March 7, 2023

Prompt: Erasures

Blackout poem by Chris Lott using a page from
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Erasure poetry, sometimes known as blackout poetry, is a form of found poetry wherein a poet takes an existing text and erases, blacks out, or whites out a large portion of the text, creating a wholly new work from what remains. The new poem probably does not carry the same meaning as the original text. Oftentimes, it conveys quite an opposite meaning.

Erasure poetry is simple. Pick a text to erase, such as a magazine or newspaper story, famous poems, a passage from a novel, or maybe from a text ad. For our call this month, I recommend using no more than a page, and perhaps just a paragraph or two.

I have done blackout poetry by literally taking a black marker to the original. The resulting text looks like those redacted classified documents we sometimes see from the coverage of government proceedings. 

Besides creating new meaning in the remaining text, the page can also have a visual look with the gaps. That is not a requirement and at times I think it looks like the poem has holes, so simply making line or stanza breaks for the erased text will suffice. 

Doris Cross is thought to be one of the first to employ the erasure technique in poetry with her 1965 “Dictionary Columns.”  

There are examples of far more ambitious erase poetry. Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os is a revision of the first four books of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I picked up a library copy of Jen Bervin’s Nets which uses Shakespeare's sonnets as primary source texts. The ms of my kin by Janet Holmes uses the poems of Emily Dickinson as a source. M. NourbeSe Philip created the political Zong! using as its source the legal text from a case against Gregson, a company that owned the ship Zong on which 150 Africans were massacred.

Tracy K. Smith has written several erasure poems, including "Declaration" which is drawn from the Declaration of Independence) in which she shows the places where erasures have occurred with blank spaces. Listen to the poet read her erasure poem and without the page before you with its white space, it sounds like an original work. And in fact, it is. Then read the poem.

I am also including two short poems of my own as examples of erasure without the blackouts or white spaces using only breaks to indicate the gaps. 

NOTE that for your submission, you must include a note below your title indicating the original text used.

(from Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason)

To the happiness of man:

not believing,
or disbelieving

professing to believe
what one does not believe

priests and conjurors
are of the same trade

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       by Kenneth Ronkowitz

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