by Tyler Barton | Contributing Writer
Maybe art is like a virus: a fast-moving, ever changing essence with a one-track desire to procreate. If art does want, it wants to engender more art-making. Could that be the meaning of art?
It’s a worthwhile question to ask, one any artist inevitably asks. According to the publisher of Sir Herbert Read’s classic text The Meaning of Art, the work “provides a basis for the appreciation of art-objects of all periods by defining the elements that went into their making.” I should note, however, that this survey of painting and sculpture does not include a single female artist in its 240 pages.
So, what is the meaning of art? Jennifer Sperry Steinorth, author of the book-length graphic-poem, Her Read (an erasure of Read’s tome), may answer this question with: invention or solution. Maybe even: the amplification of silenced voices. When Steinorth encountered an old copy of The Meaning of Art in 2016, she knew what it meant. It meant she had something to remake, a text to unmake, a chorus of voices to make speak.
In both its poetic lines and its visual viscera, Her Read consistently discovers truth, surprise, frustration, and identity. The book gets wilder and louder as you go. It’s as gripping as a suspense film and as layered as an expressionist mural. In May, I had the pleasure of corresponding with Steinorth via Google Docs. I discovered just how much of herself she put into Her Read, and how the act of making it likely saved her life.
Tyler Barton: In the introduction, Eleanor Wilner says that, today, erasure is an acceptable convention in poetry. This made me think about how I still see erasure as fairly punk rock and something even seasoned writers aren’t always familiar with. How did you come to erasure?
Jennifer Sperry Steinorth: Punk rock. I love that—I hope that’s true! Maybe punk is also more acceptable than it used to be? As a dancer, architect, and person who grew up with textile projects, there was always something about the materiality of working with existing—let’s call it fabric—that really appealed to me.
But I came to this project out of necessity. I was enraged and unable to write. I could not even begin to approach what I wanted to write. This was summer/autumn of 2016—that election. Things happening on the political stage resonated deeply with things occurring in my personal life. Erasure provided a distance from the hot material, not unlike the way crafting through a sonnet or some other received form can provide distance.
I do think there is a good deal more room for erasure now, but I also feel that, for some, erasure is the “applied arts” of the poetry world—not always considered as sophisticated as an oil painting, a marble sculpture, not “high art.” I mean, how many teachers pull erasure out at the end of the semester or in the middle of a long slog to get a little arts-n-craftiness into the classroom? Haiku gets similarly oversimplified.
There’s also a lot happening in erasure that gets missed! Not only can most traditional elements of craft apply to erasure (rhythm, metaphor, allusion, image, etc), but there are also new elements of craft to consider. I think many people feel they don’t know how to read erasure. They may be uncomfortable with the use of space or thinking about the dialogue with the source text, and choices in the method of erasure or the way the erasure is made visible.
TB: Speaking of craft, I want to talk about the speaker of this book. How did you conceptualize who or what the “I” is in “Her Read”? It seems to me there are many “Is” at work, and this was made more apparent when I encountered what may be my favorite lines: “I differs from the I, ideal / I differs from the face in the mirror.”
JSS: I’m so happy that you felt there were multiple Is at work. I don’t know when I first had a sense of [the project] as women buried, like, living women trapped under the earth, clawing their way out. When first opened the tome that is The Meaning of Art, the voice felt so grandiose. But as I encountered the language, I began to find my own. I realized that its language felt mythic, a self of many selves, or a collective. And yet, the way people are erased is one by one, and that, I think, may also be how they free themselves, if they are able to free themselves. This is how they—how we—learn to speak. In the table of contents, there are several lines that begin I art this and I art not that. In the last pages, the lines we art repeat. I think over the course of the book I had a sense of many selves finding voice, gaining agency over that voice, and then forming a kind of collective.
Of course I drew from my own experience and the experiences I was hearing or reading about. Between the language I heard within/without and the language on the page, I tried to articulate what the voices breaking through such heavy earth might need to say.
TB: I really love that idea of the buried “Is,” the voices coming up through the surface of the book. That’s a beautiful image and I wonder if it inspired a materials choice. You use corrective fluid throughout the book as the main tool of redaction, but in a lot of places the “whited out” text is still partially visible and sometimes even readable. Originally, I was wondering if you did this simply to remind the reader of the materiality of the source text, the way a sculptor might leave certain gestural marks which remind the viewer us what clay is. But now I wonder if it is also sending a message, saying that there are even more voices, more things left unsaid, buried here, and some of it is still only half-emerged.
