Give Me a Sharpie!

Erasures and Political Poetry

I write this just after the landmark guilty verdict in the trial over the murder of George Floyd. Verdict, from ver (true) and dict (speech): a truth that was spoken and seen as truth, as always, in a context, in this case months of widespread protest for racial justice that in turn grew from much, much deeper roots. It was a truth that was spoken in the court only after being spoken in the streets.

Protest is one way to speak up, as are electoral politics and civic engagement, and I contend – no, I know – that poetry is another. Poetry is a socially potent tool, and has been in most times and places, hence literary censorship. Unlike reporting and polemic, poetry gives us the power of emotion and of beauty, which as the poet[1] says is truth[2].  

The youth and the truth:      

The youth today is the truth today, they say at YouthSpeaks!, the youth poetry program that operates out of the same community arts center as one of my classes. They meet later in the day so we never see them (only their cryptic meeting notes on the whiteboards), but I bring their poets into my class, and when I can, attend their Grand Slam poetry championships.

YouthSpeaks! Grand Slam, 2017: several hundred people pack into the dark wooden pews of Seattle’s Town Hall, the old converted church where writers and thinkers come to speak to our city. The air buzzes with voices, people of all ages, but the teens own the space. It is their words that fill it. Nikkita Oliver, the poet-lawyer-activist who was running for mayor, emcees. The teens perform their poems, speaking boldly about their identities, their pain, their dreams. We cheer and cheer and it goes on and on and on for wonderful hours. I am newly pregnant, my energy all turned inward, so I leave before they finish, but it doesn’t leave me, the power of hearing teen voices – the power of those voices – and the power of honoring them with one of the city’s great civic stages.

The next year, Town Hall is under renovation and the Grand Slam is in a moldy community center in a scrappy part of town. The ceiling is low and we sit on folding chairs and still the poetry’s power carries the night. My daughter is a new crawler, so I hear most of it from the back of the room as I chase her around and again have to leave early and again still carry echoes of the youth speaking.

Speaking by erasure:

Sometimes the way to speak, especially about powerful outside forces, is to use other people’s words in your own context. Found word poetry can do this and so can erasures.

Erasures are writing by erasing, creating by destroying, speaking by silencing. The premise of erasure poems is that you take a text and cross out words until only your poem remains. While younger kids happily black out pages of anything (I often use old paperback kids’ books I find in free street libraries), the form is most satisfying if you have an engagement with the source text. In a full use of the form, your poem and the source are in dialogue, a dialogue of silencing and highlighting, of the removal of context, of repetition, of the twisting of meaning, of empty space. It is a form that reverses power dynamics, taking the authority of the published word and literally crossing it out, using the words of the powerful to say your own thoughts.  

It’s no wonder so many contemporary poets use erasures to speak about big issues: race, power, gender, history. From the atrocities of the slave tradeto the U.S. government’s relations with American Indian tribes, erasures can be a way of speaking about the unspeakable.

Writing erasure poems with kids:

Great, but what about using erasures with kids? I’d start with finding a text that feels meaningful to the child. Do you have a speech of a politician they dislike? An article on a subject they care about? An advertisement that has the potential to influence their sense of themselves? Who holds power in your child’s world?[5] Give your kid their words and a sharpie.

You could use also erasures as a way to engage creatively with any historical or political text. They are a great way to work more deeply with a dense or problematic text you are studying in some other way, digest the news, or to wrestle with questions of justice and power. I had a student do an erasure of the Mueller report, redacting more from the already redacted text, and getting a chance to grapple with his own stance on (then) current events. 

In Former US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s “Declaration,” she erases (and reorders) text from the Declaration of Independence to create a commentary on police brutality, the oppression of black people within the U.S., and the oppression and inequality built into the founder’s declaration of freedom and equality.

Declaration

By Tracy K. Smith

He has

              sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people

He has plundered our

                                           ravaged our

                                                                         destroyed the lives of our

taking away our­

                                  abolishing our most valuable

and altering fundamentally the Forms of our

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for

Redress in the most humble terms:

Our repeated

Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.

We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration

and settlement here.

                                    —taken Captive

on the high Seas

                                                                                                     to bear—

Engaging meaningfully with a text can also be much more light-hearted. I’ve had students make meaningful erasures using scientific writing and Hamilton songs. After all, as anyone who’s been around a Hamilton-belting child knows, there many ways to find one’s voice.

Footnotes (for all you fellow nerds):

[1] John Keats. See Google. Or your high school English class.

[2] Of course, he’s a poet, so he might be biased. But I am too.

[3] I’m talking real people, and also those amorphous voices in the world, the they that tells kids their thighs are too big or their shoes are dumb or their whatever isn’t whatever enough.

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