Erasure Poems: A Challenge with Karen McCarthy Woolf and Julia Bird

A chunky Victorian novel, a popular science book, Romeo and Juliet and a doctor’s leaflet: what do they all have in common? They are the source materials for new poems, for erasure poems – the theme of our latest challenge.

Cover for A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel (Final Edition) by Tom Phillips. An image of decorated text, leaving the words: "now the arts connect / in my poor little book / very rich for eyes"
Taken from the book cover of A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel (Final Edition) by Tom Phillips

The challenge: write an erasure poem

An erasure poem is one that is found within another text. The Poetry Society’s Learning & Participation Manager Julia Bird and poet Karen McCarthy Woolf explain more…

In their video, Karen and Julia talk about A Humument by Tom Phillips, ‘Deaf School by Ted Hughes’ by Raymond Antrobus from The Perseverance, ‘Redaction[s] 1, 2 & 3’ by Tamar Yoseloff from The Black Place and Seasonal Disturbances by Karen McCarthy Woolf.

You can see an example of one of Karen’s humuments below – first the treated page from The Science of Life, followed by a typed-up version.

An erasure poem, scribbled and doodled over a page taken from ‘The Science of Life’, it reads: Hence, as the wind blows innumerable, fish-eating snouts plump and hideous, the land-folk are insignificant in themselves, but rich. It is a strange world, No birds nesting or singing in the trees; no bellowing, roaring, squeaking of mammals, savage or small; no caterpillars to eat the leaves; no bees or butterflies; no ctreatures that do more than crawl. An Ode. Another spasm was being prepared and the climate began to change.The same poem, typed up

The challenge

Your challenge is to create an erasure poem – one you uncover from inside another text.

Erasure poems are a visual form, so have a look for some for inspiration before you start creating. You could have a look at the whole of The Humument, or there are some excellent examples here and here.

The first stage in writing erasure poems is to choose your source text. You could choose a text you love – a section from your favourite novel, or a favourite poem. Or you could pick a text you want to argue with – a newspaper article, a political party’s manifesto, your school report. Or you could even choose a very non-literary text – a takeaway pizza menu, a washing machine manual, a shopping receipt. Whatever you choose, make sure that it has a lot of words for you to select from – at least a couple of paragraphs’ worth.

Read and re-read your source text – what stands out? Phrases, words, parts of words? How about words that all begin with one letter, or contain one sound? What new poem starts to suggest itself?

How will you approach the text? You could look for a new poem that matches its source – a love poem from a love story, for example. Or your new erasure poem could contrast with its original source – can you find the nature poem in the sports report?

Think about how you want to treat the text: a simple redaction of words with a black felt pen, or something more image-based, colourful or patterned? Dig out any art and craft materials you have – what effect will your poem have if you’re covering up texts with a thick layer of glitter glue?

Bear in mind the word order of your new poem – will it follow the word order of your original text? If there’s a word in the first line of your original text that would make the perfect last word for your new poem, is there something you can do with colour coding or arrow doodles to encourage your readers to follow the word order you want?

Don’t forget to credit your sources – add a line like ”[Your Poem Title]’ uses as its source text page 17 of The Official Highway Code, published by Stationery Office Books, 2007′ to your email when you submit your entry.

Scan or take a clear, hi-res photograph of your new erasure poem and send it to us – we can’t wait to see what you create!

Prizes

This challenge will be judged by Karen McCarthy Woolf and Julia Bird. Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network, and sent an exclusive YPN notebook, a copy of Karen’s Unwritten anthology and other goodies.

How to enter

This challenge is for writers aged 25 and younger, based anywhere in the world. It’s free to enter and you can send as many poems as you like. The deadline is midnight, Sunday 16 May 2021. Please send a scan of your poem saved as a PDF or a JPEG, or you can send us a photo of it. Please attach your file to your email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see it. Please also include a written text version of your poem: if you’re a winner, people who need to use screen-readers will be able to access your work using this text.

Send your poem(s) to educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk with the subject line ‘Erasure Poem Challenge’, along with your name, date of birth/age, gender, the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in, and how you found out about this challenge (e.g. YPN email/Twitter/Instagram/through a teacher/through a friend etc.). This data is used for statistical purposes and to help us reach as wide an audience as possible.

If you are aged 12 or younger on Sunday 16 May 2021, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry due to data protection laws.

We welcome entries from schools and groups. Use this class entry form to enter students from your class or group.

If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the subject line of the email. If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line. You may refuse to provide information about yourself.

By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network and The Poetry Society to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

If you require this information in an alternative format (such as Easy Read, Braille, Large Print or screenreader friendly formats), or need any assistance with your entry, please contact us at educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk.

Unwritten

The Poetry Society is working with Karen McCarthy Woolf on Unwritten, a project which showcases the previously unheard Caribbean poetic voices from World War One. The project began with a new anthology, and has developed into essays, podcasts, events and poetry films considering silenced voices. Karen has also been a poet in residence at UCLA’s Promise Institute for Human Rights, looking into how poetry and law can come together to help protect vulnerable people. This YPN challenge is inspired by both Unwritten and Karen’s work as writer in residence at UCLA.

Unwritten is co-commissioned by BBC Contains Strong Language, the British Council and 1418NOW WW1 Centenary Art Commissions with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Arts Council England, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Karen McCarthy Woolf

Born in London to English and Jamaican parents, Karen McCarthy Woolf’s first collection An Aviary of Small Birds was shortlisted for the Forward and Jerwood Prizes. Her second, Seasonal Disturbances is a ‘witty and nuanced’ (BBC Arts) take on nature, migration, the city and the sacred, was written in residence at the UK’s National Maritime Museum and was a winner in the inaugural Laurel Prize for Ecopoetry. She is a Fulbright postdoctoral scholar at the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA and was a judge for this year’s National Poetry Competition. 

Julia Bird
Photo: Kevin Rutterford

Julia Bird is The Poetry Society’s Learning & Participation Officer. She has published a number of poetry books and pamphlets, and in 2021 she will be publishing two new pamphlets – one with The Emma Press and one with Paekakariki Press, with Mike Sims.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *