ERASE the Patriarchy: An Interview with Tara Burke

This is part six of an interview series with authors whose work appeared in Erase the Patriarchy (University of Hell Press, 2020), the erasure-poetry anthology edited by Isobel O’Hare that offers readers myriad points of entry from which to consider & re-consider the subgenre in all its weird, messy power and unreduced complexity. In addition to Mx. O’Hare, authors who’ve participated in this series include Tara CampbellKitty StrykerAddie Tsai, and Katie Manning. Part six sees us in conversation with queer poet, editor, and Assistant Professor of Writing Tara Burke.

Fox: Tell me a little bit about the erasure you created that was included in this anthology. What was your process like? Were there any specific experiences, literary or otherwise, that helped precipitate the work?

Tara: It’s been a while, but I’m glad to be talking about this experience again. I went back and found my notes from when I created the erasure. I remembered that I wrote a little about the process for the book, and reading the erasure with that artist/writer’s statement now I can still feel the immediacy of my anger. I knew about the call for erasures, and I had played with the form before, mostly with Isobel and in response to a few others who I admire—writers who erase in response to distorted power dynamics and how language can reinforce harm. Looking back, I remember a few important instincts I had for creating an erasure specifically for publication. I didn’t want to get excited and go hunting through the, at the time, almost constant sexual assault apologies written dryly for public consumption to absolve harm. I was open to other kinds of writing to erase, but again, I didn’t want to go looking. I needed it to be something that caught my eye naturally—a work that came to the surface in my regular creative or academic work, which is always in some relationship to interrogating power. I was also fine with missing the deadline if nothing came through. 

One night I came across responses to Ryan Adams’ erratic and explosive tweets regarding his relationship to Mandy Moore, and spent a very long time down the rabbit hole reading what he wrote, his verbal assaults and backtracks, the response to his public temper tantrums, then the public response to Mandy Moore—and so went my scrolling into the late hours. When I become obsessed with something like this, I know now that it’s hitting a personal nerve. I had relationships with men that sounded like him when I was a teenager: hungry for the grunge, music-loving know-it-all that poked at my attachment wounds (oh, if I had only known this then). And, wouldn’t you know, those same men who yelled similar take-downs at me when challenged: they, too, loved (and defended) Ryan Adams. 

I always stand just outside of guidelines, rules, and the right way to do things, so on instinct I collected all the rage-tweets I could find into one document and spent some time with them as a whole before erasing the words in-between, revealing what he was really saying. Basically: look at me, poor me, she is dumb, I am great, I suffer, people say I’m like this ha ha maybe they’re right, can’t you take a joke? This brings me to the question of literature and erasure’s form. I firmly believe that erasure for publication and audiences should interrogate power in some way and not perpetuate systemic erasures that have long existed within and because of the English language. The anthology was already created with this in mind, I knew, but when I manipulated someone’s words, in this case words wielded to gaslight, belittle, and muddy what harm Adams’ had done to Moore, I wanted to be clear that I was manipulating them to reveal something that was already there, and make obvious what he was trying to do. Honestly, I was just angry. Because the way he tried to attack her intelligence, what she understood about life, music, and depth—how he deflected his harm to bring her down and then begged for forgiveness, all while making music that caters to a mostly white male audience? It was familiar. It was personal. My best work comes out of an urgency to speak back, to speak louder, the drive a louder truth into the ground.  

I can certainly understand all the ways in which that sort of thing feels familiar. Had you done erasures prior to this piece? I’m curious to hear about your experiences with the form—how did you come to it, and what have been your most rewarding experiences of using it?

I think some of my MFA professors introduced erasure as a form and practice, but it came clearer on my radar most memorably when Isobel’s sexual assault apology erasures were suddenly everywhere. I followed them closely and commented often on their work online, and through several interactions related to parallel grief, loss, and home/place, we became friends. Isobel’s work has kept me reading erasures and thinking about how it can be a ripe form for processing systemic trauma, racism, colonialism, and more. The from, because it can erase and manipulate language and meaning to create new meanings, is of course a delicate one, I think. I hope we understand that like persona, we can recreate and perpetuate the same violent power dynamics if not held with care. I think this is why I want to begin in a personal experience and relationship with power/disempowerment when I engage with erasure. This is mostly when I think of creating “erasure poems” for publication. I do think the creative act of erasure can be a practice in bending and playing with the mind and language in new ways. I’d still always encourage people to ask who and what they are erasing and why, though.

Personally, I haven’t returned to the form since the anthology, mostly because of these years we are in, but I often have a strange urge to create self-erasures. I think about the layers of self and defensiveness that unravel with age (and therapy) when I look back at writing from 5, even 10 years ago. I journal a LOT. Like hundreds and hundreds of both typed and handwritten journals a year. There’s so much in there, muddled around the daily meanderings of the emotional body—my mind chattering away trying to make sense of every little nonsensical thing. For some time I thought I was strictly a poet, then I turned toward nonfiction and memoir, and lately I don’t know what to do with all I’ve drafted. Perhaps that’s why erasure comes to mind—how can I interrogate the self until something like art comes through? And, now that I’m sitting with the anthology again and working through your questions, I realize how often I forget about the buzzing alchemy I felt making My Music, My Life. There’s something about the act of moving/removing words in print that can spin up a magical sensibility, at least for me.

