Redactions to Reveal: Poetry in an Age of Censorship

July 7, 2017 | 1 book mentioned 10 5 min read


The censorship of artists is not a new practice, but it feels lately like events and structures are realigning the boundaries of personal expression. As regimes around the world attempt to control or discredit the way they are portrayed in the media, artists still struggle to slowly peel back the dark spaces when words fail to rise to the surface. John Gosslee’s Out of Context is a collection of 70 poems chosen from his earlier redaction project, in which 333 poems by well-known poets were beautifully printed on parchment paper before — without pausing to think or go back to correct his markings — Gosslee set out to rework them. This project explored the manipulation of the written word; ultimately, the 70 poems selected for Out of Context speak to the toll erasure takes on any given artist. Likewise, the collection highlights how an artist can feel empowered to seek a world of new meaning and relevance, while creating a space between personal expression and quiet reflection for a reader to reside in.

Out of Context arrives at a particularly complicated moment. Many of the challenges we are facing today are related to the influence and reach of the internet, and revolve around the interpretation and repurposing of language, “alternate facts” and all. Gosslee seems to have been emboldened by this moment — his redactions are a brisk yet carefully constructed reawakening of meaning, using work from poetic icons such as Marie Howe, Terrance Hayes, Sharon Olds, and Sandra Cisneros. In fortifying his message along the framework of those that came before him, Gosslee doesn’t so much as obstruct their words from being viewed, but forges new, deeply personal narratives to challenge his audience.

Like some of the pioneers of the practice, Gosslee shows a deft hand at selecting the path his own poem will tread, with some redactions seemingly walking that fine line between chaos and conscious creation. And while the charm of redactive poetry at times relies on the audience being somewhat familiar with what was originally on the page, it is best to approach Gosslee’s intimate interactions with the source material as newly harvested truth. While “Out of Context” provides the names and titles of the original poems, his voice erupts out of every page; the thick black markings not coming to represent censorship, but a celebration of poetic freedom expressed through the redactor’s eye. For instance, in “What I Mean When I Say Forever,” reclaimed lines like:

messy mathematics overlooking remainders–

the interplay of seasons


spread the petals at their feet. I may even add

a bit of wind to the ordinaries of day, if she’ll remain

express the beautiful interplay of quantified emotions and language.

Gosslee also proves that there is some humor to be found in his redactions. For example, in “Fun Mentals,”(built out of the skeleton of Rae Armantrout’s “Fundamentals”) the poem is reshaped into an exploration of size and emotional relatability.

Why is it

to be


is terrific,

but to be




Redaction poetry is as much a visual experience as it is an emotional appeal through words. Most of the arrangements — such as “An Venture” — are particularly stunning when viewed from a physical remove. The deliberate change from partial scratches to thick blackening and then back to a combination of the two reveals that Gosslee is mirroring the conflicted range of emotions carried throughout the piece. In other poems, the markings are heavier, more subdued, speaking to a kind of resignation.

Gosslee’s poems seem to ask “How can we be seen when there is so much set in place to obstruct truth?” In communion with this question, there are moments in Out of Context wherein Gosslee reveals a passive relationship to the original text. Choosing instead to work within the adage “less is more,” Gosslee reshapes two lipogram poems by Cathy Park Hong, “Ballad in O” and “Ballad in I” by stripping the stanzas down and leaving them bare. These redactions bind the reader’s focus to Hong’s use of assonance and not on the surrounding adornments of narrative and setting.

The book is a meditation on building from the past; Gosslee allows us to question whether context matters when words are passed between bodies. The project can be seen as a practice in poetic indulgence; a celebration of both the tactile and visual senses; or a selfless orientation among poetic voices. When Gosslee converses with the past, as he does in the beautifully crafted “Turn Your Work of Art,” the reader is witness to a unity between the voices in the collection. The lines:


in danger of wanting

permission to


Before you die

seem to turn the collection inward. Gosslee’s conversation — though one-sided — also measures art, not as a single point to reach, but as sustained note in time.

The idea of using published poems by other poets as a framework is challenging, and some may call into question Gosslee’s intentions when creating Out of Context. The act of blacking out the words of another artist’s work and, as a result, changing the meaning of the piece, is a dangerous balancing act, one of which Gosslee seems well aware. In a conversation with the L.A. Review of Books, Gosslee acknowledges the “violent” nature of his redactions, as well as his own privilege and power to execute them. “It was very important to me to cite each of the original authors and the original work as the title of each piece to invite readers to explore the original,” Gosslee tells LARB. Not only is it problematic, some would say, for an artist to strike out another artist’s’ words just to supplant them with their own, but a more complicated (and weighted) issue arises when his practice viewed as a white man retooling the work of poets from marginalized groups, re-working without being invited so to do.

