chapbook

Andrea Blythe on the mental puzzle of erasure poetry

We had the chance to talk about chapbooks in 2015 here, and some of your DIY and poetry challenge inspired chapbooks. In April last year when many poets commit to writing a new poem daily, some with the help of NaPoWriMo, Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers, and other 30/30 day challenges, you wrote erasure poems using Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer. Currently you are participating in Kickstarter’s January Challenge to make/100 of something. Talk about the challenge, your work with erasure poetry, and the art of finding poems in unusual places.

My Kickstarter make/100 project is essentially an extension of the erasure poem series I did in April. Through the project I’ll be publishing a limited edition chapbook of erasure poems, comprised of twenty of the poems I created in April and twenty new erasures (also from the Fearless Flyer) that I will be creating daily while the project funding period is running.

I was introduced to erasure (or blackout) poetry through Mary Ruefle’s chapbook, A Little White Shadow, in which she selectively painted over text from a nineteenth century book. I was fascinated by how the words left behind formed the beat of poetry and how the erased words ghosted through the paint, almost but not quite legible. It’s a stunning collection.

It was several years later that I started exploring erasures for myself, and it’s opened the door to a new way of discovering poetry. On days when it seems impossible to pull words from nothing and the blank page is too much for me, crafting erasure poetry is a way to invite words back in — since I’m starting with an existing text. Creating poetry becomes a treasure hunt and stretches the way I perceive words and their relation to each other. Sometimes I find myself using words in ways I might not have done otherwise.

Although I’ve used prose and narrative texts to construct erasure poetry, my favorite kind of texts to use are the ones people wouldn’t expect to find poetry in, such as advertising material or instruction manuals. It reminds me that poetry is everywhere, you just have to look more deeply to find it sometimes.

Recently you lead the writing workshop “Write a Blackout Poem” for which you printed a limited edition press run of your chapbook Letter Box: Just a Few Poems for English 1B. In her essay here on teaching erasure poetry, Sharon Dolin discusses the fun, language puzzle of such writing, mentions the work of several poets, including Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow, and how some of these authors approach the form. She writes, “Here’s an idea that I intend to try, as well as suggest to my students: Take out a failed or stuck poem and perform an erasure upon it. Then perform an erasure upon the erasure. Then write other language back in. Stop at any point in this process when you feel you have a w/hole poem” (97). Talk about your pedagogy. What resources did you bring into the workshop such as discussions on craft or examples of blackout poetry? What activities, discussions, or writing prompts did you share? For the aspiring erasure poet, what advice would you offer?

The English 1A workshop was a short program (only about 25 minutes) and was pulled together rather quickly. It was my first workshop on the subject and I didn’t really bring resources beyond the mini-chapbook, which provided examples of erasures. For the workshop, I presented a brief overview of what erasure poetry is as a form, some of the guidelines forgetting started, and the importance of citing your sources. I showed them my own process by creating a poem on the spot, using a projector. Then, I handed out newspapers and let them start creating. The room was entirely silent while they were working and I was delighted with the poems that were shared by the group.

In the future, I would like to put together a more in-depth workshop, exploring found poetry in its many forms, from free verse to erasures to hybrid forms, such as the golden shovel. For the erasure section, possible examples I would include might be A Little White Shadow, as well as Austin Kleon’s Newspaper Blackout and Tom Phillips’ A Humument. 

For those wanting to experiment with erasures, I would recommend approaching a text like a mental puzzle. Skim the text instead of reading it, looking for words that jump out and are surprising, words that begin to evoke a feeling or tone. Then scan for nearby words that complete that feeling. For me, the poem will start to lift out of the existing text, if I sit there long enough. Also, don’t become too committed to an initial combination of words, let the page leads you down another road, if needed. Don’t move too fast. I’ve more than once blacked over a word I wanted because I got excited and started going too quickly.

Can you talk more about the mental puzzle of the erasure form? In this recent interview with Debra Monroe, she writes, “For me, a good story, fiction or nonfiction includes hope and fear (moving forward in time) and memory (moving backward) and wisdom (gleaned by hindsight).” What makes a good blackout poem? Elizabeth Gilbert talks here about the poet, Ruth Stone’s process of catching a poem by its tail. How do you know when you’ve “caught” an erasure poem?

