Houston poet Holly Lyn Walrath writes a poem for Ukraine

Photo by Max Andrey from Pexels

When poet Holly Lyn Walrath tweeted, “In the face of war, write love poems,Houston Arts Journal invited her to write a poem in response to the Russia-Ukraine war.

Walrath created an erasure poem, which she considers a “form of resistance.” The poem emerges from the words that remain on the page, after portions of a found text have been obscured.

“Literature for Ukraine” by Holly Lyn Walrath

Walrath started with text from the Encyclopedia Brittanica entry on Russian Literature.

“I drew flowers over the dictionary page and hand-painted over them, leaving the words of the poem to read,” she said. “The paint is acrylic, but I watered it down to achieve a stained-glass effect.”

Walrath also shared her thoughts on poetry and war in the following interview:

What inspired this poem?

I kept thinking about the video of the Ukrainian woman, who told Russian soldiers to put sunflower seeds in their pockets so when they die on Ukrainian soil, a flower will grow. “Put the sunflower seeds in your pockets, please. You will die down here with the seeds. You came to my land. Do you understand? You are occupiers. You are enemies.”

I think this woman struck me and many others as very brave. But the idea of sunflowers – the national flower of Ukraine – growing from the corpses of soldiers is a complex and heartbreaking image. War obliterates both sides, on a human level. 

Art by Kiki Neumann, a Houston folk artist. Made from recycled sign letters, metal sunflowers & paint / Photo courtesy of Kiki Neumann Creations

What is an erasure poem?

Erasure or blackout poetry is the act of erasing certain words on the page. The words that remain become the poem. It can be done in lots of different ways, but the most common form is to “black out” with a black marker the lines on the page.

This technique mirrors censorship in most government “censured” documents, which use tape or black marker to remove sensitive information. Other techniques include digital erasures, which use font/color to erase words, visual erasures using images or collage, and cut-out forms. 

What draws you to this form? What are you trying to achieve each time you create one?

In many ways, erasure is a form of resistance. By literally erasing someone’s words, you are removing the power of those words. For example, I recently did a series erasing Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s order on trans children. 

A friend commented that the erasure put into words what she had been struggling to say about the order. This kind of engagement helps me process world events.

You recently tweeted: “In the face of war, write love poems.” What do you mean by that? Do you consider this poem a love poem?

I think all poems are love poems, ha. All poetry is about love – whether it’s about grief or the body or nature. To write a poem about something is to love it, I think. Because something has to bury itself deep in your creative consciousness in order for you to want to write about it. I like to say, “write what you love, love what you write.” 

What are your thoughts on the purpose of art and poetry during times of war and crisis?

I am struck by the story that Ilya Kaminsky, a Ukrainian-American poet, told on Twitter. He said he reached out to Ukraine to a publisher to ask if they needed anything – how he could help. They told him to send poems.

At face value, Ilya is a popular and successful poet. So publishing his work would boost the publisher. But on a deeper level, I think people crave art in troubling times. We cling to things we love and that spark joy for us. We watch movies, TV, read books and comics to process the world. There is so much we don’t have control over. It’s terrifying. But in the end, I do believe poetry matters. I do think the Ukrainian poets who are writing during a war matter.

In a tweet following up with the publisher, the man said, “I need nothing. I feel I am a witness to a catastrophe, but I need to live through it like everyone – and together with everyone.” Poetry is a way of living through something.

Would you like to share any personal thoughts on how the war in Ukraine has affected you?

From a very young age, I declared myself to be a pacifist. I think any death is a catastrophe, and perhaps that makes me naive. Call me Pollyanna, I’d rather be full of hope than full of hate. While I am not directly impacted by the war right now, the entire world is and will be impacted by this situation for years to come. We don’t know still what is to come. Writers and artists need to be witnesses to this disaster, and we also need to balance that with activism to force our leaders to stand up for displaced people worldwide. 

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