Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
The poet on erasing Dracula’s misogyny, the politics of literary appropriation, and the beauty of long poems.
Last summer, Chase Berggrun showed up at an event I co-hosted called Poetry Prom, dressed up to the nines as we had requested. Wearing black satin and gold sequins, Berggrun did a little spin as we crowned them “Poetry Prom Queen” and draped them in acrylic feather boas and plastic tiaras. Later, as Berggrun and I shared a street corner punishing our lungs, they told me of R E D, a novel/poem that they were releasing the following year, a lengthy and committed erasure project based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It sounded like a hefty task, and one I couldn’t wait to read. Less than a year later, I had the book in my hands, and the delicacy and force of Berggrun’s project became concrete. An excavation of Mina’s story from where it is buried under the mens’ interpretation sees the assembly of powerful lines such as “I could make men fear the same violent promises they made me” and “I condemn / the desecration of my body / I shall not give my consent”, and as such is the perfect act of poetic vengeance on the violence of male dominance in the literary canon.
Ruby Brunton A stream of blood runs through your work. What is it about blood that fascinates you, both as a theme and as a material?
Chase Berggrun I am wildly, almost disturbingly, captivated by blood, and I think that the root of this obsession has to do with the simple truth that R. M. Renfield repeats maniacally to Dr. Seward in Dracula: “The blood is the life.” Blood sustains us. Blood propels our living bodies. It is constantly coursing through a complex system hidden underneath our skin: a red and blue arabesque of tubes delivering the most fundamentally necessary substances throughout the body. Without blood we cannot think, breathe, move. When I bleed, I see visceral proof: I am still alive. That’s a precarious, tentative position to be in, of course, but it’s also precious. A sacred sort of fragility. What a privilege. Look what has been given to me. I better protect it, keep it inside of me at all costs. It’s no wonder one of the most compelling kinds of monsters drains the innocent of their blood: every living person is inherently invested in that liquid. That it might be stolen from us, against our will, is viscerally terrifying. To quote Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Season 3, Episode 8), “Love isn’t brains, children, it’s blood. Blood screaming inside you to work its will.” It’s messy and it’s flamboyant and we really fucking need it.
RB Your new book, R E D, is an excavation of a woman’s narrative in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. What drew you to this as your base text?
CB I first read Dracula as a teenager, lazily slogging through it while working the front desk at my job at the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth, Massachusetts (Gorey loved Dracula, & won a Tony Award for his set design of a Broadway adaptation of the novel starring Frank Langella). I liked it well enough, I suppose, but it didn’t take my breath away. I rediscovered it by chance perusing the dollar books outside the Strand in New York City years later: it caught my eye, for whatever reason, and I took it home, devoured it in a single sitting.
I hated it. I was immediately struck by the intensity of Stoker’s deep-seated (and deeply seeded) misogyny: I read the real monster of the novel as femininity. Stoker was a man afraid of sexuality, afraid of women, and ultimately afraid of himself. A product of his Victorian time, to be sure, but also a pervasive attitude that is still deeply entwined in our collective, societal consciousness as well. I read this book and I wanted to tear into, attack, and disembowel it and the caustic ideas that enabled it. I started writing poems.
In dealing with Dracula, erasure was my last resort. I wrote a lot of other poems about the book before I began actually working with the text. This was absolutely essential, for me. My first instinct wasn’t to erase Dracula, and my first instinct is almost never erasure. The poems I was writing simply were not working—I wrote poems in Dracula’s voice, a series of short epistolary lyrics from Mina to Lucy … I wasn’t satisfied. I needed to physically engage with the text. But that preliminary wrestling was important to me: it solidified and justified the very serious violence of erasure I was about to enact.
RB This isn’t your first erasure work, your chapbook Discontent and Its Civilizations: Poems of Erasure also employs this technique. As a form, erasure seeks to derive new meaning from an already existing text consisting of someone else’s words. What are some of the potential implications to take into account when embarking on a work of erasure?
CB I’ve been studying literary appropriation and erasure specifically for about eight years. It’s a complex, diverse form, if you can even call it one single form. Just as the rules for vampirism change depending on who is writing them (does the skin disintegrate in the sun? or does it sparkle?) so do the rules of erasure, and almost everybody does it at least slightly differently. I don’t necessarily think it’s something that is beyond any poet’s capacity, if they’re willing to work at it! I’ve done a lot of erasure in my day, and most of it was miserable failure. It’s a particularly cultivated skill.
Erasure is an extremely difficult, demanding, time-consuming way to write a poem. It’s absurdly easy to fuck it up. It can be exciting, and even fun, but it is not the same kind of work as writing a poem in the usual way. It requires a kind of reading that feels antithetical to the joy of reading, and a kind of writing and interaction with language that can feel stifling to the imagination at times. Writing R E D was an exhausting labour. I am a (usually, ideally) patient writer, and I write slowly—if I was a different kind of poet, this book might never have been made. I think that a lot of erasure poetry suffers from that kind of impatience, both with the process and with the text. If you’re not willing to sit with your source for awhile, get to know its flaws and strengths, then I’m not sure you’ve earned the right to take it apart in such a drastic fashion.
Literary appropriation is always a political act, and the politics of erasure is unsettling and frightening. It is dangerous. Erasing Dracula was a violent act. It was a text I believe I had a right to deface, but I am and always will be uncomfortable with erasure, which is the way it should be. I always recommend this brilliant essay by Solmaz Sharif, who says at the beginning: “The first time I confronted erasure as an aesthetic tactic I was horrified.” We must be critical of these kinds of forms, especially when they are forms that are dear to us.
