“Sometimes the author is asking of the reader, 'I’m sorry, but I need you to make this your day.'”
Interviewed By: Brad Trumpfheller
How long did R E D take for you to write, both as a question of the idea’s gestation period & its actual making?
I wrote the book over the course of two years—the entire first and second draft while I was an MFA student at NYU. But in terms of the gestation period, it was much much longer—it was four years of thinking about, studying, and obsessing over constantly the erasure form.
Erasure in general, or specifically the notion of erasing Dracula?
Just erasure. I spent a lot of time trying working with an impossible number of texts trying to find the perfect one. The hardest part of any erasure project is finding the text that gels with the writer in the right way. I knew I needed, wanted to do a larger scale erasure project, and I’d been looking around for the right text for a long time, but when I came to Dracula, I wasn’t thinking about erasure to begin with. That wasn’t my first orientation, as an approach to writing about this book.
What were you looking for in a text, like what about a text makes you feel like it would beget an ethical or a good erasure project?
Dracula fell into a kind of Goldilocks zone, in terms of the form of the book, the quality of the diction and epistolary first person, the register, the length of the text, its division into chapters. I think choosing the right source text in a number of different ways is key to creating an ethical, technically sound erasure, and also just a good poem. And I have a lot of rules around what kind of text would or could work for an erasure. It needed to have a certain kind of language, and it needed to be a language that moved me enough to want to use it. So for example, I would never erase a poem. Or, I would probably not erase a poem. Because in general poems are using a kind of diction that’s already elevated into a sort of poetic mode. And that doesn’t feel interesting to me. I probably would not want to erase a writer like Nabokov. Because Nabokov has a diction that is beyond anything else I’ve read in English. Any erasure poem you’re gonna get out of Lolita just isn’t going to work in this particular way. It feels like cheating.
I suppose one could say that Stoker was a decent writer, but Dracula isn’t a mind-blowingly well-written book. So the challenge inherent in working with that text made the project a lot more satisfying. And it made it feel like the kind of work I wanted to be doing.
What was it that first drew you to erasure? Was there a certain work that sparked it off?
I first learned about erasure in a workshop I took with Lisa Olstein as an undergrad at UMASS Amherst. Something immediately clicked about it, unexpectedly. When I was an undergraduate I did this series of erasures of Freud that I was proud of. Once I had tried it, I was hooked. I found it a really, really compelling way, considering the way my brain works, to make a poem. So once I had first started working in that form, being interested in exploring it, I immediately started reading everything I could.
You’ve spoken before, and I think it’s in the acknowledgments of R E D, about how important Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager was to you, yeah?
Voyager is one of the most accomplished works of erasure I’ve ever encountered. First and foremost it’s just a gorgeous book. The poetry is just so good. That’s where it first struck me, on the level of language. And how easy it is to read as a book of poems. The project itself is fascinating, and the process behind it is equally fascinating. At the end of Voyager there’s a link to a cloud drive that I think is no longer online, but Reddy provides facsimiles of marked up pages and insight into his process of making the book. It’s wildly cool to see that, and that was very formative for my own process in erasure, and inspired a lot in the way that I erase. There are definitie departures from that, and I used some different rules in my own erasure, but that book was really groundbreaking for me. There are some other books that were important, too. A Humument by Tom Phillips is like the ur-text for anyone who wants to get into or research erasure. Of Lamb, by Matthea Harvey, is a really interesting one. And the way they both use visual art to complement the poems is a really useful way to enhance an erasure poem if the erasure itself is not that compelling.
To add that visual or artistic element, you mean?
Yeah, Tom Phillips does that really well. I wouldn’t say that the poems in A Humument are wildly incredible poems, on their own, at the language level. This is not to say that it’s not an amazing book: the way that he incorporates the text with visual art takes the project far beyond what it would be if it were just text. That kind of melding of visual art and poetry, that doesn’t work for me, for my own erasures. It would feel a bit like a crutch. When I first started exploring erasure I was very certain of the fact that I wanted whatever poems I was producing to be poems first and foremost, to look like poems, and to operate well on the various levels of poetry.
