There’s an old riddle that goes: what gets bigger the more you take away? The answer is a hole, but it could also be Holly Lyn Walrath’s (she/they) brand of erasure poetry, which is getting a massive showcase at Sabine Street Studios.
Erasure poetry was pioneered by Doris Cross in the 1960s. The practice involves using a printed page from another work, such as a dictionary, and blacking out all but a few words to create a short poem. Walrath has taken that style to an incredible scale. Instead of merely blacking out the words, she uses the space to paint pictures relevant to the new poem. Not content with that innovation, she also blows them up to gigantic size. The largest of her works measures 4x5 feet.
“When you do something with the dictionary, it’s so small on the page,” she says. “As I kept doing the poems, I kept making them bigger and bigger.”
One of the most moving creations in the show is a work called “In Light and Shadow” crafted from a page in an old photography guide. The poem explores Walrath’s gender fluidity through a jumbled set of words that can be read in multiple orders. In the center of the piece is a silhouette of Walrath herself, who traced her own shadow and then adorned it with devil horns.
Another standout is “The Call,” pulled from the first page of H. P. Lovecraft’s most famous story “The Call of Cthulhu.” To create the accompanying illustration, Walrath scoured old textbooks for illustrations of octopuses. She found a disturbing one about preparing the animals for dinner, an appropriate subject for a cephalopod-headed god destined to eat his own followers. She traced the figure, stretched it, and added shadows until one of the most terrifying depictions of the famous monster glares out from the space between her words.
In this, Walrath continues the modern trend of repurposing the famously bigoted author and father of weird fiction to explore marginalization.
“I think a lot of the discussion of Lovecraft is on the racism, which I understand and agree with, but there’s less discussion on the sexism and misogyny, she says. “I like engaging with that. There’s a lot imagery in the mythos that can be repurposed. There’s value in working with problematic authors. I found this textbook on teaching women arts, including taxidermy right next to how to paint illustrations on fine china. It pushes back on what women artists were doing at a time when women artists weren’t really considered to even exist.”
Walrath is primarily known for her poetry books like The Smallest of Bones and her work as the head of the publisher Interstellar Flight. Though erasure poetry has been one of her favorite styles for years, even teaching workshops in it, this is the first time she has combined the visual arts with the literary ones. By her own account, it took years to get comfortable enough in the art world to make a show like this possible.
“A lot of writers I meet don’t understand the visual arts,” she says. “I hated art classes even though I loved art. They would give us cleaning bottles for still life. We couldn’t get anything better? I don’t have an art background or a good experience dealing with the mainstream art culture. I made 22 poems in three weeks, that’s a lot, and it became easier. My brain went into a mode. I put on music, and was often surprised where my subconscious took me. You transcend yourself.”
Holly Lyn Walrath: Poetry Between the Lines is on display through May 13 at Sabine Street Studios (East Corridor Gallery), 1907 Sabine. Reception is Saturday, April 8 from 5 – 7 p.m. For more information, visit SawyerYards.com. Free.