Well isn’t that interesting. I said I’d post some stuff about my adventures in erasure and now I find I just don’t feel like it. I tell my students over and over – trust your boredom – it’s some of the best guidance you’re going to get. Bored with a line? Cut it. Bored with a poem? Throw it away.
A sour and maybe cranky wakefulness but wakeful just the same. Could I ask of them something I won’t of myself?
The deal I made with me when I started this blog was – write when I feel a wish to and write what I feel a wish to and not otherwise. Lots of duties and such elsewhere. Here I’ll see if what I’ve heard about whim is so, its fructiveness and sufficiency. So far it’s borne out well. Some fallow periods, some heavy fertile swells, an amiable rhythm.
So, having erased erasure, what do I mean to write about? I sat down without knowing. That’s the scary or even terrifying thing about trusting your boredom wholeheartedly. It might tell you what not without telling you what to.
One thing I do, when in this place, and I mean to offer this to my students wherever you are, is just shine an inquisitive light over all the terrain of my mind open at that time, and see what gleams back, even tinily. That might be the place where whatever the counter to boredom is, is waiting.
Here what shone back in mind was an image of a red rock cliff in an essay I’d run my eyes over a few minutes earlier, looking for something on erasure I might want to use.
My thought was a propensity for seeing faces where they ain’t, and then my thought was, that’s where I want to go, that’s where the living interest is, the way inert matter makes faces at us, or the way we make it into faces.
Project onto it a sentience it doesn’t have, if you’re the sort of materialist most people today are, or acknowledge the sentience we intuit it to have, if you’re the sort of postmodern animist I’m coming to give myself permission to be.
Gleaming in mind, I think, because I spent some of yesterday, and today, turning a portion of Dumuzi into a chapbook ms, title Junk Inanna Down, which will go off to a contest tomorrow. The final image, built out of junk mail, is this
Those eyes move me some. They’re a mother’s looking down at an infant in her arms. They’re Kuanyin coming to poor lowered noble Ezra in that Pisan tent. They’re the trademark stamp on the Bank of America logo blown up about 1600%. Sacred just bitch-slapped profane, ’bout time. Her earrings are the rest of the same logo disassembled. Her headdress is one of those scan codes you see on the front of an envelope a machine reads to shunt its news unwanted to you more speedily.
Started looking round, wondering where to start a post on my own efforts in erasure and treatment, creative demolition and reformation of a source text – a loving demolition, a savage reformation. I sure am not going to subject you, nor endure myself, some blow by blow account of my misadventures. But it was interesting to see where I got started. I’d forgotten.
Salt Lake City circa 2010 and I’m finishing my diss. I’ve read into the shining spaces in Johnson’s Radi Os and been blindsided by the Blakean rainbows of Phillips’s A Humument. I’ve a stash of found matter (NYT clippings)ten years after a day I’ve not been able to write of to around or about. And I understand, post-Bervin, erasure’s growing old, as too 9/11 and poems about 9/11 have some time since grown old. Understand as well my sense of old and the currency of old are not maybe typical of the avant-garde I maybe or maybe not aspire to keep company with.
Well anyhoo. Our discourse around 9/11 seemed censorious in all sorts of ways. Repression that made it seem past in ways it was present and present in ways it was past. Repression with political beginnings and a mercantile middle and self-preening ends. And with black bars I could maybe indict the targets both obvious (war crimes of the Bush admin) and subtle (oh come let’s say it liberal friends we can be sanctimonious). Also black bars seemed easy to make even for such graphically mega-challenged as I.
So I went there with the redactors and they there with me. Made a few heaps of found material and did a selection thing derived a bit from Johnson a bit from Phillips and a bit from Bervin.
I never ended up publishing these in any version or trying very hard to. A good friend, one I showed them to early on, was upset by them, and she’s a New Yorker, and that she was offended, though I didn’t get it then, I took serious, and thought best to move on. So maybe Sal you saved me from something stupid. Where Sal by the way ARE you?
And well now I do get it. Seems kinda obvious now. Sal I didn’t mean to silence the voices of the victims. I meant that the voices of the victims had been silenced. But yeah thanks for saving me from my stupid. Still though where ARE you?
Pretty crude, yes? compared to what my students have been up to. Gonna skip a bunch of steps in my own progress to get to where I’m about at now. That’s the next post.
