Katherine Stingley interviews Mary Ruefle about the craft of erasure.
I’d like to spend some time with you and Marie, which is your latest work of erasures available on your website.
Erasures make me happier than anything in the world. I’d rather talk about them than poetry any day.
The one thing about erasure is it’s a form because when you reach the last page of the book—but after I’ve reached the last page of the book, I go back—like any book—I go back to the beginning, and I erase even more. So I erase my erasure pages.
I look at the books that some people own—and I think “Oh, I hate this.” I was having a show once, and I had to [get my erasures back]. In the very beginning when I first started, I was giving them as gifts. And I collected them all. I wrote to all my friends and said “You have to loan these to me for six months because they’re going to be in an exhibition.” And I got them, and I sat and looked at them—some of these I hadn’t looked at in years, and I was horrified and made changes and reerased. So it’s an ongoing process.
Originally, Marie is the second book in a children’s series. How much do you think of that childhood and the voice of a child? Do you decide to keep the voice as a child? Because it appears so often in your work.
Marie is a book written by Laura Richards, and she wrote books for young girls. She was a nineteenth century young adult writer, and when you read [Marie], you know this would not interest boys. They were read to boys, but mainly they’re girl’s books. And so what you see is coming through—the books I like, many of them were written for children. The Mansion was not—that guy, I’ve done a couple of his books—he’s like a psychophilosopher writing wisdom books for adults, but Marie is a young adult book, and she’s—the person that wrote it—is someone I wanted to erase every book she ever wrote. She’s my hands down favorite.
She wrote these books for kids, and she wrote a biography of her mother, who was famous; Julia Ward Howe wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and that was her mother. And Laura and her sister, together they wrote a biography of her mother, and it won a Pulitzer Prize. I found this all out after I’d been erasing her for years. I finally got interested in her because I loved her books. To the best of my knowledge, she didn’t write any poetry. She lived in Maine, and they had a hard time—she and her husband couldn’t support their family, and she started to write. Her books began to support them. What you’ll do, if you look, is you’ll find an author you really love, and you’ll want to erase all their books.
It’s a special kind of relationship.
Very. And I only have it really with Laura because she’s the only one—I’ve erased more books by Laura Richards than any other one single author. But neither of the ones online, neither Marie nor The Mansion, I don’t consider those continuous narratives. There are very specific books, one’s called Loveliness and one’s called The Journals of Nellie Walters and one’s called The Right Way—there’s certain books that are absolutely continuous, but it doesn’t happen that often. I like it when it does. I would like it to do it more often, but it all depends on the book that you choose. I’ve done two biographies of artists, and when you’re working with biography, it’s obviously going to be continuous if you decide to use the artist’s name in the book—and I chose to use the artist’s name in both books. So two biographies of artists that are sort of continuous because they’re always about the artist, retelling
In some of your erasures, like An Incarnation of the Now, you’ve included collages of images throughout, and that’s a new dimension for a text. In Marie, instead of just having the image of a hairpin, you actually scanned a hairpin onto it.
Yes, there’s a real hairpin. I didn’t scan it on; it’s glued on the page. The books are physical objects, so the hairpin would be glued onto the page. I can use things—the other day I wanted to use the spine of a book that I had just ripped off, and it was too thick. But you can do needles—I’ve done porcupine quills, sewing needles, hairpins. If you get something really thin, it’ll work. If it’s too thick—you don’t want to close the book and have the book hang open at that page. I’ll cut fabric and glue it on the page, old post cards. They’re not all paper images.
It certainly adds to making a book more than just what’s on a page. And even, I’m stuck on Marie because there’s this one line in there you erased that says “I / keep / ducking / out of / art,” and there are eyes there. They seem to look directly at me.
Oh, and I glued—I don’t remember—I glued eyes on the page?
Yes, and it’s such a haunting thing—not just because it looks at me and indicts me in a kind of way, but it makes me think that you’ve never ducked out of your own art. So what was your relationship to that page in erasing it?
Well the whole art of erasure is ducking out of art. I don’t know, I could relate that to my own self, I don’t know. I am just so moved that you took the time to really read that because you know they’re very hard to read online. The text is very small, and it might be The Mansion or Marie, but I’m like “How can people read this?”
It’s very moving to me, because I just want to make people smile. That’s all I want to do with erasures—make someone smile.
I just so enjoy doing them. It’s so meditative. I like the repetition of when I use the white-out.
I can see that meditative quality that erasure takes on. Earlier today, you mentioned that you do one erasure a morning.
