An opening statement by roundtable moderator, E. Kristin Anderson: Last year, shortly before Christmas, a plagiarism scandal hit the small press poetry community hard when Rachel McKibbens, author of several collections and chapbooks including blud (Copper Canyon 2018) revealed on Twitter that a poem that had directly lifted lines of hers from blud had been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. It subsequently came to light that McKibbens was not the only victim of this person’s plagiarism.
Within hours, four more poets came forward—including roundtable participant Wanda Deglane—identifying their own work in poems by the plagiarist. Within days, the number of poets who had been plagiarized by the same writer as McKibbens—mostly women and people of color, often writing work about their own traumas—had entered into the double digits.
The story was picked up by media outlets outside the literary community perhaps in part because of the plagiarist’s tattoo of “her own words.” Words that were—yes—plagiarized. Or perhaps because everyone loves blood in the water.
But as a result of this discourse, a lot of us were discussing one thing many of the plagiarized poems both published (and in the aftermath, unpublished) in online lit mags had in common—they were “after” poems.
“After” poems are written in response to another’s work, but in this particular case with this particular writer, “after” was used not only to inspire but to steal, which has lead to many discussions on the practice of “after” and other response poems and what ethical boundaries we need to have in place.
While there have been many valuable conversations on social media, I wanted to gather a handful of poets from across the poetry-verse who are diverse culturally and academically and generationally, and each coming from different places in their careers to see what we think an “after” poem is, and to consider where we go from here.
I think we found some wonderful answers. I think we also found some intriguing questions. I hope this is helpful, not only for folks in their creative process but in terms of offering a bit of healing as we move forward as a community.
- E. Kristin Anderson
- Chen Chen
- Wanda Deglane
- Teo Mungaray
- Jeanne Obbard
EKA: How would you define a response poem, written “after” another author or artist?
JO: There was this book I read about 20 years ago (whose author and title I can’t recall, ironically) whose thesis was that all writing is in response to reading. This was an idea that was new to me at the time, and which I still have to remind myself of. But I think it’s true; all writing is in response to other writing, whether that response is immediate or much delayed. I think an “after” poem is one that makes that act of response much more particular and explicit.
TM: You know, responding to a poem is a very specific, intentional act that brings into stark relief the sourced material. Using a line of a song or a poem or a what-have-you as a title, employing an epigraph, dedicating a poem, whatever, et cetera, immediately recalls that foregrounding material.
To do so effectively, as Kwame Dawes once told me (and I’m paraphrasing), means you’ve got to be on equal terms with your art entering in conversation with that original work. An “after” poem is just that: a conversation. “After” poems don’t pull in material unless it’s dialogue, is quoted/sourced. There can (maybe should) be echoes, but echoes, after all, are not replications with substitutions. They are distortions that create a layered heteroglossia. That is, they add a voice to the mix, they don’t parrot.
WD: Okay, I’ll say this right off the bat: I’m probably the least experienced person here. Pretty much all I’ve learned about poetry has been in the last year or so from reading and writing and learning from the people around me. So … here goes!
I don’t think anybody ever explicitly told me what a response poem was, but what I gathered was, that, well, it’s a poem written in response to another! Meaning some part of the original poem inspired you to write your own, be it a title or a line or what have you. Like Teo said, it’s not a replication, it’s you saying, “This poem has inspired me. Here’s how I’ve taken that inspiration and created something my own, in my own voice.”
CC: There are so many different, wonderful kinds of “after” poems. I’ll just comment briefly on two kinds that come to mind—1) borrowing form and 2) borrowing language. Of course, these two kinds of “after” poems can overlap. And it seems that when they do overlap, there is the danger of borrowing too much.
The first category, borrowing form, is perhaps more common, and I’m thinking of “form” very broadly. So the resulting poem may not look like its inspiration visually, on the page, but there is still a structure or even a tone that is being echoed. This type of borrowing is not always acknowledged—every poet, after all, inhabits formal structures that precede them, and to what extent is each of us aware of these influences? We are dreaming alongside so many dreamers and dreams. That said, I believe that poets should do the homework, the research; if you suspect that your dream follows too closely in the footsteps of another’s, follow that hunch and reread that earlier work. Check. I think there’s some internal compass that kicks or ought to kick in. Give credit.
As for borrowing language, this type of “after” poem tends to be an homage to an older work (or sometimes a contemporary one), though it can also be an argument with that work. To echo what others have said in this roundtable: it is a conversation, loving or otherwise. In saying “after,” there is a response, an engagement with “before” or “beside.” Again I suggest doing your research and checking. And consider how these words are residing with(in) yours. Is it a certain type of phrasing, type of syntax you’re bringing in? Or is it entire lines? Why? To what degree have you transformed that borrowed language by putting it into a new context? Sometimes, borrowing is a helpful step in a process of imitation—it gets us to a new draft of a poem. But then perhaps we need to take another step: shedding that outer, borrowed layer of language and style, to get closer to our own skin, or closer to the thing we are trying to touch.
