A Sleet Interview with Lawrence Sutin
by Anika Eide
Lawrence Sutin is a writer and professor in the Creative Writing and Liberal Studies Programs of Hamline University and teaches in the low-residency program of the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Sutin is the author of two memoirs, Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Memoir of Love and Resistance (Graywolf Press, 1995) and A Postcard Memoir (Graywolf Press, 2000). He has also written two biographies, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (Harmony Books, 1989) and Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley (St. Martin's Press, 2000). His most recent books are All Is Change: The Two Thousand Year Journey of Buddhism to the West(Little, Brown, 2006) and his newest novel, When to Go Into the Water (Sarabande Books 2009).
Anika Eide sat down with Lawrence Sutin in June to talk about his latest obsession: Erasing and collaging books to create a work of literary and liminal art.
SLEET: First of all, your erasure books are so exciting to me. It’s thrilling that an author of your caliber is honoring books in the way that you are by, essentially, dismantling them, ripping them apart, and then creating them, letting them live or repurposing them to be in the world in a new way. You also have some of the strangest images I have ever seen — it’s exciting that you have found a happy home for disparate images. I want to start out by asking you how your addiction to erasure books began.
LARRY SUTIN: Clearly, it was seeing the erasure books of Mary Ruefle. I know that Tom Phillips is the modern founder of the genre and I do admire and respect him greatly. In terms of my own personal addiction, though, it came as a result of seeing Mary Ruefle’s erasure books, which I was privileged to be able to see in the actual physical form. I looked at them and I thought, Wow. These are beautiful. Her style is very much a compressed lyric poet style. For a while, the way that my addiction grew was that I would think, I love Mary’s books, so I started to keep on the lookout for what she and I call material that we cut up — fodder. I started to look for interesting fodder and I sent her envelopes of it. It made me happy to find her stuff. Then, I thought, well, maybe I should try to do one.
My first ones, as would be the way with anything, were quite crude. I enjoyed doing them, but I was sort of teaching myself how. One of the things that was very appealing to me is that I love old books and rummaging through them. With erasures, I could not only find old books to erase but I could find other old books — and magazines and ephemera — to rip apart to find images and text. So, with the combination of the inspiration of Mary’s books and my love of old books and pawing through them, I gradually began to spend more and more time on erasure books. I discovered that they tapped a different part of my writing psyche than my prose writing did. That was exciting to me. So, now I, of course, do both prose and erasure books and I feel that each inform the other and each allow a different part of my language aesthetic to emerge.
I will say one more thing about teaching myself to do erasure books. Mary did inspire me but she didn’t sit over my shoulder and watch. The more I work on them, the more I realized — there are no rules whatsoever. So when I first started doing erasure books my unconscious rule was you use all the words in the books — even the copyright page, even the indexes. After a while, I began to see, well, no I can choose. I still use nearly all of the pages of text but I also realized that I could do collage and utilize pages. I started finding old end papers and inserting vintage end papers into my books. More recently, I started to do alterations of covers — not with that one [A Midnight Dream], but with Whistling Son of a Mother Fucker, and more recent ones. A recent development of mine is to not only rip apart the books for the images but to rip the cloth off the cardboard backing of the covers and then reposition and reutilize cloth cover material and cloth titles. I feel like the more I do them the more I think of ways to do them differently.
I have to say, I love the fact that there are no rules. I just get to decide for myself how to go about it. That’s lovely. It’s very open, and free, and inviting to me.
SLEET: Given what I’ve seen in your erasure books, it seems that you have a really fine-tuned method of collecting things, images, text. What is your process for starting an erasure book? Do you have a preexisting collection of books and old images and then work from there, or do you go out to the bookstore, find an old book, and that is what starts the erasure book? Are you inspired by the book first?