Yes, I do it every morning when I’m there with my own bottle. And sometimes it takes me ten minutes, and sometimes it takes me three hours. You never know, it’s so surprising. It’ll be with this page, and if the page is really unworkable, I’ll white out the whole thing, and I have a whole folder of cool stuff you could glue on a page and make it complete without using any original text. I no longer freak out if I can’t do a page because there’s so much stuff I can—paired images and then, you can glue on text that you cut out. I have a Fodder library of about three-hundred volumes of old books where I get the images and texts from—and they’re just all ripped up. A lot of old textbooks: anatomy, bird books, geology.
The bird books certainly come through in Marie.
Yes, bird books. My favorite is—I went to a library sale and got a whole bunch of old doll books. The most amazing, that was the best find—all these doll pictures.
Is that where you find all your source materials?
Yes. So the source material comes from the library of three-hundred volumes called My Fodder Library. One book I did that’s a continuous narrative—I’d forgotten about it until talking to you—is the story of a girl, but it’s all done with pictures of dolls. So there’s pictures of dolls on every single page.
When I cut up a book, I keep it. I get an old book at the thrift store. I go through, and I flag the images that I like. And I have that in my resource library to use. And sometimes I cut them out—I have envelopes too that are named “melancholy pictures,” “birds,” “hands,” “wings,” “dust,” “machines,” “photographs,” “photographs of portraits,” “photographs that are not portraits,” “animals,” “close-ups of hair,” “dog fur.” I have so many envelopes that I want to list. It’d be funny to make what the things are, of the envelopes, because they do get quite bizarre. One will say “ballerina legs” and another will say “children playing with puppets,” and another will say “automobile accidents,” and another will say “torture.” It’s terrible; it’s funny. One will say “elves and fairies,” “machines.”
Do you have any of those headings that are hard to place? I’m sure so many of them are difficult to place together.
The ones that were really impossible to place—I might even write on an envelope “impossible to place” and then I’d know! Ones that are my absolute favorite, that are just once in a lifetime, I have it in an envelope that’s marked “very special.” They’re marked “very special.” And they’re ones that I really love. And I’ll use them in an instant, but they’re wonderful. Oh, I have one of “food,” one of “cakes,” “deserts,” “shoes,” “feet,” “mice,”—I’m trying to see the envelopes. I can see them in my mind. “Horses leaping,” “athletic men on playground,” “lace,” “shells,” “rivers,” “trees,” “berries,” “bark,” an envelope of dead insects that are real. Dead insects, not pictures. People I know—once you’re into it—become rather obsessed with it.
Yes, always searching out a good source material.
Searching out for good source material. I have enough books now that will pretty much last me to choose to work on, and I pretty much have enough source material, so we’ll see. But there was a time when I—and I still can’t say no, and I should because I don’t need any more good source material—but I’m in the Goodwill, and I see this book and I can’t believe these pictures, they’re so amazing. Yes, I have one whole envelope of Japanese images. I’m hoping to find a book to erase that has to do with Japan. That would be nice.
So when you use the images, you’re also saying goodbye to them too.
I am saying goodbye to the images. That’s okay. I started a book, and I did about twenty pages, and I hated it. It was horrible; the text was horrible. I’d made a mistake, and I stopped. I got rid of the book. I said, “this was a mistake, absolutely a mistake.” I ripped out—there were only two pages I’d done that I liked at all, that’s how bad it was out of twenty—and I ripped those two pages out. I could use them in a letter to someone, and that was interesting. That was the first time that I’d started and I’d gave up. I was glad that I wasn’t afraid. In the past, I’ve encountered some books that I probably should’ve given up on, but being stubborn, I’ve forced myself to finish them, and so I was really proud that I didn’t finish this book.
Mary Ruefle has published eleven collections of poetry, most recently, My Private Property (Wave Books, 2016). Ruefle’s debut collection of prose, The Most Of It, appeared in 2008 and her collected lectures, Madness, Rack, and Honey, was published in August 2012, both published by Wave Books. A Little White Shadow (2006), her book of erasures—found texts in which all but a few words have been erased from the page—reveals what Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, called “haiku-like minifables, sideways aphorisms, and hauntingly perplexing koans.”
She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as a Whiting Writers’ Award, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Poetry, Great American Prose Poems (2003), American Alphabets: 25 Contemporary Poets (2006), and The Next American Essay (2002). Ruefle has also published a collection of fiction, The Most of It (2008).
Ruefle received a BA in Literature from Bennington College. She has taught at Vermont College and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She lives in Vermont.