Amy Shimshon-Santo on Writing Erasure Poetry Through COVID-19

Amy Shimshon-Santo endless bowls of sky

Amy Shimshon-Santo is writer and educator from Dogtown, a place that no longer exists. Her poetry collection Even the Milky Way Is Undocumented is forthcoming with Unsolicited Press (September 2020). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in creative nonfiction (2017), nominated for Best of the Net in poetry (2018), and recognized on the national Honor Roll for Service Learning. Her work has been published by Yes Poetry, Zócalo Public Square, Anti-Heroin Chic, Rag Queen Periodical, SAGE Publications, Entropy, Public, Tiferet Journal, UC Press, and SUNY Press, among others.

Her erasure poem “endless bowls of sky” was published in Capsule Stories Isolation Edition, now available in print and ebook. Below is Shimshon-Santo’s account of the process of erasure and how this poem was created during the pandemic, told to us over email as we considered her piece for publication.

Amy Shimshon-Santo’s Process of Erasure

I have found it hard to write anything except for journal entries at this time, but I have clung to the topsy-turvy worlds of Ben Okri as a reader. I used four pages of his novel The Famished Road to create an erasure poem that conveys how I am right now.

What do you do when an MD says, “Given your symptoms, assume you have COVID-19”?

You have a weird, whispered conversation over the phone because talking hurts. You map your path out to the hospital just in case, and you print pages from an author you admire, and cover them in black ink.

This is what came.

For context, I have been sick. The MD said I should assume I have COVID-19. He advised me to go to the hospital if my breathing worsened. No one is testing people here who are not high risk, and I am not. I rode it out, and have been lucky. My body did what it was supposed to do. I slowly got better.

I was a mess and couldn’t write. Okri’s novel is so frightening, and I found comfort in the difficulty because I was afraid. I copied pages and lined through as many as I could each day—methodically because I couldn’t do much else. I used the remaining words on the pages for my words of the day. After I worked from the erasures, I brought it into my journal, and then brought it into a word processing document to further edit.

In all fairness, these are not traditional erasures. I removed more from my own pages than I did from his erased ones. I also moved the sections and stanzas I made around.

One morning I woke up with the image of the erasures in half circles—cut in half like calabash in the poem. I started cutting them into circles and half circles. That is what the “endless bowls of sky” comes from.

I am on the better side of recovery now. I may actually have an entire chapbook of these strange things.

They are all a bit odd, but I like the one I sent to you the most. It was the first. It captures the sadness and fear of the moment when I realized that I had this thing we’d all been hearing about inside my lungs. You don’t know which way your body will go. Will it rebound? Will it take you down? It is scary. It changes you.

My notion of living now is—enjoy something each day.

It is raw, but feels close to the truth of that moment.

Interview with Amy Shimshon-Santo

Capsule Stories: You say “Okri’s novel is so frightening, and I found comfort in the difficulty because I was afraid.” Tell us more about that—what’s frightening about his novel, for readers who are unfamiliar with his work? And how did grappling with that bring you comfort?

Amy Shimshon-Santo: When we first went into quarantine I began reading Okri’s The Famished Road. He is a Nigerian writer with feet in the UK and Nigeria. I read immersively. I read to accompany an author, and vice versa. I have been known to read all of an author’s works I can get my hands on at once the way people binge watch TV series. I want to get close to them and understand where their work comes from.

I listened to Okri’s interviews. In “We Can Ascend Mountains,” he speaks with urgency—as if the sky were on fire, which, we know, it is. He says that “our collective destiny is in danger . . . the time for sleepwalking is over . . . [and] a new world thinking is needed.” I took Okri’s call with me into seclusion, into the illness, and through recovery. (I’m still not 100 percent, but the MD says they are “seeing very long recovery periods for upper respiratory conditions.” In other words, be patient.)

According to Okri, everyday-everybody heroism is the only thing that may save us, and the planet. Individual leaders are not enough. We are seeing that clearly now. Leadership, or the paucity of it, is as much the problem as the pandemic itself. Imagine social distancing with the peace of mind that scientific knowledge and equity informed social policy, and that everyone had access to the conditions for health. This would all feel very different.

In The Famished Road, the living and dead coexist. Actions do not obey reason, and there are forces larger than oneself wreaking havoc. Politicians are deluded. The infirm clog the streets and structures. In this current science-non-fiction, it is important to create safety and healing. How can I find balance within the chaos of now, to be of better service to my communities?

Okri helped. Erasure helped. I found comfort in not denying what was, and is, strange. This moment is strange. Here we all are in the strangeness.

Capsule Stories: What drew you to erasure as a way of creating while you were sick? Had you worked with erasure before, or was this uncharted territory?

Amy Shimshon-Santo: I’ve thought about erasure a lot, but not written much. Empire and hatred have left the majority of the world’s populations un-inked. We are visible to our own communities, but un-visible in broader storytelling. Abuse of power (i.e., imperialism, misogyny, white supremacy, xenophobia, class privilege) has curated a fictional world with visible and the un-visible. I wrote an essay called “My Grandma Was a Radical” that sought out words from my ancestors. What I found was blacked-out FBI documents and a court proceeding from the House Un-American Activities Committee with my father’s mother’s testimony.

Being sick came with a deep sadness. What if these were my last days? Could I just sit and breathe, like Thich Nhat Hanh suggested? Had I lived enough? Listening to DJ D-Nice’s first spontaneous Instagram Live music set helped me remember that I have lived a good amount. If this was it, so be it. 

