Nothing is Original: Erasure in the Age of Originality
By Lucy Farcnik
Erasure is one of my favourite forms of poetry. It’s my cure of choice for writer's block and creative burnout. Also known as blackout poetry, Poets.org defines it as “found poetry wherein a poet takes an existing text and erases, blacks out, or otherwise obscures a large portion of the text, creating a wholly new work from what remains.” Found poetry is just a term for poetry made up of text from different sources, be that a newspaper, dictionary, or, my personal favourite, a course syllabus. It involves taking the words of someone else and arranging them into your own work. However, like most people, I’ve been taught since toddlerhood not to steal. As Dora’s refrain went: “swiper no swiping!”
Living in a world oversaturated with information that seeps into our work both consciously and unconsciously, what consciousness do writers need to have of the line between influence, inspiration and intellectual theft?
Erasure, though it has increased in popularity over the last several decades, has been seen since the 18th century, with one of Benjamin Franklin’s neighbours practicing the craft. The majority of modern poets consider erasure a valid form of poetry, and, indeed, one that is an inevitable evolution of the form. For many schoolchildren like me, it was an elementary school project meant to help us develop our poetic skills. As Austin Kleon says in Steal Like an Artist, “We’re talking about practice here, not plagiarism—plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.”
That’s not to say every author (or lawyer) is on the side of erasure. As Travis Macdonald says, “the use of appropriation as a poetic tool has moved from the outskirts of abject plagiarism to semi-accepted practice.” This is where the line becomes legally blurry. As of yet, very few copyright challenges have been levied against blackout poets, yet with the rise of entire books of the genre, the possibility remains on the horizon. Regardless of the author's intentions, it is the original author’s interpretation that begins the basis for potential copyright infringement.
So, in order to avoid intellectual theft, both legally and creatively, what can writers do? Consider what the Center for Media and Social Impact has written in their Code of Best Practices for Fair Use in Poetry. They argue that found poetry necessitates a question of fair use, stating that blackout poetry and erasure should only be performed if “quotations are represented in poetic forms that add value through significant imaginative or intellectual transformation.” Essentially, use what you want, but make very sure that what you’re using becomes your own.
Of course, there are critics out there that accuse erasure of being a form without originality. It’s an incredibly fascinating part of our culture where uniqueness is king. However, whether we like it or not, nothing is original. You could probably find a dozen different articles with different angles and interpretations of erasure and originality just like this one. As Kleon states, “If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.” Quality erasure, just like other forms of found poetry or art, can become its own work with original presentations of fascinating and strange details without needing to be entirely separate from its inspiration.
While we may have the best of intentions, there are also functional ways to ensure that we, as writers, avoid plagiarizing the work of others even when we use them as source material. Regardless of how altered your poem is from its source material, it is always wise to give credit where credit is due. In the next paragraph, notice how the examples of erasure I’ve given credit their source material in the description of their book. Even in books of ‘regular’ poetry (think Night Sky with Exit Wounds), there is often a list of where authors have quoted or referenced others. Personally, I also like to avoid taking anything too similar to the work that I do. For example, I find doing erasures from songs or poems that are highly concentrated more difficult to make my own, since the word selection is so small, and I don’t tend to write super-short poetry.
If you’d like, there are plenty of brilliant erasure collections to explore. Try If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? by Matthea Harvey. It combines visual artwork with erasure from a variety of sources to create an engaging, visually stunning series of narratives. Another example is A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel by Tom Phillips, which is an erasure of the entirety of a relatively unknown eighteenth century British romance novel that creates its own version of the story. There are also many different examples of erasure varying in complexity and length available online.
So, consider giving erasure a try the next time you’re out of ideas. Take your car insurance papers, the back of a shampoo bottle, or a menu item description. Kleon directs that “the way to get over creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself.” Going beyond form and trying only to use the vocabulary and order of someone else’s words always presents a challenge. It has given me some of my favourite poems of all time and also some that I hate no matter how many times I try to redo them. By nature, erasure is often deeply intertwined with art and colour theory, often incorporating artwork around the words and using different colours to “blackout” the words and change how they are perceived. The possibilities are endless, and even if the erasure doesn’t turn out perfect, it always gives me a new line to finagle into something new
P.S. Try doing it by hand! There’s nothing better to rage against your writer’s block with than a page and a Sharpie.
Academy of American Poets. (n.d.). Erasure. Poets.org. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://poets.org/glossary/erasure
Center for Media and Social Impact. (2011, January). Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry. Center for Media & Social Impact. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://cmsimpact.org/code/code-best-practices-fair-use-poetry/
Flynn, J. P. (2021, April 7). Entitled To Copyright Erasure?: A Fair Use Search For A Derived Yet Transformational Work. International Lawyer's Network. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://www.ilnipinsider.com/2021/04/entitled-to-copyright-erasure-a-fair-use-search-for-a-derived-yet-transformational-work/
Goodreads. (n.d.). A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel by Tom Phillips. Goodreads. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30341552-a-humument
Goodreads. (2014, August 19). If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? by Matthea Harvey. Goodreads. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18465560-if-the-tabloids-are-true-what-are-you?ref=nav_sb_ss_1_12
Kleon, A. (2012). Steal Like an Artist. Workman Publishing Company.
Macdonald, T. (2009). A Brief History of Erasure Poetics. Jacket Magazine. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from http://jacketmagazine.com/38/macdonald-erasure.shtml
Offbeat Poet. (2019, June 24). The History of Blackout Poetry: Redacting Words Since the 1700s. Medium. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://medium.com/offbeat-poetry/the-history-of-blackout-poetry-ca8985f04c35
Rumens, C. (2021, November 12). Blanked verse: the power of erasure poetry | Poetry. The Guardian. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/nov/12/blanked-verse-the-power-of-erasure-poetry