Trump, Poetry & Erasure

For almost a year, now, I have been working on a collection of erasure poems (which may also be called “found poems”). An erasure poem is formed by working with an existing text —any sort of text: a story, a book, a letter, a code, a dictate—and erasing therefrom words, phrases, whole sentences and paragraphs, while keeping select others. The poet might use a tool, such as a black sharpie or Wite-Out liquid, or paint or collage, to physically erase the text. The erasure poem, in a way, is a kind of thievery, which may be a kind of crime, but one perpetrated for the sake of what remains. That is, the remaining text. What remains in my poems ordinarily reflects, contradicts or enhances the original text.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “erasure” as: 1. The removal of writing, recorded material, or data; or 1.1 The removal of all traces of something; obliteration: ‘the erasure of prior history.’

As I think about erasure within the context of our current political climate, it’s been challenging for me to go on with this project, to wipe out words from the source text. It feels wrong in light of what must be considered: an ignorant, narcissistic, racist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, intellecto-phobic, president-elect who will too soon occupy a chair in an oval office in a white house in the capital city of the United States of America, land of the free. A president-elect who has already betrayed this country in countless ways—most notably, in ways that call for the witing-out of millions of Americans whose skin is darker than the palest pale. And so I am forced, now, to think about erasure in terms of 1.1 above: obliteration. This is the politics of erasure: denying the validity of a given race or any other whom does not reflect the face of the eraser. To erase anything is a form of obliteration. When the day’s history lesson is erased from the classroom’s blackboard, it is obliterated.

Last February, The New York Times Magazine published an essay titled Fighting ‘Erasure’ by Parul Sehgal. In it, Sehgal wrote, “‘Erasure’ refers to the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible. The word migrated out of the academy, where it alluded to the tendency of ideologies to dismiss inconvenient facts, and is increasingly used to describe how inconvenient people are dismissed, their history, pain and achievements blotted out. Compared with words like ‘diversity’ and ‘representation,’ with their glib corporate gloss, ‘erasure’ is a blunt word for a blunt process. It goes beyond simplistic discussions of quotas to ask: Whose stories are taught and told? Whose suffering is recognized? Whose dead are mourned?”

Erasure is what Trump is talking about when he says he’s going to build a wall, or prevent certain ethnicities, or those with certain religious affiliations, from entering this country. Erasure is Trump populating the White House with white nationalists. Erasure is the abolition of diversity, histories, innocents, traditions, language, color, poetry. Erasure is loss. It is our president-elect’s desire to lose the idea of freedom, or morality, or humanity. Which is not a particularly novel idea or response by those keen on running a country by means of tyranny.

(Poet Anjali Barot’s video erasure poem—using Trump’s acceptance speech—gives us a glimpse into the future of Trump’s America.)

The practice of erasure in politics is a worldwide crisis.

I believe it is an artist’s duty to speak out against cultural erasure, to bring light and truth forward through one’s art. Looking at the body of my erasure work, I think, in large part, that what I have been pursuing (consciously or not) is the gravity of survival, renewal and remembrance—poems that reveal the stories, suffering and mourning of all. Poems composed of glittering fragments of hope and love and compassion.

A poem from my collection in progress:


After Ginsberg

Ginsberg: soot and steam. Ginsberg: howl
and scream. Ginsberg: grit and grease, bleak
peace, dark moon, heat of June. Ginsberg: steel
and steal, machines too real, plight and fight, a
workman’s meal.

Ginsberg: Yacketayakking. Stolen nights,
breathing boxes, tubercular skies. From the ash, a
flower does rise, stares you down, right surprise.
The opposite of ripe: withering grey sunflower,
brittle smoking pipe.

Look at that sunflower. Man. A hint, a message,
a hope. Lest we forget—obliterate memory of
things gold, honest, gasping. Gasping,
gasping for glint, a stalk (even a dead stalk)
to climb, into clouds, above smog and
rotten soil, crude oil. Breathe, breathe.

Take the flower. Hold the flower. Be the
flower—sun and glean, son of dream. Take the
shadow of it home, specter and shade, pull
it from sawdust, a yellow-star bone, a banana
dock sermon.

Yes. In this thing: meaning.
Look, look: a perfect mummy of a sunflower, soul,
souling—singing sunflower, wildflower,
wild, tender, dead-eye flower. Take us home.


To The Meadow I Go

As we walk into words that have waited for us to enter them, so the meadow, muddy with dreams, is gathering itself together and trying, with difficulty, to remember how to make wildflowers.

~ Marie Howe, The Meadow

I went back to my old blog, Suburban Soliloquy, to cull from some years-old thoughts I’d set down there, and found the quote above etched into one of my photos published on the blog’s Weekend Wisdom page. The image on which the quote appears is of late spring lilacs, the far end of a bench, and a portion of a field. I was surprised when I saw the entry dated May 31, 2013, surprised that it has been nearly two years since I snapped the photo, surprised that I had quoted from one of Howe’s poems; surprised, of course, because I didn’t remember posting the entry, the little bit of wisdom I, at one time, posted weekly.

For the last two years—as a full-time student in a graduate program—I’ve been absorbed in a vortex of words. All else, save for my family, has been neglected (though they might tell you otherwise), writing and reading taking precedence over everything, excepting my family (she says again, trying too hard to convince herself that she didn’t ignore her family). And what I’ve been writing, to a large extent, has been about attending. The irony of what remains now—piles and piles of things to which I must attend—is, well, piquant. No, that’s too kind. The remains are malodorous. There’s a stench in the air from the flood of neglect, and I fear that I am not adequately equipped to fully mitigate or restore the damage.

But. I graduated last month, and so time has opened wide. It is now a matter of priorities—as though it hadn’t always been.

But then, I graduated last month! And absent the structure of this particular vortex of words, this force of letters and symbols and theories and truths, what I most want to do, but am having the greatest of difficulty doing, is to recall how I made my own wildflowers. And, oh, how I want to make wildflowers.

This past January, I met Howe, briefly, at Bennington College, where she was a guest reader and lecturer during my final ten-day residency. She has a lovely, spirited presence, and I wish, now, that I’d attended her reading. But I didn’t. I was too tired, too preoccupied with, and tormented by, my own lecture and reading, both of which I gave during the same two days Howe read and lectured. As Howe edified and bewitched (I heard) her audience, I was in my dorm room, consumed by imagined failure, trying my darnedest to quell anxiety. Later, my cohorts shared with me the magic I had missed. This morning, pricked by a little weekend wisdom, I felt the need to compensate for that loss, and I listened to Howe reading The Meadow. (Worth the listen, yes.)

Quickly, I came here, to my own small meadow, or shoreline, or golden dune (all of where I imagine I might be when writing), to forget who I am, spread grains of rune, and forgive myself. Can you blame me? Water, root, blossom! Words, sleeping on the tip of my very tongue, tangled, an orgy of words (much like the plantings in our front flower beds), young and drunk and silly, but now waking like spring lilacs, stepping out of the chaos, and organizing themselves. But will they change my life?

Snow still falls on the earthbound meadows of Rhode Island. Yet that doesn’t keep me from them, it makes me all the more eager to go. To see. To notice even the slightest markings of change. Like Dorothy awakening in a field of poppies under a sprinkling of snow, I quicken in a dense, crystalline meadow, stick my tongue out and let the snow hit the edge of parlance. So, to the meadow, to the meadow I go.

You can read Howe’s poem, The Meadow, in full (and listen to her reading it) at NPR’s On Being.