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Exploring the Truth Behind Bad Celebrity Apologies

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This week on New Books in Poetry, Andrea Blythe is joined by Isobel O’Hare, whose new collection all this can be yours (University of Hell Press, 2019) presents a series of erasures crafted from celebrity sexual assault apologies. These poems offer fierce explorations of the truth hidden behind apologies intended to explain away or dilute culpability, rather than accept responsibility. The result is a powerful collection that opens up a wider conversation surrounding sexual assault and the need for change on a systemic level.

Isobel O’Hare is a poet and essayist who has dual Irish and American citizenship. She is the author of the chapbooks Wild Materials (from Zoo Cake Press, 2015), The Garden Inside Her (from Ladybox Books, 2016), and Heartbreak Machinery (forthcoming from dancing girl press in 2019). Her collection of erasures of celebrity sexual assault apologies, all this can be yours, is now available from University of Hell Press. And she is currently editing an anthology of erasure poetry, called Erase the Patriarchy, due out from University of Hell Press in 2019.

Isobel earned an MFA in Poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been the recipient of awards from Split This Rock and The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico. Her work has been reviewed in Harper’s Magazine, VICE, Fast Company, The Irish Times, AV Club, and many other publications. Isobel also co-edits the journal and small press Dream Pop with poet Carleen Tibbetts.

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Isobel O’Hare: Erasure poetry for me started out as a magical, playful, light-hearted exercise to jog the brain, to sort of get me thinking differently. And it also started out as a conversation with someone else’s work, and sort of a reverent one—approaching someone’s work with great respect and the desire to bring something out of it that might be hidden beneath the surface. There are lots of methods of doing that—I’ve used whiteout in past erasures, and I’ve done blackout with Sharpie. I’ve experimented with cutting words out.

The idea is you’re removing something—or you’re not removing something. Jen Bervin had a really interesting term for it . . . something like restitution. It’s a really interesting word for what you’re doing with erasure, which is not necessarily removing something, but bringing something forward. So it’s not always you violently attacking someone else’s work, which it can feel like sometimes, but you’re allowing things to bubble up to the surface that may not have been apparent before.

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Andrea Blythe: How is engaging with these poems different for you now that they’re in a collected form? What are you hoping that this collection, now that it’s available, will achieve?

IO: It’s different for me in book form because it’s more organized now, which is great. Before, it was just these erasures that were floating around, and people knew they were erasures of apology statements, but I put a lot of effort into organizing the book in a way that I felt would give a kind of context to the different kinds of apologies, and the different tropes that appear in these apologies, like the idea that if someone says no it means yes. So the absence of a “no” meaning automatic consent, which is a huge problem. And the idea that women would apologize for men as well, and defend men against people who are accusing them of things, without even taking the time to consider that maybe there’s truth to that. You don’t have to immediately come to someone’s defense just because they’re your friend.

For me it was important not the name the individual perpetrators in the book. Their names are attached to the erasures on the internet, but in the book I didn’t want to do that, because I felt that if you do that and you’re pointing at individual people, what you’re saying is, this is an example of a bad person. There’s a tendency in our culture to point at people and label them the bad ones and ostracize them and absolve the rest of us. I didn’t want to contribute to that. I wanted to say, these are things that we all have to address in ourselves, and to acknowledge in each other and try to work through without saying, this guy’s good, this guy’s bad. Everyone has the ability to think in these ways, and it’s larger than just removing the individual bad person.

And that’s partly where the title comes from too. “all this can be yours” refers to a statement that Jeremy Piven allegedly made when his accuser said that he exposed himself to her at a party and said that. “All this can be yours.” I thought that was hilarious—just the assumption that that body part is such a wonderful thing. Like, all this! Never seen one of these before, have you? Also, the idea of “all of this” being rape culture and misogyny and abuse—it is ours; it belongs to everyone, and it isn’t just a matter of pointing out who the bad guys are and getting rid of them so the rest of us can be ok. It exists in all of us.