Apr 092014


Our panel is scheduled for Sunday, January 11, from 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., in Room West 208, VCC West —  join us!

I organized and participated in a special session at this past year’s MLA on “Deletion, Erasure, and Cancellation” — it was a fantastic experience with a great, interdisciplinary group of scholars and artists,  and I’m excited to have the potential opportunity to revisit some of the questions we raised there through a proposed special session for MLA 2015. Michael Nicholson and Amy Wong, both of UCLA, have organized a proposed session on the Transhistorical Poetics of Erasure, and have done me the honor of asking me to serve as a respondent. The panel includes Janet HolmesToby Altman, and Carlos Abreu Mendoza, a fantastic collection of thinkers and writers who will have a lot to say on this provocative topic, and I’m eager to have the chance to hear their work and participate in their conversation.

Amy and Michael have kindly allowed me to post the session proposal here — read on for more details, and we hope to see you in Vancouver!

The Transhistorical Poetics of Erasure

This panel reflects specifically on the emergent field of the “poetics of erasure,” with a broader view towards exploring how erasure may point us in new aesthetic directions and provide alternative political futures for literary studies. While literary critics of poetry have produced abundant work on the structures of influence, nostalgia, and tradition that verse enables, they have less often attended to the value of systematic forgetting and erasure. Our panel—with full appreciation for the irony that underwrites its aims—seeks to make erasure visible as a robust and viable poetic tradition of its own.

Ever since Robert Rauschenberg famously erased a Willem de Kooning drawing in 1953, postmodern theorists and writers have been captivated by the practices and provocations of erasure. While the landmark works of visual artists such as Rauschenberg produced a renewed cultural interest in the creative power of “erasure” in their moment, their influence on present-day poets continues to be particularly strong: for several twenty-first century writers, including Jen Bervin and Janet Holmes (one of our panelists), “erasure poetics” has provided an exceptionally potent way of negotiating sites of literary historical memory. Travis Macdonald argues that contemporary erasure poetry, which concerns “itself with the deliberate removal (or covering over) of words on the page” rather than their arrangement on it, protests the seemingly infinite accumulation of digital data in the “Global Information Age.” Yet, according to Macdonald, erasure poetry also forms an inevitable part of our ephemeral modern media landscape of “paste-layered billboards and graffiti-laden walls.”[1]

Our special session attempts to facilitate a sustained consideration of the ways in which the poetics of erasure is not exclusively postmodern but inherently transhistorical in nature. After all, an erased poem not only negotiates thorny issues of authorship, authenticity, and intellectual property, but also calls into question long-held notions of temporality, periodization, and historical change. To theorize transhistoricality in erasure poetry, moreover, is to participate in the “transtemporal” turn that critics such as Rita Felski and Wai Chee Dimock have pioneered. Both Felski and Dimock resist what they have respectively called “history as a box” and “synchronic historicism,” phrases which describe new historicist practices that explain and situate a literary text within (often institutionalized) notions of its “period.”[2] Instead, Felski and Dimock argue for greater curiosity about the affective “resonances” across time and space that such texts may generate in their readerships.

We believe, additionally, that our emphasis on the transhistorical aspects of the poetics of erasure might complement rather than interrupt the recent project of historical poetics with which scholars such as Yopie Prins and Virginia Jackson are involved. Prins advocates for the “cultural specificity of poetic genres” as a corrective against older notions of poetry as a “timeless” genre rooted in an individuated and isolated lyric present.[3] In accord with Prins, our panel aims—through a case study of erasure poetics—to lay the groundwork for a transhistorical poetics that preserves rigor and might ultimately be considered a subcategory of historical poetics itself. That is to say, transtemporality is just one of many different models for historical inquiry.

Toward the ends we have outlined, we have assembled a diverse group of speakers who collectively argue that any poetic transformation of irreverent destruction into meaningful creation is inherently a transhistorical enterprise:

Janet Holmes will present on her recent work, The ms of my kin (Shearsman, 2009), a book-length “erasure” of Emily Dickinson’s poems from 1862-3. She will discuss the ways in which erasure enabled her to cultivate transhistorical, collaborative forms of authorship between herself and Dickinson, and explore how Dickinson’s oblique engagements with the American Civil War afforded an opportunity to develop a new language for her own engagements with the American wars in the aftermath of 9/11.

Toby Altman’s paper will examine another transhistorical collaboration enabled by defacement, Jen Bervin’s Nets (2004), an erasure of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Altman will argue that Bervin’s poetry inaugurates new models of transhistorical lyric partnership that challenge both the boundaries that separate literary periods and the definitions that divide the roles of editor, author, and compositor. Altman is particularly interested in the ways in which Bervin’s erasure reformulates the sexual and textual politics of its source material.

Carlos Abreu Mendoza will further broaden the historical and cultural reach of our panel in his investigation of how José María Heredia’s poem “En el Teocalli de Cholula” (1821) remakes romantic elegy (as defined by Friedrich von Schiller) into a poetics of forgetting as the only viable future for postcolonial Latin America. According to Mendoza, Heredia’s poem imagines an alternative relationship to the past in which a poet strives to annihilate rather than memorialize the historical emblems that define his culture.

In addition to this diverse group of poets and scholars, Paul Benzon, a former MLA roundtable chair and noted scholar of “archival absence” will serve as a respondent. In this role, he will ensure that our panel’s conversation remain a broad and accessible one at the same time that it appeals to those with special interests in poetry, poetics, temporality, and disciplinary history.

Finally, we believe that the interventions of these four scholars are especially timely when considered in the context of this year’s presidential theme, “Negotiating Sites of Memory.” In our view, this year’s convention, which invites us to study the shapes and structures of remembrance, would benefit from an equally thorough examination of the practices of forgetting that obliterate and occlude time, history, and recollection.

[1] Travis Macdonald “A Brief History of Erasure Poetics,” Jacket 38 (2009): par. 6, 1.

[2] Rita Felski, “Context Stinks!” New Literary History 42.4 (2011): 573; Wai Chee Dimock, “A Theory of Resonance,” PMLA 112.5 (1997): 1061.

[3] Yopie Prins, “Historical Poetics, Dysprosody, and The Science of English Verse,PMLA 123.1 (2008): 233-4.

  2 Responses to “The Poetics of Erasure: An MLA15 Proposal”

  1. Just want to put a word in for Percival Everett’s Erasure, a fantastic novel that speaks to many of the issues you’re dealing with here.

    • Thanks for this suggestion, Brendan! Erasure is a great novel — I have colleagues who’ve had a fantastic time teaching it — and it’s definitely a part of these conversations.

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