BY CAITLIN COWAN
I don’t know how I first came to know Isobel O’Hare and their work, but since I discovered their poems and erasures I’ve thought of little else. Last year, when it seemed as if another famous celebrity dude and his hideous past of sexual assault cropped up each day, reading O’Hare’s erasures of the public apologies of those accused was a refreshing counterbalance to the frustratingly substance-free "I don’t recall" and "sorry-not-sorry" backpedaling.
For the uninitiated, an erasure is any document that has had a portion of its text made unreadable, frequently by applying black ink, though white correction fluid and more colorful media are also sometimes used. Why do such a thing? The answer varies from project to project and artist to artist but generally has to do with modeling loss and silence, restoring context, illuminating hidden subtext, and revising or counterbalancing arguments. Erasure as an art form has been around for almost 100 years; many credit Dadaist artist Man Ray with producing the first erasure in the early 1920s (every word in his "Untitled Poem" is blacked out).
But under the threat of the least transparent political administration in recent memory, if not in history, erasure has taken on a new flavor, found a new exigency. Late last year, reports circulated that the current administration encouraged the CDC to "avoid" (read: erase) words tied to viewpoints that they oppose in documents related to the FY 2019 budget ("science-based," "transgender" and "fetus" were listed, among others). The President’s own unprofessional, aggressive, and often near-incoherent tweets are now news items. Perhaps, however, the administration has done us all a favor by accidentally reifying the power of language. Poets, in particular, have taken notice.
The author of three recent chapbooks, O’Hare’s star suddenly rose when they began to Instagram their erasures of statements made by well-known men and their apologists in the wake of 2017’s #MeToo reckoning.
Each erasure is different in its tone, but many could be described with a single word: startling. Startling in their revelations about what lies beneath the statement, startling in their brevity and wit, startling in their willingness to cut the shit. A collection of these erasures, all this can be yours, was recently published by University of Hell Press. O’Hare is donating 100% of the proceeds from the sale of this anthology to RAINN and Futures Without Violence, which makes this a powerful and necessary purchase for anyone who’s hoping to support the #TimesUp movement.
Reading through all this can be yours is like wandering a gallery of insufficient empathy: something like the saddest museum in the world, but one that’s scintillating with power. The book opens with excerpts from two formidable poems: one by Joanna C. Valente (full disclosure: Valente is, of course, a managing editor at Luna Luna) and another by O’Hare’s collaborator Carleen Tibbetts (co-editor, with O’Hare, of Dream Pop journal and small press). Tibbetts’ poem, "How to Achieve Catharsis, Now with Found Objects" contains the arresting lines, "each day we wake to a fucked legacy: / the earth just endures us // what are we but our own very animal / hunting and hunted always." The tension between the earth and human animals that walk it—forever preying on one another, struggling in a destructive dynamic of power—is palpable in the writing and erasures that follow.
In their thorough and powerful introduction, "catalyst," O’Hare explains that the title of the collection "comes from what one of the accused men allegedly said to one of his victims when he exposed himself to her at a party." In addition to highlighting the pompous absurdity of making such a statement about one’s genitals, O’Hare also chose the title because "this experience of being daily assaulted and sexualized is already ours. All of ours. We are all suffering from this sickness."
In addition to discussing the devastating tenacity of rape culture (aided by their conversations with writer and activist Blythe Baldwin), O’Hare also takes care to note that the reckoning of the #MeToo moment, while more beneficial than silence, was built on destructive white feminism. O’Hare references the manner in which Tarana Burke, the movement’s true founder, was overlooked in the media’s rush to credit celebrities like Alyssa Milano for the hideous "cleaning house" that took place in Hollywood and elsewhere. "We know that the gains made by cisgender white women are not shared by any other category of woman," they write. Later, they powerfully assert, "I think it is important for white women to question their responses to the abuse narratives of women of color." Affirmations of this kind, in which those with visibility use their platform to decry not only the patriarchy but also the disparities within movements for equality are crucial in any reappraisal or "moral inventory," as O’Hare terms it in these pages.
