Art, Action, and Redaction: A Conversation with Isobel O’Hare
Isobel O’Hare’s erasure poems, made from the redacted statements of celebrities accused of sexual assault and harassment during the #MeToo reckoning, went viral after she posted them on social media. Reading the resulting poems all together, in all this can be yours, is rather like accessing a Rorsach image or a photographic negative of the cultural blind spots and dissimulations of those accused. The rationalizations of offenders like Harvey Weinstein and Louis C. K. are thrown into a stark, morally astringent relief, while the poems—for they are most definitely poems—highlight the critical intelligence of a writer who understands how language is a camouflage for abusers.
Erasures have been around at least since Doris Cross’s experiments with the dictionary in 1965 and Tom Phillips’s A Humument. Visual artists who use text and poets who practice erasure—like Jenny Holzer, Alison Thumel, Kiki Petrosino , M. NourbeSe Phillip, and Niina Pollari—have gained the form recent traction. Far from being a passing trend, however, erasure is part of a visual, experiential practice that has deep roots in O’Hare’s work. The forthcoming Heartbreak Machinery, comprised of non-erasure, lyric poetry was, she said in an email, “largely inspired by the stories of the five Welsh goddesses, and there are poems to each of them peppered throughout.”
A graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences at Trinity Washington University (summa cum laude) and Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA program in poetry, O’Hare has published two chapbooks. Heartbreak Machinery, her third, is forthcoming from dancing girl press. She is co-editor of the forthcoming anthology, Erase the Patriarchy. She is co-editor of Dream Pop Press.
Initially, we corresponded by email, discussing the genesis of her erasures, poetry as a three-dimensional act, and the need to recognize that #MeToo has been defined in a white, cisgendered manner.
The Rumpus: I’ll start by asking about your book all this can be yours. How did these erasures of celebrity apologies begin for you? And can you talk about the moment when they became viral, or took on a life of their own?
Isobel O’Hare: At the time I was living with a roommate who was an artist. And we were watching the news; every day there was some guy being accused of sexual assault or harassment and coming out with a statement. We were reading them out loud to each other, and I was getting increasingly upset. My roommate, a man, had been commiserating with me about it. I thought to myself, because I had used erasure in the past, it would be an interesting tool for channeling all the feelings I was having. But I had never used erasure in that way before. For me it was always like a playful, fun thing, or something I did in order to have a conversation with other people’s work in a reverent way. This was definitely more like an angry redaction style.
I didn’t do anything for a couple of days. And then we were watching the latest news and my roommate said, “Someone needs to compile all of these apology statements into a book because they’re remarkably similar,” and I said, “Well I was thinking about erasing them.” So I pulled out my laptop right then and there and looked up some of the statements. Everyone always wants to know what the first one was, and I honestly have no idea. Because I was in such a flurry of erasures for the next few days that it’s all a blur. I think it was Kevin Spacey’s. That one is definitely the least coherent. I’ve done several of his statements. The first one may have been “all these my hims.” It was his particular statement that got me so angry because he seemed to be using homosexuality as an excuse.
I used to live in Ireland and someone said, in the context of Catholic priests abusing young boys, this idea that if you force celibacy on people that they’re going to exercise their sexuality in another way, and I’m like, “No, I think that the issue in that particular context is that the church provides a safe haven for people who want to predate on young boys.” So when he [Spacey] made that statement basically that he had been living his life in the closet and that was implying an explanation, I just got super-mad. I’m a queer person, and I know plenty of queer people who lived some or most of their lives in the closet, and they didn’t do that. That’s not an excuse.
Rumpus: After you started composing these erasures, did you first put one up on Twitter—how did that work?
O’Hare: I started putting them up on Facebook and Instagram; I just wanted to share them with my friends. And because it was in the middle of Me Too I used the hashtag #MeToo and a hashtag of whoever it was whose statement I was using. And then someone I’m Facebook friends with who writes for a business website said “hey, I’d love to feature your erasures.” And then another friend of mine I’m Facebook friends with, who has done some work with Rose McGowan, shared the Harvey Weinstein erasure with Rose McGowan, and then Rose McGowan shared it. And at the height of it, because I started sharing them to Twitter—that was the last thing I did—the Twitter and the Facebook accounts, within twenty-four hours received half a million views, which was totally mind-boggling.