LS: When I first started erasure books, I went out looking for books to do. Oddly enough, you would think that the text would be the most important thing. The text isn’t unimportant, but to me, doing a safety manual is as interesting as doing Shakespeare. It’s still fun. I do pre-copyright material. Somehow the idea of erasing a modern book seems — I don’t want to say disrespectful, but a kind of trespass that I don’t want to engage in. I like to find books that are older, pre-copyright, author is dead — so that I feel a sense of privacy and freedom in terms of engaging. What I look for in books are books that have strong bindings, good paper, a reasonable variety of language on the page. I like challenging myself with books that are both very simple in language and sometimes very philosophical and abstract in language. But, oddly enough, I don’t really care what particular book it is. It’s more the size of it, the quality of the pages, whether there is a sufficient range of vocabulary so that I can operate. Will the binding hold up to all the additional collaging I do? Thank goodness for tacky glue, which my wife led me to discover — because when you add end paper and collage images you place a strain on the binding. The quality of the paper is important, too. Some old books are printed on very cheap paper, which is foxed and browned and will tear almost at the touch. I wouldn’t do an erasure book that wouldn’t be able to withstand the physical process. So, really, it’s as much the physical quality of the book as the text itself. To a certain extent, I like erasing smaller books thus far, although I have some larger books that I’m saving until I’m absolutely sure that I can be worthy of them.
SLEET: So in terms of your process when you have a book — do you take it one page at a time, or look at the entire book as a whole?
LS: You know, I skim through it — I count the number of pages. That’s another concern. (Laughs). These are the most banal, impractical things — how many pages is it? I’ve done up to 150 pages but that’s a lot of work. Forty, fifty, sixty pages is a nice length to work with — but I don’t read the book. I look for things like — are there other spaces on the pages? Are there other illustrations already? How many blank end pages are there? The end pages are where I like to have a collage and insert my vintage end papers. So, I’m looking at it almost like a house or a piece of land. What are the space conditions? How spacious is it? How sturdy is it? Is it likely to hold up? That’s far more important to me than what the book is about. At first I stayed away from books that were already illustrated, but then I realized that I could put my new — as you can see from my tales from Shakespeare — my new captions on illustrations and have a great deal of fun doing that. Plus, I add my own illustrations. I still would probably avoid a book that was heavily illustrated. Also, if I thought the book was so beautifully illustrated than I might not mess with it. I like to feel that I could make a book more beautiful. If the book was gorgeous already, I think I would leave it be — in fact, I know I would.
SLEET: So, off of that, in thinking about your method of erasure: In Mary Ruefle’s book A Little White Shadow, she whites out the text. In Jonathon Safran Foer’s, Tree of Codes, he actually cuts out spaces of text. For the most part, you scratch it out, so we can still see the text underneath. I appreciate that — I like seeing where the words have come from. It also looks like morse code, or static and then suddenly we are given these very clear words on the page. Why did you make this choice?
LS: Well, this is just my aesthetic — there are many, many ways to do erasure books and I’m sure that everyone will make their own choices and have their own fun. If you take, for example, Jonathon Safran Foer’s book, what is left is only the language he retained and the rest of it is gone. Of course, that’s a commercial process, that’s die-cut, which is not something I could do. I wouldn’t wish to. I like the idea of letting the reader see the original page and if they wish to squint to discern the original language, and to superimpose on to that, a new book on top of the old. I suppose, if I’m not misusing the word, you could call it a palimpsest approach, where sometimes writing used to be done over papyrus or sheepskin or vellum, where the older writing would be crossed out and new writing done on top of it. I like the reader to be able to have a sense of what the original text was like and then to see the transformation of the text.
Artistically, I think that seeing the original page transformed is much more interesting to me than simply having the erasure language extracted and then printed on a clean new page. Which is what some writers do. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, but for me, I much prefer erasure books where I can get the sense of the new on top of the old. So, that’s my aesthetic; I like that. At the same time, I certainly believe that my erasure texts could be read on their own, but I think they’re better and more pleasing in the context of the old book. It’s a continuity. Erasure books are as much visual art as textual art for me. That’s what’s exciting to me about them. If I just wanted to use words, I would write prose. Erasure books allow me that word and image combination.
SLEET: I have a quote from Mary Ruefle’s fantastic essay (http://www.quarteraftereight.org/ruefle.htm) on erasures —
LS: Yes, it is fantastic. May I say in this interview that her essay is so good that it basically says it all.
SLEET: Yes, it is wonderful. She says this about her white-out erasures: “I had the sense I was somehow blinding the words — blindfolding the ones I whited-out, and those that were left had to become, I don’t know, extra-sensory or something. Then I thought, no, I am bandaging the words, and the ones left were those that seeped out.”
So, I’m interested in this idea of seeping, but I feel like I’m connecting even more strongly to this idea of the words being extra-sensory. I think that has to do with the fact that erasure work is so strongly visual. I’ve found that when I’ve experienced your erasure books — I can’t even say seeing, because it brings me to this, I don’t know, almost a different liminal state when I go through them. I think that state comes from that extra-sensory material. I’m wondering if you experience that state yourself when you are creating them.
