on Her Read: A Graphic Poem by Jennifer Sperry Steinorth

“Well, it was a sort of bet,” recalled Tom Phillips, decades later. “I was in a furniture shop with a friend, R. B. Kitaj, another artist, and I said, ‘the first book I can find for threepence, I will work on for the rest of my life.’ ” He chanced upon a dusty Victorian novel by W. H. Mallock, called A Human Document—which became A Human Document, which became A Humument. Phillips upheld his pledge. He began transforming the book by obscuring most, but not all the words with intricate painting and collage, to wring a narrative from the words that remained. Page by dazzling page, he erased text to reveal a poetic, non-linear hero tale about love and art. Between 1966 and his death in 2022, Phillips treated additional copies of A Human Document to build a Gesamtkunstwerk that includes six versions of the altered book, works of sculpture, an app for iPhone, and an opera.

Erasure had existed before Phillips—he took inspiration from Dadaist and Surrealist language-workers. But all erasurists to follow A Humument inherit a foundation that never existed before that monumental project. Writers and artists have continued to invent and reinvent this artform one subtracted letter at a time, bringing us to the early twenty-first century, where many factors, not least our digital existence, have fueled the flowering of this and other hybrid forms.

A notable example is Her Read: A Graphic Poem, by Jennifer Sperry Steinorth, published in 2021 by Texas Review Press. The sheer, obsessive ambition of the book dares us to compare it to A Humument. Whereas many erasurists have approached their source texts as a potter might utilize a block of clay, taking only as much material as suits a given project, Steinorth transforms the original book in its entirety. Moreover, like Phillips, she has not been content to treat her source text only once; Her Read presents the third version of Steinorth’s transformation. Like Phillips, Steinorth writes by redaction, artfully obscuring all the words except those that comprise her poetry.

But Her Read differs fundamentally from A Humument, and to appreciate that difference, we must consider not only what these books are, but why they exist. Whereas Phillips chose his source text at random, seeing it primarily as material for artistic creation, Steinorth engages her source text with the deliberate purpose of confronting it as an embodiment of injustice. The Meaning of Art, by Herbert Read (which became Herbert Read, which became Her Read), was published in 1931, and contained not a single female artist. Not until a 1951 edition did the book admit Barbara Hepworth, the solitary exception. Out of this sober art history tome, almost as full of mute female bodies (depicted by male artists) as it is empty of women’s art, Steinorth set out to excavate a female, first-person voice.

Because artworks, like artist’s models, are “made in pain to pose and shimmer,” as Steinorth’s erasure has it, Steinorth’s project is concerned with something other than the production of yet another beautiful object. Indeed, she demands that we question who or what might be misidentified as an inert object, noting that “we rarely caress porcelain for porcelain’s pleasure.” In fact, the book-object itself is only one aspect of Her Read. Mary Ruefle, one of our finest erasurists, has emphasized that an image of her work is not the work—that there is something essential in the original, which cannot be captured or reproduced. This begins to explain what’s going on with Her Read—how the original altered pages, with their texture,  substance, and presence, contain something no facsimile can give us. But Steinorth goes so far as to name that facsimile “a reproduction of an artifact” (italics mine) suggesting, perhaps, that the art lives elsewhere—that the book we hold in our hands is somehow incidental—a residual product of the art, but not exactly the art. So what, exactly, is the nature of the art? Her Read—not just the book, but the actions that brought it into being—might best be seen as conceptual art, or better yet, performance art. Trained as a ballet dancer, Steinorth knows the power of taking a stance. She takes a certain position in relation to this art history text, and behaves in certain ways. This, if we observe it, is compelling action-as-art, and the resulting artifact functions as a beautiful by-product, and the documentation of a performance.

So what, exactly, is that stance? It is a response, not only to the source text, but to all the socio-political forces that delivered it into being. Herbert Read’s The Meaning of Art assumes the professorial stance of a textbook—lofty, authoritative, and poised at an implied podium before a readership dutifully and humbly assembled for instruction. But Steinorth will not behave herself in the lecture hall. She enacts the role of a certain kind of student—disruptive, rebellious, and smart as a whip. Surely she chews gum (look at that gooey Wite-Out!), and watch how she beautifully defaces (illuminates) her textbook! This persona appears throughout the book as the “Imp” (carved from “Impressionism”)—a disruptive, playful force who elevates her otherhood to “excellent strangeness”—an “uncertain and often baffling sense of beauty.” Steinorth’s aesthetics encourage us in this direction. She takes playful liberties with language (spelling “our skin” as “R skin,” for example), and her visual work has a rough-edged, almost spontaneous aspect, accomplished with inks, various collage materials, embroidery thread, and, aptly, correction fluid—that translucent, sometimes crusty medium specifically invented for erasure. Yes: in a fluid, ever-evolving passage through the source text, Steinorth sets about to correct a foundational mistake at its root.

