Erasure is my leaving the land acknowledgment as the last aspect to develop for a presentation.

Erasure is my attempting to suppress and/or conceal my visible neurologic disease symptoms from peers while teaching a poetry workshop.

Let’s understand erasure as both noun and verb. The noun being the “finished piece,” the creation, the “poem,” as in, Can you take a look at my erasure? Or, Did you read Chase Berggrun’s erasure of Bram Stoker’s Dracula? And the verb, the process by which the piece is crafted, as in, Am I allowed to engage in erasure with original text by Shakespeare?

Many smart people have written many smart things on the topic, particularly regarding its noun form1.

Common themes in these various definitions, treatises, and essays can be summarized thusly: 

1) On a very basic level, erasure poetry is about creating new from another work. 

2) Palimpsest is a good word for the end result.

3) Questions (and answers) about authenticity, ownership, copyright, and plagiarism are slippery.

4) Why erasure, and why now? 

But how do we do erasure? How do we make one? What is the action behind the poem?

When planning this two-hour workshop on erasure, I gathered excerpts from Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager (2005), Chase Berggrun’s R E D (2018), Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas (2017), and Solmaz Sharif’s Look (2016); I referenced craft essays and reflected on my own process of creating an erasure poem; I considered workshop format, participant engagement, and general accessibility. The night before the scheduled class, I looked again at my plan and saw I’d overlooked, and thus failed to prepare, one element—the “Native Land Acknowledgment.” 

I, a White, second-generation Jewish woman who has benefited from cultural and racial assimilation and resulting access to land ownership, had left for myself the Native Land Acknowledgement as the final piece to plan. By this point, it was too late to reach out to the Indigenous leaders of cultural institutions in Lenapehoking to inquire about hiring an Indigenous artist to provide it. My delay was a reflection of “not wanting to get something wrong,” or, more accurately, my misplaced concern for my own appearance over the intention and purpose of a land acknowledgment in the first place. In this process, I enacted erasure in its most violent form: I reproduced what the United States—or, more accurately, Whiteness—has done to Indigenous populations for centuries. I performed, unwittingly, the very thing I aimed to illuminate for the workshop participants. 

Or rather, the inverse of the process—even though I provided information and mutual aid opportunities for workshop writers to learn about and contribute to Indigenous Peoples’ efforts to continue Lenapehoking, the result was a workshop that erased the rights of an Indigenous person to claim and celebrate their own land. If I aimed to present erasure as an opportunity to reveal that which is otherwise hidden, I instead reinforced the positionality of Whiteness as an erasing agent in relation to an already “erased” people and culture.2 (Poetry’s July/August 2022 issue, Guest Edited by Esther Belin, features a collection of poems on land acknowledgment by Indigenous writers that provide a great response to/commentary on this phenomenon).

In her essay on erasure, Solmaz Sharif describes her initial reaction to the form as “horrified.” “Why,” she asks, would she reproduce “what a state does?” By the end of her essay, after time and experience have exerted their relentless forces, Sharif engages a different idea. She maintains that erasure is “what the state does,” but rather than condemn the form for its parroting, recognizes it as “the closest poetry in English has gotten to the role of the state,” and in this way, an “opportunity to create a cultural acumen that can inform political change.”3

I enacted erasure again when, throughout my facilitating the workshop, I devoted much energy to suppressing involuntary physical movements and other symptoms that I experience as a result of neurologic disease. I didn’t want to distract the participants, or draw attention to myself. I didn’t want this part of myself showing up so explicitly in a space that wasn’t explicitly about disability. Again unconscious, or subconscious, erasure showed up as missed opportunity, as violent repression, as silencing.

We’re all already “doing” erasure all the time. In strictly literary terms, when I read, for example, the leaked Supreme Court Roe v. Wade draft from May 2022, I am reading a different document than you, even though we’re ostensibly reading the same words. Our minds automatically add, delete, interpret different messages, depending on so many factors like cultural context, ethnicity, literary background, psychological background, relationship history, time of day, mood, first language … the variables are endless. Poetry allows us to bring this already inherent, often invisible (by design, delivery, and/or accident) process into our consciousness and conscience. 

Erasure poetry, then, is an ideal mode for interrogating and revealing relationships between form, content, praxis, and lineage.4 During the workshop, participant and writer Yasmin Newson perfectly captured the fundamental question we face when engaging this form: What am I allowed to erase? What is considered appropriation? What are the ethics? 

Slippery questions indeed, and ones each writer (and reader) must grapple with independently. Still, we did collectively agree that one ought to consider power dynamics of the erasing artist and source text: 

In this dynamic, who has historically (and currently) had (has) the power? 

Who has been/is being silenced? 

Where does my own identity and/or relationship to this content lie? 

Is my erasure subverting, or reinforcing, this dynamic? 