LS: Oh yes. I love the word liminal. I think that’s a good word to apply to the experience both of reading a good erasure book and of doing it. The joy of writing is the activation of parts of the consciousness that you can’t easily access in your daily life. I love writing creative prose — I dive into a world I’m entirely creating and I can choose, as Mary points out in her essay, any words that I like. But when I’m in the confines of a previously printed page, there are a number of words there that are available to me, a finite number, a somewhat random assortment in terms of my purposes. My mind goes into a state where connectivities of syntax and meaning and image emerge that are different than the ones I would imagine on my own. Discovering them allows me to discover ideas, images, expressions, awarenesses that I couldn’t otherwise easily tap. So, yes, it’s quite liminal. It’s a different world. It’s an alternate state between reading and writing where you are engaging in a combination of taking in text and reconfiguring it. It’s wonderful.
It’s also very exciting because some pages you think, oh no, there’s nothing I can do with this, but I’ve found that there is always something you can do with it if you open yourself up to it. There is always something. And discovering that is very joyous to me. Discovering the creative possibility in this limited, bounded set of words. In some senses, I’m sure it’s very similar to poets who write in metered forms. There would seem to be some analogy where you choose a form that constrains you to some extent, and that liberates you to some extent. When I’m having fun erasuring, I discover new language, associations and connectivities and statements that sometimes are quite beautiful. Even revelatory. That’s wonderful.
For the past two or three years I’ve been clipping images. Sometimes my wife comes downstairs to my workroom and sees me with the scissors and goes, Aren’t we busy? (Laughs). I have six cigar boxes and four document boxes full of images. Now, what Mary Ruefle does, she told me, is she organizes her images by what you might say is topic or subject. She’s really quite hilarious about it. I read a beautiful erasure book of hers and I said, Well, how did you gather all these images? and she said, Well, I went to my envelope labeled “Torture.” (Laughs). Because I like to surprise myself in my process, I arrange my images only by size. Same with text. I have boxes of texts that are just tiny little texts, then I have bigger ones. I like just wandering through my images until something strikes me. So, I don’t even know, usually, how I’m going to illustrate, but I find out by going through the images. I have so many now, thousands, that I don’t even remember all that I have. So, all of a sudden, as I’m going through, one of them will just speak up and say, hey, do me! That is all liminal because I’m going into territory I don’t know, which is the fun of it. I’m discovering new things doing it. It is a joy. I can imagine doing erasure books to the very end.
Plus, it’s green. You’re recycling. (Laughs). Using old books, old images, markers that my grandkids use. I don’t have to go to art stores and buy expensive materials. Everything is recycled. When libraries discard books — I’m there. Ripping them apart. Helping the world be a greener place. You’re welcome.
SLEET: Do you feel like you are, in a sense, rescuing books from their demise?
LS: No, I don’t. (Laughs). It would be nice to say. I would say that I am rescuing certain images but when you rip books apart at the spine, rip out pages and recycle most of the books it’s hard for me to pat myself on the back and go, What a rescuer you are! I have thought, some day someone is going to take one of my books and rip it apart and use it for erasure fodder and I just hope they have a good time when they do it. I can’t say I relish the thought, but I am in no position to object. To be quite honest, if the book is really beautiful or vital, or if I had the only copy of the book in the world, I probably wouldn’t erase it. But for the books that I erase, I’m quite certain there are plenty of other copies or the book has had its time. So I can’t say that I rescue them but I am pleased to be able to utilize the beauties that are on pages of books again.
SLEET: I started collecting words that I’ve either heard describe erasure books or that I felt was happening when I experiencing them. Do any of these words speak to your process of it or your way of viewing erasure books? First one is collaboration.
LS: When I first started doing erasure books, I felt a sense of collaborating with the prior author, but I think that was just an initial stage. Now I feel like it’s my book. Perhaps that’s grandiose, perhaps not, but I can’t say I feel collaboration with an author whose book I’ve scratched nearly all of the text. I think it’s reconfiguring. I mean, everything, you could say, is a collaboration. I think it’s quite an individual act — I have to take responsibility for it myself. I doubt that the people who wrote the books that I have erased would see me as their collaborator.
SLEET: How about treatment?