O’Hare also importantly discusses their own identity and the role it did and did not play in the creation of these erasures. They write:
When the erasures went viral, I was represented in several publications and by many readers as the voice of "women" against "men," but that was not the space I inhabited in creating these pieces. My voice is that of a queer non-binary femme speaking out against a patriarchal system built not only on a hierarchy of gender but also one of race, class, religion, age, ability, and sexuality. My hope is that readers will keep in mind the vast scope of abuse that exists in the real world, between all genders and sexualities, and that issues of abuse amongst and between marginalized people will not be forgotten.
The book’s first section is comprised entirely of 16 different erasures of the same long, baffling statement by a famous comedian, turning his response in the light slowly—like the world’s cloudiest and least valuable diamond—approaching the shortcomings and buried intimations of the apology from every possible facet.
The famous comedian, along with every other statement-maker whose words were erased in the art made from them, goes nameless despite the fact that O’Hare’s original ‘grams of the erasures named them. O’Hare felt that to name each man would imply that their actions were isolated rather than part of a larger cultural problem. "These problems—of rape, abuse, and harassment—are not limited to one man here and another man there," they write.
The remaining sections are shrewdly devoted to the kind and quality of "apology" offered: those that blame "different times" for their actions, those that deny their victims’ assertions outright, defenses of those accused, and others. Whether you meditate on each erasure separately or flip through the collection like an ass-kicking coffee table book, you are sure to come away from the experience changed.
"I am an imperfect witness in a terribly unjust world," O’Hare writes, "and this collection is a portion of my testimony, gathered from the wreckage." I was eager to know more about the stunning work of this "imperfect witness," and I had the pleasure of interviewing them over e-mail early this year in advance of the publication of all this can be yours. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Caitlin Cowan: Thanks for (digitally) speaking with me, Isobel. Erasures, in general, have had a resurgence as of late. Why do you think writers and artists have gravitated to this art form in this particular moment in history? Why not plays? Why not internet-generated haiku? Why hasn’t taken off? In other words, why erasure now?
Isobel O'Hare: I think so much brilliant work is being made right now, in all genres. We are living in a time when artists and writers are openly fighting with history and revealing its prejudices. So many people have been erased in the telling of history, so it makes sense to turn the tables and do some erasing right back. There is something deeply cathartic about cutting through the PR language and the damage control inherent in public statements. I think this is especially true for people who have experienced abuse and injustice: if we cannot achieve justice in our own lives, we can exercise our frustration on the words of public figures and reveal the deep truths behind their statements. Personally, I know that I will never receive any kind of apology or redemption from the authority figures who have wronged me, but I can reveal the same sort of injustice in the words of men very much like them. Many of these experiences of abuse are universal. So many of us have been hurt by people more powerful than us. It’s that universality that makes the work so popular and so powerful right now, I think.
And hey, that erotic fruit artist has more than 279,000 followers on Instagram, so they are clearly doing just fine! Maybe erotic fruit art is the wave of the future, the nirvana we have all been waiting for.
CC: Yeah, Stephanie Sarley is wonderful. I’m all about the various forms that work by women and nonbinary folks have been taking in the last few years. Erasure certainly isn’t new, but it does, to me, feel urgent if not original as a mode of expression. What’s more, erasure work is a kind of anti-plagiarism: you’re using someone else’s words to communicate something they’re not saying, yeah? Or something that they’re saying beneath what they’re actually saying? What would you say your duty is to the original text?
IO: I think the duty depends on the nature of the conversation between the poet and the text. In the past, I’ve only made erasures out of texts for which I had a great deal of respect, the intention being dialogue with that text. The erasures I made for this collection are part of a different, angrier conversation where I am arguing with the original text and pointing out where I think it is dishonest or concealing the truth. This is a new thing for me, and it has often been quite uncomfortable. Ultimately, with this project my duty has been to the reader (and also to myself) rather than to the text. The text is my enemy.
