J.M. Farkas is a poet, but the tools of her trade are not pens and keyboards. They are black Sharpies and Wite-Out bottles.
Farkas specializes in erasure poetry, a relatively new art form—its origins date to the mid-1960s—in which the artist redacts the vast majority of someone else’s text, leaving only select words or phrases that, when strung together, resonate anew. She calls it “a literary mix of hide-and-seek and word search and show-and-tell.”
Farkas, a Boca Raton resident and former high school teacher, discovered erasure while earning her MFA in Poetry at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the early 2000s. Her first published erasure poem, Be Brave, is a blackout of Beowulf, which she transformed into an “unlikely manual for erasing heartbreak”—a feminist entreaty that entirely eliminated the book’s masculine elements. “I wanted to create books for females about females by a female to empower females,” she wrote, in the book’s introduction.
Breaking with publishers’ preferred protocol, she sent an unsolicited manuscript of Be Brave to Andrews McMeel, which publishes The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes and others through Simon & Schuster. The publisher accepted it, and Be Brave came out in 2018.
It was followed last year by How to Be a Poet, which whited out Ovid’s The Art of Love. Exhausting seven bottles of Wite-Out, Farkas turned an ancient and misogynistic text (“Hide your body’s defects as best you can. … If you’re short sit down … commit your smallness to the couch,” wrote the author) into another modern, inspirational “manual.”
Why do you think erasure poetry became your niche?
I struggle a lot with writing, as a lot of writers do. And there’s something about erasure that seems more doable when you’re struggling, because the words are there. It’s a tool I use to loosen up language, because you’re searching for words instead of creating new ones. It’s really fun.
How would you respond to those who argue that erasure isn’t really art, because you’re just repurposing other people’s words?
I don’t feel the need to defend myself in that way, because there’s a part of me that feels like, you are honoring the text. I hated Beowulf, but I still feel that, in using it, I’m still honoring the original source. I don’t see it as blasphemy.
Once you make a decision to white something out, is it final?
No, in a sense that the Wite-Out is not my first step. It’s my last step. It’s a very mysterious, weird process. Of course I read the source text, and usually have read it several times. But when I’m actually doing the erasure, I’m never reading what’s on the page. Some words call out to me, almost italicized, and I hook them to a string of words. And often I’ll be looking for a word on the next page, if I want to create a line—and more often than not, it’ll be there.
But my first step is, I pull the words out on a separate piece of paper, like a found poem. Usually I’ll edit that; I’ll take out more words than I chose. The final stage is the whiteout or the blackout, but that can be very tricky, because depending on the book or the material, you might have only a few shots to get it right. When I did my first book with blackout, I was using a book that is out of print. I did have several copies of it, but if I didn’t get the blackout right in one or two tries, I was done. You can’t make a mistake.
Is there a tedium to the process?
The actual whiting and blacking out is pretty intense. That is a lot of time spent crossing out or whiting out. It’s tedious, but there’s a meditative quality to it.
What’s your next project?
I just did an erasure of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. It’s bananas—it really shows the mermaid in an extremely pathetic light, and also, she has murderous tendencies. And it’s for children!