LS: Like a film treatment? No. I’d have to say that one of the things I’ve learned is that I occasionally utilize the content of a book I’m doing. But even when I’m doing Shakespeare or say, a Hebrew Bible Prophet, which I have done, that’s The Book of Am Not, I really feel like I’m trying to make the content quite new. I know that Jonathon Safran Foer is a god, and I am a relatively unknown writer, but his treatment of Bruno Schulz was sort of a reverent, almost ghost narrative on top of Bruno Schulz’ narrative. My approach would be, I love Bruno Schulz so I wouldn’t do his book. I would just leave it. I’m not that fond of Shakespeare, so I do Shakespeare. I’m out to take his language and make something utterly different from it. So, a treatment in the sense of trying to redesign the story for a different meaning? No — I’m out to obliterate the original story and make something quite different. If I loved the original story, I don’t think I would erase the book. I wouldn’t feel good about that. I have to be ready to rip that text apart and make it something new. Shakespeare can handle it. He’s revered by enough people that it can have a few people like me rip his language up.
SLEET: Okay, I heard you say reconfigure and recontextualize, so it sounds like those words make sense to your erasures. How about decoding?
LS: No — that would assume that there was a code and I don’t know that there is a code — only language and its seemingly infinite possibilities. There is no code. I’ve never found a code. Maybe some day I will find one and in that case, I’ll decode it. But no, no decoding.
LS: Nope. I’m pretty much obliterating, ripping apart and doing over. Again, it would be nice to say. I do collect old books. I have old books at home that I preserve. But no, when I’m doing erasure books I can’t say that I feel that I am doing preservation. I’m going into the rainforest of old text and cutting down the trees with a bulldozer. (Laughs). In that sense I can’t really claim any preservation whatsoever.
SLEET: I suppose we’ve touched on this, but how about the word honoring?
LS: Well, I’m having a great deal of fun. But, no, sorry, I’m not really honoring. Which is not to say your words are wrong. I want to make this clear that the beautiful thing about erasures, as Jonathon Safran Foer proved — I mean he loves Bruno Schulz’ work and he is, I’m sure, honoring it, paying homage to it, calling attention to it. All these things are possible. I’m not saying that erasure books can’t do these things — but that’s not what I’m doing.
SLEET: Right. So I’ve been really lucky in being able to hold one of your books, which is an exciting thing —
LS: Thank you, that’s very sweet of you to say.
SLEET: And it’s exciting because it’s so tactile and they are beautiful books, visually. It made me think about this inserted quote you have in the beginning of The Whistling Son of a Mother Fucker, which says, “The purpose of this manual: The claim is not made that this is the best book of its kind simply because it is the only book of its kind.” Which is lovely, because it is the only book of its kind. You’ve made an extremely rare book. So you have these scanned pages on your website but then you have the tactile art object. Obviously the process is very fulfilling for you, but how do you want these books to live in the world?
LS: Well, I’m very grateful for the Internet, because if I had done these in the pre-Internet era, their chances of finding an audience would be very remote. It would be like doing a painting and then hoping to find a gallery that would show it. Thanks to scanning and the Internet, I have some hope that people who Google erasure books and are interested in them will ultimately come upon my books. In terms of the other venues — it’s very difficult, so I’m told, I haven’t set about to do it yet, but it’s difficult to get publishers interested in doing physical reproductions because it’s expensive if you do it in color. If you do it in black and white, a great deal is lost, I think. So, I would love it if some of these books could be published in an art book form. As I keep working, I’ll investigate that. Perhaps some day, I would consider selling some of them, but probably not yet. Right now, the way I like them to exist is in the cabinet in my basement writing office where they all sit. I don’t know what’s going to happen to them in the future but I’m very grateful for the fact that the Internet allows them to be viewed potentially by anyone. I think that’s a great gift.
They inspire my other writing as well. Just on a purely personal level, I tend to do my prose writing in the afternoons and evenings. Mornings tend to be a pretty good time for erasure books and that was generally a time when I couldn’t do creative work as well. Mornings are a very fine time for erasure books. They allow me to engage in the work I love still more hours of the day. I can do erasure books for a few hours and then do prose for a few hours because they are so different. So, those are the rewards I’m getting now. Obviously, I would like the books to survive. I would like for them not to be thrown away. (Laughs). Beyond that, I don’t know what’s going to happen to them. I haven’t reached that point yet. I’ll take care of them. I think my family will hold on to them.
SLEET: Are there any books on your wish list that you would like to erase?
