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Sebald Erased

The current issue (number three) of the Brooklyn-based independent literary magazine The Coffin Factory features a collaborative piece by writer Justin Taylor and artist Bill Hayward entitled “From Notes on the Inconsolable,” in which Taylor performs an erasure based on W. G. Sebald’s novel The Emigrants.  The result is a fairly short poem by Taylor into which Hayward inserts three of his own photographs, à la Sebald.  On Hayward’s blog, the work featured in The Coffin Factory is described as “an excerpt,” which suggests there is more to come one day.  Here’s a bit of commentary by Taylor on his process of erasure:

Erasure is a method of delving into the depths of a text to see what can be found there. But the eraser is liberated—as well as made anxious—by the knowledge that said findings are not discoveries but creations. The erasure-text is not a salvage: it has no reality independent of the search for it, the searching is in fact what made it real. Erasure, therefore, is a way of being read, at least as much as it is a way of reading. 

For the most part, the result truly is “liberated.”  Other than the use of the highly-recognizable quotation  “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead…”, one would be hard pressed to identify Sebald as the source for the Taylor’s enigmatic new poem.  Perhaps most noticeably, the narrative voice in Taylor’s piece is utterly different.  Here’s an excerpt:

and you already know
how things went from never able
to bring myself to anything I still don’t know
for sure what made us drift apart

between his legs, the muzzle

There is a small universe of erasure-based poetry, but probably the most well-known example is A Humument, in which Tom Phillips made an entirely new, illustrated novel by eliminating parts of the text of an obscure Victorian book.  Phillips painted on and decorated the original pages of the book as a way of editing out much of the original text, saying that he “plundered, mined, and undermined its text to make it yield the ghosts of other possible stories, scenes, poems.”  Taylor’s strategy is very similar, although he’s only using (and retyping) Sebald’s altered text rather than playing with the physical pages of Sebald’s book.

Taylor explains that he asked Hayward “to punctuate my erasure-text  with images that would simultaneously pay homage to Sebald at the level of form while undermining or re-imagining them at the level of content.”  Unlike Sebald’s snapshots and found photographs, Hayward’s are described as “intentional artworks.”  They also deliberately relocate” The Emigrants to the US, where both Taylor and Hayward live.  Based on the three photographs in this excerpt, it’s seems fair to say that Hayward has created a parallel imagery that references Sebald’s photographs in several ways.  Reminiscent of the many sources for Sebald’s imagery, the three photographs here are done in three distinct styles: a sharply-focused sepia image of a 1940s car on a road in the American West; a dark, over-exposed black-and-white image of a small boy dressed in Western clothing (almost an ironic twist on the cover photograph from Austerlitz); and a slightly blurred image of a young woman making an enigmatic gesture or movement, as if cleaning something from her blouse.


5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for publishing this, very interesting technique. And one that William Burroughs didn’t invent :-)

    July 27, 2012
  2. It would be interesting to devise a parallel method for moving through urban space. If you erased the intervening space and just kept a few places, would you reveal another city? Could this be made into a spatial exercise?

    July 27, 2012
  3. Inspired by your blog entry I’ve experimented with “erasure poetry”. It’s a fascinating process. Starting from some random input slowly a shape becomes visible. You should try it sometimes, it’s really weird to experience the feedback loop between your choices, the resulting text and the next choices resulting from that.

    I’ve used text from James Bridle’s “A ship adrift” and the resulting “poem” catches my feelings of his artwork nicely:

    July 28, 2012
  4. Ad Zuiderent #

    A long poem in Dutch, also based on ‘Die Ausgewanderten’, is ‘De uitgereisden (Commedia Sebaldiana)’ in my volume of poetry ‘We konden alle kanten op’ (Amsterdam, Querido, 2011). I did not use erasion, but I wrote myself as an actor in Sebald’s text.

    July 30, 2012
  5. No such thing as collaborative literature.

    Collaborative pop-song writing, yes. And it can be beautiful.

    July 30, 2012

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