Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 28, April 2013—Erasure Issue)

Laura Wetherington
On Translation & Erasure

To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I.

—Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

How many introductory paragraphs to this essay can I erase?

Okay, then, a body: Janet Holmes wrote a book erasing Emily Dickinson’s poems, but she didn’t erase Emily Dickinson from the poems, which got me to thinking. Can one erase a voice? Short answer: no. Or yes, if you think that singular voice can’t be contained in a language in the way that Deleuze & Guattari would say language speaks rather than people speak language. (Okay, this is sélon Jean Jacques Lecercle, so Jean Jacques Lecercle is speaking Deleuze & Guattari. I have not read A Thousand Plateaus [enough to understand] and am only secondarily speaking their words.) But that is, in fact, my point. We don’t own this shit. We just sometimes believe in it. So yes or no, a person can erase a voice from a text through erasures. Still, I had a hard time disappearing Emily Dickinson from her work, which was the original impetus for Dick Erasures (Red Ceilings Press 2011).

Then I met Paul Legault, whose Emily Dickinson Reader (McSweeneys 2012) has just come out. He talked about his book, and I thought, that’s the same thing (because erasures and translations are the same thing) except he’s funnier, so he wins. Not that you can win at poetry, but he really does. You should read his book. I say translations and erasures are the same thing because of the disappearing part. And because I’m talking about a particular type of translation: the kind that Brandon Brown and Christian Hawkey write. The unfaithful kind.

Translating, as a thing, is measured against how invisible the translator is (and of course I’m excising all kinds of complication just to make that claim—pulling Lawrence Venuti’s entire book into its title). Enter young translators like Paul Legault, Jonathan Stalling, Christian Hawkey, Brandon Brown, or older masters like bpNichol and Steve McCaffery. They write the kinds of translation that foreground the process, eclipsing the original text because these translators refuse to fade into the background. As a queer woman, I have definite feelings about the idea of a transparent translator. I won’t be a wallflower. While I don’t want my work to mimic the cultural and linguistic violence of a phrase like “freedom fries,” nor do I want to be made transparent: to erase myself through another’s text. I do want to create a translation wherein the migration from source text to the next text is laid bare.

Think of erasures as running along a continuum similar to that of the translator’s invisibility. On one side you’ve got work like Janet Holmes’ or Travis Macdonald’s, where the erasure does not swallow up the original work entirely. It just casts shadows—recasting the light on the page. Bringing parts of the background into the foreground. Further down the spectrum, you’ve got erasures more like those of Yedda Morrison or Tom Phillips, which disappear the sense of the original. The implications of erasures, then, are like those of translations: The translator or eraser cannot completely transmit all aspects from the source text to the next text. On one end of the spectrum, the intermediary is made invisible, and further along, the intermediary is the message. Take, for example, CA Conrad’s recent translation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet #6. He speaks lines of the poem into a cleared crystal, and then waits for the crystal to speak the lines back to him in a dream. Conrad is a channel, is the medium, is the message. (You can find the resultant poem in this book.)

From this question of whether or not one can erase the voice in a text (and from a growing comfort in failure—thanks, Judith Jack Halberstam), I’ve begun wondering what the relationship is of a voice to a self, and whether one can erase the self in a text. Can one produce a text that does not contain a self? Eric Zboya’s Emily Dickinson’s ‘I lost a World – the other day!’: An Algorithmic Translation (no press 2010) indicates we can. derek beaulieu’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (information as material 2007) suggests we can. “The empty spaces of an erasure poem are a lot more loaded than the blank spaces of other poems,” Sarah Campbell remarks in a talk with Ron Silliman. Why not, then, verbalize the white space like Robert Rauschenberg did with Willem De Kooning’s drawing?

Over the last few years I’ve been working on fake translations, which I imagine to be like beaulieu’s and Zboya’s poems, except with words. I’m thinking lately that these poems are less translations and more linguistic erasures. The original text is scrubbed, frottaged, leaving only the remainder, in the sense that Jean Jacques Lecercle uses the word: misbehaving language beyond the boundaries of semantic and grammatical rule. What’s left, the linguistic residue, is like inverted erasure.