“Everyone comes to erasure for different reasons”: An Interview with Isobel O’Hare

Reading Isobel O’Hare’s anthology, Erase the Patriarchy: An Anthology of Erasure Poetry, I found myself stretching my own definitions of erasure poetry, as well as realizing the importance of not only verbal, but visual art. Before reading this anthology, I never knew the extent of the part that visual art has alongside erasure poetry. It emphasizes the message the writer has already brought to the forefront with erasure, omission, and censoring. Erasure pieces not only add processed meanings to a piece, but something else to be seen while reading between the lines.

In a world where so many voices are censored, Erase the Patriarchy brings light to many versions of oppression: from sexual assault allegations against celebrities to the journal entries of Christopher Columbus. Using the alchemy and chance operations, the contributors to Erase the Patriarchy take these privileged voices and mark up the page to reveal the truth behind these articles, entries, and apology statements. The voices of the writers and victims to these crimes are seen and heard through a reverse censorship of these people in positions of power and privilege. The contributors to O’Hare’s anthology add unheard voices to these conversations.

In our interview, we talk about the process behind creating an anthology such as this one, verbal versus visual art, the importance or lack of importance in knowing the message hidden behind the erasures, and O’Hare’s previous collection of erasure poem all this can be yours

In Erase the Patriarchy, I noticed how well the pieces flow together, even though they address a wide range of topics, from sexual assault allegations and immigration to LGBTQ+ rights and various other forms of discrimination. Were these pieces published beforehand and then assembled into an anthology or was this a call for work?

A bit of both. Some of the contributors sent pieces they had made before I posted the call for submissions, but most of them created work specifically for this project.

 I’ve noticed that you set up your anthology in a very purposeful way into smaller subsections, including “Government,” “Journalism & Media,” “Religion,” “Science & Education,” “Music,” “Hollywood,” “Sports,” and “Literature.” I am wondering if you could talk a bit more about the choice to split the anthology that way. Does splitting this anthology up in these smaller sections show the divide between these different communities, or is it a way to show that no group is exempt from these horrors?

The organization of the anthology grew organically from the pieces that were submitted, and also refers back to the organization of my first book, all this can be yours, which is organized in a different way. In all this can be yours, the erasures (which are all of apology statements made by powerful men accused of sexual assault) are organized according to different societal ideas around sexual assault, why it happens, and how we should feel about it. For example, one section is titled “she never said no,” a reference to the idea that the absence of a stated “no” is equivalent to the existence of a stated “yes.”

In Erase the Patriarchy, I started to notice while fielding submissions that different participants gravitated toward different cultural areas. Some were more concerned with sexist ideas promoted through literature while others were drawn to issues of misogyny in the tech world. In all this can be yours, I wrote in my introduction to the book that I was concerned about how the mainstream #MeToo movement focused mainly on the experiences of incredibly wealthy and powerful white women in Hollywood.

In Erase the Patriarchy, I was hoping for more of an emphasis on different areas of life and spheres of influence, to show that it isn’t just Hollywood where these issues exist. In every field, in every country around the globe, marginalization and oppression affect the lives of countless people in myriad ways that go unnoticed by many, either because those who haven’t experienced this kind of oppression don’t recognize it when it happens to others, or because what they do see feels too small to them to matter. These miniature oppressions, or microaggressions, eat away at people, and I think many contributors were moved to submit work based on their own experiences of oppression or in response to events they’d witnessed as consumers of media. The categories grew out of these passionate attachments, and I was pleased that the Hollywood section ended up being one of the shortest ones!

On the title pages of each subsection, there are smaller subheadings that are quotations pulled from a piece within the section following it. For example, in  the “Journalism & Media” section, you use the quote, “build new men and burn the old ones down.” Is this to shed more light on the situations at hand, or a tactic to draw in readers to discover where the line is from?

For these subheadings, I’ve chosen pull quotes that I feel set the reader up for an experience. For example, the Government section’s subheading is “I am a man who has history.” The piece this quote comes from is the very first erasure in the anthology, by Jodi Versaw, and the full text reads, “in the history of this country / men abuse / women / I am / a man who has / history.” This piece not only sets the tone for the Government section, but also for the book overall, by linking the history of gender-based oppression in a country or an entire planet with the history of mankind. In other words, there is no escape. The subheadings are a bit like a trail of breadcrumbs. You get part of an idea, not the whole thing, and only after reading the piece the quote comes from do you understand its full context.

After certain pieces, there is usually a space where the creator of the erasure poems gets to reflect on what they’ve written. As the editor of this book, what do you think the authors’ added dialogue gives to these pieces?

Years ago, when I started doing erasures of my own and I was looking at work from poets who’d done them before me, it occurred to me that erasure artists working with the same source text could create entirely different results from the same document. Even the same artist working with the same source text will create something different depending on their mood, the political climate, or any number of internal or external factors (see Tom Phillips’s many iterations of A Humument and how 9/11 played a role in one of his later erasures).

Everyone comes to erasure for different reasons and with different life experiences and emotions guiding their work. I thought it was especially important that the most marginalized contributors had a space to speak about what their piece/s meant to them, and we ended up with a number of powerful statements on issues personal to the artists such as racism, homophobia, and ableism.

Because the word erasure refers both to an artistic practice as well as the political act of removing certain people’s lived realities from the public sphere, I thought it was particularly vital that that latter form of erasure be reversed here and to let the erased have their say.

With erasure poetry you get both visual and verbal art on the page. Do you see yourself and others who practice erasure writing as visual artists as well as writers?

