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Hidden Meanings: The Power & Precision of Erasure Poetry

Erasure poetry, also called blackout poetry, uses existing texts to emphasize new themes. Specifically, erasure poets take a text — which can range from government documentation to Shakespearean sonnets — and cross out or paint over words until a new meaning emerges. Often times, the resulting poem critiques or subverts the original text, which has led to the framing of erasure as political and societal resistance.

 

Erasure can be an inspiring form for poets since they don’t need to come to a blank page with a fully-formed idea — instead, they can play in an existing minefield of language. Think of all the different word banks around you that could serve as prompts: a favorite book, a takeout menu, an instruction manual, even a bank statement.

 

Another interesting element of erasure poetry is that no two poets’ takes will be the same. Once, I participated in an erasure workshop where everyone started with the same source material, only for our poems to end up wildly different and original. The following erasure poets leave us with newfound insights and imagery that are wholly their own.

 

Hadara Bar-Nadav, “Infect This Page”

Before becoming a professor of creative writing, Bar-Nadav spent time editing medical documents. In “Infect This Page,” she brings that experience to her poetry, beginning with the drug information for Ceftriaxone, an antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections. 

 

Bar-Nadav’s poem slices through the typically vague and long-winded tone of medicine inserts, flippantly stating, “You should begin to feel better / or get worse.” At the heart of the poem lays Bar-Nadav’s piercing criticism of American society: “Someone who is sick / is / at / war,” she writes. “The victim of / your normal / American / diet / of / disease / and pain.”

 

Tracy K. Smith, “Declaration”

American history has always been great — at least, according to dominant, privileged perspectives and official government documents. In “Declaration,” a poem as bold as its title, Smith erases the Declaration of Independence to reflect more marginalized identities. She particularly focuses on African ancestors, who remained enslaved while their captives cheered a singular, exclusive view of freedom.

 

Throughout the poem, Smith conveys the most meaning with what she doesn’t say. Many lines end on a dash, requiring readers to fill in the atrocities for themselves, as well as feel the resounding heaviness of the page’s white space. “He has plundered our — / ravaged our — / destroyed the lives of our — / taking away our — / abolishing our most valuable —,” Smith writes, creating a messy syntax that invites readers to challenge and question clean-cut history lessons.

 

Niina Pollari, “Form N-400 Erasures”

Pollari’s erasure of the N-400, the application one must fill out to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, erupted on social media as debates about immigration and xenophobia raged under the Trump administration. Pollari’s poem shows how erasure’s simplicity and directness can harness raw emotion, channeling it so that it becomes all a reader can take in. It reads: “Do you / Have / awful / association s / Have you / been / in / total / terror.”

 

Then, two boxes can be seen against the Sharpied, black background: “Yes” and “No.” This allows readers to identify with the people filling out this paperwork, evaluating their current terrors and how today’s political makeup might contribute.

 

Travis MacDonald, Preface of The O Mission Repo

What happens when you use the sparing form of the erasure to cover a subject that counts among the most written about in history? MacDonald explores this in The O Mission Repo, a poetry collection that erases and obscures The 9/11 Commission Report.

 

A special characteristic of erasure poetry is its ability to provide more uncommon interpretations, as well as counter the tone of its source material. While most writing about 9/11 feels tragic — and rightfully so — the preface of MacDonald’s book hones in on a sliver, a singular image, of hope and unity. He writes, “We / have searched / past / sight / and witness / for / This final / fraction of / light / We emerge from this”

 

With these poems providing inspiration, it’s your turn to get started — there are erasure poems all around you!