University of Michigan lecturer Jennifer Sperry Steinorth experimented with an erasure project, which became “Her Read: A Graphic Poem”
On the pages of Her Read: A Graphic Poem, author Jennifer Sperry Steinorth finds the imp, ocean, mother, pain, love, religion, and womxn. This book of erasure poetry simultaneously works as a graphic poem with artwork from the original text “radically altered” to make new visuals and word art. The source text, which is The Meaning of Art by Herbert Read, is obscured to varying degrees, sometimes visible very faintly under paint or Wite-Out while at other times incorporated into original artwork.
Pages and lines take on new shapes as the poem is conjured from the existing words and letters. Early on, the poet describes an outlook, noting:
The poem continues on to elevate womxn through play on the pages that are irreverent, sensual, incensed, and imaginative.
Finding the source text was serendipitous, as Steinorth describes in the section titled “Her Apologia”:
When I found his cardinal red, cloth-bound text, The Meaning of
Art, at a library discard scale, summer of 2016
in that pre-election heat—and me—dumbstruck by hate swamp-
ing the spillways of the American political stage—
when I glimpsed his musty male body ruminating on the other male
bodies of work—I thought, for a buck, sure, I could amuse myself.
Steinorth identified the lack of female artists, except one, in Herbert Read’s book that she then transformed into Her Read, where she creates “an embroidered wound.”
Steinorth teaches at the University of Michigan. I interviewed her about her writing and recent volume, Her Read.
Q: What do you like about Ann Arbor?
A: Oh, goodness! I love Ann Arbor! My first visit was in college in the '90s—I went to State!—and I loved it then—charming downtown, gorgeous campus, progressive vibe—and visiting friends made it that much sweeter. When I moved down from Traverse City in August, I was again able to call on dear friends, and the magic was all the more profound since the conditions of my move were incredibly challenging.
I was hired five days before the start of classes, with no place to live and no idea how to navigate the colossal system that is U-M! All the new employee meetings had already transpired, and I was commuting from Traverse City weekly, fulfilling some teaching commitments I’d made before I was hired in A2. Actually, I’m writing to you from Traverse City now, where my husband still lives—we’ll be doing the distance thing for a while.
But because my teaching schedule was so intense, not to mention the commute and the pandemic, I haven’t been able to take in many of the glories of the town. But I am overjoyed by the vibrant art and literary scenes here and in Detroit—and the conscientious community vibe—and to find myself among friends. I can’t wait to explore further.
Q: Tell us about your journey as a writer.
A: I grew up in a conservative, Methodist family in Texas with all the power of hymns, Gospel, and scripture about me. In grade school, I fell in love with ballet and pursued it whole heartily—until, at 19, some health issues made it clear I needed to go in a different direction. That loss was hard. But I had been exposed to living poets at Interlochen Center for the Arts, where I went to high school—and already planned to study English—perhaps to teach—when I could no longer dance.
My first years out of high school were a bit of a disaster, with my dreams of becoming a dancer falling apart, but I ended up at Michigan State and then under the mentorship of Diane Wakoski. I took all her undergraduate classes, then graduate workshops and independent studies. I knew I wanted to pursue an MFA, after taking a brief break—but in the “break” I met the man I would marry and had the unexpected opportunity to become a mother. I put grad school off.
In the early years of motherhood, I could not write. We were strapped—trying to make ends meet. I was teaching visual art at the public high school, and then ballet at a local studio because it allowed more time at home with my babes….
And then I got involved with my husband’s business of homebuilding. I started designing houses, got my builder’s license, and together, in concert with his brother, reorganized the family business to become a design-build firm specializing in sustainable homes.
I mention these byways because I see all of them—my dance career, motherhood, years as a builder/designer—as radically impacting my writing….
In 2005, when my youngest son entered school, I began to dabble in poetry again, but it was 2008 when I returned full steam. That was the year the economy tanked (with Michigan and the building industry hit particularly hard), and the wife of my brother-in-law and business partner was diagnosed with inoperable stage 4 brain cancer. Mercifully she survived. And writing became a means of my own survival.
Not many years after, we lost my husband’s father to suicide and gun violence. Of course, this altered our lives irrevocably. And I decided to get doing what I knew I needed to do. In 2013, I enrolled in a prestigious MFA program, (I say this in the cradle of another prestigious MFA program!) the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. I’d begun to get poems published in national venues shortly before entering grad school and I’d published a chapbook, but it took several more years before I’d get a contract for my first full length book, A Wake with Nine Shades. At the same time, with the same press, I signed Her Read, A Graphic Poem, then a little over half written, on spec. By some grace, after years of sending the first manuscript around, I landed a two-book deal. I still find it difficult to believe.
Q: At the beginning of Her Read, you write about finding the sourcebook at a library sale. Were you looking for an erasure project, or did it start as an experiment, or perhaps something else?