I don’t want to be just be a cheerleader for the whole interview, but you know, I think you pull that off very well. One of the most striking things about R E D—and some reviewers have picked up on this too, I think—is that you really could not know that it is an erasure poem, you could totally enter this, maybe unproductively, but you could read this totally in a vacuum, and it holds up remarkably well as a text in and of itself.
That was part of the intention from the outset, to make poems that you would not know are erasures if you did not have that information in front of you. I find that, in other people’s work, those are the erasures that fascinate and move me the most. I’ve been also thinking a lot about, again, and perennially again, M. NourBese Philip’s Zong!, which I think is perhaps one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read.
Right, and I don’t know what it would be like, partially because my own experience of that book, to read Zong! without a concept of the document that is its source text.
And that’s very intentional on her part, too. I mean, down to the level of authorship—she credits Adamu Boateng as a co-author of the book. Which is astoundingly moving to me, and moving as you move through the book, to think of this work as a conversation. All erasure is conversation, but this book in particular I think is a speaking toward history and a speaking toward ownership of language that goes beyond anything I’ve ever encountered.
When did you first start to consider the ethical dimensions of erasure?
I mean, even when I first started learning about erasure it was disturbing to me. Often when I was a younger poet, and still today, anything that disturbed me was something I wanted to look into further. One of the first lines of Solmaz Sharif's remarkable, foundational essay on erasure goes: “The first time I confronted erasure as an aesthetic tactic I was horrified.” I agree. I was too, and when I started erasing texts I don’t think my poetics or my politics were quite as advanced as they are, or—just not quite where I’m at today, or—
I understand, yeah, yeah.
But intrinsically there’s something to me that’s sketchy about the kind of work that one is doing when one is engaging in any kind of literary appropriation. That’s been a consideration from the get-go. There were many early projects I completely abandoned because after examining where my place was in relationship to the text I realized that this is not an enterprise that I should be undertaking. When I was much younger I had an idea to do an erasure project of the testimonies of people who had undergone electroconvulsive therapy. That was really interesting to me and after maybe a couple days of that project I was like, “this isn’t mine, at all.” Even to write about, much less to erase. Those concerns are constant, critical, and sometimes overwhelming and stultifying to me. Which is good. My impulse is to be afraid of what I’m doing and that impulse is very important to me.
That’s really interesting, I read that very much into the speaker of R E D, when I was revisiting the book this morning I kept coming across a moment like “What I have arranged to do / will be no murder / even if it were,” these places that she’s questioning, or is critically aware of, the violence of what she’s doing while also knowing that violence’s necessity and urgency for her survival.
Her self-criticality, her turned-inward-gaze is one of the most important aspects of her character to me. And in many ways was a mirror of my own when writing the book. Thinking about that character and her influence on me and my life—when I was writing the book, her constant impulse to be self-analytical really helped me grow in my own self analysis.
One of the things I love the most about the long poem, and I don’t want to speak with any kind of authority about the genre, but I guess a lot of long poems that I love are very aware of themselves as texts. I think Tommy Pico talks about that need for the poem’s self-reflexivity, and I’m wondering about maybe the kind of spatial element to what we’ve been talking about, too.
I think that if the long poem is not aware of that then it’s doing a disservice to its reader. One of the most interesting and most difficult things about long poems to me, as a person who writes mostly long poems, is that when you hand a long poem to someone to read in some form—interpersonally, or publishing it somewhere—you are asking of them a different kind of relationship than you are with a shorter poem.
You are asking them to sit with you for a much longer period of time. Not that anyone should be sitting with poems for a short amount of time, but sometimes a long poem is a book that has to be read in a sitting. Sometimes the author is asking of the reader, “I’m sorry, but I need you to make this your day.” That kind of responsibility is really interesting to me. Which is one reason why I like long poems, because I’m an obsessive editor. I edit constantly, for months and months. If I’m going to be giving this to someone, I want to have put in all the work that I want them to put into it.