And then, after that, because onward is always, their next adventure – handwriting. The inscribed line, thick or thin, mischief or dutiful, studied or fleeting, how it expresses a moment of spirit, before and in language.
A lot of the Hungry Ghost poems have been coming lately with royal or tyrannic classical riders. Lear, Oedipus, Romulus.
Partly accident—a lot of verbs, look, take, sneak, poke, cough up kings when pressed to participle. But in a project like this, which is harnessed accident, I still get to take responsibility.
Something here of hunger for a lost father, a father whose power to shelter shatters. It’s funny, the sorts of ways I used to write, I got or had to go through the whole emotional travail, the past and its unprocessed sadnesses, to get the poem through.
I felt on the far side I’d come through a narrow sharp defile with a few verbal berries at hand and my ongoing breathing.
The plus of that. Authenticity. The minus of it. Harrowing.
High ∙ beat up ∙ on a couch ∙ beside me paper hands and a spine of lace ∙ sohere’s a split a poem led me back to ∙ Dad gettingthe door riffed onthemanylarge thinguarded anthills and how soundcollapsedtheir city∙ nobody knows howhe agonized∙ thenand there∙ no one more out thereor into itthan he∙ leadis dropping into a neighbouring city ∙ we just ta- ble it though and go where tobe seen is to be housed∙ to be housed known∙ the king oflack woke to a fist of bees some kids tossed at him
This erasure and treatment process, I seem to bypass much of that, the harrowing. The poem comes through semiautomatic processes I watch happen in amaze. On the far side, less of the deeply grateful, I said what it was or is like for me, and plenty of a differently glad, this is a potent made thing-being here.
The one, I’m writing myself through language, other, language writes a poem through me. Viz. Spicer’s Martians.
We fed who knows,
sd th King of Thebes, how
many more than the
We than that had no body more.
No, nobody lead, we just—
a sound out there
splits the thought.
One more boring show and how.
Guard the heir.
That’s one I redid this morning. The other is
A POEM HANDS HIGH
Dad’s getting so thin.
Goes out a sand door.
So where now do we go to be?
And that’s how Rome
woke to a regal glare.
—A heathen deal.
—Yes and some of it lethal.
Dad’s getting so thin.
Go go death gadget.
“Go go gadget” a phrase that stood out in a student’s poem last year (thank you Reilly) and somehow got stuck in my mind and forgotten there and returned to view when some of “Dad getting” anagrammed to “gadget.” Had, of course, to look up the ref, cuz my geekiest student is hipper than I.
Speaking of which. Many bonus points to anyone who can for me explicate the directive, “shred the sauce.” Urban Dictionary lets me down here. Written on a student eval last year and I might like to try but no idea how.
Last thought. To give a reading (maybe this upcoming one at Western) wholly of poems initiated or inflected by my work with students. A thread blogwork attunes me to is the continousness of teaching writing reading thinking moving being.
Last last thought. Mistype Western and you get Wetern, as in, “wetter’n,” as in “ahm wetter’n a flounder at the bottom of the sea in this rain.” Sorry, that’s the country music at Liz Station, on now, and maybe Cormac McCarthy doing their work in me.
Wrote this up for a job app and thought I’d post it here—after revising blogwise. Medium is so message.
Been working about a year on a manuscript called Six Hungry Ghost Abatement Protocols. It’s a study of creative process done at a crossroads of word and image. In which crash prose passages go through a series of verbal and visual metamorphoses—extraction, precipitation, illumination, inspiration.
My thought here is that even well tamed verbal structures possess a wildness inherent in language. In that wildering I feel less that I am writing and drawing poems than that the poems are drawing me out and writing me down.
Themewise the book takes on the Buddhist figure of the hungry ghost, a being of insatiable hunger, unassuageable suffering, to trace some connections among desire, attachment, loss, release. Process and content are very interwoven here: renunciations asked of the poems in their proceeding, as each gives way to a successor, are kin to renunciations they wrestle with in mind.
The transformations in their turns.
I begin with a passage from my journal, streamlined and depunctuated, for instance this dream transcript.
