In this 3-part series, E. Kristin Anderson has convened a diverse group to discuss the challenges of “after” poems in the poetry community. This roundtable is in response to the plagiarism discussion of 2018 in which several poets found their lines directly used in other works by a particular poet. For details, including E. Kristin Anderson’s opening statement, please see the first in the series. What follows is part 2 in this series.
- E. Kristin Anderson
- Chen Chen
- Wanda Deglane
- Teo Mungaray
- Jeanne Obbard
EKA: I want to talk for a minute about found poetry, which comes up every time the poetry community talks about plagiarism. I work a lot in found poetry and know that creating work in your own voice out of another author’s work is hard, but possible. How is this type of work different from the plagiarized “after” poems we’ve seen in recent weeks? Or is there a similarity?
JO: For me, the similarity is that when I see a found poem, I want to get a look at the “raw material.” I’m just very curious about the process used, and I can’t look at the poem on its own without wanting to understand the origins and technique. Maybe my curiosity has always been a little bit about mistrust of found forms. I think my mistrust is unearned and maybe a bit unfair. Certainly, I’ve read books of found poems and individual found poems, and the form has nothing to do with the “MadLibs” approach that happened in a couple of cases recently.
TM: I work in erasure/found poetry myself, though it’s not my main form of writing. I know I’m repeating myself by saying that the key is transformation, but that really is the crux of it all, isn’t it?
You [EKA] wrote a Manifesto on found poetry for my magazine, Cotton Xenomorph, in which you said, “You have to intervene on and diverge from the source.” That’s transformation right there. It’s possible to write erasure poetry that, essentially, replicates the source in a shorter form. That’s not transformation, and I’d argue that [that] person made a reader’s digest version of the source rather than making an authentic, authoritatively new work.
CC: I love the verb “intervene” above—in Teo’s response, which quotes from Emily’s manifesto. Yes, how does your work intervene? A crucial question. I think manifestos can be so useful here: to write out as clearly and firmly as one can what one’s intentions are with found poems, erasures, any work that heavily relies on source material.
Too often we do not take enough care, enough time, with this step of the process: contemplating aims. True, fixed intentions often get in the way of fresh discovery, especially in earlier, generative phases of writing. But we can keep returning to some kind of outline of intentions, of aesthetics as well as ethics. Even just a couple sentences stating where you are and where you’d like to go (however much you end up detouring) can be helpful.
Of course, there are limits and pitfalls galore to good intentions. So I also recommend calling on a reader or two, and maybe someone who isn’t a close friend. Someone who won’t just tell you, “Yep, this project is great. Full steam ahead!” Often, what we need is to hear someone else pose those important questions—the questions we know, or should know, need to be posed—back to us. Not just, “Is this project okay to do?” but also and really, “What parts of this project work best?” and, “How does this work use erasure effectively? How could it do that better?”
EKA: What are some rules you keep in mind when you do quote or reference another text in a poem? How does fair use work for you?
TM: I ask myself first why I need to reference anything. Can I achieve the end-product without using anyone else’s words? That’s a difficult question to ask at the outset of writing, especially since it falls into the neoliberal trap of writing to a purpose or for a disseminable product. That said, it can be a good guiding question in the editing process. I think it’s fair to do whatever in your journal or draft doc, but when editing, revising and thinking about publication, it’s important to critically self-examine the purpose of the reference.
Typically I cite everything that contributes a large portion of the text, such as the title and sections I and III of this poem. I have an upcoming poem that I call a “dialogued cento,” in which I intersperse my own writing between borrowed text. The borrowed text is actually March 2018 news headlines in which the words “Boy Found Dead” appear. I cite that simply as March 2018 headlines. If I wanted to quote someone (and I found it essential to the meaning or reading of the poem) and citing within a text was too cumbersome, I’d probably make it an epigraph with attribution.
JO: Well now I’m questioning my use of “wine-dark streets”! ARGH. I rarely use epigraphs, but I don’t have any issue with them. When I write, the body of the poem is my language—my attempt to interpret the world—but I do often write in response to Popular Science type articles. Sometimes it takes me as long to write the explanatory reference at the bottom as it takes to write the poem; it’s that important to represent the science clearly.
