I Killed Kurtz: The Generative Powers of Poetic Erasure

When I read or say the word “erasure,” I imagine the pink palimpsest in the wake of my pencil eraser and how I brush away the soft rubber crumbs with the side of my hand while worrying my pencil will spear a hole through the paper’s softened fibers. Flipping my pencil back to graphite, I abandon my preferred hand for just a few lines. I become aware of myself, the fibers, and the sharp pencil. This attentive space is fleeting and generative. When I teach erasure poetry workshops, I tend to title them, “Poet Against Empire: A Generative Erasure Workshop.” I want poets to cherish the attentive, generative moment they erase something. I believe the attention of a poet’s eraser can expose and possibly counteract the cruelty of empire’s erasure. 

Before I could begin to erase texts, I had to contend with the fact that I am the victim of erasure. During every history class I took from the elementary school to undergraduate level, I was taught to be a passive recipient of lectures and textbook content. This content gave the impression that enslavement wasn’t that bad—some of the enslavers were good and enslaved people enjoyed some of the work. The one book I remember from my childhood that unsettled this narrative was Connie Walker’s Addy series of books in the American Girls collection. My mother read those books to me when I was seven years old. It was the first time I was exposed to the concept that enslaved Africans were the property of white enslavers and that enslavers used brutal, violent methods to maintain this relationship. Nothing I experienced in school added nuance to my understanding.

It wasn’t until graduate school when I started to understand the impact of erasure on my life. During my graduate studies in elementary education, Professor Maneka Deanna Brooks taught me how to teach children to think like historians by exposing them to primary sources that help them interrogate secondary sources. The goal wasn’t to advance a single, grand narrative about the history of the world, but to give children the skills and desire to think critically about the past and how one comes to understand it. As I started to help children reckon with the erasure of history, I realized I needed to do that work for myself. I began to study diagrams of enslaver ships, receipts from the auction block, and bounty notices, and include those primary sources in my lesson plans.

After full days of teaching second and fifth-graders, completing my own graduate coursework, and (barely) surviving being a young Black woman in an interpersonally and structurally violent institution, I began to read for my own pleasure and edification. I started with bell hooks and Audre Lorde. That led to the realization that I might not be straight, and that my gender could be something I wasn’t allowed to imagine for myself. I couldn’t bring myself to check out queer books from my graduate school’s library, so I had them delivered to my dorm in plain brown boxes. Female Masculinity by Jack Halberstam landed in my mailbox. I read and reread Halberstam’s description of the “tyranny of language—a structure that fixes people in place artificially but securely” over and over again. As I continued to read Black, queer, and feminist literature, I found words for my sexual, gender, and racial identities.

I started to reach for books that were left out of both the public school education I received from pre-kindergarten through middle school, and the private education I received from high school through graduate school. The number of Black writers and artists I was exposed to in all levels of my education could be counted on one hand. Between middle school and graduate school, I had stopped reading outside of the institutional gaze and the promise of accolades. In high school, I was one of two Black students in my English section when we read Heart of Darkness. Then, I read it in two separate undergraduate literature classes. In those rooms, I was one of one. When I think back to these experiences now, I realize that more than anything else, my white teachers and classmates marveled at white guilt—the narrator’s, the authors, and then, their own. It was almost as if their guilt was enough to make up for the fact that Joseph Conrad’s metaphors, characterization (or Black characters’ lack thereof), and plot are an apologia for the sheer brutality of colonization in the Congo. 

Recently, a white English teacher told me that she recently re-evaluated how she taught Heart of Darkness because she witnessed an exceptionally bright student go from being highly engaged in her speaking and writing to drifting to the back of the room whenever the book was discussed. That student was Black. Black students who survive the education system have a lot to unlearn. The combination of reading for myself and teaching others how to do the same taught me that I had to do more than seek knowledge and perspectives that are left out of the dominant narrative—I had to find a way to encounter and question the racist, misogynistic, homophobic, ableist, classist, and fascist ideas that worked their way into my psyche and intellect during the course of my formal education.

