Erasure as Reclamation: Erase the Patriarchy: An Anthology of Erasure Poetry
Apr 12 ● BY Vanessa Couto Johnson
In 2017, at the height of the #MeToo movement’s momentum of survivors coming forward about experienced sexual assault and harassment, Isobel O’Hare (who uses they/them pronouns) shared their erasures of the ‘apology’ statements of the accused, marking up the text in order to have these offenders openly admit “my dick is a question I run from” and other attitudes driving this reprehensible behavior. O’Hare’s effective erasures went viral across social media, empowering others to use the erasure form to examine societal problems.
Released in October 2020 and edited by O’Hare, Erase the Patriarchy: An Anthology of Erasure Poetry gathers these works into eight sections: Government, Journalism & Media, Religion, Science & Education, Music, Hollywood, Sports, and Literature. These sections pertain to the origin of the source text each erasure works with.
Additionally, every erasure is immediately followed by a note from the author of that piece, granting the reader insight into the process, further context, or other relevant information. As these poems are works from writers on a global scale, these notes can offer clarifying information, such as “Don Burke is a household name in Australia” in regards to this ex-TV host and producer.
There are erasures that double as persona poems: often, the erasure is employed to reveal the core message of the original text; having blacked out the extraneous, what remains is the patriarchal violence of saying such things as “Your future is over.” Although the speaker here remains the original speaker, they are concentrated into a persona willing to utter their speech more succinctly; the poet is framing the ugliness so it cannot be denied. For this persona developed by the erasure, their obvious abhorrent wording can motivate self-deprecation and self-criticism the original speaker would not consider, as in how Elizabeth Schmuhl makes a senior creative director at Victoria’s Secret say, “I don’t think.”
Some erasures are employed to create a whole new speaker, as in Deborah Fass’ “Reclamation,” where she takes an anti-feminist statement by Courtland Sykes and reveals a feminist manifesto/celebration in which “feminism’s modern woman” is powerful and recognized, able to “leap over […] a thousand tall buildings […] in a single bound.” Fass’ poem is also an example of an erasure that does not fully erase: the original language is in gray, still readable. Fass explains, “I decided to let Sykes’ content remain visible because I think that feminists must always keep such misogynistic ideology in our sights. Preserving the readability of his words reminds us what we are up against.”
There are other erasures in this anthology as well in which the original text remains readable. For example, Zann Carter’s use of strikethrough still shows Thomas Jefferson’s address and Caitlin M. Downs’s alternative process photographic technique in the eponymous “Bloody Columbus.”
That said, the majority of the works in Erase the Patriarchy block out words from the original, resulting in rectangular black shadows among remaining words. Still, others use this opportunity to have the blocking be colorful, as in lavender boxes by Marcella Prokop, a wall of bricks by Tara Campbell, sticky notes added by Emily Walling, and Genevieve Pfeiffer’s floral overlays and green marker. Even Meg E. Griffitts’ use of whiteout appears yellowed and brings that color to the page. Other modes of coverage include soil in the collaboration between Caren Florance and Melinda Smith, as well as Abigail Zimmer’s use of sugar, fennel, turmeric, red pepper flakes, and coffee grounds. Also notable is Addie Tsai’s use of fake blood and Sarah Lyn Rogers’ fantastic use of menstrual blood.
Yet other erasures fully omit the coverage aspect, presenting only the language selected and freed from their original place on the page, as in Victorio Reyes Asili’s “The History of Hip Hop: Erasuremix” that is left-aligned and lineated to Reyes Asili’s desire. Rachel Anna Neff presents both: a version of the printout with mark-throughs and a version standardized to appear like a ‘normal’ poem. As “erasure” often brings to mind poems that are more like fine art pieces (the original pages still having vestiges of their presence by being the canvas), more representation of these types could have been satisfying: conversion from the source texts into a new form, fully divorced from the original form into what the poet wants.
A series that is both a new form divorced from the original form in the collection and definitely fine art pieces would be three of Meghann Boltz’s five pieces. Piece one and three do depend on the original text’s placement of the words (as the page itself is the canvas), but the other three pieces have the selected language cut from the source book and placed on photographs from that book in a manner Boltz wanted.
Logan K. Young’s unique form of erasure is notable. In his words, “Rather than physical ink to do my strike-through, I opted instead for something almost as quotidian as that big black marker on our desks: the personal computer.” The result is a Microsoft Word Track Changes page, the photo having the leftover words in focus and a margin of Deleted info on the right and out of focus.
There are many other admirable works to discover in the anthology beyond the ones mentioned. The notes from these authors were likewise invigorating to read. Overall, it is exciting to see a home for such a range of works and authors, each distinct but together, collaborating in the aim to end patriarchal-based violence and oppression wherever they exist.
After reading this book, reader poets can think: in what more ways can an erasure exist? And further to the focus of this anthology, what more ways can erasure be used to dismantle oppression? This is an anthology that pushes for this much-needed conversation and more significantly, these necessary explorations by poets as we further navigate a world in need of change.