LS: There is a book I found at Half Price Books on the bargain cart about a year and a half ago: The Memoirs of M. Bloew. It’s this beautiful, large, ornately bound and illustrated book of a then-famous journalist of the late nineteenth — early twentieth century. From the moment I saw it, I thought, I have to erase this book some day. I’m saving it for when the time comes, when I really feel like I have an open couple of months — because it’s three hundred pages long. M. Bloew has enormous mutton chops and hair coming out of his head and eyebrows and all sorts of photographs. It’s just him meeting the famous people of the time and it’s just a big bowl of erasure ice cream to me. So, that one I’m really looking forward to doing and I feel like I’m almost worthy of erasing M. Bloew. Beyond that, no, I have no wish list. I mean, the reason I erase Shakespeare is because I find old turn-of-the century school books that are these little hardcover bounded editions of Shakespeare. That’s why I erase Shakespeare. The format of the books was very inviting. But it’s not like, oh I want to erase Moby Dick. No. Any small, interesting book.
The Whistling Son of a Mother Fucker was originally titled, as anyone can see who looks at the titles on the top of the pages, The Whistling Mother. It was this horrific book that was published during the first World War. The whole point was — Hey moms, don’t hold back your sons from going to war. Be cheerful, don’t cry when they leave. I just looked at it and thought — oh, you so need to be erased. I had a great time and I hope to find more books that are worthy of erasing. I would love to find beautiful old books that look like they could be erased but in terms of titles, I have no wish list whatsoever. I think Mary Ruefle and I agree on this — I don’t care who wrote the book. I have erased Shakespeare, I have erased the prophets because I found little hardcovers. I care more about the physical book than about the author. It may sound odd, but that’s how I work. I just acquired a little book, a play by Anatole France, translated into English, he was a French author, and it’s called The Man who Married a Dumb Wife. It looks kind of idiotic and erasable. But — was that on my wish list before I found it? No. But now that I have it, it looks pretty good. What else are you going to do with that besides erase it? Stage it?
SLEET: True enough. I’m curious about the tone in your books, particularly A Midnight Dream. You’ve created some meditative, beautiful lines, such as this on page 40: “She would walk veiled; keep fresh the perils of the sea, as dear to her as the heart in her bosom, one could hardly be told from the other.” And some pretty hilarious lines, like this from earlier in the book (pages 18 — 19): “Kiss the top of the thistle yonder, bring the top to scratch me hairy face. Shall my fairies fetch you new nuts?” I laughed so hard when I read that.
LS: Oh yes, kids, don’t be afraid to be immature. (Laughs). No, I mean — I take what the page gives me. If there’s something silly, I’ll take it. There is no need on my part to keep a consistent tone. If the page invites a very serious text in the sense of exploratory, meaningful deep thought — fine. If the page invites a really silly, off-handed sexual pun — lovely! Why not let those coexist? One of the things I like about erasure books is the tone of text. Sometimes two pages go together; usually they don’t. I like that. I don’t have the necessity of maintaining a continuity which I think, in a prose work I feel much more. I think that’s one of the allures of erasures.
SLEET: So what advice would you give to budding erasure book artists?
LS: I would give them two pieces of advice: First of all, now it is possible, in the comfort of your own home, to surf the net and look at erasure books. Look at Mary Ruefle’s erasure books, certainly. There are all sorts of other people doing erasure books. Tom Phillips, look at his work. But beyond all that, erasure books depend on what tools you have in hand, what images you have in hand, what books you choose, and the more you do it, the more you’ll learn. At least for me, the process was — just keep doing it. Your first attempts will be somewhat crude and awkward. It’s very much like learning to do anything. Don’t be discouraged by early attempts that don’t pan out. Be yourself. There are no rules to constrain you. If you’re erasing and you think, gee it would be fun to do this, then do it. The great joy of the medium is there’s no good reason to refrain from doing anything that would be of interest to you.
So, look at other erasure books, but don’t feel at all compelled to emulate them. I’m a prose writer. My erasure books, my texts, tend to be ideas, statements, bits, fragments of narrative. Mary Ruefle’s are far more compressed little lyric poems. Everybody will find their own style for it. So, I would just say, enjoy the freedom.
Anika Eide is an artist living in Minneapolis. She enjoys working with and across multiple mediums, particularly writing, dance, film, dioramas, photography and any combination of these. She is an MFA candidate at Hamline University.