Waiting for my car at the dealership’s service department this morning, I gaze at the flat-screen television in front of me, admiring a beautiful, crackling fire that should be framed by a magnificent fireplace. Yes, a little strange, but not in an unwelcome way. The Fireplace 4K experience erases some of the cold, alienating, new-car-smell, waiting room environment.
Does vision really count for so much of the experience of the thing?
In the case of poems, I’m not sure the visual dimension carries so much. Poets tend to talk about sound and sense a lot. Still, I think we can and should use the visual presence of the poem to its fullest.
Visual poetries are fun to create and to teach. Blackout poems and erasures sometimes startle the best work out of students. In this unfamiliar territory, their rough cliches burn away, and the process reveals more inner heat than they usually feel free to express. For those of you who haven’t discovered this form…
Erasure poetry, also known as blackout poetry, is a form of found poetry wherein a poet takes an existing text and erases, blacks out, or otherwise obscures a large portion of the text, creating a wholly new work from what remains.
Erasure poetry may be used as a means of collaboration, creating a new text from an old one and thereby starting a dialogue between the two, or as a means of confrontation, a challenge to a pre-existing text.Academy of American Poets, glossary of poetic terms on Poets.org
It is a way of moving toward something new, while making transparent something that originally appeared whole, impenetrable. The opportunities for commentary, satire, transformation, re-envisioning, departure, conversation make this visual poetry a strong bridge. Below is a poem that sets up its erasure in ordered lines. but often erasure poems keep the shape of the original and bear empty spaces where the words were removed.
Poem in Which Words Have Been Left Out
by Charles Jensen
You have the right to remain
anything you can and will be.
An attorney you cannot afford
will be provided to you.
You have silent will.
You can be against law.
You cannot afford one.
You remain silent. Anything you say
will be provided to you.
The right can and will be
against you. The right provided you.
Have anything you say be
right. Anything you say can be right.
Say you have the right attorney.
The right remain silent.
Be held. Court the one. Be provided.
You cannot be you.
Blackout poetry is a type of erasure in which words are removed by crossing out or by some other way of covering up the original text. Sharpies, markers, white-out, paint, etc. It’s fun, and usually messy. The visual aspect can be very startling, as young poets gleefully love to discover.
A more hybrid visual approach is Diana Khoi Nguyen’s work in her poetry collection Ghost of. While she does not have traditional erasures in this book, her poems use the form to make specific effects in the sound and sense of the poetic. She also uses shape poetry, photographs, and reference to gyotaku, which is a traditional Japanese art of imprinting fish on rice paper.
The reading in this video is remarkable first because of the way the poet pronounces the silences signified in the blank spaces, and second because the animation of the text makes possible a whole new experience of the visual poetry.
The form of erasure paired with the central topic of the collection (her brother’s self-erasure from family photographs and subsequent suicide) are what make this such a powerful work. Her questions and emotions are alive here as quiet words and spaces waiting to catch fire in the mind.
If you want to make… a poem
You’re probably ready and excited to go try this out for yourself. Usually, when I bring up visual poetry in class, I bring in armloads of books, chapbooks, broadsides, poem-objects to show, along with assorted newsprint and old magazines for blackouts — it becomes a very tactile/visual day. There’s a lot to see and learn and read. But go, try it. Blackout, erasure, broadside design… whatever your poetic wants.