JSS: At first I used corrective fluid because the peace that came from quieting that other voice appealed to me. It did feel very punk, irreverent, even powerful. I also felt the stoniness of the material was appropriate. I loved the action of the strokes, an action made visible. Maybe it is this stoniness that caused me to envision women clawing through earth. We work the materials, but they also work us.
I knew I wanted to write in a voice that was not me exactly, but was also not speaking for others who can speak, who have spoken for themselves. I wanted to gesture toward others—to hold space while still articulating what I could, to make what I was given to make.
So many of the decisions in terms of craft first came from trying to create interesting textures and visuals to work with the language that was there on the page. I couldn’t be consistent with the correction fluid because of how quickly the material would change once the bottle was opened. I suppose I could have used solvents, but I liked the variation of textures. I started to be very intentional, planning which pages I would use a fresh bottle on and which pages I would use half-empty bottles. It did feel as though leaving the underlying text visible in parts alluded to the way a single voice gets erased not only by silence but by cacophony, and the way that the issues at play in this book are both ancient and systemic. I was aware that glimpsing the other worlds called attention to the effort required to hear one’s own voice, the conceit and artifice of the project.
I really love what you suggest, the notion of other, kindred voices—voices from another room, percolating through, perhaps in alliance. I heartily support that reading.
TB: You mentioned being influenced by your past as a dancer and as an architect. Also, textile projects from your youth were an influence. Her Read is an amalgamation of forms—literary art, visual art, drawing, painting, embroidery. How have other forms of visual art influenced your literary art?
Well, my mother grew up sewing, made many of her clothes and made many clothes for my siblings and I, not to mention curtains, pillows, pretty much anything that could be sewn. She is obscenely talented. She studied dressmaking in college and you could point to any haute couture ensemble and she could figure out how to construct it. Later, when I met my husband, a builder, I had plenty of ideas about design which I voiced, and soon I was designing homes for people. I became a licensed builder, designer and president of a design build firm specializing in environmentally conscious dwellings. I did this full time for ten years. In between being a small child and being a builder, I was a dancer. I came very close to a career in classical ballet.
I would say music and structure are prominent elements of my work. And the line. Different from the poetic line constructed of words, I think of the visual line, of shapes in space. Proportionality. Containers and their proximity to one another. I think of the movement of the eye on the page. The way the eye falls through space at the end of the line then lands, thud, on the next. I think of the body moving through the poem, as one thinks of moving through a house. The architect, Sarah Susanka, talks about how we humans enjoy compression and expansion. We like the limbo spaces between interior and exterior—porches and other exterior “rooms”; we like the feeling of moving from a low ceiling vestibule into a great hall. I think in terms of construction to build, and music to carry the thread. Often, as I attempt to solve literary problems, I find my mind working not in language, but in music or in space. I get a sense of what needs to happen in those realms and try to translate it.
TB: Do you consider the use of embroidery thread throughout the book to be a sort of homage to your mother? Or is it more of a statement about the tools “traditionally” allowed to women?
JSS: Nearly every time I introduced a new material or technique, I did so at first to solve a creative problem. I knew my book could not be as long as the source text, so there were pages I wanted to close access to, but not remove, because maybe I needed one side of the page but not the other. In my first draft, I tried to glue a few pages together with bookbinders glue. That caused some problems because of the way pages need to slip past one another. It occurred to me that stitching would allow more give. And then, once the stitching was there, I thought Oh—more of that. After I had added more, a friend looked at it and said, More stitching.
It made me happy that I could bring the skills my mother taught me into the text, especially since the skills she has are so unusual these days. She continued to hone these skills in a time when many women were giving them up. The realization that these crafts were canonically dismissed as “women’s work” came simultaneously with that happiness. There is grief in this book. Women are often dismissed regardless of the choices they make.
In truth, I did not set out to make an art book. I was working purely in correction fluid, but couldn’t help making a few marks with an ink pen. Then, when I was maybe a quarter of the way through the text, at Vermont Studio Center, I showed it to a wonderful artist and friend, Sai Li, and she said, Jen, this is art! I thought she meant “art” in the way that film and music is art. No, this is an art book, she said. Tell me about these marks. Make more. It seems small, but that recognition gave me permission to go to town.