I had this office job, and I was sitting at my desk, and I had notifications turned on for all my social media, and my phone was not dark all day. Eventually I turned notifications off. I haven’t turned them on since then. It’s been a year and a half. [Laughter]
Rumpus: Wow. That must have been kind of a shock.
O’Hare: It made me want to throw up. [Laughs] I don’t really like a huge amount of attention. So as much as I could, I made decisions in response to that experience that took me out of the spotlight. Like, I turned down a major publisher for my book.
Rumpus: Oh, that’s interesting.
O’Hare: Yeah and I went with a small press, specifically for my mental health. Because I had to make a choice: either I can be like Rupi Kaur and be this “poet influencer” because it was being pitched to me that I was a new Instagram poet. I was seeing myself making erasures for the rest of my life because that would be lucrative. It would be my brand, and all of that was just totally making me feel horrible.
Rumpus: I can understand that.
O’Hare: So I made a decision that a few people think is completely insane, because while I was being made this offer I was talking to University of Hell Press. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, if you went to college in Portland (at Reed); they’re based in Portland.
Rumpus: No, but I was so thrilled when I ordered the book; I felt very cool that I had something from the University of Hell.
O’Hare: I get that a lot—I have their t-shirt and people are just like “Yeah I went there.” [Laughs] I have had so many amazing conversations with Eve [Connell, editor] that I just felt really good about going with them and they gave me so much freedom in writing the introduction. I don’t think I would have had the same amount of freedom with talking about gender stuff, plus the artist who did the hardcover art, Susannah Kelly, really spoke to the book.
Rumpus: There was this quote from your introduction from writer and activist Blythe Baldwin where she’s drawing a distinction between the difference between a verbal apology and actually making amends, and I wanted to talk about that.
O’Hare: Sure; I think that the process of making amends is a private one. Our conversation behind that quote was about twelve-step programs and addiction in particular. Part of the twelve-step program is making amends to people you’ve harmed and going to them privately and saying, “I did you harm. And I want to acknowledge that and be accountable for that,” without the expectation that that person has to forgive you or feel a certain way about it. The public apology was—what I think Blythe was referring to there—was the fact that they’re so public and they’re so impersonal, a lot of them. And it’s like they had the same PR guy writing them. You know, it’s like, “I remember it differently,” or “this is not who I am” and “she didn’t say no.”
In an ideal world, the person would say something like, “I caused someone harm and I fully intend to approach them and make amends for that harm” and not go into all this “it was different back then” and “times have changed.” Some of these statements are really poetic [laughter], really elaborate language and intense attempts to explain the situation.
Rumpus: Yeah. Their language almost becomes rhetoric or something in the realm of legalese, or PR.
O’Hare: Exactly. It’s damage control language.
Rumpus: Your erasures are really bringing it back to the personal and the emotional. That’s one of the things that I appreciated about what you’ve done. I want to bring in some of your other poetry. Jody Gladding described her process for Translations from Bark Beetle by saying, “I’m very interested in how poetry exists in three dimensional space, in physical acts.” I felt like the erasures in your book were an act, almost a kind of performance art. They exist on a visual, even magical, even political kind of level.
O’Hare: I’m so glad you brought that up. My first workshop leader, at Vermont College of Fine Arts, was Jody Gladding. And I immediately loved her. Later in the program, I applied to be in her workshop with Jen Bervin, and it was a translation workshop; and the following residency I applied to be in a workshop with her and Nance Van Winckel, called “Off the Page.” It was poetry, and language, and art, in a physical space. Either on the wall, or some kind of installation art. The idea was that you’re writing, but you’re not writing on a page. You’re using other materials to write.
When I was in a generative workshop with Jody, she had us do an exercise and asked anyone in the workshop if they were interested in performing one of her poems, “what I mean by rooted is web,” (from the spiders my arms), and she arranged us so that we were standing in the auditorium in places that corresponded to the words on the page. What I loved about Jody—and I’ve worked with her so often—it’s like full embodiment of art. She’d have these poems that she would write on the insides of egg shells. And she would make birds’ nests out of long strips of paper with lines of text she’d written. She takes students on silent walks. She walked us through this pasture, over a creek, up a hill, through a meadow, through this grove of trees, and then suddenly you feel this rush of cold air, and you’re about to enter the slate quarry. It was gorgeous. From then on, every time I went to Vermont I’d visit the slate quarry. It became kind of like a church for me.