I like that idea a lot, yeah. Within that same sentiment, right, one of the load-bearing parts of what you just said, “I’m sorry, but I need you to make this your day,” is the apology of it.
Yes! Especially as a woman, as a trans person. I mean the long poem has historically as we know been a form that men have dominated. And the way that the long poem takes up space is so interesting and fascinating to me as a gendered space, too. I’ve talked with Paige Lewis about this a little bit, it never ceases to amaze me, how radical the act of asking someone to sit with you for a long time unfortunately is if you are not a cis man. One of the texts that was wildly formative for me, and inspirational in the beginning and making of R E D, was Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette.
Yes! I was, I literally have this handwritten note in front of me with that, I was just about to—yeah, say more!
That book was a miracle to me when I was first encountered it. I was reading it in Rachel Zucker’s craft class at NYU, a class on the long poem in particular. And the way that Notley reclaims the space of the epic poem was so destabilizing to all the things I knew, or thought I knew. She has this very short essay called “Homer’s Art,” where she talks about the thought that went into beginning her project and she talks about the history of the epic, which is an exclusively male dominated kind of form. And her desire,, her idea was, what if I wrote an epic story that was not about men? That didn’t have a man at its center, and wasn’t subject to the kind of violences that masculinity can perpetrate.
Right, and down to the nitty-gritty of form in that book, the way that quotation marks are used as a lineation, is another mechanism of speaking back, of not only claiming the space of the page but a claim to the space of a whole, choral voice.
And the way she flexes herself, the way she demands the work be looked at and sung in a particular way, she asks a lot of the reader. That was incredibly risky for her, in particular—I mean, when that book came out it was not well-received. That’s one of the reasons I’m so grateful for it, because of the space that it carved for me.
And it remains such a monument. I remember the first time I read that, just looking at the first page of the book—without knowing, really, what the importance of Alette is, or was—it comes as such an interruption.
I’m literally doing it right now, I just pulled it off my shelf. When you open it, you’re just immediately hit by it.
Yeah, yeah, it occupies space in such an interesting way, because each of those sections—it’s not always a full page, and never more than a single page at a time, right? I think in a lot of long poems what can be afforded is the way it can create landscape.
And with that book, it’s one where you open it and immediately you’re inside of it. And it’s very difficult to get out. Which I think is so important because of the linear intention of that project: she wanted to write an epic poem that was a story that starts at the beginning and ends at the end. But in order to be with it, you have to stay with it—it’s in no way a book for me that I can just sit down, open up, and read a poem from. And I think that is one of the hardest things about long poems, is that they’re generally not permissive of that kind of reading.
And not permissive of that urge that sort of cropped up in the 20th century for English language poetry, that urge to anthologize and the importance of anthologies within certain circles—the long poem totally resists that.
Right, but in poems like “Paterson,” the ease of which—the ease with which it feels like Williams occupies that form, it feels like he didn’t even need to think about what it was to write a long poem, he didn’t need to do any of that work, have any of that self doubt. And I mean, I don’t think it’s a good thing in any way that those forms have been disallowed to women and people who aren’t men, but I’m also so so fascinated when we disrupt that, because I think we do it in ways that are wildly more interesting.
I think one of the things I’m really interested in with R E D is, there’s this doubleness about it, right, having a long poem that takes up space in the way it does, and having that be an erasure poem. I always think about the erasure poem’s relationship to silence, right, and to put that silence in the form of a long poem seems really sui generis, or I don’t know, almost provocative maybe.
The first thing that I’m always interested in any erasure is the volume of what is not being said, what is being taken away, covered up, crossed out. I think that in an erasure poem in particular, there is such a responsibility to deal with the weight of that, on the poet, and it’s very difficult to achieve that conversation between the silence and the poem itself. Zong! does that better than anything I’ve ever read, in a thousand different ways. It’s so loud in the way that it communicates with the silence that is happening, the way that it erases erasure.