Absolutely. I’d even take that a step further and say that all poets are practicing a form of visual art, not just erasure or so-called visual poets. I have always viewed poetry as a visual art, and the work I have found most exciting over the years is that which plays with white space and pushes the boundaries of what a page can hold. I know that when I’m writing a poem, it never feels “done” to me until it looks right, and there is an intuitive process at play here, a moment when all the words I want are there but the structure and the feeling of pleasure at having created something that is visually pleasing have to click into place for me to feel like I can move on.

As for erasure poetry, there are so many exciting erasure artists making work today and I wanted to include work that was not only powerful in its language but also visually appealing, technically skilled, and inventive. I was stunned by the media used by our contributors. From makeup and glitter to dirt to kitchen spices to menstrual blood, the range of materials used adds to the experience of each piece and definitely pushes it toward a liminal space between literature and visual art.

Looking through this book, many authors choose to keep the original message either transparent or completely blacked out. I am curious to hear your thoughts on this choice. I personally see the benefits of both approaches to erasure. Within some of these pieces, such as “Bloody Columbus” written by Caitlin M. Downs, she keeps the original message of Columbus’s journal readable to enhance the message of the erasure that she wants to get across. This style gives both the writer a voice, as well as allows the reader to see what the writer is reflecting on. On the other hand, in a “A Growing Crisis” by Tara Campbell, the original message is redacted through erasure, only to show the powerful message the author creates from this speech. The invisibility of the other words shows the vulnerability and truth of the words that line the page. What are your thoughts on these choices?

This is one of my favorite things about erasure: the many simple choices the artist can make and what those choices say about the piece and where the artist is coming from. The choice to leave words visible makes the original statement more a part of its deconstruction. In Downs’s piece, the original document and its erasure are in conversation with one another. The photographic chemicals Downs used mimic the appearance of blood, which thickens toward the bottom of the page rendering the end of Columbus’s journal entry illegible so that by the time you reach the bottom of the page, only the erasure stands out from the red.

The choice to obscure everything but the non-erased words is another statement entirely. Instead of having a conversation with the source text, it can be a way to proclaim that the source text has had its say and now it’s time for someone else to speak. In Campbell’s piece, she created a wall of digital “bricks” that serves as a metaphor for Trump’s border wall and performs a sort of “reverse erasure” of the political kind I mentioned earlier. A border wall is a method of keeping people away, of denying them a voice, of literal erasure from American life. A border wall draws a physical line across human bodies. I love that Tara used Donald Trump’s own wall to erase his words.

In your introduction to Erase the Patriarchy, you write “I came up with the idea for an anthology of erasure poems aimed at redacting patriarchal history to point out its misuses and abuses of power, its prejudices, its violence, and how it pits us against one another.” If you could summarize what every contributing author to this anthology wants as a result of sharing these poems would you say that they all want justice? If not then what? Does it vary?

I can’t speak for every contributor to the anthology, nor should I, but I will say that my approach to projects of this nature is more aligned with a transformative justice approach than a punitive name-and-shame callout approach. In all this can be yours, I chose to leave the names of individual men out of the erasures to keep each apology statement anonymous, which allowed them to blend into one another in such a way that there is no individual person to point a finger at and direct all of one’s blame. It was important to me in that book to leave the names out of it and instead point at the system that allows such abuses to occur.

With Erase the Patriarchy, I didn’t want to impose my own restrictions on other artists and prevent them from naming names. These are all public figures making public statements, after all. But I think, from my interactions with these artists and what I’ve read of their work, that I can say we all want systems to change and thus individual behaviors to change. We want meaningful means of recourse for people who have endured abuse at the hands of others. And we want decent apologies. A decent apology to me is one in which responsibility and accountability are accepted and meaningful steps toward restitution are laid out. So many “apologies” are actually justifications, excuses, and blame-shifting exercises couched in PR language. I think we want the kind of justice that allows people to share what this culture has done to them, whether they have engaged in abuse themselves or have been abused by others, and come up with meaningful ideas for how we can collectively heal and move toward justice together.

As a writer myself, I have begun dabbling in a project involving erasure poetry of documents that I have as a residential assistant at my college. I want to use these documents to show some of the struggles that college aged students, specifically residential assistants go through. I plan on blocking out any personal information that would be able to distinctly identify a student, but am having trouble knowing the lines of censorship to my creativity. I do feel there are limits to working with other’s words and experiences, however, and so I have reached a bit of a block. In the case of erasure poetry, where does this censorship start and end for you? What are the ethics to writing erasure poetry?

Because consent is so important to me, and its violation the basis for so much of my own erasure practice, I draw the line in my own work at private correspondence or documents written by people who are not public figures. When abuse is involved, I think this line blurs a little because a person being a private individual doesn’t necessarily mean their private correspondence should be protected when they’ve perpetuated harm or lashed out unfairly. Of course, the law might disagree. I think it’s one of those things where you have to let your intuition guide you in making your decision. Maybe a question should be involved in the process: “Am I causing further harm by putting this out there?”

It’s funny you ask this question because Dream Pop, the magazine and small press I run, recently published a set of erasures done of private emails received by the artist. When the pieces were submitted, the sender’s name and email address were shown at the tops of the images. It’s quite personal correspondence that seems to refer to the breakdown of a relationship and desire to rekindle a connection, a private nostalgic sadness that the artist erases in many different ways. I asked the artist if she wanted the sender’s contact information to be included and she said no, that it had completely slipped her mind to remove those details before sending the pieces our way. I was glad I asked because I’d be mortified if someone’s privacy was violated by our magazine, but with their identifying details removed the pieces stand on their own as works of ruminative art. The identities of the people involved would merely be a distraction, an answer to a question not worth asking.

Sam Zimmerman is a current graduate student at SUNY New Paltz. She loves experimenting with different types of poetry and writing creative nonfiction. Her work has been featured in Sledgehammer Lit. She currently resides in a small town in the middle of nowhere in New York. You can keep up with her on Twitter @samthezim.

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