When David Foster Wallace died in the fall of 2008, I was halfway through Infinite Jest. It was the Monday after — I walked into a coffee shop in the Loop in Chicago, about 7 AM, and I set my copy of the book down on the counter. The barista grimaced and said, “It’s so sad.” I didn’t know. That’s how I found out.
And I remember finishing the novel then. I remember the sense of urgency, as though it were evaporating there in my very hands, this three pound trade paperback with two bookmarks in it–one for the footnotes.
So when I happened upon Jenni B. Baker’s extraordinary erasure project–Erasing Infinite—memories of that extremely unique and acute reading experience came flooding back. Crafting poems from each page of Infinite Jest–one at a time–this monumental project captures this sense of evaporation with remarkable force, giving us a profoundly new way of approaching the beloved text and, of course, of remembering its author.
But Erasing Infinite is but one of Baker’s many projects, which range from erasures of the Boy Scout Handbook to her OuLiPo chapbook to the journal she runs, The Found Poetry Review, all of which have secured her at the center of one of the most thriving communities of experimental poets. Looking at her work–which so often exquisitely balances play with serious inquiry–we can see just what sorts of possibilities erasure and other found forms have opened up. I recently had the chance to talk with her about these possibilities, about her different projects and the range they have helped lay out, and about how erasure sits in contemporary poetics.
Let’s begin with two related questions, and let’s begin by talking about Erasing Infinite. David Foster Wallace has a notable fan base, and of course this has been the most immediate audience for your erasure project. This aspect has, for me, highlighted a broader issue of the arts today, what Harold Bloom famously called “The Anxiety of Influence.” Even you have said in your writer’s statement that “All writing betrays an influence.” Let’s start with the heaviest question: can you talk about erasure (at least those of established works) as a means of addressing this anxiety? Perhaps erasure forces us to confront influence head on? Do you think the rising popularity of erasure and other forms of found poetry speaks to a contemporary state, one of constant referentiality? Is there something especially authentic about it, precisely because it is “unoriginal”?
I see the anxiety shifting from one of influence to one of originality. Almost every call for submission, residency application and award nomination form entreats you to submit your “original poems” or, better, warns you that they only accept “original work.” An editor once replied to my submission of found work with a note to “Try writing something original for a change.” What’s really being asked for here? Originality of subject? Process? Form? All three?
Erasure eases this tension by permitting multiple originalities. It says, “ditch this myth of great writing being created ex nihilo, and consider how choice and constraint can give rise to new works.” One has a choice of source text, of intent, of medium (digital or print), of markup method, of word selection and of presentation. A different choice at any of these steps changes the output; 20 people will produce 20 different works from the same text. Are these pieces more or less original than those created by the poet sitting down with a blank page and pen? More or less authentic?
I’m not particularly interested in comparing. I’m more interested in how these definitions and the importance we place upon them evolve alongside what you referred to as our contemporary state — one in which there’s a growing glut of ‘original’ words being poured onto the Internet and printed on pages. Nearly everything that can be said has been said, and I see more and more writers embracing the lineages of their work; erasure is just one way to do so. There’s also an increasing number of writers who are looking at these heaps of words and saying, “enough already.” Rather than add more words, they become movers, remixers and excavators of text.
Of course mere citation is one thing—in the case of David Foster Wallace, it is also admiration. Erasing Infinite could be said to be an homage, or a tribute, or, especially, a memorial. You’ve discussed this idea of the “memento,” and I was hoping you could expand on it. How does the act of erasure also preserve? What is it about negating acts that helps us remember? Perhaps you could contrast this with that other tribute medium: fan fiction?
It goes like this. You find a thing that speaks to you. You consume that thing in its entirety. You return to the thing multiple over and over. You increasingly insert the thing in conversations. You read what others have written about the thing. You seek out all of the other things that the creator of your thing has produced. You keep tabs on the creator of the thing to see when s/he will be creating more things. And so on. But what do you do with this energy when your thing is no more, or, in the case of Infinite Jest, when the creator of the thing is no more? That forward momentum has to go somewhere.
David Foster Wallace isn’t going to create any more things, so I have to take my energy in a new direction and create my own work. Like anyone who experiences a loss, I work with what’s left — one of Wallace’s texts. Working via erasure allows me to commune with the original text and author in a way that work that was simply inspired by or dedicated to wouldn’t. I repeatedly handle the physical book as I create a digital scan of the text. I then work with one page at a time, interacting with the words on the page and slowly erasing text until what remains is part me, part Wallace. The process is one of remembering and reflecting; the final product, a memento.
The impulses that drive me to create poetry via erasure from Infinite Jest are similar to those that motivate others to craft fan fiction. The outputs look different, but we ultimately create because we want there to be more than we have.