But look closer at this book: if she is a student, she is an exceedingly good one. Her thinking, especially in the book’s front and back matter, shows the due diligence of a scholar. She takes pains to be sure we know the origins and makers, not only of the source text, but the art images she uses in her collage (how many artists so carefully document all the found materials they use?). She includes an introduction, endnotes, and transcriptions to provide context and aid the reader with visually challenging pages. And she sets forth the reasons for and parameters of her project in a beautifully written apologia—a moving glimpse into Steinorth’s unencumbered voice, free of the constrictions of the erasure form. There is a deep generosity in her thoroughness, as if she has altered the book for a future student who would otherwise never see herself reflected in Read’s text.

That compassion for her reader elevates the project above a simple lament for the pain (often excised from the word paint) of injustice. On page 211, she leans toward the reader and reminds us: mind child / though bird, beast and forest are among our stored impressions / we have no memory of life without masters / To imply otherwise is caustic / It costs us. These words float to the surface of a page marked out with ochre yellow, and overlaid with a black-and-white image of Henri Rousseau’s painting The Snake Charmer. Through holes either cut or burned through the paper, we see aged fabric—perhaps the inside of the book’s back cover? In any case, the dark silhouette of a woman stands among animals in the jungle, at the edge of water, playing a flute. And this, we understand by the time we get to page 211, is what women have been doing all along: standing along a margin, between dark and light, perceived by our culture as a primordial feature of the “natural world,” but generating a music—a creative intellect—that has too often gone unacknowledged. That flute is our humanity and our art—the work of meaning-making. But she stands in shadows, vanishing, almost, into the landscape. She is perceived as another beautiful animal, or flower, or tree. And that has been the plight of female creators for the entire span of time chronicled in The Meaning of Art.

Steinorth mourns not only the dearth of female artists known to history, but all the factors that have prevented them from emerging, or buried female genius beneath disregard. Pain is a necessary element in the book (are those drops of blood on the front cover?), but so are wit, play, and buoyant hope. Again and again, Steinorth reframes Mother, Muse, and Model (the roles to which women have been constrained within the context of male-centered art) as disruptors. And this is about action: Steinorth’s “Imp” is a Guerrilla Girl.

From Her Read: A Graphic Poem by Jennifer Sperry Steinorth (2021). Reprinted by permission of Texas Review Press.


All erasure is by nature a transgression. A Humument seizes its source text as the prerogative of Art with a capital A, and makes its remarkable way without dwelling on that transgression, much less the social structure that allows it to proceed, unconcerned. Like the other (male) artists celebrated in The Meaning of Art, Phillips created his masterwork with the confident assertion that genius is justified in taking and transforming what it finds. The voice of Her Read knows that by creating art at all, a female artist transgresses cultural norms, and much of history. To “deface,” to erase the very book that codifies that culture and history, is a transgression indeed. Steinorth, consciously representing a class of people excluded from the history and the meaning of Western art, breaks, enters, and transforms. And she undertakes that transgression as an act of civil disobedience.

If A Humument is a glorious answer to what art can be, Her Read is an answer to why, and for whom. And just as A Humument must be recognized as not just a book, but the entire body of work created from A Human Document, a true appreciation of Her Read must recognize the eloquent composition of actions that brought this book into existence. Indeed, Steinorth’s “Artifact” puts forth several calls for continued action. Among them, this wry directive: “I would suggest we become intolerable.” She calls for female artists to step forward and make themselves heard—and never so poignantly as on page 251, a gleaming vermillion window, where the name “Barbara Hepworth” stands, centered within a moonlike circle with figures like the letter x, or a cross, or a plus sign, scattered like markers for countless unknown artists whose names we will never know. Like the same moon, but brighter and closer, a blank white circle glows. As the reader’s eye approaches it, she is given an invitation: “O love / You would (would You) add your own mark here: and every other where.”


Her Read: A Graphic Poem. By Jennifer Sperry Steinorth. Huntsville: Texas Review Press, 2021. 240 pp. $29.95.


Lisa Huffaker integrates poetry, collage, book arts, and assemblage in many hybrid forms, from sculptural vending machines to a book of erasures created from a misogynist “self-improvement” manual. Her poetry is published or forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Cincinnati Review, Waxwing, Diagram, Sixth Finch, Thrush, 32 Poems, and many other journals. Her visual poetry manuscript in progress was exhibited internationally as part of TU Delft and Cornell Tech’s 3rd Workshop on Obfuscation.