I love that idea of a magical sensibility—a lot of the time, things that are written down have a weight to them, a sense of authority and permanence. I love the idea of adding, subtracting, or otherwise modifying something in print as an act of rebellious magic. What was your experience of this book, reading through it after it was released? What new insights, if any, do you feel you gained from the collection once you had the chance to experience it as a whole?

Oh, it is such a beautiful book. Full with possibility and voice and layers of voices. It felt like holding a spell, holding real power, holding a collection of songs meant to dismantle the crown. When it came out, it was early pandemic days, so we had our readings on Zoom. It was October, I think, and I remember feeling like I had already Zoomed myself out trying to stay in many healing and creative communities online for months and months. I almost couldn’t bring myself to attend. And then we all read our erasures and explained our processes and I was filled with hope and tenderness. The writers and artists didn’t just create powerful and beautiful erasures, they wrote about their process in ways that truly changed the way I think about making. Perhaps I mean they changed me and brought me back to something primal. The erasures were multimodal, multidisciplinary, polyvocal, and spoke to some of my earliest creative instincts before the academic and publishing world almost killed that part of me. When I was young, I collaged things, I ripped things, I assembled materials and words and sang songs as I walked through the woods, made up stories for my dolls, dumped spices on the floor and drew in the mess. The anthology was filled with spices, flowers, color, and material of all kinds. The choices we made came from the intention of the piece, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes carefully. I was floored, I was returned. 

Is there anything you hope that readers will get to experience, feel, or consider from a fresh perspective? What experience would you wish for someone who picks up this book and pages through it?

I think this bleeds into what I was just saying—that the body, the instinct, the materials we have on hand, fingers reaching toward one color for no reason except because the hand chose the color or the spice jar—we can be both attentive to what we want to make and why, and also let the body or the thing choose for us. I think sometimes we try to academicize our way through making sense of things and I get so tired of all the ways we try to grasp on to reasoning. The book is filled with things that we understand and have yes, good reasons and process written about it that do make sense! And: sometimes I like to see, just like erasure, what happens when I put two things beside one another first, before I try to explain why. What would the erasure have looked like if I took away Ryan Adams’ words with glitter? Or salt? Or lip balm? Sometimes I think we should act first and see what the materials say with less force, first. Give ourselves room for the nonsensical, or non-answer. Try again. And again. I think erasure and other kinds of collage or multimodal poeming can lend to these wild surprises of meaning. New layers of depth emerge in this way, too; we don’t always have to word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence figure our way through a problem or idea. 

And finally, the thing I really want people to see is how expansive a form can be, and how important it is to interrogate power with art.

Hard agree about interrogating power with art. And, speaking of art—what are you working on now? Any new projects you’re particularly excited about?

Well, speaking of letting materials speak before we make sense of them, I’ve been writing obsessively since March 2020, and for a while I thought it was an early draft of a memoir, and now I’ve dismantled the whole thing into all these chunks and, I’m just realizing this, collage-like episodes, memories, lyric snapshots. I thought they were poems, recently, and then I realized the poems have to reveal themselves because there are a LOT of pages and words. Maybe the act of erasure could help with the revealing—who knows. All I know is the writing has come to a standstill and I’m in a liminal space, in many ways, so project feels like a faint memory, or a language I used to speak well but can’t find on my tongue. The work, I think, is going to show itself in some form once I find the urgency to sit with it again—but the subjects remain. I am deep in family ancestry research, looking through photos and stories and names, addresses, places. I’m looking for home. I’m looking for my father. I’m trying to understand my nervous system, why I am the way I am, why love feels so impossible, why my father died, why my mother…just, why my mother. I have questions that will never get answered. I have memories and connections from my own life, and little paths into the woods. My father’s lineage, on both matrilineal and patrilineal sides, are from Ireland. Both family systems came from the same rural county, and I think were on the same coffin ships to America as the famine shifted into something we might call post. They came to Pennsylvania and lived in the same town with other Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants. Most went right into coal mines and backbreaking industry work. And so, the story of familial trauma, alcoholism, and place begins on that side. My mother’s side is another story of whiteness I’m trying to make sense of and bring directly into the light of my awareness, because I think what white people in America need to accept is how little we know of our histories: who we are and what our bodies have done seeds from an understanding of how one’s particularly family got here, what they did, what they contributed to, how they suffered, how they received money and land and—I’m still figuring this out. I want to stick to what it means for me, what I’ve found in my family here in Virginia and New York: two European migration lineages that arrived in the colonies before there were states. The confederacy in my body. The women inside, making bread, snuffing out candles while Native peoples were murdered and pushed West, so we could stay. I suppose typing all this out now helps me see why I’ve come to a standstill. I want to connect my life, my longing, my deep emptiness of family, home and place to what I’m learning, how it manifests in my rage, in my queer love stories, and very deep heartbreaks: all the grief, and loss and the desire left over. 

🟣 🟣 🟣

Tara Shea Burke is a queer poet from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia whose book Animal Like Any Other was published in 2019. She is an Assistant Professor of writing at Virginia Commonwealth University, and wears many hats as a literary board member, an editor for journals, contests, and anthologies. She’s working on a professional development award centered on alternative grading and equitable feedback practices, alongside an ancestry project with a hard-to-pin genre.

Fox Henry Frazier is a poet, essayist, and visual artist. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a PhD from the University of Southern California, where she was also a Provost’s Fellow. Her poetry collections include The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), Like Ash in the Air After Something Has Burned (2017), and Raven King (Yes Poetry, 2022). Fox created Agape Editions. She lives in upstate New York with her daughter, her dogs, her gardens, and her ghosts.

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