A palindrome is a letter reversal that creates a clever or “new” meaning from the standard English left-to-right procession of a word. We might think of erasure as palindrome’s more precarious, political cousin—a manipulation of source text that yields a multiplying, or fracturing, of original meaning.

Ultimately, the final erasure poem may be defined by inclusion and/or exclusion—both actions will produce an effect. So, rather than define erasure poetry as a form that solely reveals what may be hidden, we might well understand it as a form and action that, when engaged consciously, can illuminate, for the purpose of celebrating, condemning, revealing, or interrogating, that which is otherwise invisibled.…

Erasure is my attempting to suppress and/or conceal visible neurologic disease symptoms from peers while teaching a poetry workshop.

Erasure is my leaving the land acknowledgment as the last aspect to develop for a presentation.

Erasure Prompt

  1. Make a list of 10 possible source texts
    1. Source text: a written work that you can readily access (whether hard copy or digital) that you will use as the source for a possible erasure project
    2. Be specific! For example, rather than “newspaper,” list which specific paper, which column, etc.
    3. Possibilities include journals (your own or someone else’s), health records, instruction manuals, technical writing, textbooks, newspaper articles, letters (your own or others’), brochures, recipes, political speeches, legal proceedings, song lyrics, memoirs, fiction, warning labels, interviews, children’s books, dramatic scripts, religious texts, phone transcripts, marketing material, pharmaceutical labels, game instructions/rules, ancient texts, scientific research, image descriptions, and more.
  2. Choose 1 source text as your first experiment (doesn’t matter which one—this is just for practice!)
    1. Underline (or highlight/circle) any words that sound interesting or for some reason make you want to linger
    2. Do the same for any sonic patterns you may find (can be words that rhyme, consonance, alliteration, etc.)
    3. Do the same for any themes you may notice (and/or for “emotional pull”)
    4. Feel free to come up with your own parameters for what to underline/highlight/circle

*Note: use different colors or demarcations for each experiment, for example, highlight in blue the words that sound interesting, then highlight yellow the sonic patterns, etc.

3) Look back over the highlighted areas. Which approach yielded words/phrases that are most interesting to you? Now decide whether you want to proceed with this first experiment, or play around with a different source text.

4) Start piecing together your erasure! A few considerations:

    a.) Will you maintain the original document’s word order?

            i.) What about punctuation?

    b.) How long will the result be?

    c.) Is there another form that will influence the erasure’s form?

            i.) Why is this form appropriate?

    d.) Is there a maximum or minimum amount of the source you must use?

    e.) What if you break the rule?

    f.) How do these rules make sense in the context of form, context, and process?

And a few more considerations (refer to the graphic for further guidance4): 

     a.) Who/what is being erased? Who/what is doing the erasing? Why?

     b.) What stance is the erasure writer/poem taking in relation to the source material?

            i.) Commentary/response?

            ii.) Fascination/humility?

            ii.) Re-writing/re-claiming?

            iv.) Interrogating/questioning?

    c.) What process is used?

    d.) How do the stance/process/source relate (or not relate) to each other?

Some people like to answer most or all of those questions before they begin crafting their erasure. Others like to start by just digging in, and allowing the work to reveal to them the rules.

Whichever method you choose, as you’re working, keep a separate document to note your experience/thoughts (this will help you notice what process you are naturally gravitating to).

5) Further ideas:

  1. Practice utilizing the same source materials but with different rules/process
  2. Practice utilizing same rules/process but with different source material

1Essay series on Erasure by Andrew David King:

Interview with Srikanth Reddy, Matthea Harvey, Janet Holmes, M. NourbeSe Philip, David Dodd Lee, and Travis Macdonald

2Resources for continued learning & mutual aid opportunities supporting Lenapehoking and other Indigenous/Native peoples and cultures:

3 The Near Transitive Properties of the Political and Poetical: Erasure by Solmaz Sharif ↩︎

4 Original Erasure Graphic—visual representation on evaluating erasure writing and reading

Further Reading (book title, author (year)—source material)

  • Nets, Jen Bervin (2003)—Shakespeare’s sonnets
  • Zong!, M. NourbeSe Philip (2011)—Gregson v. Gilbert legal decision
  • A Humument, Tom Phillips (1966– )—A Human Document (obscure Victorian novel)
  • The ms of m y kin, Janet Holmes (2009)—poems of Emily Dickinson
  • The O Mission Repo, Travis Macdonald (2008)—the US 9/11 Commission Report
  • Look, Solmaz Sharif (2016)—Department of Defense military and associated terms
  • Radi Os, Ronald Johnson (2005)—first 4 books of Milton’s Paradise Lost
  • Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, David Dodd Lee (2010)—John Ashbery
  • Newspaper Blackout, Austin Kleon (2010)—New York Times ↩︎

Erasure Chart

Originally Published: July 22nd, 2022

Leigh Sugar teaches writing at the John Jay College Institute for Justice and Opportunity. She lives with friends and her puppy in Brooklyn.