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There is a variety of poetry to explore on bookstore shelves, from classical closed forms, such as William Shakespeare’s sonnets, to open forms, also known as “free verse,” which don’t follow a specific set of rules related to line groupings or meter. But one of the more complicated, and misunderstood, forms of contemporary poetry is erasure poetry. Dan Brady, an Arlington poet well-versed in more traditional fare, explores this unique form in his new collection Subtexts, released on Feb. 22 from Publishing Genius.
“I was ready to show a new side of myself with this book,” Brady says.
His previous collection, Strange Children, was a beautiful exploration of the way poetry can feel both narrative and lyrical. A deeply personal look at love, Strange Children offered a conversation about the poet’s marriage, his wife’s stroke, and their experience with adoption. Brady is a poet who tells stories, and his first collection lingered in that space. Subtexts continues to draw on his gift for storytelling, but with an exciting, layered new approach.
Erasure poetry usually involves a previously written text, such as a newspaper article, where the poet removes, or erases, certain words and phrases to create an entirely new work with a new meaning. It is sometimes called blackout poetry or newspaper poetry, and has been used to highlight everything from social and political causes to the smallest of moments.
Erin Dorney’s book I Am Not Famous Anymore is one of the better-known examples of an erasure collection, published by local indie press Mason Jar in 2018. Dorney took interviews from actor Shia LaBeouf, erasing and borrowing his own words to discuss plagiarism and the distance between celebrity and reality.
In Subtexts, Brady modifies the form, writing the original work himself, adding in more and more words and phrases to create new poems.
In “Face to Face,” we see this process clearly:
Now that you can read my eyes, there is nothing between us, just a feeling we cannot know. *** Now that we are here you can read everything in my eyes. Misunderstanding us. There is no us, no speech, just a feeling, a sense we cannot know each other. *** Now that we are here face to face, you can read everything I mean in my eyes. There can be no misunderstanding between us when there is nothing between us, no hazy medium of speech, just presence and feeling and a quiet sense that we truly cannot know each other.
This continues, step by step, adding layers of nuance and meaning, a modified erasure that takes us by surprise at each stage. Brady plays with the form, sometimes adding and then taking away in all new explorations. In “Cabin Fever,” he writes about a snowstorm and a weeklong stay at home, beginning with one line:
how magical it had been
He builds this up, poem after poem, page after page, into a short essay about the mundane experience itself and the subsequent transition back to regular life. Then he erases—words and lines, phrase after phrase—until he leaves us with:
What was mundane becomes an unexpected emotional journey.
“I stumbled into using erasure because I was really thinking about layering in visual art, how you can apply different layers to create a sense of distance and physical depth in a 2D object,” Brady says. “I wanted to see if I could do something like that in poetry and erasure was a natural fit.”
Brady uses these layers to talk about both the personal and broader world in Subtexts, expanding on the microcosm of his immediate experience, unlike his previous collection. Here he writes about government surveillance, the climate crisis, the relationships in his life, and more.
“[The collection’s] real concern is the gap between what we say and what we mean,” says Brady. “How language can come so close to meaning, but always falls short of our intention.”
That yearning is pervasive throughout the collection, with each series of poems feeling like a search for one’s place within the larger world. Whether it’s who we are at home versus our community, the speck of humanity within the geologic time scale, or even an examination of a dismantled argument between lovers, Brady highlights and elevates the spaces between—both literally and figuratively. The big and little pictures collide, and the result is transformative.
From “A Disagreement”:
Brady wrote Subtexts before any of us had heard of COVID-19. It was scheduled to come out in early 2020, but he and his press decided to wait for what they hoped would be a quick resolution and recovery to the virus and the literary scene. Then that wait extended, as it did for all of us. Brady, like many writers, found it difficult to create much of anything during that first pandemic year, and he knew that selling a poetry collection would be nearly impossible. Now, two years later, it finally feels like the right time to get Subtexts onto bookstore shelves.
“That first year was so tough,” he says. “I’m glad—now as things start to open up and, hopefully, we’ve put the worst of this pandemic behind us—Subtexts has its chance to find its audience.”
In addition to writing poetry, Brady is also the poetry editor for the indie press Barrelhouse, and he currently works as the literary specialist for Arlington Cultural Affairs. You can often find him teaching workshops, in conversation at events at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, and attending panels, such as Day Eight’s conference on Book Reviews held last month. He’s a well-known member of the D.C. literary community, and a big fan of local poetry.
Brady is, himself, an exciting addition to this list, with Subtexts adding an important new voice to the evolving form of erasure poetry.
“People need to recognize that the D.C. area has some of the best, most exciting poets working right now!” says Brady, naming Alexa Patrick, Courtney LeBlanc, Jenn Koiter, Kyle Dargan, Sandra Beasley, Teri Cross Davis, Kelly Forsythe, Holly Karapetkova, and Paul Killebrew.
Brady reads from Subtexts at Readings on the Pike on March 19 at 7 p.m., virtual.