David Stacey first introduced me to the teaching and learning concept of “textual interventions” in 2002. While taking a course titled, “Rhetorical Approaches to Writing” Dr. Stacey described Rob Pope’s work. Years later, I discovered Stacey’s (1995) review of the primary book through which Pope described the approach. See Stacey’s book review of Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literacy Studies at JAC Online (archives): http://www.jaconlinejournal.com/archives/vol17.1/stacy-textual.pdf.

Put as simply as possible, a textual intervention requires that a reader change some portion of the original text and then determine the implications of that change.

For years, while teaching first year composition courses (that emphasized writing instruction through the study of literature and poetry), the “poetic intervention” assignment was always one of the most exciting units to teach. In most ways, I think it represented a chance for students to feel a bit rebellious. As most of us probably have experienced ourselves, the reverence and priorities that many teachers demand when assigning literature and poetry often obscures students’ own access to the texts. Interventions, however, offer a small, but meaningful opportunity for students to change that. When assigned, an intervention allows a student to invent a unique relationship to a text. At first they find it confusing, then liberating, and before you know it, they are explaining not just the changes they made to a given text, but how those changes differ from the author’s original work.

There is often a real excitement in the room when you tell students to weigh in to the margins of a revered text, or poem. But, this post is not about the method, or specific teaching strategies, etc. It isn’t a reinterpretation based on Rob Pope’s work, or a conceptual analysis of the practice; instead, I am sharing here one of the more successful examples that I created to introduce the practice and prepare students to conduct their own. Enjoy.


General Script:

Let’s read a poem together. At the end of it, I will introduce you to an exercise that you will eventually do on your own. But before we get there, let’s read a poem that combines mystery and love with reading and writing.

This is a poem, titled “Marginalia” by the contemporary poet Billy Collins.


Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have manage to graduate from college
without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

~Poet Laureate, Billy Collins


General Script: Before we talk about this poem, take a moment (5 minutes) to look at the poem again and write down some of your reactions to it.


General Script:

Ok, now: What are your reactions to this poem?


Did you expect that ending?



General Script: Now, instead of just admiring the poem, what if you jumped into the text and changed it somehow? What would you change?


But what if they did meet? (the one “whom I would never meet . . .”).


What if the book wasn’t ‘Catcher in the Rye’ but ‘_____’ instead?


What if the end-note hadn’t been “Pardon the egg salad stains” but a different sandwich?




General Script: Let’s look at an example. What if the final line of the poem:

Original:           “Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

Was actually this instead?

Intervention:     “Watch out for the chocolate smear, but I dig this cat.”


General Script: Take a moment (the next 5 to 10 minutes) and write down your immediate reactions to this change.

What kind of things did you jot down just now?



  • Immediately it is obvious, this change isn’t nearly as good as the original; however, this simple change to the text made me, for a brief moment, consider more just what I liked about the author’s original, “Pardon the egg salad . . .”. From this brief ‘re-considering’ I realized that we are not entirely sure what the girl is asking us to pardon her for, the egg salad stain, or the fact that she has fallen in love with Holden Caulfield, or perhaps both. In fact, by making it less than certain, she is incidentally suggesting that, “Hey, it is just an egg salad stain. And it is just a little bit of love. You can forgive me for this right?”
  • Love, in this manner, is partially equated with an egg salad stain. She is inadvertently saying that they are similar – pardon the egg salad, pardon the love. Implicitly then, love takes on aspects of an egg salad stain. Love, like an egg salad stain, is a bit messy. It is yummy.
  • And further, I would argue that it is legitimate to go a bit further, that egg salad is usually something that people eat during the summer time. And so, according to this assumption, we can assume the time of year. We can assume it is hot out. And because of this assumption, we can virtually imagine this young ‘beautiful’ woman bounding out of the library, back into the hot-summer world . . . full of this new found ‘Catcher in the Rye’ love-inspiration, ready to do something daring, brave, bold, adventuresome.
  • And speaking of Holden Caulfield, what if she had said, “Pardon the egg salad stain, but I am in love with Holden Caulfield.” No, no this is not nearly as romantic. It is her state of being-in-love that is important. It is the simple fact that she feels love that appeals, I believe, to the narrator’s sensibilities and hence eventually my own (the reader). For if she is just-in-love, the possibility exists that she could eventually love others, like “you”. But if she is specific, if she says Holden Caulfield – is it possible to feel jealous?, considering it is someone that the author has never met?
  • What if it was chocolate smear instead of egg salad stain? Well, chocolate doesn’t have the summer feel to it. It isn’t as fresh, or healthy. It is more something someone would eat because they are gluttonous. They are indulging. Chocolate leads, in this manner, to a whole different feeling about this person. And we do not get the same sense of a specific time of year that the egg salad implies.

“She was a sad girl, I could tell.” Again, different poem, right? Now, practice this with a poem of your choice.


