In March I taught a workshop at 826michigan about erasure poetry. That workshop, which I called “The Poetry of Absence,” was inspired by a post I’d published here on Klickitat a few months earlier. I wanted to report back and share some tips with you, in case you’d like to hold a similar workshop or program. As always, please credit me if you do happen to use my ideas, especially in a professional context.
I’m happy to report that the workshop was a success! We had a lot of fun and some fantastic work came out of the session. I was shocked and humbled that complete silence fell over the room when it came time for writing. Pretty awesome.
The basic format of my workshop (90 minutes):
- Getting Started (15 minutes):
- Pages of “raw material” and art supplies were on the tables when students arrived.
- I explained what erasure poetry is, illustrating points throughout with a few images in a PowerPoint:
- Process for creating erasure poetry
- Duality: artifact/art object and a written document
- Unique nature of erasure poetry: An editor of the Poetry Foundation’s podcast, Off The Shelf, describes the white spaces in erasure poems as being “more loaded” than in regular poetry. The parent text will always be just out of sight, even when we look for it. Maybe the text will bend in ways we didn’t expect.
- Possible directions for erasure poems:
- Tree of Codes, Jonathan Safran Foer: die-cut “erasure” story of an entire book (The Street of Crocodiles)
- Political commentary (Janet Holmes’ The ms of m y kin—poems about the Iraq War cut out of the text of Emily Dickinson’s Civil War poetry)
- Thematically/experimental interpretation (Yedda Morrison, visual artist and poet, erased all evidence of humans from the text of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, leaving only natural imagery—rivers, rocks, trees)
- Spur of the moment/gut instinct (Newspaper Blackout, Austin Kleon – adapts newspaper articles to kill time on his morning bus commute)
- Together, using Wave Books’ on-line erasure poetry website, I led the class through the process, creating an example poem with feedback from the class. (Note: We didn’t actually get to do this because of technical difficulties but, if I taught the class again, I’d plan to do this.)
- First Free Write (15 minutes)
- Encourage students to create their first poem (or more, if they finish their first one).
- More Things To Try (5 minutes):
- After most students appear to be done with their first attempt, pause to offer new suggestions (different brushstrokes, trying to connect words in different ways – i.e. with lines or “speech bubbles,” incorporating color), again with examples in PowerPoint or by demonstrating on the whiteboard. (Note: This is the second to the last slide with all the images and no text.)
- Second Free Write (25 minutes):
- Ask students to create another poem (preferably more, if they have time) with a new technique.
- Wrapping Up (10 minutes):
- I offered suggestions of what more students can do with their poems: Start a story? Link several poems into a short story? Is it possible to make images or patterns with the words? Etc.
- Ask students and facilitators if they have ideas. Brainstorm together other materials to experiment with (i.e. textbook or newspaper article with pictures – how do the pictures change the way the poem is read?)
- Presentations (20 minutes):
- I ended the class with students presenting their poems to one another.
Some general tips:
- Wave Poetry has a fantastic on-line erasure app on their website. I used their public domain readings as the bulk of my source texts. You can do this by viewing the image as a PDF and printing them off. Alternately, if you happen to be teaching in a computer lab, you could always have students use the app on the website (as intended by the creators). A poem I wrote using the app.
- On a whim, I grabbed a stack of the (free) campus newspapers to use along with the Wave Poetry cut-outs. They were a big hit! The students really responded to the chance to cut up the newspapers. (Granted, it got a little messy.) If I teach this workshop again, I’d definitely include newspapers (if they still exist in the future, that is.)
- It’s probably a good idea to hold this workshop in a well ventilated space. The marker fumes get a little thick.
- If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend this Poetry Foundation podcast, “Writing with an Eraser.”
P. S. I’ll be teaching another found object workshop on May 19th at 826. Check the workshop page for details and to sign up.