The past year has been difficult for many people. The pandemic, the politics, the job loss and the isolation — most Americans have had to find some new coping mechanisms to make it through. Here’s one: erasure poetry.
Creativity can be healing in difficult times, but it’s not always easy to tap into those creative juices. Sometimes you’re just too overwhelmed and exhausted to write or create. In those times, turning to found poetry — a style of poetry in which you write something new using only what you can find in an existing text — can help.
Sometimes when it’s hard to write, that constraint gives you a place to start. It’s a bit like a painter working with a limited palette: You have both a solid foundation from which to begin your poem, and the challenge to create something using only what you have in front of you. And even if you’re having difficulty writing traditionally constructed poetry, the medium of found poetry can let you gain access to a vocabulary you didn’t know you needed.
Among the forms of found poetry is erasure. The writer finds something new to say in an existing text; in this case, an article from The Times. Blackout poetry is a style of erasure that eliminates the words around a poem you’ve found within the text to present both a piece of literature and a stark image of that literature on the same page.
You may be wondering: Am I really writing a poem if I’m using someone else’s work to start? Yes! Writing a good found poem — and in this case, an erasure — requires the poet to intervene on the source text. This means that your poem will say something different than the source text. It will be representative of your voice and your narrative.
The rules are fairly simple: In an erasure, you can only use the words that appear in the article you’ve chosen, and you have to use them in the order they appear. How you erase the words around your poem is up to you. Here’s how to do it.
Choose your materials.
How will you erase? Do you want to use Wite-Out? A marker? Glitter? Maybe you’ll try some collage. The erasure in the poem above was done using a Sakura Gelly Roll pen.
Find an article.
You might choose an article that gives you strong feelings — joy, anger or sadness. Or you might choose an article that you can’t relate to at all. Both are great places to start. Once you’ve read the article, you can begin to identify words and phrases that you find interesting or that resonate with you, regardless of the context of the piece. Try to find at least one interesting or strong word that you can build the poem around.
The poem above was written using Marcus Westberg’s article “Crisp, Quiet and Still: A Wintry Swedish Wonderland,” from the Jan. 10 print edition of The Times. It’s important that your voice speaks in your poem, and not that of the original writer — an erasure poem shouldn’t summarize the material it’s created from. It should say something new. So while Mr. Westberg’s article is about pandemic travel in Sweden, the poem is about the elusiveness of new beginnings.
Prepare your draft.
Before you go in with that Sharpie or Wite-Out, you may want to outline the words you intend to keep with a pencil. You can also make a few copies of your article so that you can practice or experiment marking up the page from the original newspaper page you’re using.
When you’re ready, erase all of the words other than the ones in your poem using your medium of choice.
You’ve written a poem. And maybe — just maybe — it helped you feel a little less stressed today. Cite your sources, and then go ahead and share your poem with friends. Maybe you’ll find more erasure poets in your midst, a small clan of sneaky writers with whom to exchange your creations.