I began to experiment more and more—and I realized that as I became more skilled, so were my speakers—my speakers were gaining agency over the materials and over their own voices as the book progressed. This felt right.
Many women took hold of this creature and cheered for it. It is funny that I ended up using a poetic form that is something of an underdog, like embroidery. But like many aspects of the book, I moved intuitively and then drew back to see. That sight revealed the next step.
TB: Her Read may be difficult to discuss in “drafts,” but did you ever buy another copy of The Meaning of Art and wholly start over?
JSS: I bought quite a few copies of The Meaning of Art. I even have one bound in leather! But most of the copies are untouched. I do have three complete drafts of Her Read—three distinct artifacts. I’ve set up a page on my website where you can see several of the pages and how they change across the three drafts. I made myself complete the whole book in a single volume before beginning a second draft. I completed the first book in April of 2020. The spine had fallen off and the pages were messier than I wanted. In the second draft, I took the opportunity to play more visually and rework the language on a couple of pages that didn’t feel right. I mailed the second book to my editor. But then I needed to remake some pages, and I ended up making a whole third book, which turned out better than the second. The third book is the one I photographed and processed.
When I drafted the first book, which took about three and a half years, I would work directly in the book without planning too far ahead. I wouldn’t complete a page and move on. Rather, I would start to eliminate language but leave multiple possibilities open as I moved forward through the text and then double back to close the loops when I became more confident in where I was headed. I also realized that the corrective fluid was not totally permanent. Once hardened, it could sometimes be chipped off and the words underneath revealed. So, sometimes I changed my mind after covering the language up initially.
The further I got in the book, the more elevated the language and image, the more I would plan what I was going to do in advance. I would photocopy pages and work them out in multiple drafts before enacting them in the book. All told, every page went through numerous drafts even before I made the second complete copy of the book.
TB: Around the same time I started Her Read, I also happened to be reading Your Art Will Save Your Life by Beth Pickens. I’d looked at the title a number of times on our shelf and heard my middle school teachers say “Books can change the world!” and rolled my eyes. However, when I actually read the Pickens book, I found that it was all quite simple: that which gives you purpose, peace, and excitement is that which makes life livable.
In your preface, you mention the year of this book’s gestation being filled with “chronic, debilitating pain,” and I know you were (as all thinking people were) dealing with the terror and trauma of the 2016 election and those proceeding years of tyranny. You don’t go so far as to say that this book “saved your life,” but I want to ask: did it?
JSS: I would say yes, this project saved my life. While I would add that many things, many people shone light on my path, it’s fair to say that my commitment to this work saved my life. In general, I know that making, engaging, and conversing about art is necessary to my wellbeing—as painful as that work sometimes is. My husband calls me a true believer. But this project—unearthing womxn’s voices that were, even for me, buried so deep, it seemed particularly critical.
Of course, what has played out on the national stage in recent years is shattering because it rubs salt in old wounds, ancient wounds, recent and local wounds, ongoing trauma.
National story aside, 2016 was traumatic for me personally. I need to write an essay or six about some of the forces at work; I’m just beginning to do that actually. My first book of poetry, A Wake with Nine Shades, touches on some of these issues which include grieving a violent death, prolonged financial duress, marital strife, and a toxic work environment.
I would later be diagnosed with celiac and Crohn’s disease, two auto-immune diseases that often go hand-in-hand. With auto-immune diseases, the body fails to recognize itself and its allies; the immune system goes into overdrive and attacks the body it’s sworn to protect. Not unlike what is happening in our country. Proclivity for such diseases can be genetic, but scientists are also studying the relationship between the onset of auto-immunity and profound stress. Sadly, these diseases often take years to diagnose and 75% of people afflicted are women.
Writing Her Read has not treated my celiac or Crohn’s. However, Marianne Barouche has talked about poetry as a kind of diagnostic, and—on a societal or psychic or metaphysical level—that certainly rings true.
TB: My understanding is that erasurists use rules. Some use rules handed down from others; some invent their own rules. Were there any compositional rules you followed in making this book? Or did any rules morph or bend as you went?
