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What is Erasure Poetry?

Erasure poetry, or blackout poetry, is defined by as a “form of found poetry wherein a poet takes an existing text and erases, blacks out, or otherwise obscures a large portion of the text, creating a wholly new work from what remains.”

First, let’s take a step back: what is found poetry? It is manipulating existing sources—adding spaces, shortening words, or getting rid of entire passages—to create something new, altering the reding experience. The original source could be a page from a classic novel, a comment on a blog, or even street art.

For erasure poetry, it generally keeps the order of the original source, how you would read it line-by-line/left to right, but only certain words are now seen. The artist obscures (blacks out) whole sections and words (or parts of words) to create a piece that reads in a new way. The process involves no new writing, all the words must be found in the original source. And it is a very accessible form of poetry. I’ve even seen these new works called “Frankensteinian”, which I just love!

Some of the early examples of erasure poetry used the dictionary or John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost” (1608). How does this work in practice? For example, you might take a page from a Jane Austen novel and ‘redact’ enough to create a piece that speaks to modern dating. In this example, the two works are echoing each other by juxtaposing gender roles, relationship expectations, and more.

The original and the new piece could interact with each other or not but reading both together can be an insightful artistic experience. For example, in Kate Baer’s collection I Hope This Finds You Well, she brilliantly uses spam emails from weight loss companies to not only tap into the dialogue about women’s bodies but subvert it. The great thing about this collection is that there is criticism and comfort in different pieces.

I have also heard of scholarship on how communities who often feel invisible, for example people with disabilities or people of colour, are using erasure poetry to be seen. There is something about not just “reading between the lines” but manipulating established works to make a mark and position oneself in context—finding power in the destruction.

It is a medium that has been around since at least the mid-twentieth century but, according to Rolling Stone Magazine, it has gained popularity since 2017 as online criticism emerged in response to former US President Donald Trump. The poem by Joseph Charles MacKenzie for Trump’s inauguration was repurposed online using the erasure craft. There is this idea that by stripping away words from his speeches and quotes that one could reveal what he 'really' meant.

There is also the added mirroring aspect of government redactions in freedom of information requests—this is when the public can request documents from their government, but internally the government decides what can/is safe to share with citizen (that won’t, for example, compromise national security). In that case, documents that have been redacted remove information… Erasure poetry is trying to show us more.

This way of creating art can bring up all kinds of questions: is it ‘stealing’ art? Do the artists become co-creators, or do they stand alone in their own right? What is its value? Is it 'just' social media poetry? Questions that have been plaguing all kinds of artists for generations!

Regardless, it forces us to take a second look at the original piece in a new light.

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