One of my dearest friends is an engineer, and about eight years ago he told me about QR codes, and he said, “These are going to be great for poetry.” I must admit that I had only the vaguest inkling what he might mean, and that inkling didn’t really develop into anything concrete for me until I read Collier Nogues’s very exciting book of erasure poems, The Ground I Stand on Is Not My Ground (Drunken Boat, 2015).
Nogues erases historical documents about the Pacific War and Okinawa in particular. Each poem bears a QR code, which, when scanned, takes a reader to an online, interactive version of the poem (which you can also access at www.thegroundistandon.com). If the reader scrolls her mouse over, or drags her finger across, a line that Nogues erased, that line reappears for the reader, so the erasure poem and its source text can both contribute to the reader’s experience of the poem.
When I write erasure poems, I worry about lineation–do I retain the spacing on the page, whiting out the words I want to erase, a la Mary Ruefle? Or do I re-lineate as I go? The beauty (or one of the beauties) of Nogues’s method is that the reader gets both–on the paper-and-ink page, Nogues has relineated the text, but the digital version retains the original spacing so the reader can encounter the original text, and the erasure, in situ.
For example, page six of the digital version of “Editor’s Introduction” consists of only two lines: “There is no record / of”. That placement on the page mimics its content–there is literally no record of whatever we’re talking about. In the paper-and-ink book, the hard copy, the lineation is:
There is no record of the difference we
copyists and clerks, minor employees. (lines 11-13)
Because we’re told what there is no record of, it’s a bit more specific and determined, and while we lose that sense of having literally no record, we gain a sense that we’re going to discuss the “copyists” and “clerks” as they relate to texts and textmaking, a discussion that’s crucial in an erasure project that makes poetic texts in a way that questions our traditional, Romantic ideas of authorship that say a poet’s diction must come from inspiration, or the Muse, or the poet’s emotion recollected in tranquility. Erasure poems make us confront the philosophy that authorship is a consciousness encountering an already-made world–erasure poems are poems because of the author’s curating of the words we see. This curator does a particularly thought-provoking job because the digital and paper-and-ink texts create slightly different poems that push against the source material and begin to ask to what extent a poet is a “copyist and clerk” after all.
As “Editor’s Introduction” develops, the erasures begin to be about the process of erasure itself, and about erasure’s status to the documents it erases, and, by extension, to the power structures that created and depend on those documents. Erasure poetry becomes a kind of subversion of the dominant discourse of empire:
felt like this:
I contained a universe
a pure part of heaven. (31-36)
Please excuse my spacing–there are spaces and alignments that aren’t well-represented here.
On the hard-copy page, those lines are the kind of playful, honest self-reflection that discusses the poem’s own methods openly and thereby attracts readers by transcending the constraints that enabled the poem–it theorizes the process of erasure even as it creates beautiful poetry through erasure. However, on the digital version, the typography of what happens after “felt like this:” must be seen to be appreciated: http://thegroundistandon.com/editors-introduction/editors-introduction-17/
The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground is artistic, creative, experimental, and politically important–the kind of book people will continue to use to discuss erasure poems and the power of digital media to support poetic innovation.
Nogues’s assignment for you is simply to write an erasure poem. Find a document. Erase. Lineate the result however you wish.
I have two variations on the assignment:
Assignment Option 1: Write an erasure poem that, like “Editor’s Introduction,” confronts something that has been erased. Write an erasure poem about erasing, using a document you associate with power. The history of the document erased in “Editor’s Introduction” is particularly fascinating for this exercise–that document, Robert King Hall’s introduction to Kokutai No Hongi: Cardinal Principles of the National Entity of Japan, was an Imperial document banned in Japan by the Supreme Command for the Allied Powers after the war (layer upon layer of control exercised through document, or through erasing and suppressing documents).
Assignment Option 2: Read Nogues’s poem “Dear Grace,” which is multiple erasures of the same document. Find a document. Erase the document different ways–put several of the different erasures together into one new poem.