Jody gave me and a lot of people opportunities to think about poetry outside the confines of a page. And so many tools to work with: the natural world; using audience spaces—subverting the usual reading format—and using natural materials.
Rumpus: You mentioned nature, which makes a segue to asking you about paganism and your essay, “Poems Are Magic Spells Written by Witches.” Heartbreak Machinery has images of Welsh goddesses.
O’Hare: Yeah. I’ve been interested in paganism for a long time; probably about as long as I’ve been interested in Buddhism. The two intertwine for me in a lot of different ways, which is interesting because they’re very different.
Also, I had this trunk that I found in my grandmother’s basement when I was a teenager. She wasn’t using it—it was full of what you might call notions: pieces of fabric and thread and stuff. So I asked her if I could have it and she said, “Sure.” It was like this steamer trunk. So I started filling it with candles and books and Tarot cards, and I would create little rituals for myself based on the books I was reading at the time and things I found on the internet. I think for me back then it was very much about self—not really understanding what that even meant. As I got older, I got more interested in the history and the mythological side.
Rumpus: So is Heartbreak Machinery—is that a book you wrote the poems for before or after the erasures?
O’Hare: That was before. That was in 2016-2017.
Rumpus: It seems like you’ve had a lot of things come out just in the last few years.
O’Hare: Yes. It’s kind of been this weird rush of things. It’s funny because just before Heartbreak Machinery was accepted for publication, I think I made a post on Facebook like, “I’m not sure I’m a poet anymore.” And, “I haven’t really submitted anything in a long time and I’m just not sure where my place is in poetry.” And then the next day I got an acceptance for that chapbook. So I was like, Oh, okay. I guess I needed the external validation to feel like I’m still doing something that people want to read.
Rumpus: I also read your speech, “Failure: a Love Letter.” Both in light of the success—the popularity—of the erasures and being a poet and being a person in the world it was touching, and so refreshingly honest. I wonder if that’s something important to the way you think about writing or art or poetry.
O’Hare: That lecture is probably my favorite thing that I’ve ever done. And I was really excited when you said that you had read it, because it’s really long—it’s like twenty-five pages—so I was like no one’s ever going to read this thing. But it kind of went mini-viral in 2015, because I gave the lecture at VCFA when I was graduating and it was shocking to me how many people showed up to that lecture. And I had made all of these cards for the people who came with love letters inside, and I felt bad because I ran out. It got circulated afterwards and I got a lot of feedback and messages. For me it’s heavily influenced by a book called The Queer Art of Failure—
Rumpus: By Halberstam.
O’Hare: The author was Judith Halberstam—that person is since Jack Halbertstam. The idea is that society requires certain things of you in order to qualify as a successful person. And so for me, if being a successful woman means I dress a certain way, I behave a certain way, that means I’m a success at being a woman, then I’d rather be a failure. And a lot of the ideas people have about success in the arts—you know like you are financially successful through your work and you are in galleries— those are not the only routes to what you would consider personal success, or fulfillment. And so for me it was more about what are we doing here, are we here to compete with each other in this sort of microcosmic capitalist context of art, or are we working on something together? Are we collaborating? Are we learning?
Rumpus: You’ve just been talking about how it’s important to learn and not always be a consumer of things or a competitor. In all this can be yours, you actually have a reading list at the back of the book, and that seems a collaborative gesture to make. Do you like to teach, or share your methods with others?
O’Hare: I’ve been told that I should teach, throughout my life. All my undergrad teachers were like, you need to be a teacher. So I feel it’s probably in my future. I do love sharing knowledge with people. I do feel weird about the hierarchy of teaching. Because I feel like the best teachers I have had have been incredibly humble in their own limitations. And that’s probably something that I’ve picked up on, too. I’m incredibly fortunate that I went to a women’s college in DC where the majority of students were women of color.
Rumpus: What college?
O’Hare: Trinity College, DC. It was an incredible learning experience. And when I was putting the book together, and during the #MeToo resurgence, it really struck me that the most prominent voices are the voices of white, cis-gendered, mostly hetero women. And you know it’s very glamorous people: wealthy, comfortable people. When there are all these other stories that are not getting that much attention. With my introduction to the reading list I was trying to say, “I’m a white person. I might be queer and not binary but I’m still a white person with a tremendous amount of privilege. I cannot speak to everyone. I encourage people to read things beyond me and things beyond the dominant narratives of that movement.”
Photograph of Isobel O’Hare courtesy of Isobel O’Hare.