Robin Coste Lewis also does that in Voyage of the Sable Venus , so beautifully, in the title poem, where she uses these titles of artworks to speak to what is happening behind each title. Behind each line of poetry there’s a story in that book, that is so fascinating to me, and if I want to I can think about that for much longer than it takes to read the poem. I need that, and I want that. That’s something that erasure, when done well, can do. It has that kind of conversation without speaking that conversation directly.
Yeah, I’m thinking about that line, in Chapter XVIII, “I found in his absence a silence like a blush-bright smile” and then again later, “Silence the sound of what happened”
Silence is big in the book, yeah. And so is screaming. I think silence and screaming are two feelings which can come from the same place. I’ve been thinking about the aspects of Dracula I do not address in R E D.
Misogyny in Dracula is huge. But there are so many other problems with the book, too. It’s relationship with the Other, its relationship with the foreigner, xenophobia, homophobia, its homo-eroticism—there are so many different levels of problematic in Dracula.
But when I was making my book, I didn’t feel like those other elements, which are important to talk about and absolutely should be talked about, I didn’t think that those were necessarily my story. So if I were to do an erasure of Dracula that focuses on the racism and xenophobia in that book, you know, that’s not mine to struggle with as a poet. But the misogyny was. I felt never perfectly comfortable with erasing, reckoning with Dracula, but I was comfortable enough to feel like I was not enacting a certain kind of violence. It felt like what I was writing about in that text was something I had a right to be writing about because it was something that belonged to me, something that I know, have lived, have had to carry throughout my life.
And I think this gets at one reason why I sometimes hate erasure. One of the many impossibly infinite manifestations of white supremacy is the idea that culture belongs to you. The idea that this piece of artwork, this book, or this historical event is something that I feel 100% comfortable working with, writing about, disemboweling. That whiteness allows access and sovereignty. That all art is fair game. This impulse is really common, really scary, terrifying. I think that the question of positionality is the first concern anyone should have when choosing to work in appropriative forms. It happens so frequently that it makes me nervous when I see that anyone has published an erasure.
Just because there are so many ways that it can enact that violence, you mean?
It’s supremely, physically violent. Even the process of it is—you are using your hand, which is attached to part of your body, to erode another piece of artwork. Even if your intentions are good, even if your positionality and relationship to that artwork is ethical, or as ethical as possible, it is still an act of violence. And often the intentions and positionality that go into that are not good. I can spout of examples of that really easily—Kenneth Goldsmith (*), Vanessa Place, John Gosslee—poets who are so invested in the idea that all art belongs to them as white people that they are disinterested in having, refuse to have any kind of critical conversation about what they are doing. The confidence that they have in what they do is unbelievably terrifying to me.
Yeah, I agree. Was there anything in the erasure form that you feel like is generative? The way we often talk about form is that the constraints help us, or like restrain us into creation, do you find that to be true of erasure as well?
Erasure is a form like any other, right, except for the way that—I liken it to the way that vampires are portrayed in popular culture, how the rules for them change depending on who is writing them. Stephenie Meyer, when creating her vampires in Twilight, decided that instead of burning up in the sun, the sun just makes your skin sparkle. Which is 100% valid for her to do, right? There are plenty of other things wrong with that world, but people really hate that part specifically. But that’s the part I love the most.
Sure, sure, it's just a new theory of vampires.
