One Text, 1,076 Poems: Erasing Infinite Jest
Ezra Pound’s imperative to “make it new” presents a unique challenge when you’ve committed to crafting a series of poems sourced from a single text. This challenge is multiplied when the text in question is David Foster Wallace’s 1,076-page tome, Infinite Jest, a book celebrating its 20th publication anniversary this month.
In late 2013, I started work on Erasing Infinite, a multi-year project where I create poetry via erasure from Infinite Jest one page at a time and post the resulting pieces online. At 1,076 pages, the text tests my usual ability to find creativity and freedom of expression in constraint-based writing.
What I’ve discovered in working on this project is that Pound’s directive to “make it new” matters much less in terms of product than it does in terms of process. In other words, to succeed at an endeavor of considerable length, you have to be able to make it new for yourself, first and foremost.
Here’s what “making it new” looks like for me:
Ditching the daily schedule. The exhortation to “write something every day,” is a good principle for those struggling to develop their writing habit or commit to their craft, but it just doesn’t work for me. When I force myself to create a poem per day, I lose focus, and the project starts to feel like a burden. Instead, I tackle new pages as the mood strikes. Sometimes, I create one poem over a span of three weeks; sometimes, I produce three in a single day.
Experimenting with approaches. Working with a single page of text at time forces me to find other ways to keep the process fresh for myself. I adopt a number of different approaches to erasing the text—I may search haphazardly through the page for words, seek out patterns in word choice or sentence structure, or apply additional constraints (such as only working with text appearing within a single vertical inch on the page).
Delighting in waypoints. The usual writing process goes something like this: write something, submit it to publications, feel validated if your piece gets accepted, feel bummed if it doesn’t, repeat. Because I post these poems online, I’m forced to get my writerly validation jollies elsewhere. I mark progress in poem milestones, online followers, invitations to speak, and opportunities to write about my work (like this one).
Building connections. I’m not going to lie: I embrace the lonely poet persona, and treasure sitting at home in pajamas on a Saturday night writing poems. Since working on Erasing Infinite, however, I’ve embraced the connection that comes with such a public project. I’ve built relationships with other artists in the poetry and David Foster Wallace communities, and I have meaningful exchanges with people who are moved by my work and motivated to reach out. It feels good to belong to something bigger.
What have you incorporated into your own daily habits or writing life to “make it new” for yourself? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
P.S. If you’ve been hankering to read Infinite Jest and build connections with like-minded readers, I invite you to join Infinite Winter, a group read along of the text that kicked off January 31. I’ll be serving as one of the weekly guides, along with a group of other great artists and writers.
Jenni B. Baker is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Found Poetry Review. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in literary journals such as DIAGRAM, Washington Square, Lunch Ticket, Whiskey Island, BOAAT, and Quarterly West. Her Oulipo-generated chapbook, Comings/Goings, was released by Dancing Girl Press in 2015. She is currently collaborating with composer Patrick Greene on “Year of Glad,” a classical song cycle based on the Erasing Infinite series, set to debut in Chicago in April 2016. By day, she oversees content strategy and manages digital projects for a Washington, DC-area nonprofit.