Gosslee seems cognizant, if unapologetic, of his work in relation to what was on the page before; beyond the opening pages of Out of Context are a small collection of Gosslee’s thoughts on the matter. In one, he writes:

The history of redactions is ancient and often inspects ideas of censorship, thought-control, and, in literature, the appropriation of non-poetic text into poetry. I wondered, what if the hand didn’t move over the newspaper like Austin Kleon’s Newspaper BlackoutsWhat if living poet’s works were the subjects?

What Gosslee asks of his reader throughout Out of Context is not to absolve him of these questions of authenticity but instead use them as a lens to parse each page. In this way, it becomes obvious that the change occurring is not merely that of the words on the page, but of Gosslee himself. What tethers the works together, through space and time, is his authentic reaction to the process of reading and rebuilding. Of a poem Gosslee drew from Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel, he writes

When I redacted a portion of Gabriel by Edward Hirsch, I cried. The love of a father for his son was so moving that I couldn’t help it. I thought about how I might feel in Hirsch’s place if I knew about the redaction of such a personally meaningful text. I thought about how I’d feel as a reader if I only knew about the redaction 50 years after Hirsch, and that helped me hold to the goal of the project…

It’s worth questioning the implication of authorship and erasure in his work; the “goal” Gosslee alludes to in the interview is as layered as some of the various poems he has chosen in this collection. Is it an invocation or reintroduction of past voices? Is it a more political stance, that which declares the impossibility of truly silencing the artist? Or is this more of an act to draw attention — a declaration that Gosslee sees himself as able to stand toe-to-toe with the poets which have moved him over his lifetime?

These are questions to carry through the collection. Out of Context should be experienced on its artistic merit. Yet it’s the project’s emphasis on gaining through loss, as well as its brazenness in committing what might be perceived as poetic transgression — that reminds us how artists lead the way in pushing the boundaries of expression, in times when the written and spoken word seems particularly challenged.

is a Bronx-born writer out of New York. His writing has been featured in The Rumpus, Entropy Mag, and Points in Case. His literary essays and reviews have been selected in The Millions and Fjords Review, with his most recent being translated into Italian. He is currently writing a book about his life that would make a terrible movie. You can follow his calculated musings on Twitter @SmilingDarkly.


  1. The same John Gosslee of the PANK fiasco
    The same John Gosslee of the “open reading period” C&R Press
    The same John Gosslee of the selling of prints of the above writers of color redacted poems for several hundred dollars
    Oh yeah, that guy….

  2. What would be interesting to know (I couldn’t find much information about this) is how writers of found poetry in general deal with the legal and financial aspects. At what point does it become illegal (or at the very least unethical) to use shards of someone else’s writings to create a new book AND sell it? To profit from recycling someone else’s work? Should all found poems be distributed for free, so there is no direct profit made? Can one ever legitimately sell a book of erasures or found poems?

  3. Well, as long as we’re hubristically fiddling with the pomes of others, why not a series of bold ReWrites…?

    (I always wanted to change the words “rain/water” in WCW’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” to “rain/ sudor” or the second line in EP’s “In a Station of the Metro” to “Petals on a black bough, wet”)

    (and I always wanted to hit Billy Collins with a key lime pie…)

  4. Someone – Yevtushenko, I think – said that in the USSR poetry was so important that the poet could be shot for his verse. In the USA there seems to be little poetry save for formless and gormless I, I, I, me, me, me self-pity and equally formless strident propaganda. None of this is much read, and so there could hardly be censorship of something that doesn’t exist.

    What does exist is posturing on grants provided by government entities.

  5. The article is, may I say politely, over-written. It uses far-too-long words to discuss nothing much.

    This Gosslee project is not unlike my habit of gathering examples of ancient spam. Maybe I should republish it under my own name.

    “Preterite S. Spillways”>
    21/11/04 22:48:32
    Lowest rates on medication, moneyback guar anteed!
    Nothing gives a fearful man more courage than another’s fear.
    Looking for PlIIS aho on the net? skirrets micromania
    You will be [happy,amazed,fascinated]> when vlsit us!
    Fashions in bigotry come and go. The right thing lasts.
    nonformation paralgesic unmix ??

    With a bit of redaction that will tighten up nicely.

  6. Your website picked up the http and automatically turned it into a link – dangerous habit that.
    Don’t worry, this one leads nowhere.

  7. Stephen,

    Thanks for that forward.

    In my old age I teach part-time for a nifty little community college.

    Most of my dual-credit high school seniors are willing to hear and try new things, but their mothers (there are few fathers) tend to want only incessant praise and top grades for their children.

    My thirty-something students tend to be as you say, except for the welding students and nursing students. Those with a plan, a goal, are not often excited about English 1301, but they accept it as a requirement and generally give me – and themselves – a good, craftsman-like effort.

  8. Texas – and not Austin. The only bookstore within a radius of 50 miles is in a crafts shop (glue and glitter and feathers and such), the back room where used Barbara Cartlands enjoy that famous brisk trade.

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