Erasure poetry tends to be on the shorter side by nature. When you are blacking out the text from a single page (and sometimes less than that) in order to discover what poem may be left in the aftermath, there tends to be limited space and larger movements can be more difficult. Sometimes the text will offer up space for what might equate to a few lines, sometimes just a single thought or phrase. There’s a tightness I find in erasures, the need to draw out a single breath of an image or idea.

Sometimes I struggle with a piece because I feel there should be more. It can feel audacious to call a phrase or two a poem. I’ll keep digging through the words, looking for something to add, making myself frustrated when the text has already revealed itself as complete. Sometimes I’ll undo what I’ve created in this attempt to capture more words than are my due. Sometimes “catching” the poem is simply a matter of slowing down, taking a breath, and accepting that the poem is already there, resting in my lap.

In this interview Elizabeth Alexander discusses gratitude for her career path and says, “I feel so grateful that I am an artist, that I have an art form with which to live my life and make sense of it—to start in morass and write through to clarity time and time and time again.” As a poet with full-time day job, an associate editor for Nonbinary Review, a member of The Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA), and more, can you talk about what makes you thankful for the work you’re able to do as a poet and literary citizen?

I think art is one of those things I take for granted, like breathing. I forget to be thankful for it, because I can’t imagine not having it in my life. I can feel its absence in those times when I go through a creative slump, as I’ll start to feel depressed, as though life is weighing down on me. When I return to creating regularly, my general sense is, Oh, good. This is what normal is suppose to be. I think Elizabeth Alexander says it well. The act of writing offers clarity in mind and soul for me, provides an insight to all the things I keep bottled up and hidden from the world and sometimes even from myself. I am grateful for that, and for the ways it allows me to connect with writers and readers, many of whom have their own clarity and insight to share.

What makes a good chapbook? A cohesiveness of either theme or tone throughout a series of lush, emotionally charged poems. A feeling of satisfaction when I’m done reading.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Allie Marini’s Southern Cryptozoology is one of my favorite chapbooks of all time. It’s clever and wise and about cryptids. The format inspired the way I approached writing Pantheon (a chapbook I wrote a couple of years ago, which is still looking for a home). Like Southern Cryptozoology, my chapbook is themed around a series of like characters — mythic creatures in Southern Cryptozoology, women from pop culture in mine. The poems in her book also use space on the page in wonderful ways, creating a jagged, maze-like appearance for the poem — a style I’m hoping to explore more.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? When I first started trying to create chaps, I attempted to pull together discordant sets of existing poems, which never quite meshed the way I wanted it to. Now, I approach new chapbooks with a firmer idea in place, some existing theme or concept that I can shape the collection around.

What’s next for you?  Finding a publisher for Pantheon and finishing a chapbook based on the 12 Dancing Princesses fairy tale, which has morphed in a form that can’t quite seem to decide whether it wants to be poetry or prose. Several other chapbook ideas are in various stages of completion as well, but I’m trying to focus on just one at the time.

Current chapbook reading list: My personal collection of chapbooks has grown significantly, enough so that I had to develop a system for housing them. But I haven’t had a chance to read all of them yet. On my docket to read next are: Ghost Skin by Wren Hanks, On Sunday, A Finch by Cassandra Dallett, and Salsa Night at Hilo Town Tavern by Kristofer Collins (which I just ordered, because my shelf can always use more books no matter how much it groans).

Residence: Bay Area, California.

Chapbook Bio: Andrea Blythe bides her time waiting for the apocalypse by writing speculative poetry and fiction. Her work has appeared in various publications both online and in print, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, the Rhysling Award, Sundress Best of the Net, and Independent Best American Poetry. She serves as an associate editor for Zoetic Press and is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. Learn more at: www.andreablythe.com

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Dennis Etzel, Jr.
    January 27, 2018 at 2:41 pm

    Oh, wow! I enjoy reading about how Blythe is moving into further erasure techniques and venues for sharing with others. Thanks for the interview post, Madeline!

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