This notion of remembering has a certain meaning when we consider something important such as the beloved Infinite Jest. But it takes on an entirely different meaning when we consider the opposite—something unimportant, something we have mostly forgotten. Many of your other erasure projects are of such ephemera—“product packaging, junk mail, newspapers,” as you have put it. I especially love the Boy Scout Handbook series. Can we shift gears from the canon and talk about erasure of ephemera, or erasure from archives. How is this different than working with something like Infinite Jest?
I spend a significant amount of hours each week searching through HathiTrust and the Internet Archive for interesting old texts to incorporate in my work. When working with these types of texts, I’m free from the burden of a pre-existing relationship with them. I have little-to-no knowledge of their contents and bring no emotional baggage that needs to be set aside before I begin.
These types of texts also invite a more receptive audience. When readers see that you’ve created an erasure from their favorite book, they’re predisposed to be skeptical. Who are you to intervene in an already-perfect work? Tell someone that you’re creating an erasure from an 1890s book on juggling or a piece of junk mail from a credit card company and the same emotional attachment just isn’t there.
All of this is not to say that work created from these types of sources is easy. Crafting good poetry from junk mail and advertisements, for example, is deceptively difficult. Some people excerpt a few lines, juxtapose them in a humorous way, and call it a day; the resulting pieces might make readers smirk (at best), but don’t make particularly compelling poetry.
For historical texts that readers are familiar with, additional care must be taken. While most readers have never held or read the exact copy of the 1965 edition of the Boy Scout Handbook I work with, they understand the institution of the Boy Scouts of America, and have likely either been involved with scouting themselves, or had siblings or peers who were. As I approached the text, I asked myself what most adults today would think about the rosy-eyed outlook and advice on “becoming a man” handed down by the book. I think the pieces capture some of the anticipated cynicism well.
One thing I have noticed in looking at your erasures is the different material approaches you take. In Erasing Infinite, you go to great pains to leave no trace of the original text—scanning pages, correcting the scans, and then digitally erasing with a brush tool exactly matched to the page tone. The result is palpably perfect, digital, almost ethereal. This is in stark contrast to the physical brushstrokes of whiteout we see, for instance, in the Boy Scouts pieces. Can you talk about the thinking behind these different material approaches. What about trace, remnant, and the indexical? What about erasure as performance, as mimesis?
Intentionality is important with erasure; in particular, are you trying to surface or obscure words, and why?
Let’s take Infinite Jest for example. So many people consider the book akin to a holy text and Wallace a saint. Physically marking up the text could be seen as an aggressive, critical act — like taking a Sharpie to the Bible. I liken these digital erasures to the decay of bodies. What was once there exists no longer, and at a certain point, only the bones (here, the words making up the poem) remain.
As another study, for Tupelo Press’ 30/30 project last year, I completed a series of erasures sourced from texts about atomic bombs and fallout shelters. For these works, I kept the surrounding text visible, but digital reduced it so that only the faint outline of the letters remained. I wanted the text to look like those aerial photographs of bombed cities where a few buildings remain standing intact among the visible ruins of their former neighbors.
Lastly, returning to the Boy Scout erasures: consider that the Boy Scout Handbook is a text that’s meant to be carried around, referred to and written in. Physically marking out the page thus makes more sense here. I look at these pieces and imagine some malcontent boy scout sitting in his room with whiteout, secretly subverting the handbook’s advice on being a good American and how to become a man.
Let’s switch gears and talk about OuLiPo and your chapbook, Comings / Goings. Can you give us the specific constraints you employed for this project? Were there themes you were investigating via these constraints?
OuLiPo, short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or ‘workshop of potential literature,’ is a group of writers and mathematicians that embraces constraint-based writing. They believe that restricting certain elements of the writing process brings about greater creativity and freedom of expression.
In 2014, my Found Poetry Review editors and I coordinated a project for National Poetry Month called “Oulipost,” where participating poets applied OuLiPo constraints to text found in their daily newspaper (the playbook, containing all the prompts, can be found here). As a project coordinator, I also participated and crafted a poem per day, leveraging articles found in The Washington Post. Comings / Goings contains 16 of the 30 poems created during the course of this project, each generated through a different constraint. In the chapbook’s table of contents, I list the method through which each piece was generated
Identifying themes to investigate at the onset would have been challenging, if not impossible. The phrase “potential literature” is spot on here; the exciting and sometimes frustrating part of working with Oulipian constraints is that you never truly know what you’re going to get. You may want to write about a topic that the word bank generated through your constraint simply will not allow. Any commonalities or themes throughout the pieces arise after the fact through the selection and ordering of poems. There’s a reason only half of the project’s pieces made it into the chapbook manuscript.
Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between OuLiPo and erasure—do you consider erasure simply one form of OuLiPo? Or are they separate, and if so, are they similar, or do they contrast?