Acknowledging who you are in relation to your source, and who wrote it, is essential, from the beginning. The idea that all art belongs to everyone, to do whatever they’d like with it, is an idea with roots in the toolbox of white supremacy. When this kind of mindset is unchecked, the result is the work of someone like Kenneth Goldsmith, or John Gosslee’s horrendous erasures of Hoa Nguyen’s poems. I highly suggest listening to this Robin Coste Lewis lecture on the history of erasure for anyone looking to learn more about the form.
RB You started working on R E D in 2014. Has the work undergone many revisions since then? How did you keep motivated to work with such a weighty text?
CB One of the benefits of the (many) constraints that went into the writing of R E D was that it was a linear project: I was done with the first draft when I got to the end of the source text. I find erasure to be a very different kind of writing: self-propulsive and much easier to put down and pick up again than a regular poem. I took to carrying whatever chapter I was working on in my back pocket, and digging into it whenever I had a spare moment, on the train, between classes, during particularly boring poetry readings. That first draft was dramatically different than the final book: sprawled all over the page, and quite a bit longer. Editing erasure is an entirely distinct animal from editing other kinds of poems: since I couldn’t change or rearrange any words, I spent hours and hours diving back into the text to eke out new lines where the poem wasn’t strong enough and making small corrections wherever the source text would allow it. I worked very closely with Matthew Rohrer while writing R E D, as well as my amazing editor at Birds, LLC, Sampson Starkweather: I couldn’t have made this book what it is without their guidance.
This was laborious: it took a long time to find a new line, sometimes within a single paragraph of text, if I absolutely needed to change something. I had to get to know this book on an incredibly intimate level, word by word by word, in order to be able to pull a coherent sentence or a line out of it. Other constraints (no words or letters could be added or subtracted, no punctuation except where it existed in the text, and, except in a few cases, no more than four or five words in a row could be used) made the entire process more complicated and time consuming, but that obsessive clinging to the set of rules I set up from the outset gave the project a structure and a propulsive energy that I needed to keep at it. Lauren Roberts at Menage Magazine very kindly and painstakingly published Chapter X from the book, alongside a reproduction of the entire chapter. By highlighting the whole page, you can see what was erased.
RB Vampires have historically been frightening figures, but recently they’ve had a sexy makeover. They can also be portrayed as tragic, misunderstood outcasts, or redeem themselves by targeting less desirable members of society as victims. What are some cultural representations of vampires you feel drawn to?
CB I am first and foremost a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and will be till I finally die and rise again from the grave. It’s so damn good—complicated, flawed, at times frustrating, but also emotionally devastating and beautiful.
Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre was a significant influence on R E D: the character Lucy, played by Isabelle Adjani, is a wild departure from the women in Stoker’s Dracula. She is self-driven, stubborn, brilliant, composed—contrasted with the men in the film, who are weak and ignorant, and refuse to consider her advice at every turn. Herzog’s Lucy showed me how one might successfully turn Stoker’s work toward writing a character who does indeed have agency over her life, a self-determined, powerful woman.
Other vampire flicks I enjoy and recommend: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Let the Right One In, Thirst, Lost Boys.
I love the marriage of the feminine and the bloodthirsty when it’s used as a vehicle for empowerment—not as a way to portray a woman as a monster or women as monstrous, but as a being capable of determining her own destiny. The trope of the Lesbian Vampire is, obviously, something I’m rather attracted to. Carmilla, a vampire novel that pre-dates (and inspired) Stoker’s Dracula, is preposterously hot (to me, anyway), and beautifully written, even though it was written by a man. “Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration.” I mean, come on.
RB R E D has been described as a novel, a poem and also a suite of poems. I like that we’re in this era of writers and literary works that evade traditional classification, like Dodie Bellamy, Claudia Rankine or Fred Moten. Where does R E D sit for you? Did you set out to write any particular work when you started?
CB I wrote the book but how it’s read or interpreted isn’t up to me at all: that’s no longer something I have ownership of now that it’s out in the world. I think all of those categories are equally valid! Personally, I consider R E D to be a single, long poem. I love long poems with all my heart and soul: I think they’re under appreciated (especially if it’s a long poem by a woman—how dare I take up space!) in a publishing environment that values a shorter, punchier, more easily digestible kind of poem, though I think the long poem is making a comeback, with poets like dearest Tommy Pico opening up and delving headfirst into longer forms. Poems that demand a reader sit with them for more than a few minutes.
Probably my favorite work of erasure is Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager. The poet uses as a source text the autobiography of Kurt Waldheim, In the Eye of the Storm—Waldheim was a UN Secretary General, the President of Austria, and, incidentally, a Nazi war criminal. Reddy uses Waldheim’s own autobiography to interrogate the text and the man, but what struck me most was how damn readable the poems are: how beautiful, how lyrically complex. When I was setting out on the endeavor of making R E D, one intention that was clear from the beginning was to write a book of erasures that didn’t necessarily sound or look like what one might immediately conjure if asked to describe what an erasure poem sounds or looks like. I wanted this poem to read like any other poem—something you might not know was erasure, unless you were told. A lot of erasure is stiff, staccato, awkward. It’s understandable, but it’s not inevitable.
Ruby Brunton is a New Mexico-born, New Zealand-raised writer, editor, poet, and performer who lives between Brooklyn and Mexico City. Find her on twitter @rubybrunton.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.