I didn’t have the emotional or financial space to write creatively or make art until my late 20s. Even then, it took a bit longer for me to embrace erasure as a generative form. One thing I learned during early workshops with Jason Koo, Wendy Xu, Afaa Weaver, Camille Rankine, and Joanna C. Valente is that I can use different poetry forms to unlock the movement of my mind and think about the nature of language itself. I learned that I should write a sestina when I want to use the repetition of key words to make connections and redefine their meaning in new contexts. I loved how the repetition of sound patterns in blank verse poems could unlock a singular voice that is perfect for a persona poem or monologue. I even experimented with using prose poetry and complete sentences in poems to mimic and interrogate the brutality of scientific texts.

In 2016, I received my first poetry commission. The American Jewish Historical Society asked me to write a poem for their 2017 commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Movement and the 45th anniversary of the Mizrahi Black Panther Movement in Palestine and Israel. I had a hard time starting the commission because the topics were complex and they were important to me and the people in my community. 

Artist Ido Michaeli had an exhibit on view of his piece, called “Black Panther Got Loose from the Bronx Zoo.” He referenced a New York Times article as a source of information for his tapestry. I read the article and began to annotate it. Then, I started to find patterns and cross out words. Soon, I was crafting a whiteout erasure in earnest. The resulting erasure, “Panther Gets Loose,” set off a new mode of inquiry and creation. I started to pay particular attention to the patterns and messages in the archive, popular media, and news media. I found myself erasing Supreme Court decisions, reports from the Department of Justice, and old newspaper clippings. I knew that one day I wanted to go back to particularly problematic texts I encountered in high school and college. In the spring of 2020, during the first few months of the COVID-19 epidemic, I got a copy of Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness and the Congo Diary. I thought I would labor over the text for months. As someone who survived the education system and then taught students in that same system, the book became a symbol for all of the painful ideas I was forced to learn and pass along. First, I took a pencil and started to cross out and circle words. When the possibilities came too quickly, I opened up a plain-text version of the book and a text editor. I erased the entire book into an erasure poem, The Dark Diary, in under two hours. At the end of the erasure, I had to decide if my Black, Queer protagonist would spare Kurtz or kill him. I killed him.

My erasure of a text must be emancipatory, revelatory, and/or healing to folks who have endured the brunt of social and political violence. When I’m engaging in erasure poetry, the most important choices I make are not which words I keep or erase, but which texts I choose not to. The first step to creating an erasure is to find a section of a resonant text and analyze the relationship between myself and the author, subject, and context of the text. No act of reading or writing is neutral, and erasure poetry can be used to obscure the truth of and further entrench violent hierarchies. I also have to contend with the reality that even if I am careful and try to weigh the impact of my language, it is likely that my erasures will have problematic elements that reflect my vectors of privilege. As I mature as a writer, I grapple with these issues in my poems and try to communicate the idea that my speaker is not a perfect hero. For example, there are a few moments in The Dark Diary where the speaker problematizes their reliance on language and the urge to try to speak or write their way out of injustice. In part two of The Dark Diary, the speaker declares,  “I must suppress / the savage custom / of eloquence.”

Generative erasure is dragging an eraser across the graphite of violent and limiting ideas to surface new contours. As someone who has experienced the violence of erasure, it is invigorating to be able to refactor its language in my mind and on the page. As I continue to explore the powers of erasure, it is important for me to move beyond the page and build new connections, communities, and ways of living that embrace these new ideas.

Candace Williams

Candace Williams is a poet and interdisciplinary artist. I Am the Most Dangerous Thing (Alice James Books, 2023) is their debut full-length poetry collection. Candace earned their Bachelor of Arts in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) from Claremont McKenna College and their Master of Arts in education from Stanford University. They grew up in the Pacific Northwest and found love and poetry in Brooklyn, New York. Now, Candace lives and makes art in New England.

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