CC: And what about your duty to the original author? These kinds of erasures are of public apologies (or rather, "apologies") made by men who’ve been accused of sexual abuse and sexual harassment. Does this change your job as an artist? Or is the work of erasure the same no matter what the source text, to your mind?
IO: If I were working with poems or some other form of creative writing, I would have more reverence for the time and craft that went into that work. I would want to respect that and do justice to that work by spending time with my erasures and ensuring that I did not insult or defile that original work. I have done this in the past with two book-length erasures of the work of Robert Duncan. I erased his book Roots and Branches to a response entitled Roar, and then his collection The Opening of the Field to a response entitled hinge. In both those projects, I had fallen in love with Duncan’s language and imagination. I wanted to immerse myself in his world and swim around in his words, to create something new out of them with my own voice. And the results in both cases felt magical to me. Duncan is an extremely verbose and fantastical thinker, whereas I am more concise, so it was an interesting mashup.
With all this can be yours, I don’t feel that same reverence. This is not a world I fell in love with, one in which I wanted to explore and luxuriate. It is a world I reject and grapple with constantly off the page, and so the relationship is the same on the page.
CC: The media attention you’ve received since beginning to post your erasures of famous apologies on Instagram has been intense! I’ve been closely following poets and authors that "go viral" (sometimes I think to myself, what a time to be alive!) I’m sure there are some tremendous downsides and upsides to virality, on a personal and professional level. Could you describe what it’s been like?
IO: I’m in the process of writing an essay on this experience called"“I Wish This Had Happened to Someone Else," so that might give you a clue as to how I feel about it! Now that my virality has passed and I’m just another poet again (but one with a heck of a lot more followers across social media than I had before), I feel like I can breathe and continue to do the work. And I get to have actual conversations with people who message me about it now, rather than feel overwhelmed by a constant stream of notifications that I cannot possibly respond to.
I think there is a misconception about artists who have a lot of "social capital," and an assumption that we always enjoy the attention. I can only speak for myself, but I would much rather be a fly on the wall than in the spotlight. Maybe this relates to the tension of having grown up with middle child syndrome in that I struggle to be seen for who I am while I fade into the background. Being seen isn’t enough for me; I want to be recognized. And that level of recognition just isn’t possible on such a large scale. For me, it has only existed in my closest friendships.
That said, having a larger platform is a huge privilege and an honor. It’s also a huge responsibility, I think, to reframe how one uses social media and to try and use it as much as possible for a greater good. I have felt my entire approach to social media shift since this happened. My presence on these networks is less about me now and more about sharing good work by other people, inciting joy, and amplifying important issues.
So, in conclusion, the upsides are the downsides and vice versa. I feel like I have less privacy now, but I also feel like that has allowed me to become less self-centered. The experience has been full of surprises.
CC: The Center for Media and Social Impact states that under fair use, "a poet may make use of quotations from existing poetry, literary prose, and non-literary material, if these quotations are re-presented in poetic forms that add value through significant imaginative or intellectual transformation…" I think what you do to these statements constitutes a powerful intellectual transformation of what was originally said. Could you describe that transformation? To go further, has this project been transformational for you as a writer?
IO: The erasures are transformational, I think, in that they mutate the original messages of the statements into my own vision of the truth behind them. It’s sort of like wetting a sheet of paper covered in invisible ink and seeing the message hidden there.
Making these erasures, and the conversations that have resulted from them, has been hugely transformational for me as a person (I don’t know if they’ve been transformational for me as a writer yet because I am still in the midst of putting this book out into the world and haven’t yet become immersed in a new project).
I went into this carrying years of unexpressed and misdirected rage. And I felt myself channeling all of that into the erasures. Growing up, I had several experiences that made me feel singular and isolated, and those traumas, as well as ones I experienced later as an adult, were like a wedge between me and the rest of the world. I carried that feeling of misunderstanding around with me like a badge of honor, thinking nobody else could possibly relate to what I’d been through.