EKA: Recently in the poetry community, we’ve seen an author use “after” to plagiarize work of other poets, lifting lines and using a sort of “mad libs” formula in what they called their own work. But there are plenty of successful response poems out there. What are some that you have seen, and how do you think they are successful?
JO: I’ll probably get booed for using this, but there’s a Billy Collins poem I go back to frequently – “Litany.” Collins writes a poem in response to these lines by Jacques Crickillon, “You are the bread and the knife, / The crystal goblet and the wine.” He does something very funny and somehow touching in the poem, but I think the main thing I’d say is that I always trusted that the lines Collins writes—after quoting Crickillon—are his lines, and that the only thing he’s imitating is the general structure of “you are the [insert inanimate object here].” This is, to my mind, above-board and obvious. I’ve trusted Collins’ poem for 16 years. I’m now wondering—should I have trusted it? And how did Jacques Crickillon feel about it?
TM: One of the things that comes to mind right away are epigraphs. Poets love epigraphs, and of course it’s always attributed with at least the author’s name, but when those epigraphs are deployed, are we not immediately responding to the quote? I think that’s a successful form of response. There’s books like Chase Berggrun’s R E D, which is a negotiation and erasure of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Berggrun’s poems have no added text, and I believe, only some slightly altered punctuation. The order of words doesn’t change throughout. Berggrun has written, in effect, a whole book “after” Stoker. The key difference is transformation.
Once upon a time, I studied fanfiction and fan communities. In those spaces, fanworks were considered “transformative works,” which means that though some form of content or framework was derived from original material, in its reproduction it was transformed. E.g., the Twilight movies as source material for a fanfic called “Master of the Universe,” which in turn would go on to become Fifty Shades of Grey, is considered transformed. Part of this discourse involves “archontic” literature” or literature from an archive. Everything is part of a larger archive, so Romeo and Juliet is in the archive of Pyramus and Thisbe and West Side Story belongs to the Romeo and Juliet archive. Fan Scholar Abigail Derecho borrows the term “archontic” to describe fan literature from Derrida who wrote, “By incorporating the knowledge deployed in reference to it, the archive augments itself, engrosses itself, it gains in auctoritas. But in the same stroke, it loses the absolute and metatextual authority it might claim to have. One will never be able to objectivize it with no remainder. The archivist produces more archive, and that is why the archive is never closed. It opens out of the future.”
I’m digressing a bit, but what I mean to say is that in something like fanfiction, which lifts characters, or erasure poems, which lifts text, the key point is dialogue and transformation. The aforementioned poet who lifted lines and substituted words did neither. Transformation is not merely substituting “topography” for the original “landscape” (a near synonym), nor altering the line breaks within the poem. Duplication of connotation or sentiment is not creating dialogue, but rather co-opting that expression for one’s own use.
WD: The first response poem I ever came across was Ocean Vuong’s “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong.” He wrote that it is both after Roger Reeves and Frank O’Hara. Both Vuong’s and Reeves’ versions are something like love letters written to themselves, but the original source material, Frank O’Hara’s poem “Katy,” had nothing to do with that. The line “Some day I’ll love Frank O’Hara” appears like it is actually spoken by someone else within the poem. Thus, these three poems seemed to me a good example of what a response poem should be: two people used a line from a poem to create new poems, ones with entirely different meaning and in their own unique styles.
CC: I love Aracelis Girmay’s “On Kindness,” after Nazim Hikmet … and also after Rassan, an important person (the poet’s partner?) who appears in the work. I’m fascinated by this mix of literary influence (referencing an older work by a dead poet from another country) and personal … is influence the right word, here? A beloved who acts with a kindness that moves the speaker deeply moves the poem into its core aliveness. Fullest, tenderest aliveness. And living in this poem by Girmay is Hikmet’s meditative way and love for kindness in (as?) action. But Girmay constructs an idiosyncratic life-world, her own: Brooklyn and Mother’s Day and a brownstone window. What a kindness, to be welcomed into this life-world. Read or reread this poem and listen to Tracy K. Smith (!!) read it (“On Kindness” was recently featured on her podcast The Slowdown): https://www.apmpodcasts.org/slowdown/2019/01/28-on-kindness/. And get the brilliant collection it’s from—Kingdom Animalia.
I also love Sarah Gambito’s “Rapprochement,” which borrows translated lines from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. I’m thinking of recent tweets from Phillip B. Williams—he offers a helpful distinction between borrowing language from older, widely recognizable sources versus borrowing language from contemporaries. The former, Williams suggests, has greater potential for transformation, since one would be carrying older handfuls of language into a new poem, likely set in a contemporary time. Gambito’s “Rapprochement” is a stunning example of this type of borrowing, taking lines from The Art of War and placing them in between (sometimes surreal) moments of immigrant struggle. As the poem progresses, Sun Tzu’s strategies for the battlefield sound more and more personal, more and more urgent, desperate, wounded.
What “Rapprochement” manages to show us is how the immigrant battle for dignity and safety begins far before arrival in the new country. There is preparation and preparation, and there is what no one could/should prepare for. Read or reread this poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/142183/rapproachement. And listen to Gambito read it: https://youtu.be/wgbWxYvt-Q4?t=264. And get the incredible collection it’s from—Delivered.