I’m with R. on roads in the mountains ∙ at the
base of a ski hill we are looking at trail maps ∙ a
web or net of red lines thrown down over a
volcanic core ∙ a whole series of them side by
side ∙ each to the left steps back a bit further ∙
takes more in ∙ the gradations so fine I have to
take more steps across to get to the map that
has what I want to show than I thought to ∙ at it
I point to the road or trail on a southwestern
shoulder of a mountain ∙ One branch goes west-
ward ∙ that’s somewhere we’ve been ∙ one goes
rightward across the valley of the Stehekin
though we’re in Colorado ∙ that’s the trip I’m
talking about ∙ somewhere else I am saying how
full the colours were up there ∙ Even in winter ∙
a lake in the mountains ∙ sunlight on it and me
through firs on the far side ∙ bleached wood of
fallen snags half-submerged in the water ∙ in
the foreground tall as I am so I must be crouch-
ing ∙ brilliant red blueberry leaves ∙ a few in a
bare bush ∙ the colours give life to the sun and
to me ∙ then in a car with R. driving in and
away from the mountains ∙ he says he doesn’t
use trails when hiking ∙ he just pulls over to the
side of the road and starts bushwhacking up ∙
because of how his mother taught him hillwalk-
ing ∙ she was crazy or maybe just very intense ∙
I laugh too loud ∙ say ∙ But that was in Scotland
where they cut down the forests centuries ago ∙
do you really want to bushwhack through fir
thickets ∙ I wake picturing different sorts of fir
woods ∙ an impassable thicket of small dead
densely interwoven branches ∙ a stand of ma-
ture trees ∙ spacious and cool ∙ a floor of moss
Next I mine this source material for word clusters that bear poetic charge. Here’s the same prose with the mined bits prominent.
I’m with R. onroads in the mountains ∙ at the base of a ski hill weare looking at trail maps ∙ a web or net of red linesthrown down over a volcanic core ∙ a whole seriesof them sideby side∙ each tothe left steps backa bit further ∙ takesmorein ∙ the gradationsso fine I have to take moresteps across to get to themap that has what I want to show than I thoughtto ∙ at it I point to theroador trail on a southwestern shoulder ofa mountain ∙ One branch goes west- ward ∙ that’s somewhere we’ve been ∙ one goes rightward acrossthe valley ofthe Stehekin though we’re in Colorado ∙ that’s the trip I’m talking about ∙ somewhereelse I am saying how full the colours were up there∙ Even in winter ∙ a lake in the mountains∙ sunlight on it and me through firson the far side∙ bleached wood of fallen snags half-submergedin the water ∙in the foregroundtall as I am so I must becrouch– ing∙ brilliant redblueberry leaves ∙ a fewin a bare bush ∙the colours give life to the sun and to me∙ then in a car withR. driving in and away fromthe mountains ∙ he says he doesn’t use trails whenhiking ∙ he just pulls over to the side of the roadand starts bushwhacking up ∙ because of how hismothertaughthim hillwalk- ing ∙ she was crazy or maybe just very intense ∙ I laugh too loud ∙ say ∙ But thatwasin Scotland where they cut down the forests centuries ago ∙ do you reallywant to bushwhack throughfir thickets ∙ Iwake picturing different sortsoffir woods∙ an impassable thicket of small dead densely interwovenbranches ∙ a stand of ma– turetrees ∙ spaciousand cool ∙ a floor of moss
I compile my extractions to make a shorter stranger paragraph.
The roads in are look thrown down over a side
of them a bit further ∙ so fine I have to map that
too ∙ each step I want more a mountain road to
where the valley of what else I am even in win-
ter sunlight on it and me bleached wood in the
water in a crouch ∙ a lake fallen through firs in
the foreground ∙ brilliant bare red bush ∙ then in
a car with the mountains hiking us ∙ art a moth
taught us ∙ Just be at rest as you hack through a
rent sort of small dead ∙ the trees here really do
wake an interwoven densely spacious impasse
And perform the same extraction operation on this paragraph. This time my record of the process becomes a visual poem in its own right at hang on a threshold between signal and noise.
The roadsinarelookthrown down over a side ofthemabitfurther∙ so fineI have to map that too ∙ each step I wantmore a mountain road to where the valley ofwhat else I ameven in win- ter sunlight on it and me bleached wood in the water in acrouch ∙ a lake fallenthroughfirs in the foreground∙ brilliantbarered bush ∙ then in a car with the mountains hiking us ∙artamoth taught us ∙ Just be at rest as youhackthrougha rent sort of small dead∙ the trees here reallydo wake aninterwovendensely spacious impasse
Extracted text stays black, a corona of greyscale text persists about it, the rest of it’s let fade to the colour of the page.
