Writing from the Ashes

I awake at 2:30 am on Monday, October 9th to the sound of my doorbell ringing again and again. The air is thick with smoke, the sky aglow from approaching fires. We evacuate to the local community center.

Inside we find friends. We make friends. We sit in florescent-lit rooms with families and pets listening to radios, seeking information on cell phones, waiting for news.

Across hours, one text or call at a time, people around us learn their homes have burned. When I walk to my car to get supplies for my family, I find a charred page on the concrete amidst the fallen ash.

Across the next week of fires expanding all over our region, I’m in no state of mind to be creative- just living moment-to-moment with a focus on family and community survival. But when conditions stabilize and my nervous system begins to calm, I find myself coming back to that charred page with the urge to create an erasure poem.

An erasure poem is a poem we create from any text by simply blacking out the words we don’t want, and writing those that remain in sequence to form a poem. Here’s what I wrote using words from that ashen page, an excerpt from a Bible:

Santa Rosa Rising

by Tonya Ward Singer

southward ash
heaven help you
destroy safety
heavens drop
western region
the whole land

fighting brothers
go back. LOOK!
save us from death
our lives your lives
GO!– family, anyone
with you–AWAY!

fighting over
you may go back
you will be strong
look over Jericho
house, land destroyed
you show kindness
father, mother, brothers
treat you kindly
let the house go

With blessing
your strength will equal heavens
your safety secure
new glorious you
from mourning, now wisdom
hands to all
mighty deeds

Why Write an Erasure Poem?

Writing is a form of healing. Writing in a journal has value to express what we think and feel. It is also powerful to give ourselves constraints that help us release total control. With an erasure poem, I search, discover and let go. Constraints help drive creativity. 

Try it. Choose a text. Omit words. What remains is your erasure poem.

Listen to Youth Speaks’ poet Yujane’s erasure she wrote about immigration using the N-400 form required for naturalization to the United States. This is the poem that inspired me to try my own erasure.

Teach Erasure Poems

If you are a teacher, try it with students. Start with a relevant text. Have students each use it to create their own erasure poems. Beyond the constraints of choosing words in sequence, there are no rules. Make sure students know:

  • There is no right answer.
  • Complete sentences are not necessary.
  • Lists are okay.
  • Punctuation doesn’t matter.
  • An erasure can be as short as a few words, or long as many stanzas.

Share and celebrate the many variations students create from same initial text. Build from this shared experience with a common text to have students then choose their own texts to create erasure poems.

To avoid plagiarism, encourage students to avoid copying entire sentences or sections of text (or at least use quotes to indicate the section if they do). Have students credit the original text with their poem.

Reframe Trauma with an Erasure Poem

If you experience a local disaster, once you are safely beyond the survival mode of meeting basic needs, try creating an erasure poem to express or reframe your experience. For example, use a FEMA relief application, insurance claim document or other seemingly impersonal paperwork to create an erasure that expresses an emotion. Use a news report of tragedy to create an erasure that illuminates resilience. Create an erasure with any text to express what feels right to you.

For teachers helping students move forward in the wake of a disaster, follow advice in this article written by the National Association of School Psychologists.  Introduce erasure poems as one of many possible options to process and express including movement, silence, art, reading and the regular school routines that bring back a sense of normalcy. Don’t force any student to write about their experiences, and foster story sharing in a safe space that prevents vicarious traumatization. One student may create an erasure that goes deep into emotion, and another may create a silly erasure about a whole different topic that makes others laugh. All are healing.

An erasure poem is a metaphor for what I’m learning after these devastating fires– what is left behind is most powerful. Amidst the devastation, we are experiencing an inspiring amplification of kindness, generosity, and community resilience. There is profound beauty in what remains.

I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.

One Comment

  • Tonya Singer

    October 25, 2017, 2:36 pm

    Thank you for inquiries about my home and family. We are all safe. I am grateful that our home survived the fires. I am grateful are hosting friends who lost their home, and grateful for the resilience of our community. This is the beginning of a long, unfolding journey for Santa Rosa and many communities in Sonoma and Napa counties impacted by these fires.

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