantastic flip-book . . .
But this all makes me think of Katie Degentesh's poems in The Anger Scale. They’re what we’re calling flarf these days, which mostly means the poems are produced using search engines to locate source material. But really, for me, they fit into the broader idea of erasure as a sheer act of creation. And I think she somehow manages to merge the self (her voice, her “message,” etc.) with the material in a way that feels inevitable and true. I forget, while reading that book, that I'm not reading original poems, poems that take on a life of their own despite the existence of the source text(s). I’m crazy about The Anger Scale.
What advice would you offer for writers trying to construct an erasure? Is “construct” even an appropriate word? How can the process go wrong? How can it go right? What’s the worst that can happen?
“Word like a branch to all the other words.” That's from the first poem in the book. That's exactly how building these erasure poems felt. One thing leads to another. It's a friendly and happy experience. And I'd say use “construct” or “sculpt” or “write” . . . whatever feels helpful, or true. I’m a bit nervous about my inability to locate the proper verb to describe this process, but at the same time that was part of what was so liberating about the experience of “erasing” Ashbery. I have close to no idea what the hell happened . . .
I can't imagine what could go wrong outside of a failure of will. Or a failure to give yourself a break and have a little fun. The worst that can happen is you end up with erasures that will go into a drawer somewhere. But it seems likely you'll learn something and remember the experience.
What can happen is it can lead you somewhere you never would have gone, or had the imagination to go, in the first place. But you were smart enough to get that, right? And you were smart enough to follow along when you met up with the thing that you needed to meet up with in order to push you past what, predictably, one might have at some point called “your potential.”
I LOVE TO HAVE DREAMS AND HAVE THEM COME TRUE
(Richard Diebenkorn, “Ocean Park No. 115”)
A can of Coke bleeds on a lawn in the Hamptons. Another
one, dizygotic, fizzles inside a beach bag in the trunk of a Honda Civic.
I like that dry, sightless twin. In the morning Lake Michigan
purls over and over inside its own mind, a meditation,
roaring out of the cold summer fog. Ground flagged with this dark, Midwestern green,
hobbled under a palette of air oceaned and sandblasted to sand-
blue. You can want both. Couched in a mattress of humidity
a spider flies in one place in the brick doorway—a tight, patient comma,
channeling. The water beads up and runs like something gasping
out of a bone-dry vessel. As soon as she breathes just place a little salt in her mouth.
It’s a glowing idea, horse following horse into a paint-chipped harbor.
--David Dodd Lee
Nick Sturm is a graduate student in the NEOMFA: Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts. He is an assistant editor of the Akron Series in Poetry, poetry editor of Rubbertop Review, and associate editor of the Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics. His reviews are forthcoming in The Laurel Review and Whiskey Island. His first book-length editorial venture, The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics, was published by the University of Akron Press in January of 2011.
Also by Nick Sturm:
Review of Come on All You Ghosts by Matthew Zapruder.