I spent my recovery with my daughter, and the erasures. I felt afraid, and wrote lines through everything but the words that hurt. When I started recovering, I sought out beauty and inked everything else. Apparently, you can find whatever you’re looking for in erasure, just like life. What will I choose to see, emphasize, and remember today? That is the most basic act of authorship: our thoughts and experiences, our days and our nights.

The erasures became my ritual recovery practice. When I finished the novel, I lay in meditation. I felt worried about the meditation ending since I would have to return to feeling stuck in the pandemic. Claustrophobia is the word. I instantly knew to go put flowers in my eyes, my ears and mouth. My imagination gives me assignments. There were wild rose bushes blooming outside. I took photos and collaged the plants around my face, then around my children. I did this systematically, like following a doctor’s orders. Put flowers in your eyes, and call me in the morning. My inner voice was telling me to lighten up—to place beauty around me and my loved ones. Be inside the blossoms. The images made me laugh for the first time in weeks. It was a turning point.

I’m the first woman in my lineage to fill a page with her own sentences and be published. I have my hands on the dike of literary unerasure. Learning requires a mai tai of curiosity, obstinance, and resilience. It includes the responsibility to create spaces for people to write their own lines and lives. I do this by teaching and by having raised children who are creators. This is one way to unerase.

Capsule Stories: More broadly, how has your writing changed since the pandemic began? (Your process, or your work, or both.)

Amy Shimshon-Santo: I usually write early in the morning, to take my temperature before things clutter my mind. This has changed with the quarantine. My mind is cluttered most of the time. Time is flat, except the sky changes color. Everything is a mashup. Work. Not work. Wake. Sleep. I bang around inside my little glass jar of a life. 

In short, I used to write in the morning. Now I also write at night, and sometimes into the early morning if I don’t make myself go to bed. 

Capsule Stories: Tell us about the chapbook project that has come out of these erasures.

Amy Shimshon-Santo: A chapbook came through me like wind through a stone tunnel. It is called Endless Bowls of Sky. It’s a collection of erasure poems with images of bowls cut from the original erasure pages. I woke up one morning with the image of the bowls in my eyes, and the title. Endless. How time feels in quarantine. Bowls. The breaking open of the calabash, or the planet as we knew it. Sky. The reach of this experience. Same sky also points to having a planetary consciousness. I didn’t think this through though. It arrived, directly from my dream, as is.

It was an honor to have the first poem included in Capsule Stories Isolation Edition. It is a great collection of work. Another single poem from this process was published by Honey and Smoke. I live in Los Angeles, but the chapbook will now reach folks in the United Kingdom because it was chosen as a flashbulb publication by Placeholder Press. A flashbulb is kind of like a flash mob, but instead of dance it’s poetry. After that ephemeral performance, it will migrate somewhere else. I like collaborating with small presses globally, especially now while we are all in quarantine around the world.

Capsule Stories: What are you working on next?

Amy Shimshon-Santo: I always reach the end of the academic year with a list of things to complete. I need the summers to catch up with my writing self. I have two essays that need final touches, one on community arts spatial practices, and the other on community and arts education. I am wrapping up a collection of essays with quilt-like images made from the stories.

I’m collaborating on a project with curator Janice Ngan for the Autry Museum that pays homage to the most prolific early voice of music in Los Angeles—Manuela Garcia. Garcia was a walking encyclopedia of music and recorded 150 wax cylinders of folk songs at the turn of the century. We want to honor the woman behind the music, and women as hemispheric culture bearers.

My first poetry collection is coming out in September 2020, but the summer book tour was canceled due to the pandemic. It is called Even the Milky Way Is Undocumented and is available for preorder through Unsolicited Press.

As a writer, I am penciling myself back in. The more I live inside language, the more mysteries will be able to count on me as a scribe. I guess what I’m fiddling with now is the opposite of erasure. It is recuperation.

Amy Shimshon-Santo’s poem “endless bowls of sky” is published in Capsule Stories Isolation Edition, now available in print and ebook everywhere books are sold. Consider buying a copy through Bookshop to support independent bookstores.

Readers can follow Amy Shimshon-Santo’s work at amyshimshon.com, on Twitter at @amyshimshon, and on Instagram at @shimshona.

Amy Shimshon-Santo

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5 thoughts on “Amy Shimshon-Santo on Writing Erasure Poetry Through COVID-19”

  1. What beautiful interview and an amazing story and strugle described with honesty and courage. I don’t think I said it before. but if I did I will say it again, we are lucky to have Amy’s struggle described with poetry.
    The erasures process is fascinating and I am sure difficult to do, it is a process that confirms life process, we could not exist with all that goes on every day in our life, bombarded with constant information, if we didn’t have the natural ability to weed through it.

  2. Mamamia, What a beautiful story and what beautiful works, cara Amy. You won’t remember me but I remember
    you but as a child now grown into such a beautiful woman. Your momma and poppa were good friends of
    mine back in the younger days of my life, and I know you loved David, my son, many years ago.

    I send you a poets auguri for your future works.

    Abbracciebaci
    Jack Hirschman

  3. Amy, you are a true poet. The kind that breaks the old language and reconstructs the new from shards and visions. The interview and the images together, yet another work of art. Collaboration is at the heart, black ink, a novelist’s words, rose petals, children, such stems and blooms. Grateful for you as we always are when the artist appears just at the nick of time.

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