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
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
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 Blackouts…What 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.