A: Actually, I was looking for an erasure project, but it was also very much an experiment. I didn’t even realize the book I’d settled on contained zero female artists until I had worked through many pages of the book. The rage that emerged from the onset was not so much a response to the text as a response to what I was observing on the socio-political stage in 2016, coupled with my lived experience as a female artist and the little I knew of history and art history.
In terms of experiment and improvisation, I’ll also add that I did not set out to create a visual poem. I did not reckon myself an artist. That developed over time, through fortuitous discussions with other artists and writers.
Q: What draws you to the forms of erasure, graphic poetry, and visual art?
A: Well, as I mentioned, I did not actually intend to create visual or graphic poetry. I kinda stumbled into it. And once I realized that’s what I was doing, I started trying to learn as much as I can about others working in those fields.
For me, the visual elements grew out of the process—which was always centered on language—the lyric. But even in my more “traditional” writing, I engage heavily with the field of the page, the “empty” space. And in erasure, so much is communicated through the method of erasure, in my case the methods of coverage. I loved the various textures that could be made with the Wite-Out brush strokes. I’ve always loved texture. And textiles. I’m recently back from family farmland in Oklahoma where I was born. Where there is naught but field and sky for miles, texture is everything. Also, my mother is an incredible craftsperson. As a girl, she sewed her own clothes or altered her sisters’ hand-me-downs to fit her body and the times. When I was a girl she was always sewing– curtains, special occasion dresses, costumes–for us and herself. So the trappings of textile work were always about—as was a sense of capability, ingenuity, and frugality.
There is certainly a frugality at the core of erasure and collage: drawing from what already exists, repurposing. I also love the possibility of dramatic tension—between the new text and the source. Not every erasure leverages this tension to the degree that I do in Her Read—some do, some don’t—but always there is some dialogue between the old and then new.
As to graphic poetry AND visual art—what I love about them?—I’d need to write an essay or six to explore that—but something about embodiment—about transcendence. The transfiguration of an idea, emotion, relationship—into some physical medium—a medium with its own bodily qualities—the conversation between artist and medium that ensues—mutually feeding and reforming each other—and the whole concert for us to see? What could be more splendid?
Q: What materials did you use to create the pages and poem?
A: I began with white, liquid correction fluid, Wite-Out. Before long I started integrating my own marks, just a little black ink at first, and then a little red, a little pink. And then I discovered another color of Wite-Out, “buff” (the color of manilla folders). This was great!! It let me create two-toned drawings and patterns. Sadly, “buff” was discontinued shortly after I completed the first iteration of the book and before I was able to create the second. To recreate the effect, I tried brushing the white Wite-Out with alcohol-based markers. At first I was frustrated because I couldn’t find a good color match for “buff,” but then I realized I didn’t have to limit myself to one additional shade and began reworking the designs with multiple neutral tones.
Later, as the book progressed, I began to take additional liberties, employing X-Acto knives, needle, thread, dress cloth, and floral tissue….
I came to perceive these “liberties” as the means by which the speakers were increasing their agency over texts which did not recognize them. Because the source text progressed chronologically, the increase in agency over the course of the book not only worked with the arc of my text but nodded to the general progress of women’s liberties over time. Obviously, there’s been a few setbacks.
Q: Would you share more about your process for creating a page or line of erasure poetry? What do you do when the source is missing a letter or a word that you want?
A: Oh goodness, I’d like to write another essay about just this! There are so many ways to go about it. And as I mentioned, my process radically evolved. But I was always working with a strict constraint. Early in the book, if a word I wanted wasn’t there I couldn’t use it. I often found myself discovering phrases in the text that my mind wanted to complete in a particular way, but the words I needed weren’t there. Sometimes I could discover a different way to express the thought—using different phrases or unusual syntax or metaphor. Other times, I discovered something I would never have thought to say—but which struck me as right or true, and this was usually far more interesting than what I thought to say before.
Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t hard-won. There can be a sense that you just stumble into something great and that did happen, but rarely. You mention a line below—which was a gift: Let that be a plea for intimacy. Another I found, smack dab in the middle of the page, was the phrase sadism is intense. But then, how to use those gifts was its own challenge.
I mentioned above that, as the book advanced, I did allow myself more liberties with the text—for example, if I saw something particularly compelling that required a word that wasn’t immediately present I might allow myself to spell it out—if the letters I needed were available—but only if I could justify it. The appearance of the spelled-out word had to work visually and the word needed to have some inherent value. I liken this to the way metrical poets break rhythm to emphasize a word or for some other intentional effect.
Q: One page reads:
The last line seems to be a complete sentence. When you find an existing sentence to use, does it feel like a puzzle piece fitting into place, or is the writing experience different than that?