EKA: So we do have ways of referencing another piece of media—a poem, a song, a film, visual art—without stealing or appropriating. What do you think are good ways to do this?
TM: Allusions, which are side-references, I’d say. An allusion is subtle. It references but doesn’t copy. In Carolyn Forché’s poem “Mourning,” she calls the sea “wine-dark,” an allusion to Homer. In fact, she indirectly cites him by calling him one of “the ancients.” I’ve mentioned epigraphs above, of course, which pull into conversation the poem one is writing “after,” but includes none of the original work in the new poem, except maybe small allusions needed to rebut or continue discussion – a sort of “you once said, now I’m saying” situation. And perhaps you can go the cento/pastiche route as well. Look at TS Eliot. As much as his notes on “The Wasteland” aren’t quite reliable, he does source many of his references. As well, centos tend to cite their lines, creating a collage/cut-up of the lines. Again, though, that pastiche transforms the lines by putting them in direct relation to the other lines from different poets and transforms their meaning.
JO: From a practical standpoint, I think poets should take a different approach between using what Teo describes as the “archive” versus using the recent work of your peers. Quoting and referencing the archive, the words of Homer or Shakespeare, is safer, ethically, than quoting or referencing the present-day works of the poet next to you in the MFA program.
Most people recognize where “wine-dark sea” comes from; I’ve used “wine-dark streets” in a poem of my own called “Epic” and I didn’t cite the source, but I have a reasonable expectation that readers will know that I am quoting Homer, rather than trying to pass that description off as my own. With the poetic conversation you’re having with your contemporaries, I think a stricter standard of citation should be used; we should err on the side of respect and caution.
At this particular moment, I hope people are thinking about how syntax and sentence structure are part of a poet’s created object, whether or not syntax is strictly copyrightable. “After” poems should be in conversation, and mimicry isn’t really a conversation.
What is a conversation? Developing your own opinions, pulling from your own bank of images, saying something in your own words.
CC: As I said before, do your homework and give credit. Along with that, ask yourself the meta or critical questions: do I need to borrow this form or this language in these ways? Why? What am I adding to the history, the legacy, the larger/longer conversation of these words or ways of saying? Is this reference an homage or an argument or…? Whose art am I amplifying by citing them? Are there artists, people I would be harming by citing or borrowing from them, in this fashion? Ask and ask again.
EKA: I like what Chen says about asking. What is motivating the poet to write the poem? I think this is a good place to consider the “after” poem as a way to approach resistance or protest. A poem written in response to a quote or text (or another piece of art) that I find harmful or offensive or jarring is certainly going to be a different poem than one written in reverence of a poem or show or song. I feel like this is actually a really good place (but very much not the only place) where response poems can fit. In fact, we might even need this kind of response poem. The above ethical notions still apply, but one approaches this kind of poem from a different angle.
E. Kristin Anderson is a poet, Starbucks connoisseur, and glitter enthusiast living in Austin, Texas. She is the editor of Come as You Are, an anthology of writing on 90s pop culture and Hysteria: Writing the female body (forthcoming). Kristin’s poetry has been published worldwide in many magazines and she is the author of nine chapbooks of poetry including Pray, Pray, Pray: Poems I wrote to Prince in the middle of the night, 17 seventeen XVII and Behind, All You’ve Got (forthcoming). Kristin is an assistant poetry editor at The Boiler and an editorial assistant at Sugared Water. Once upon a time, she worked nights at The New Yorker.
Teo Mungaray is a queer, chronically ill, latinx poet. He holds an MFA from Pacific University of Oregon and is pursuing his doctorate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is a co-founder and co-EIC of Cotton Xenomorph. His poems have recently appeared in or are forthcoming from Sycamore Review, Five:2:One Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. He has a cat named Lysistrata.
Wanda Deglane is a Capricorn from Arizona. She is the daughter of Peruvian immigrants and attends Arizona State University. Her poetry has been published in Rust + Moth, Glass Poetry, L’Ephemere Review, Former Cactus, and elsewhere. Wanda is the author of Rainlily (2018) and Lady Saturn (Rhythm & Bones, 2019).
Jeanne Obbard received her bachelor’s degree in feminist and gender studies from Bryn Mawr College, and works in clinical trial management. A 2001 Leeway Seedling Award recipient, her poetry has appeared in Barrow Street, Cider Press Review, IthacaLit, and The Moth, and has been nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart awards. She is a poetry reader for Drunk Monkeys, and can be found on the web at jeanneobbard.com.
Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, which was longlisted for the National Book Award and won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, the GLCA New Writers Award, the Texas Book Award for Poetry, and the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. Bloodaxe Editions will be publishing a UK Edition in June. Chen’s work appears in many publications, including The Best American Poetry, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best of the Net, and Bettering American Poetry. He holds an MFA from Syracuse University and a PhD from Texas Tech University. He co-edits Underblong and teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence.