Invisible Power: An Experiment with Erasure Poetry

I sat amid a tumult of paper, much of it in crumpled little wads. Each sheet bore evidence of frustration and indecision—little squiggles, larger, more permanent swaths of black sharpie, words circled, crossed out, and circled again. I know what you’re thinking, but this isn’t another of my tormented writing stories, I promise. The words on the pages weren’t mine, nor were they a critique partner’s. I would never, ever markup a partner’s writing in such a way (how could you even think such a thing?).

The pages scattered around me were from Margaret Atwood’s novel, Blind Assassin. Before you go getting mad at me for showing such disrespect, let me explain. I was marking as a means to engage more fully with the reading, and as a way of leaning against her work. Some of you are cringing at the idea of altering a beloved book in such a way. Well, just stop your squirming already. I photocopied the pages and left the beautiful, bound pages unmarked. Well, mostly unmarked. I am definitely one who likes to leave bits of myself among what I am reading, but that is a discussion for a different day. Today I want to tell you a bit more about the activity I was engaged in, erasure.

Erasure is a form of writing where an existing text is altered by removing pieces to create a new piece of writing, often a poem, which explores new meanings or raises questions (so, I guess I lied when I said this wasn’t another of my tormented writing stories). It is an excellent technique for engaging with what you are reading in a different way and for kick-starting your creativity. Erasure can help you identify themes, images, symbols, ideas, and questions you want to explore further. Much like a hermit crab poem, erasure can help you overcome writer’s block by giving the logical side of your brain something to focus on (which words to cross out) thus allowing you the freedom to make connections, find new associations, and pull something to the surface that wasn’t there before.

This was my first experiment with erasure. Initially, I attempted the process with an excerpt from Ross Gay’s book, A Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude. My first try fell flat. My mind refused to see anything but his intentions on the pages I chose. I don’t know if my struggle was because the excerpt was poetry, or because I am so damned in love with that book, but I couldn’t put marker to paper. Reflecting on my inabilities, I decided to go with an excerpt of a novel and chose Blind Assassin because of Atwood’s beautiful prose and the variation in storytelling within the narrative.

The initial moments of erasure were touch and go, filled with doubt, self-criticism, and indecision. I read the excerpt three times before I finally managed to block out my first word. Almost immediately, I wanted the word back and abandoned the marked sheet and sharpie for a clean page and pencil. Knowing I could change my mind helped and I went through, first circling words and phrases that burned as I read them. Next, I went back and read what I’d marked and saw the beginnings of a theme. Pencil in hand, I made several passes, eliminating and adding words until I felt as if my erasure is complete.

As with writing, that initial feeling of completion quickly evaporated as I began blocking out text with the sharpie. Seeing just the words I’d chosen, without the surrounding story, helped refine what I hoped to convey with my erasure, and I made last minute changes, eliminating words or adding a few back in before I marked them out. I ended up printing out another copy of the text once I was finished and reading back through my erasure. Whenever I got to a spot that didn’t feel right, I would search the original version for that “something” that was missing. Finally, I completed one more erasure with the clean copy, in order to implement revisions.

I was surprised at how much reflection the process required. My tactic for completing an erasure was strikingly similar to my method for revision, especially when writing poetry. I will definitely be taking this experience with me during my next revision, to see if I can examine my own writing for depth, suggestions, themes, and questions I have left underexplored using some of the reflection techniques required in an erasure.