Erasure by nature involves constraint; authors restrict themselves to working with a specific source text and the vocabulary found therein. From there, they can either grant themselves greater freedoms or impose additional constraints. The more constraints imposed, the greater the kinship with OuLiPo.
For instance, you can constrain your source text to working with a series of pages, a single page, or a section of a page (e.g. an inch-wide column of text). You can erase procedurally, removing words according to a predefined pattern, such as sequentially removing words that correspond to the figures in pi. You can choose to only work with words that contain, or don’t, particular sets of predefined letters. There are innumerable possibilities.
Give us a little background on the journal that you edit, The Found Poetry Review. What did you set out to do with the journal, and what has surprised you along the way?
In 2011, I had just started to write and submit found poetry and was finding that journals were not always receptive to publishing this kind of work. I wanted to create a platform for publishing and promoting poets who were working in this space, and sought to elevate the practice’s profile and reputation within the literary community. I feel the journal has been successful on that front. In the years since — and with the support of an expanded masthead — we’ve published nine traditional issues and two special issues. A special issue dedicated to David Bowie will be published in early June, followed by our tenth edition later this summer.
What’s surprised me the most is the strong community that has formed around the journal, largely from our yearly National Poetry Month projects. We have a private Facebook group for our project participants where poets can ask questions, share struggles and celebrate successes as they work through the month’s writing challenges. The camaraderie continues long after each project’s end, with people coming together to share new resources and tools they’ve found, post news about publication successes, and more. It’s wonderful to see this kind of supportive community, particularly when the publishing world can be so competitive.
What’s been more of a slower revelation is recognizing that the literary community has evolved to be more accepting and inclusive of work created through appropriation, remixing, erasure, and the like. Today, it’s not unusual to find these kinds of pieces in the top tier journals, and to find books created through these methods being championed by publishers. I believe FPR has played a role in that. This evolution means it’s time for our journal to evolve, too. Now that a niche publication is no longer necessary to get found poetry out into the world, where can we make the biggest impact? These conversations are both scary and exciting.
The journal is very project/theme/commission oriented, to a point that I think it unveils new opportunities in magazine publishing, one’s that come closer to collaboration. Can you talk a little bit about these possibilities: how might this reorient the poetic/writing community? Do you think it can reestablish magazines less as academic credentials and more as kinds of salons?
Every time we do a project at FPR, we have between one hundred to two hundred poets sign on to participate. What that says to me is that writers are hungry for this type of communal, collaborative experience. And it makes sense: writing is a largely isolating experience. I’ve also noticed that people appreciate being given some structure to their writing experience — a project can take away the terror of writing words on a blank screen or page, and give them a place to start.
Faced with this opportunity, those of us who manage literary journals have the chance to reconsider the role these publications can and should play in our community. Is it enough to be the arbiters of good (and bad) writing, with the bulk of our touch points with writers relegated to acceptance and rejection emails? Or, do we have a greater responsibility to actively engage these individuals and create the kinds of spaces — online and face-to-face — that foster dialogue and new works? These are tough questions for a community founded on exclusivity.
Your reference to literary salons is an interesting one. Right now, the power to determine what counts as good writing rests in the hands of the few. A shift to a community-based model — where one’s peers play a greater role in elevating each other’s work — would necessitate a shift in power that I’m not sure many literary journals are ready to give up.
What’s next, what projects are on your horizon?
I have a lot of new ideas for projects and things to try, but first need to follow through with what I’ve started. When you work in experimental literature, it’s easy to get distracted by new ideas and approaches. I have a few manuscripts in-progress that are about seventy-five percent complete (including a book-length manuscript of the Boy Scout Handbook erasures) that I really need to finalize and send out to publishers.
Now that I’ve established myself as a practitioner in this space, I’m looking more at how I can share this knowledge and inspire others to try their hand at erasure and other types of found poetry. I’ll be working on a series of online tutorials for Applied Poetics soon, where I’ll highlight the different ways I use Photoshop tools to create poetic works. I’m also actively seeking opportunities to speak at conferences and lead guest workshops on the topic.
Finally, for fun, my partner Douglas J. Luman and I make Twitter bots. We recently launched @cfp_bot, a bot that tweets fake calls for papers, and @remembot, a bot inspired by George Perec’s Je Me Souviens (I Remember), a book composed entirely of statements starting with “I Remember.” We’re currently creating a bot inspired by the 1980s game show, Press Your Luck.
Jenni B. Baker is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Found Poetry Review. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in journals such as DIAGRAM, Washington Square, Lunch Ticket, Whiskey Island, BOAAT and Quarterly West. Her Oulipo-generated chapbook, Comings/Goings, was released by Dancing Girl Press in 2015. In her current project, Erasing Infinite, she creates poetry from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, one page at a time. “Year of Glad,” a classical song cycle based on the Erasing Infinite project, debuted in Chicago in April 2016. More at jennibbaker.com.