The raw material for Niina Pollari’s poem “Form N-400 Erasures” is the long, opaquely-worded application form for becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. Expansive and arduous, the application holds a looming significance for newcomers to the United States. Pollari deletes most of Form N-400’s text in crude, black strokes to form her poem. “Have you / been / in / total / terror?” the poem asks, then gives you a choice: Check yes or no.
Published less than a month after Trump’s first executive order banned citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from entering the country for 90 days, “Form N-400 Erasures” is an example of erasure poetry, a poetic form that has spiked in popularity since Trump’s elections galvanized a culture of resistance online. Also known as blackout or redaction poetry, this is a type of poetry created from the substrate material of an existing text. Obscure many of the words, these poems command, and you will find the sentences that have been there all along.
Two days after Trump was inaugurated, PANK published an erasure of his Inaugural Speech. The Rumpus followed up their post-inauguration series with erasures of six articles Julia Hahn wrote for Breitbart. Scroll through Twitter and you will find hundreds more that in their provocative appeal imitate a form uniquely suited to quick (and sometimes viral) adaptation online.
In these poems there is a desire to re-examine the institutions and narratives that shape Americans’ lives, from government bureaucracy to new media. The poems’ authors reassert power over language that has typically been used to determine who does and does not belong. And while poets have been reassigning meaning to texts in this way for at least a century, erasure has gained new energy at a moment when the country is deeply polarized—when official documents may hold radically different consequences and meanings for different people.
In 1965, the visual artist Doris Cross took a paintbrush to a 1913 Webster’s Dictionary and published her kaleidoscopic result. Critics called it poetry. Cross disagreed. A year later, Tom Phillips walked into a furniture repository and found a forgotten Victorian book called A Human Document. After cutting out and collaging over the words on each page, Phillips published the Frankensteined novel as A Humument in 1973. These first works of erasure poetry were concerned with what T. S. Eliot referred to as dislocating language into meaning, making art in a world in which meaning was increasingly fragmented. Inspired, later poets dynamited Shakespeare’s sonnets, Milton’s Paradise Lost and other sacred and profane texts, reworking the old to attain some radical newness.
In the 2000s, poets started using erasure in a more explicitly political way, challenging official narratives by crafting their own counter-narratives from the same texts. Their sources range from the correspondence that precipitated Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, to the “Standard Operating Procedure” of the U.S. Department of Defense, to the testimony of Abu Ghraib torture victims. At the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, amid prolonged military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, Travis Macdonald published The O Mission Repo, an erasure of the 9/11 Commission Report. “Remembering / might also be hijacked,” he writes. “The course of / it reversed / over / head / The / second radio / said.”
Poets also revised historical narrative: M. NourbeSe Philip’s 2008 poetry collection Zong! is composed from the words of the 1783 legal decision Gregson v Gilbert, in which 150 Africans aboard a slave ship were drowned so the ship owners could profit from insurance. Philip wanted to tell the story of the Zong, and believed the truth of the narrative to be “locked in those two pages” of the document, concealed beneath the surface of the official narrative. A lawyer herself, she recognized the way her profession allowed her to squeeze “all extraneous material including emotion and context from an event until you arrived at a desiccated principle of law,” so she applied the same strategy, stripping away words from the source text until its true meaning emerged. “The rest in lives / drowned,” she wrote in Zong! #3, “exist did not / in themselves.”
“The first time I confronted erasure as an aesthetic tactic I was horrified,” wrote poet and theorist Solmaz Sharif in 2013. Sharif thought of erasure “as what a state does” and has done in places like Guantánamo, censoring and destroying the language of detainees. Though she wanted to explore the “communication interrupted by state and political forces,” she decided, in her own work, not to manipulate previously existing language. Instead, she created the text she would later erase, so that the only words she would obliterate were her own.
A series of poems in her 2016 collection Look are derived from her imagining the perspective of the wife of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Guantánamo detainee. Sharif had read about his story in the New York Times. One line startled her: “Mail is late and often censored, lawyers say.” In the seven poems in Look entitled “Reaching Guantánamo,” Sharif re-creates this censoring, deleting lines from the “letters” to Salim, reminding the reader of the presumed danger in her harmless, worried correspondence:
Love, are you well? Do they you?
I worry so much. Lately, my hair , even
My skin . The doctors tell me it’s
I believe them. It shouldn’t
. Please don’t worry.
Since the election, poets on Twitter and beyond have started using Trump’s speech transcripts to create new, anti-Trump poems. These poems seem to want you to know that they are poems of the #resistance, criticizing Trump without paying as much attention to forces that led to his election and that will persist after he’s gone. In erasing the language of Trump and his allies, these poets seek “to subvert, rebut, and reverse the language of the alt-right,” as Alison Thumel wrote in an introduction to her erasures of Julia Hahn’s Breitbart articles.
Though provocative, these poems have extremely limited scope. Trump is a representation and culmination of ideas that are not at all new, but have long percolated in American politics, often quietly or euphemistically and mostly unquestioned. Poetry about Trump and Trump’s cabinet is a hyper-specific critique, a sharp contrast from Zong! and the poems in Look that excoriated all-encompassing, systemic problems: state-sponsored violence, torture, racism, slavery, forever war. Much of the artistry and poignancy of these earlier poems comes from the fact that the erasure poems are about the very act of erasure. Many of the poems in Zong! seem as if they have been rent apart, splintered across line breaks, barely coherent. “Physically manipulating the text helped me in the process,” Philip said in an interview in 2012.
I was deeply aware at the time I worked on Zong! that the intent of the transatlantic slave trade was to mutilate—languages, cultures, people, communities and histories—in the effort of a great capitalist enterprise. And I would argue that erasure is intrinsic to colonial and imperial projects.
While erasure can mimic the violence of the state, it can also expose the human cost of suppression, and symbolically restore a voice to the silenced.
Erasing the language of Trump, on the other hand, provides the particular satisfaction of watching Trump say exactly what he means, stripped of bombast. That perverse pleasure drives “When You Win It’s Winning,” Ariel Yelen’s erasures of four of his speech transcripts. Here, Trump is hyperbolic and boastful as ever, but in erasing certain words, Yelen has him articulate the implications of his rhetoric. “I / want / a new America / an / America / so / reckless / s / o / disastrous / s / o / chao / t / ic /,” he says. “I / am / what is wrong with this country.”