Exactly, it’s always new. There are no two movies or TV shows that have exactly the same rules around what constitutes a vampire, and what a vampire does. And with erasure, the way that the form is for me, is completely different than it is for anybody else. It’s not like a Petrarchan sonnet. Which is not to say that a Petrarchan sonnet isn’t infinitely mutable as a form, too, but erasure is a very ill-defined thing, even in its methodologies and goals. A lot of people do it in a lot of different ways, and they’re only connected by being called erasures. The reason we use form is to find that possibility within constraint, and for me, I do find that generative. I think that erasure is, 90% of the time, much better as an exercise than it is as a form with which to make a poem. I think it’s a really great way to stimulate thought about text and language, which is why it’s used so ubiquitously in writing workshops and classes. But the amount of meticulousness and dedication to craft and the rules one sets out for one’s self, on top of an attention to identity and position and ethical considerations, all that work is probably not happening in the context of, like, an undergrad creative writing workshop. The amount of rules that went into making R E D was insane. Like very over the top. Perhaps more than I needed, even.
But they were ultimately useful.
They were, and they made it so much easier to write. The practice was very self-propulsive. When I started out I knew I wanted to go chapter by chapter from the first page to the last page of the book, and being able to work on a poem within these kinds of constraints made for a very different writing process than I would usually have. And it’s such a different kind of writing, erasure. In some ways it’s less exciting, less soul-fulfilling.
It’s just an approach to living with language and words that is so distinct, in every way. I didn’t need to be inspired to work on R E D. I could work on it on the train, I could work on it in the middle of class if I was bored, I didn’t have to get my brain and my heart into the particular place that it needs to be to write a poem. And I also didn’t get the satisfaction and sort of love that happens in that space.
Were you writing other poems, non-erasure poems, while you worked on the book?
Yes, a lot. I was generally not bringing R E D into workshop when I was working on it, and I was still at NYU, so I had to bring in poems to workshop every week. It was a lot of work, and probably unhealthy in a thousand different ways. And the book was very difficult to write for a variety of different reasons, and the fact that it was so exhausting made all of those reasons more intense.
Do you feel like your relationship with the form now is more, like, does the drive you talked about sort of foregrounding R E D in its formal exercise feel satiated to you? Are you writing almost entirely outside of erasure now?
I’ve done one erasure since Dracula—I just got it into my head one day that I might take a look at a little book called Mein Kampf, and I did an erasure of the first chapter of that. And I like that poem, it’s a gay little love poem using perhaps one of the most notable violent texts that’s ever been written. This was six months after or so after finishing R E D, and I erased the first chapter and then I flipped the page to go on to the next chapter, and Hitler—in the first chapter he mostly is talking about his daddy issues, and then he just gets right into the whole Jewish problem.
I read Dracula probably around twenty times while writing R E D, and there was just no way. I didn’t want to live with that horror in Mein Kampf like that. Dracula just became so stitched into my everyday thought, and it is really difficult to hold any book with you like that, it’s not healthy, and it doesn’t do any favors to your relationship to that book. That’s one of the biggest things that scares me about going back to erasure, I think. What happens when I write an erasure poem is different from what happens when I write other kinds of poems, and I’m just more interested in those other kinds of poems at this point in my life.
Do you want to talk about those other kinds of poems?
Well, I have the seeds of a new project, in the back of my mind, which I think might be another project that engages in literary appropriation—certainly not erasure—dealing with alcoholism, and the role of alcohol in the Bible. But I don’t know if that’ll take off. Having a project is really useful for me, and it almost never happens. That’s also because, when I have a project I can become very obsessive about it to the detriment and neglect of other aspects of my life. And there’s so much I’m working on in my own life right now, to not have room for any of that could be bad for me.
I’m very much the same way, I think, yeah—just the aspiration of a project can be helpful, even though some of the poems I like the most come from a place not of “what do I need to add to this larger opus,” and more of a lightning bolt, or a premonition if you wanna get spiritual about it.
I’ve been thinking more in this part of my life about how those feelings of inspiration relate to feelings of the divine, for me. I’ve been trying to make space for that divine in a different way than poems, right now—though I have been writing a lot. I just wrote a really new and difficult poem about sexual assault that I am terrified of. And I’m reading, I’m always reading. Reading is for me, more important than the act of writing. If I’m not reading, I’m definitely not writing.
Interview Posted: March 3, 2019
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