by Jenni B. Baker
In late 2013, I began creating erasure poetry page by page from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest as a memorial to an author whose death in 2009 had a tremendous impact on me. Erasure poetry, in which I remove words and phrases from Wallace’s text to unearth a new poem in their midst, is at once a metaphor for death and a mechanism for dealing with it.
I’ve written more about the project’s origins and purpose over at The Huffington Post and Nick Maniatis’ wonderful David Foster Wallace site, The Howling Fantods. For this post, however, I want to talk specifically about craft.
In terms of digital execution, my process is straightforward:
1) I scan the pages of the hard copy edition to an SD card, which I then insert into my computer.
2) I open the image in Adobe Photoshop and correct any deficiencies in the scan, such as page rotation and coloration.
3) Finally, I “erase” text from the page by using the paintbrush tool to paint over it with the same color as the page itself. Occasionally, I’ll work in reverse, filling the entire image with the page color, adjusting the transparency to 80 percent or so, and selectively erasing the paint over the words I want to use in my poem.
Here’s a video that shows the process in action:
Knowing how to erase the text is just the first step in the process — the bigger challenge comes in when I’m forced to “find” new poems in each page of Wallace’s novel, ones that aren’t simply distillations of the original text but which reinterpret, respond or react to it in new ways.
In an early iteration of this project, I attempted to craft poems from entire sections of the text at a time. This approach ultimately failed; I found myself reading the text and writing poems whose topics and tone were too close to those in the novel. I have to work one page at a time, removing each page’s contents from the book’s broader context, in order to divorce myself from the literal subject matter.
Once I’ve isolated a page for erasing, I usually apply one of five approaches to arrive at the final poem.
APPROACH #1: FREESTYLE
Approach #1 is the loosest and the one I default to when first entering a page of text. Quite simply, I let my eyes quickly scan the page, hoping they land on interesting word combinations or phrases. A compelling juxtaposition of two words can be enough of a seed to grow a poem around.
APPROACH #2: DEFINITION
The second approach works well when there’s a compelling word located in the first few lines of the page. When crafting a definition-style poem, I often choose abstract nouns — words that represent concepts rather than objects. You can easily see how choosing a starting term like “love” lends itself to more exposition than one like “coffee.”
APPROACH #3: WORD PATTERNS
As readers, we often pay more attention to what authors say rather than how they say it. Spending time with Infinite Jest allows me to examine closely Wallace’s stylistic and syntactical choices — constructions which reveal the depths of his writing prowess. I use these recurring words and phrases as jumping off points for erasure poems.
APPROACH #4: ADDITIONAL CONSTRAINT
If you’ve ever stood bewildered in the aisles of a large supermarket, trying to choose between one hundred brands of cereal, you know that fewer options can sometimes lead to quicker decisions. When I’m having a particularly difficult time surfacing a poem from a page, I find it’s usually helpful to restrict my word base even further. I’ll limit myself to words found within a single column inch on the page or those that align along a particular margin.
APPROACH #5: MINIMALISM
Finally, sometimes a phrase on the page just hits me, and I’ll let that single expression stand as its own piece. These erasures usually garner the greatest number of favorites and re-blogs on Tumblr because of their simplicity. I try not to depend on this approach too much, however. Critics of found and erasure poetry often argue that poets don’t do enough to transform the original text, and I don’t want to give them too much additional ammunition.
Jenni B. Baker is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Found Poetry Review. Her own poetry has been published or is forthcoming in more than three dozen literary journals including DIAGRAM, Geist, SWARM and InDigest Magazine; her first chapbook, Comings/Goings will be published by Dancing Girl Press in 2015. By day, she works as a nonprofit content manager in the DC area. Follow her on Twitter @jennibbaker.