A: I wish I could recall how that particular page came to be. I think I composed that one in 2018. I imagine I found the word intimacy and definitely wanted that. Likewise, the list—leaves, tendrils, flowers, animals, children—would have been words I earmarked right away because there were so few concrete nouns in the text. As a work of art criticism, the text was heavily Latinate—full of abstract ideas—thus my first task was often scanning the page for good, concrete nouns.
I love the idea of a puzzle piece fitting into place! It can be like that! But more elating. Because the final image has never been seen before. Though you begin with a ready-made box of pieces, you’ve no idea what you’re making, so there is a marvelous sense of discovery.
Q: In looking back over the pages, I wonder how you draft and then edit erasure poetry. Plus you mentioned the discontinuation of the “buff” Wite-Out between drafts. Did you have multiple copies of the source text on which to work? What approach did you take for revision?
A: Ah. Yes, revision is certainly tricky. I ended up making the entire book three times on three discrete copies—but each time I thought the book I was making was the final copy so I did not treat it like a draft. Also, in the beginning, I did not allow myself to photocopy pages and work out what I was going to do in advance. I started right in with the Wite-Out and didn’t look back. But I worked painfully slow and intentionally. I didn’t complete one page at a time. Rather I looked for things I might want and then erased things I felt sure I didn’t need, holding in mind the myriad possibilities I saw for how the page might work, then I would move to the next page. And the next. And then when I had a sense of where I might be headed I’d double back and skim more words off the top, narrowing my options. Then move a little further and come back again. I was maybe 50 pages in before the first few pages solidified. And some pages remained in limbo till the end of the book. So in this way there was no first draft—each page was arrived at through a very slow process of revision. Rather like sculpting.
I made myself do it this way because I wanted to feel a sense of risk. And in hindsight, it seems appropriate, given the political nature of the work, that my actions on the page would have irrevocable consequences.
Later, when I was much further in the text, and the visual images got more complex, I really needed to plan the image out before I began to alter the page so I allowed myself to photocopy pages, then work out the language and then the image.
Q: You now teach at the University of Michigan. What do you tell students about poetry, and specifically erasure poetry?
A: At present, I’m primarily teaching first-year writing to students of all majors or undeclared majors. I often joke that if they love language they should pursue poetry, but if they also love money they should pursue marketing.
But jokes aside, we spend a considerable amount of time on the braided essay, which is a literary form most students have not knowingly encountered, let alone written. After reading a number of braided essays by accomplished writers, students are asked to weave one of their own. It must integrate three “strands”: a personal narrative involving a shift of perspective, research on an issue of public concern, and a meditation on a work of art (or literature, film, music…). Students often report that it is the most challenging, most rewarding, and most personal piece of writing they’ve done. I warn them that they will feel utterly lost, this is necessary for discovery—but when they stick with it and trust the process (such a cliche, but it’s true!), the result is most often work they are singularly proud of. Many have not been asked to link their personal experience to an issue of public concern in an external way. Utterly unexpected revelations take place. The public investigation alters how they view their personal experience and vice versa. And of course, the work of art adds another voice to the conversation. The work I am asking them to do—to turn an objective gaze out on to the world, while also turning an objective gaze back on themselves—and to lean into the material discoveries that working with language and form can yield—all while writing conscientiously for a diverse readership—well, I’m asking them to do what poets and artists do. It's big work!
I’ll mention briefly that I do teach a number of poetry workshops outside of U-M. With erasure, I love to emphasize and examine the nature of the dialogue between the source text and the poem, because I think it’s something that gets lost—and is deeply related to issues of ethics and craft. But that’s another essay I’m working on!
Q: What are you reading and recommending?
A: I just completed an essay on one of my heroes, C. D. Wright, and am about to begin another, so I’m reading and rereading a lot of her work right now. And because I’ve currently got a backlog of essays I want to write, and less experience than I’d like, I’m reading lots of essays and other creative nonfiction—at present I’m moving between collections by Aisha Sabatini Sloan, Lia Purpura, Fleda Brown, Zadie Smith, Ross Gay, Thomas Lynch, Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, Jill Gutowitz, and e.e. cummings. I’m kind of an erratic reader! I also keep dipping into Hunger: An Unnatural History by Sharman Apt Russell, The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, and The Body Keeps Score by Bessel van der Kolk.
Q: What is next on the horizon for you?
A: The last years have had so many unexpected turns it’s hard to say! But this summer, I’m writing and revising essays and returning to a book-length poem I first drafted several years ago, and which seems particularly poignant now. It’s not erasure, but it is documentary and may end up incorporating some erasured or redacted documents.
I’m also trying to read tons, but as the list above may attest, I’m a rather ponderous, scattershot reader! I flit from book to book like a hummingbird, except infinitely more slowly! All told, it’s glorious to be writing and reading for myself again after a particularly intense teaching year amid a gorgeous Michigan summer. I’m also excited to return to Ann Arbor in the fall.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.