Recently, a friend of mine translated Julio Herrera y Reissig’s poem “Tertulia Lunática” from Spanish to English, chopped it up into segments, and divvyed the parts among our friends. Our task was seemingly simple: erase words, lines, even whole stanzas of the poem until we had crafted something new. If we so desired, we could rearrange the poem’s words and potentially add new words to the mix. This is what’s known as an erasure, and this was mine:
The night sings a nasal savage,
The mood sheds its journey,
And the Olympic shell makes ruin the sea with its tentacles hypnotized by the sun.
The noble beast,
Her placid face resembles a snowflake beneath her cotton curls.
I double me and repeat me,
clouding the bewildered grimace of a mummical storm.
The clock is yawning,
the pine trees snore nostalgia,
and there the spinning windmill is a wild dragonfly, embalmed in a brooch pinned to the sky’s cabinet.
Hereafter, the swamplands dismantle,
like a hurdy-gurdy insane in a carousel.
Interrogation demolishes the infinite,
killing itself like a carbuncle of gold in a spider’s weave.
I like the poem that resulted from my cuts, rearrangements, and refinements. Yet, the erasure has me thinking about originality in art. After all, even though I constructed the “poem” above, I can hardly claim it as my own. I could not have created it without Reissig first writing “Tertulia Lunática.”
Yet, you could say the same is true of all writing, or of any creative endeavor—every artwork’s existence is contingent upon something else. Even this speculative essay could not have existed without Reissig, without my friend’s prompting me to create an erasure, or without someone first inventing the notion of an erasure. Our experiences influence everything we do so that everything we create is inspired by something external. We don’t live in a vacuum, after all.
The erasure, then, seems like an apt metaphor for the struggle to create original artwork—perhaps the impossibility of doing so. Maybe we can only build off of and reinterpret older works. I’m sure we’ve all heard the infamous diatribe from Ecclesiastes:
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
‘Look! This is something new’?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
And most us of have heard this sentiment applied to writing—attempting to craft a wholly original story is an exercise in futility, as one Miss Mia Wallace might say.
But if that’s true, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We have an opportunity to elevate a preexisting idea, just as in an erasure, we have the opportunity to elevate a preexisting poem—not to say that I’ve elevated Reissig’s poem by any means; however, I did produce something that speaks to and intrigues me, and there’s value in that as well.
Even if everything that will ever be thought of has already been thought of, each generation will interact with, interpret and express these thoughts differently. And considering that the number of extant ideas is innumerable, each generation will tap into their own subset of ideas, so that they may relate to ideas the next generation will discard.
My point is that even though something has already been written about, it hasn’t necessarily been written about in a way that speaks to us currently. Language as well as socioeconomic and cultural factors can be a barrier to appreciating or relating to a story, regardless of the fundamental premise or message (Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story come to mind). We can reinterpret preexisting ideas and express them in a way that each new generation can better understand and enjoy.
Going back to the erasure, I’ve often wondered about its value as a practice. I’m skeptical of an erasure being viewed as a stand-alone piece of work to which someone can claim bragging rights. Its merit seems to lie in its potential to kick start creativity and inspire a new project all together. But I also think it reminds us of something important about the artistic process—that the inability to create something wholly original is nothing to get down about. Finding new ways to express old sentiments has just as much value and requires just as much (if not more) creativity.