At John H. Stroger Hospital, Snow City Arts poet-in-residence Eric Elshtain has been using the May 2011 issue of Poetry as a source for erasure poems. Patients are asked to read through the issue and find a poem that appeals to them in some way, whether it be a turn of phrase, an image, the subject matter. They are then shown examples of erasure poetry, including work by Tom Phillips, Mary Ruefle, and Ronald Johnson.
After the erasure poets have changed the source texts to fit their ideas and ears, they are asked to find or to compose an image to overlay on the poem. Using Photoshop, they superimpose the image and text and use the actual “erase tool” to uncover the text from “behind” the image. You will notice that some of the pieces allow the source text to show through, highlighting the textual decisions the erasure poets have made.
Because of privacy issues, only the patients’ first names appear here.
“The Land of Nod,” by James Arthur
Eliseo, age 20, uses James Arthur’s poem “The Land of Nod.” He was interested in the re-telling of the Biblical story, and searched long and hard for an appropriately desolate image to accompany his poem.
“Quarantine,” by Malachi Black
Michael O., age 16, uses “Prime,” a section of the longer piece “Quarantine” by Malachi Black. Michael knew immediately he wanted Da Vinci’s skeleton sketches and a picture of Aeolus when he had finished his poem, alluding to the Odyssey and images of transformation.
“Dawn Chorus” by Sasha Dugdale
Elisha, age 10, titled his erasure of Sasha Dugdale’s “Dawn Chorus” with the name “Fly to the South,” to insure his readers will understand that he is still describing birds, even though he had erased the term “bird” from the source poem. He, too, knew exactly the image that he wanted to go with the text.
“Special Treatments Ward, “by Dana Gioia
This is Efrain’s second erasure piece. Efrain, age 17, is a frequent patient, and was drawn to the imagery of the first section of Dana Gioia’s “Special Treatments Ward.” Efrain composed a very quiet poem. Note his terrific use of consonance at the end of the poem, and how “each morning” acts as a syntactic fulcrum between two separate clauses. His poem is accompanied by a photograph Efrain took of one of Stroger’s night nurses.
“What Did You See?” by Fanny Howe
Eric, age 15, uses the first short section of “What Did You See?” by Fanny Howe. He looked through several art books before deciding on Gauguin’s painting of Jacob wrestling with an angel, Vision After the Sermon, emphasizing the notion of witness.
“Poem Beginning with a Line by Milosz” by Mark Irwin
Michael C., age 16, phrases and words from Mark Irwin’s poem “Poem Beginning with a Line by Milosz” float within a sunflower image by Georgia O’Keeffe. Michael wanted the image to allude to flames, beauty and life.
“The Obsoletion of Language” by Kay Ryan
Efrain, age 17, takes Kay Ryan’s short poem “The Obsoletion of Language” and, using a picture of an Uncle Sam puppet-head made by fellow patients, turns the poem into an even more pointed political epithet.
“Dominion Over the Larger Animal” by Sophie Cabot Black
Sophie Cabot Black’s poem “Dominion Over the Larger Animal” becomes Mercedes’ “Mixed Emotions.” Mercedes keeps much of the language of the source poem, but adds the pronoun “my” in the third text bubble and makes the language more colloquial and fragmented. Mercedes painted the image to accompany the erasure, visually alluding to images and ideas from the poem.
“Bird Left Behind” by Sophie Cabot Black
Felicia, age 19, transforms Sophie Cabot Black’s “Bird Left Behind” into an erasure poem titled “Left Behind.” Again, the erasure poet uses visual tropes to suggest the main idea of the poem by allowing the source text to show through the image and by using an image of “paths to nowhere” (Felicia’s phrase used when describing what kind of image she visualized). In this instance, the image being a photo of an earthwork by Beverly Pepper called Cromlech Glen.
“Preserves” by Stephen Yenser
Azeez just delighted in the sounds of Stephen Yenser’s poem “Preserves.” His purposefully messy erasures are meant to match the Pollock-like marks of an image painted by Azeez (age 12) himself.