An expectant quiet, punctuated by the movement of feet beneath the trestle table, and the modest audience sits to attention. I’m the first reader at a poetry event my friend organised under the theme “Found Poetry”. It involves a reading by local writers of “found” poems—poems that take words from their original source and reshape them into something new—followed by a blackout poetry workshop encouraging audience participation. Cups of Sharpies and ballpoint pens are scattered around the table; pages from discarded library books in a ring around them. I look down at the poems I’ve brought, still not all to my liking, and begin to speak.
Blackout poetry, also known as erasure poetry, is a fascinating form when thinking about poetry and fragmentation. It describes the process of “blacking out” parts of a text (any text, from a novel to a car manual) and crafting a poem from the remaining words—slashing a text to fragments and then reknitting them into a whole.
About a month before my friend’s event, I sat down with no small amount of trepidation to create my own blackout poems. I took up my chosen texts and started scratching away excess words like a paleontologist scrubbing at a fossil, only my fossil turned out to be a laboured and somewhat subpar excuse for a poem. The questions came unbidden: Was I overthinking things? Did I feel too shackled by the original context of the words to transplant them into my own? Would I ever stop growing dizzy from Sharpie fumes? I wondered, too, how blackout could truly be considered a serious form, instead of a practice reserved for brainstorming or a warmup for school students suffering through the creative writing module. And yet it’s hard to deny it: the liberating energy of breaking down and building up.
It shouldn’t be surprising that poets from underrepresented groups have translated the act of crossing out into a symbolic one, employing the erasure technique to speak over a society that has always spoken over them. One visceral and inventive example is R E D (Birds, LLC, 2018), a book-length erasure of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in which American trans poet Chase Berggrun seems well aware of the misogynistic and homophobic fear of the “other” bubbling under the surface of the iconic novel. With its varied vocabulary typical of 19th century prose, Stoker’s text is fertile soil for Berggrun’s excavations. The result is an entirely new narrative doubling as a vivid interrogation of gendered power dynamics, trauma and transgression, told from the perspective of a woman who can no longer stay quiet:
I was a woman in the usual way
This searing sequence of poems cuts like a knife. “Ladies’ bodies are deemed unholy / by the very men who burn them”, the poems’ speaker declares in Chapter 14. Later, she confirms: “This is my pollution story”. But instead of destroying the monstrous force she ultimately finds within herself like Stoker’s Van Helsing, the speaker embraces her transformation into something fierce and uncontainable, something other. If Berggrun’s creation of R E D was an act of violence to the original text, it was also a subversive rebirth; freeing the women of Stoker’s novel as well as his repressive society.
Yet taking back the power can be a bitter impossibility when slicing a text down to fragments doesn’t make it any less destructive. In “Declaration”, former US Poet Laureate Tracy K Smith tears back the curtain on the Declaration of Independence and its accompanying mythology to expose the plight of millions of enslaved African Americans. Her erasure of the Declaration draws the eye to what’s absent, ensuring the truncation feels jarring. These lines are interrupted by silence, by the inability to continue because there is nothing more to say about the pain inflicted on so many for so long:
Why are gaps so compelling? It must be the way that they alert us to an unseen whole. Poems that use footnotes or other reference “notes” seem to me to be another kind of fragmentation because they challenge the usual function of footnotes as appendages to a text. There’s something intriguing about a poem comprised only of notes, as though the source was undiscoverable or had for some reason been torn away. An effective ‘footnote poem’ is Helen Rickerby’s “Notes on an Unsilent Woman”, part of her collection How to Live (Auckland University Press, 2019). Like R E D, Rickerby’s subject is speech and silence, and she uses “notes” (represented by numbered stanzas) to embody how the ancient woman philosopher Hipparchia was relegated to a footnote in history.
But it’s Alison Glenny’s enigmatic The Bird Collector (Compound Press, 2021) that made me really reflect on the poetic potential of fragmentation through weaving together erasure, notes, and much more. With the precision of a dream, Glenny unveils what feels like a puzzle box in form and content. The collection is divided into two parts, “Bird Organ” and “Nights with the Collector”, and cycles through a mysterious dramatis personae in settings ranging from a forest to a planetarium. It’s a book unafraid to be obscure; infused with nocturnal music and an old-fashioned melancholy that lingers as you leave one page for the next, as though leafing through disparate documents from some surreal archive. Take the glossaries of imagined objects, where each entry is a thing of odd and haunting beauty:
velocipede. Hand-cranked instrument for producing perfectly metred verse. Its wingless measures were likened to an erotics. As one century turned into another, rumours arose of a machine that would seed the sky with the vapour of vanished epics.
Pieces like “Footnotes to a History of Birdsong”, a series of notes in the footer of the page with no corresponding main text, blur the boundaries between poetry, literary criticism and historical scholarship. Glenny uses this form throughout, complementing the collection’s central theme of loss—loss of companionship, loss of knowledge, loss of the past. One of the most memorable pieces, “Fragments and Notes”, consists of erasure poems seemingly formed from the prose poems which preceded it. Even if I turned back to discern exactly what had been erased from those earlier poems, these notes still produce the sensation of something elusive and half-remembered. The physical page undeniably plays a role in that feeling: words slanting down like gentle snow; broken parentheses drifting near them in the vast white.
Most readers are accustomed to seeking out some sense of narrative. By drawing our attention to things that have been erased or replaced or whittled down to their strangest components, poetry that uses fragmentation can rebel against this impulse. Less than halfway through The Bird Collector, I stopped trying to ‘solve’ it and just doused myself in its dreamspace. You might say that these kinds of forms pose challenges for readers, attracting the classic ‘style over substance’ criticism. I can’t deny that sometimes I read a poem that is brilliantly adventurous in technique but simply doesn’t move me. Personal taste isn’t something you can change, but what poetry that uses fragmentation can do is broaden our conceptions of what a poem can achieve—both through what’s on the page and what isn’t.
Anuja Mitra lives in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland and has rambled about poetry and theatre for Cordite, a fine line, Aniko Press, Minarets and Theatre Scenes. Her recent creative publications include takahē, the anthology No Other Place to Stand and Poetry New Zealand. Find her linktree and assorted thoughts on Twitter @anuja_m9.