The second round of extraction yields a material enough enriched for the next transformation—precipitation of a verse poem. In this process material drawn from the prose paragraph descends and settles into verbal strata.
Look so fine.
I want what else I am brilliant at.
king, hack us through these
here red trees.
Each step bit them.
Am really in a rough pass.
I count myself free, making this one, to arrange words and lines as I wish. But only get to use words I can plausibly find in the source paragraph. I interpret “plausibly” often quite and sometimes really very generously.
A book made just of these poems seemed a cold prospect, too procedural, not human enough, so I started to think and feel my way towards companion poems—poems born of those already made, but freely, with no constraint or set procedure.
At first nothing came. One morning, though, staring at an extraction record in frustration, I started drawing lines around the black text, then round the grey. I thickened lines and emphasized the faces and forms I began to think I saw. The result was a monstrous assemblage of eyes and mouths, horns and spikes and tusks. Faces predominated, mostly in profile, and I found them both frightening and endearing. They seemed spirits caught up in all sorts of longing and yet capable of illumination.
I decided to trust the weirdness and began to do the same with other extraction records. Sometimes the process yielded a compost of half-formed faces. Other times, I came to a single form, as here, where illumination got me a frog.
The extraction process may be familiar from Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os and Jen Bervin’s Nets, the precipitation process from Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager. Likewise these illuminations owe a debt to the work of Tom Phillips in A Humument. But as far as I know these methods haven’t been combined in this way or directed to quite these ends. Quite possibly for good reason.
The ghosts showed me the way to the fourth poem, the companion poem, which I hear as the voice of their suffering as it grows aware of itself. No constraints now except that the poem share a page with its illuminated precursor.
size of the real
thing we need
say I an unironic self
The term “inspiration” may want scare quotes. One point here is to challenge our still persistent notion of the poet as a solitary figure fashioning her art ex nihilo. But still I feel that something in these poems draws a deep breath.
All Together Now
The four poems together make a two-page spread.
Upper left: prose scarred by an extraction process
Lower left: verse precipitated from the extracted ore
Upper right: illumination of the extraction scars
Lower right: verse inspired by the longing of the image
Yestereven, erasure marked typographically, as with Carson and Schwerner, giving a feel of fidelity, though that’s often mock. Also, erasure as palimpsest, as in Bervin’s Nets, the source poem receding into the page but not altogether invisible.
The maybe most austere mode is just to leave the page untouched in its white or creamy presentness. That’s Ronald Johnson’s approach in Radi Os, his seminal erasure of Milton’s Paradise Lost —
If austere is one end of a spectrum, and illuminative the other, somewhere in the middle’s any practice that retains the erasure marks, making what art of them they propose. Can find a precursor to that in this page from Johnson’s draft copy of Paradise Lost —
It’s a question I’ve messed with some in Overject, erasures I’ve tried out of a minor Anglo-Saxon poem sequence variously called “Maxims” or “Gnomic Verses” or (by me) “Proverbs.” Here I work up the redaction marks to make some funny (and some not-so-funny) faces.
At the illuminative end of the spectrum (both ends and all middles presided over majestically by Wm. Blake) must for sure be Tom Phillips’s A Humument.
Fun fact. My college roommate, Johnny Carrera, my first year at Oberlin, recently had a show with Phillips at MassMOCA. And that’s all for tonight, mes amis, dormez bien.
Gonna hit erasure practice hard next week with my class. So thought here to summate. So much, to lift a word or three from a forebear to this sprawly lineage, depends on how you mark the missingness of what’s missing.
There’s a typography angel (sic) taken by Anne Carson in her Sappho —
Okay wow so the first clump suddenly recalls me to the borderline people in my life. And the second clump to how I’ve answered them. Well anyway I do love the aberrant slant in the image. Too, Armand Schwerner in his Tablets —
Brackets, ellipses, squares, circles, squared circles, enlisted to mark the polyambience of what’s missing, or imagined to be. Though nothing is really missing, is the message, as I take it, of erasure practice. The blank page a perfect poem no one has ever managed to write.
Then there’s the palimpsest, where the new poem greys out, but doesn’t quite white out, the old. Jen Bervin’s erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets in Nets work here, both stilly
and movingly, as here, where the palimpsest of it flickers in and out. That’s it for tonight, happy sultry (for here) weather all, more tomorrow.