And it turns out that that was bullshit. I now believe that every human being on earth has experienced some form of trauma, and that the various manifestations of that trauma speak more to our culture at large and how it conditions our behavior according to our gender, class, race, ability, age, etc., than it does to us as individuals. I’ve spoken with so many people who feel alienated and silenced by the dominant narrative of the #MeToo movement, people whose abuse is still too taboo a topic of discussion, and people who want to admit their own transgressions but have been told they are irredeemable or that their stories are not welcome. And that’s a shame because it’s another way of sweeping abuse under the rug by shaming people who are trying to learn and grow and be a part of a necessary healing conversation. It’s incredibly important not only to call out abusive behavior but also to interrogate the ways in which we have been abusive toward others. And those are the kinds of ground-level conversations, as opposed to the high-exposure statements of famous people, that I think will lead to real lasting change.
I feel like this project has exhausted my anger cache, and that beneath all of that rage lay hidden a deep desire for healing and connection with others tempered by the drive to create firm but loving boundaries with the people in my life.
CC: How can we find out more about your work, in all its forms? What are you working on right now?
IO: You can keep up with my projects via my website or my Patreon page, where I share all kinds of goodies before anyone else gets to see them and send out erasure swag every month. And as always, you can follow me across social media where my username everywhere is @isobelohare.
The book is still utterly consuming all of my spare time. I foolishly thought that once it was all put together my work would be done and I could move on, but of course there is all kinds of promotion involved now. Once you make the thing, you then have to sell it. What a bother! After this, I want to immerse myself in something beautiful. I want to make visual love poems at the bottom of the sea. I don’t know. Just something very different from this project. And when I’ve bathed in some beauty for a while, I want to tackle a memoir project I’ve had in mind for years. It will perhaps provide some backstory as to why I needed so badly to make this book in the first place.
CC: Thanks so much for your time. It’s been such a pleasure. One last question: What do you think these apologies get wrong? Do you believe there is such a thing as a "good" public apology?
IO: For me, these apologies read more like attempts at damage control than at reparations. The one apology that gave me pause was Dan Harmon’s because he laid out exactly what he had done to his employee, exposed the mental process behind it, didn’t shy away from responsibility, and didn’t expect or ask for forgiveness. And, most importantly, he didn’t glorify or romanticize it. Because the reality is that, for the victim, workplace harassment is at different times exhausting, boring, maddening, dehumanizing, and terrifying. There is nothing remotely charming about it, and shrugging one’s shoulders and saying with a smirk, "I was a shithead!" just doesn’t cut it.
Isobel O' Hare is a poet and essayist who has dual Irish and American citizenship. They are the author of the chapbooks Wild Materials(Zoo Cake Press, 2015), The Garden Inside Her(Ladybox Books, 2016), and Heartbreak Machinery(forthcoming from dancing girl press in 2018). Their collection of erasures of celebrity sexual assault apologies, all this can be yours, was published by University of Hell Press in 2018. Two of O’Hare’s poems appeared in the anthology A Shadow Map, published in 2017 by Civil Coping Mechanisms Press. A collaboration with the poet Sarah Lyn Rogers will be published in a forthcoming anthology from Black Lawrence Press. O’Hare graduated summa cum laude from Trinity College in Washington, D.C., where they were awarded the Mary Boyle McCrory Award for Excellence in Writing. They went on to earn an MFA in Poetry from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. O’Hare has also been the recipient of awards from Split This Rock and The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico. In addition to writing, O’Hare co-edits (with Carleen Tibbetts) the journal and small press Dream Pop.
Born and raised in the Midwest, Caitlin Cowan lives and works in the warm embrace of north Texas. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in Pleiades, Gulf Coast, Boxcar Poetry Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Entropy, and elsewhere. Nominated for the Best New Poets anthology series and a semifinalist for the Ahsahta Press Sawtooth Book Prize, she has won the Littoral Press Poetry Prize, the Mississippi Review Prize, the Ron McFarland Prize for Poetry, and has been a participant at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She holds degrees from The University of Michigan, The New School, and The University of North Texas, where she teaches in the Department of English. You can learn more about Caitlin at her website, www.caitlincowan.com.