The Economies of Palimpsest

DATE: May 15th, 2011
RESEARCH/WRITTEN BY:     Damian C. Koshnick                                              koshnick@umail.ucsb.edu

I am in love, and have been for years, with palimpsests because -metaphorically and literally,  they are all around us …

Archimedes' Palimpsest

Occasionally, you learn things that resonate for years. In 2000, during my first experience in graduate school, a mentor and professor of mine –Tom Gage, used the word palimpsest in a conversation. I nodded my head politely the first time he mentioned it, thinking, “Should I know this word?” But I knew that intelligent graduate students (the ones that survive anyway) learn to look things up. I came to know that through Latin and then Greek it means, “again, to scrape”; that it is the act of reusing a material (parchment, vellum, papyrus, etc.), by (often) imperfectly scraping away and writing over a previously extant text. Once I understood the term, as so often happens, I saw palimpsests and echoes of the concept in many places –in gang related graffiti (tagging walls as palimpsests of ownership), on wind ripped billboard signs, and even in the news.

A Famous Palimpsest: If you pay attention to the news for palimpsest, “Archimedes’ Palimpsest” makes the headlines every two or three years as scientists discover more effective ways –most recently (2006) pulsing X-rays– to pull forth Archimedes’ iron tainted ink, which rests in various decomposed conditions, obscured beneath an overlayed book of prayers.

In a new book “Is God a Mathematician” (which is fascinating for many reasons) the mathematician Mario Livio (2009) describes the original process by which -sometime before 1229- a scribe, Johannes Myrones, “unbound and washed” Archimedes’ original text, “so the parchment leaves could be reused for a Christian prayer book”. Fortunately, however, that “washing of the original text did not obliterate the writing completely”. What was left represents to us now what is Archimedes’ text, and is now one of the oldest (2,000 years) known texts.

Livio attributes the scribe’s actions to a broad cultural shift in the diminishing appreciation of mathematics after the Fourth Crusade, or as he noted, “in the years that followed, the passion for mathematics faded” (p. 54). Presumably then, Myrones attempted destruction and appropriation of Archimedes’ text was essentially an act of changing cultural values and of material necessity. Parchment, of course, was not as plentiful, nor cheap as paper has become for us; the text was valuable to the scribe for the parchment, upon which he could accomplish his prayer writing duties.

Since my first graduate school days, more than a decade ago, palimpsests have fascinated me. As I see it now, this concept represents my scholarly “gateway” into the socio-cultural perspective; it led to deep reflections on ways in which context (social, historical, technological, etc.) impacts writing practice and language use. As I searched my way through some of the details of “Archimedes’ Palimpsest,” there was, for example, a distinct moment when I came to more earnestly appreciate what economy meant –how the limits of our material and social world constantly impress circumstance upon us. Palimpsests, in many circumstances, represented a pragmatic response to the labor-intensive and limited distribution of parchment. It is a simple concept, but one that strikes deep. From this experience, I began to recognize contemporary incarnations, the ways in which our current practices are impacted by the strong undercurrents of our material, social, and cognitive realities. In turn, I started to study the literature. I began to recognize real world examples, in my own and others’ practices. 

It does not take long to realize that although our ability to produce and distribute writing has dramatically improved since the scribe picked up and decided to “recycle” Archimedes’ text around 1229, we are yet ever-adapting and reinventing our communicative and writing practices based upon both natural limitations, and local circumstance. History is full of these evolutions of inscription and re-inscription (through various technologies) as pragmatic and incidental, or even aggressive and explicit acts of power. And even though we have greatly improved our ability to communicate efficiently and across great distances instantaneously, the struggle between our desire and our ability to first capture and then assert our ideas in meaningful and lasting ways remains.

Clearly a great deal has changed regarding the valuation of Archimedes’ text since 1229, because in 1998 an anonymous philanthropist paid $2 million dollars for it and deposited at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore for study and conservation (see: http://www.archimedespalimpsest.org/palimpsest_making1.html). 

I am in love, and have been for years, with palimpsests because -metaphorically and literally,  they are all around us. And, if you pay attention, examples show up every so often in the news:

A Recent Palimpsest: New York Times -2008 “Consider Nepal’s new currency. Shortly after the king gave up power in 2006, the government ordered the printing of money, starting with the 500-rupee note, free of the king’s portrait. In the new design, developed by the central bank, King Gyanendra’s image was replaced by that of the noncontroversial Mount Everest. But the paper on which the new bills are printed, having been ordered long ago, still bears a watermark of the king’s face. Unable to afford new currency paper, bank officials took creative license. They slapped a dark-pink rhododendron on top of the watermark. The king and his bird-of-paradise plumed crown can be seen only if the bill is held up to the light” (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/03/world/asia/03nepal.html).

And, again and again, there is the “scraping” and “rewriting” all about in the world around us:

Point Made, Point Sal Sign -Photo: Damian C. Koshnick

 “I am like one of those old books that ends up moldering for lack of having been read. There’s nothing to do but spin out the thread of memory and from time to time, wipe away the dust building up there.” –Seneca