Cross Out Poems and Writing for Discovery

susan_bernstein
0 1 505

For our 2nd writing project this semester, we are working on creating multimedia projects. The intention is to create a deeper understanding of our class’s key source, “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” by James Baldwin. We are returning to this source with 3 central goals in mind:

  1. To practice part-to-whole analysis, students will find a section from “Artist’s Struggle “ that caught their attention while composing Writing Project 1. They will analyze how and why this part of the text caught their attention, and explain how this section exemplifies  Baldwin’s overall message. 
  2. To prepare for Writing Project 3, the researched essay, students will engage with deeper reading of “Artist’s Struggle.” For WP 3, students will use the section from WP 2 to find an additional source by James Baldwin that speaks to connected or similar concerns. “Artist’s Struggle” presents many of the germinal themes that Baldwin revisited throughout his life, including the idea of artists bearing witness to and recording cataclysmic events in order to move audiences to action. In investigating Baldwin’s work in more depth, the hope is that students will explore and synthesize questions and concerns from across the semester.
  3. To understand Baldwin’s work more fully, students will engage with the artistic process of writing for discovery. For facilitating this part of the assignment, I will offer examples of projects that students have created in the last several years, including videos, drawings, and collages.

In reconsidering the third goal, I wondered how to introduce poetry as an additional possibility for a multimedia project. Then I remembered the concept of cross out, or erasure, poems. To create an erasure poem, the Poetry Foundation suggests the following process: “Cross out words or entire phrases to make a new poem ‘within’ or ‘underneath’ the real one.” 

My thought was that, using their selected section from “Artist’s Struggle,” students use Baldwin’s original words to create their own cross out poem. I tried out this process myself  to see how it might work and what it might look like.  

First, in order to have a clear reference point, I copied a sample section into a Google Doc:

If I spend weeks and months avoiding my typewriter—and I do, sharpening pencils, trying to avoid going where I know I’ve got to go—then one has got to use this to learn humility. After all, there is a kind of saving egotism too, a cruel and dangerous but also saving egotism, about the artist’s condition, which is this: I know that if I survive it, when the tears have stopped flowing or when the blood has dried, when the storm has settled, I do have a typewriter which is my torment but is also my work. If I can survive it, I can always go back there, and if I’ve not turned into a total liar, then I can use it and prepare myself in this way for the next inevitable and possibly fatal disaster. But if I find that hard to do—and I have a weapon which most people don’t have—then one must understand how hard it is for almost anybody else to do it at all. (Baldwin 68)

Next, I recopied the section and added cross outs using strikethrough formatting. This was not an easy process, and I spent some time figuring out what words to keep to make meaning (and a poem!) from the original section. 

If I spend weeks and months avoiding my typewriter—and I do, sharpening pencils, trying to avoid going where I know I’ve got to go—then one has got to use this to learn humility. After all, there is a kind of saving egotism too, a cruel and dangerous but also saving egotism, about the artist’s condition, which is this: I know that if I survive it, when the tears have stopped flowing or when the blood has dried, when the storm has settled, I do have a typewriter which is my torment but is also my work. If I can survive it, I can always go back there, and if I’ve not turned into a total liar, then I can use it and prepare myself in this way for the next inevitable and possibly fatal disaster. But if i find that hard to do—and I have a weapon which most people don’t have—then one must understand how hard it is for almost anybody else to do it at all. 

In the process of choosing the cross outs, I found myself slowing down and reading more deeply to discover how Baldwin used language to make meaning. I noticed, as if for the first time, how Baldwin used verbs, conjunctions, and punctuation to create meaning. Even though I regularly teach these stylistic features, I realized that I was creating something new from something seemingly very familiar. I looked more closely at sentences and key words to figure out how the component parts could work together as a reimagined whole.

What I discovered was that erasing words and punctuation allowed me to better understand the heart of Baldwin’s message—a condensed version, in a sense. In other words, the erasure of words helped me to concretize meaning in a text where meaning can seem abstract and elusive. 

I wished I had thought of this for WP 1, I noted to myself. Perhaps it would have helped with the initial struggles with the text. On the other hand, those initial struggles seem like an important part of the process. In and out of the classroom any of us might struggle to make sense of a complicated world. The hope is that having struggled with a difficult text there will be a transfer of skills that is applicable to other situations in which students find it difficult to make meaning from a first encounter. 

The final step in my process was to put my strikethrough formatted text into a Word document and to use the drawing function to cross out the words in digital purple marker. Here is a screenshot of the poem:  

Cross Out Poem using a section of “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” by James BaldwinCross Out Poem using a section of “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” by James Baldwin

Poem and Photo by Susan Bernstein March 15, 2023.

It is perhaps an interesting way to teach paraphrase, as well as a different approach to the writing process and close reading and analysis. Indeed, as with any form of interpretation based on existing evidence, I imagine that the same passage would yield many different cross out poems. But for the moment, the hope is that students will experience for themselves what it means, as artists writing for discovery, to struggle with their integrity.

1 Comment
About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.