JSS: Yes, certainly the rules evolved as the book progressed. I began using only white correction fluid but soon realized that although I liked the visual texture, 266 pages of Wite-Out would be dull. One day I discovered Buff-colored Wite-Out at my local office supply. The Buff allowed me to create form and pattern. But, right as we were going into the pandemic lockdown and I was beginning what I thought would be the final copy of the text—buff-colored Wite-Out went out of production. In a panic, I scoured the internet, buying as much as I could, but all of my orders fell through. It was gone. I visited an art supply and experimented a bit—realized that white correction fluid would take alcohol-based inks really well. Then, what seemed like a disaster became an opportunity to play with greater intensity.
In this way, my method of covering and illuminating text evolved. The rules of what I could do with language also evolved. In the beginning I excavated whole words and worked for syntactic cohesion and visual flow. I wanted the way the words appeared on the page to contribute to the meaning. But Read’s language was so abstract—very few concrete nouns—so I found myself searching for words inside words—the pig in pigment, the imp in impressionist. That led me to deconstruct the language even further, sometimes building words I wanted letter by letter.
I think the curious reader can see a progression of rule breaking as the book progresses. To my mind this was a development of craft on my part that coincided with the female speakers gaining authority. Their agency reaches its fruition in the final pages where words are literally cut (with an X-acto knife) from excised pages and rearranged in whatever order I saw fit to say what needed to be said. I referred to the dead pages I used to mine for parts as my “Frankenstein pages” and that is actually how Mary Shelley and her creation came to enter the final pages of Her Read.
One rule that did not change is the ordering of the pages. The only exceptions occur when I physically removed some pages and stitched them to other pages.
TB: You seem to be very active in the erasure and graphic poetry community, remaining well-read in the contemporary works of the genre. What are some things you see other erasure artists doing to innovate and keep the form fresh?
JSS: In truth, I feel like I’ve been working in private for a good while, but longing for more community—not just erasure artists but poets and interdisciplinary artists interested in all kinds of exploratory work. I suppose making this book was a way of entering a community to which I wished to belong.
There is so much exciting work happening in erasure. In the years spent on this book, I tried to read a great deal of erasure as well as critical explorations on erasure, hybrid forms, etc. I wanted to understand the various lineages as best I could. That said, what keeps work fresh is the attention to craft and urgency of voice. Fervent lyrics, dramatic structure, compelling narrative, revelation of our deepest, quietest voices, and mindfulness of the readers, viewers, listeners and their potential to collaborate—this is what makes the work innovative to me. One thing unique to erasure is the dramatic tension between the creation and the source text. What is visible points to what is not. The space between the new and the old is dynamic. The artist creates the vacancy, then surrenders it to the reader who may then populate the expanse with their own ghosts, theories, lovers, demons. This feels like an act of generosity, of love.
I also like to think of erasure as more fluid than it is often defined. Translations are a kind of erasure. New translations tend to replace the ones that came before. Brandon Som’s poem, “Oulipo”, in his marvelous book The Tribute Horse is a homophonic translation of Li Po’s “Night Thoughts” recited in a Peking dialect. Som is grappling with erasure of language and culture; he cannot speak or understand the language of his grandfather, but he listens to Li Po’s poem over and over and makes multiple translations into English. It’s breathtaking.
As with any haunted house, there must be enough allure to draw the reader in and keep them for the night, but not so much that they run screaming before the first bell tolls. That is the responsibility of the poet. But also, we as readers and teachers have a responsibility to expand our literacy in order to appreciate the gifts of texts whose meaning making may be different from poetry we’ve grown accustomed to. I’m thinking here of poems like M. NourbeSe Philip’s shattering and spellbinding Zong!.
I am deeply moved by the work of Solmaz Sharif, Philip Metres, Layli Long Soldier, Anne Carson, Tracy K. Smith, Collier Nogues, Robin Coste Lewis, Jenni Baker, Mary Ruefle, Srikanth Reddy, Tom Phillips, Ronald Johnson, Matthea Harvey . . . and I read, just now in the midst of this paragraph—because I’ve been meaning to—Jen Bervin’s Silk Poems which is utterly exquisite. The erasures of these poets are deeply embodied—the content and container inseparable, each born out of the other. But even now new books are arriving—I want to spend more time with Sarah Sloat, Erin Dorney, Kylie Gellately, and others I have failed to mention.
Tyler Barton is the author of the story collection Eternal Night at the Nature Museum (Sarabande Books, 2021) and the flash chapbook, The Quiet Part Loud (Split/Lip, 2019). His stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, and The Adroit Journal. Find him at tsbarton.com, @goftyler, or in Saranac Lake, NY where he works for the Adirondack Center for Writing.