CC: I ask the meta-questions, the craft questions, and the ethical questions. Most importantly, as Teo says, “Why?” Why do I need someone else’s language or form or approach? What is the conversation I’m trying to have here? And yes, I do my best to cite everything, including paraphrases. Often, rather than use epigraphs or footnotes or endnotes, I try to bring those citations into the poem itself. I’m not sure why more folks don’t do this—just say in the poem itself whom and what you’ve been reading! Like, “Today Mary Ruefle and Marilyn Chin sat with me by the window.” Doesn’t that sound like a fabulous day?
EKA: In some of my response poems, I’ll try to use a word or short phrase that appears frequently or prominently in the original text and put it into my poem in a completely different context. I think because a lot of my response poems are pop culture related, these are more like “Easter eggs,” pointing readers to a specific song or episode that will spark something for fans of the original material but that won’t alienate a reader who doesn’t know the reference.
I try to make sure these phrases are not particularly unique when I’m using this method. I want them to be common enough phrases or sayings that borrowing them isn’t something I would need to cite. Like in an X-Files poem, the phrase “I want to believe” is an obvious nod to the series but the context that I give the phrase in my poem should be what makes it interesting or unique.
EKA: Often in workshops, students are encouraged to try to imitate the voice or style of another writer. How do we take this technique out of the workshop so that we are paying homage or critiquing the source author rather than plagiarizing?
JO: I’m just grateful nobody ever asked me to do this! I have minimal experience being taught poetry inside academia, and I suspect I would have been an oppositional a-hole about an assignment like that.
TM: I mean, I have a fundamental issue with the standard creative writing pedagogy which has resulted in this cycle of imitation, workshop, and formal exercise, but I think that’s a very different issue.
I think imitation is fine in the sense that it’s an exercise. It’s trying on someone else’s shoes. I’ve never heard of an imitation where you borrow someone’s words, per se. The first imitation I was asked to do in undergrad was to replicate the syntax of a poet I admired. I believe I used Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips” as a syntactic skeleton for my writing. My work was nowhere near what Plath was writing about, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to say it was plagiarism. Similarly, I’ve seen imitation exercises in which students write a poem of all questions à la Carl Phillips’ “As from a Quiver of Arrows.” These imitations borrow a sort of framework or mindset but are totally devoid of the original’s context, meaning, or words.
If an imitation borrowed so much from a poet that it became a question of originality, I think the exercise failed, and the student misunderstands the very intention of imitation exercises.
WD: I think this exercise sounds a little iffy to me. Writers should be taught to cultivate their own styles, develop their own voices. Perhaps it would be better to encourage students to try on the particular form the original writer is working with.
JO: I’m with Wanda in that this type of exercise makes me a bit uncomfortable. I’d ask, are there other exercises that could achieve the same ends of understanding a poet’s technique?
Granted, I’m not in academia and haven’t been in twenty years. I feel, though, that haste is almost always the enemy of quality work. I’ve found that I learn slowly, over years, by close reading and by repeated encounters with a poet’s work. Poets in academia are put in the position of reading a poem and needing to immediately react to it, to parse it, to uncover its techniques; this is an artificial, kind of antisocial way to interact with art.
Of course, people need to get their degrees and move on, so perhaps it’s a necessary sacrifice. But I wonder if an overall atmosphere of haste has contributed to some of the recent plagiarism issues we’ve seen.
CC: I think imitation can lead to wonderful, ecstatically original new poems. The “original” is often something that has been steeped in the old, the very old, and then breaks off or leaps into—what? We don’t have the descriptors for it quite yet. Innovation is a dialogue with tradition, many various traditions, perhaps. A dialogue of appreciation. Or, an argument. Or, both appreciation and argument. Frequently both, I think.
It seems to me a myth that imitation is an amateur’s game and more experienced writers stop imitating altogether. My sense, based on my experiences and those of folks I’ve read and/or spoken to, is that we can’t help but be influenced 24-7 by whatever we take in, pay attention to. So we may be imitating without even consciously, deliberately doing so. It’s in revision that we need to reflect on how much we’re imitating and why.
I worry, though, about a sort of fetish for originality. I’ve encountered folks who don’t read widely because they believe other texts will somehow disturb or take away from their particular voice/vision. Maybe when we’re obsessively working on a piece, sure, we need to hone our focus. But there’s usually all this time in between those feverish moments of making. And besides, I think interrupting ourselves is great, sometimes very necessary—reading something radically different and maybe attempting to imitate that text, in order to rupture, upend the trajectory of our own writing.
EKA: Sometimes I think of writing “after” another work as ekphrasis—and perhaps this is just that in my own practices I’m often writing after pop culture works like songs or TV shows. Do you think that response poems are a form of ekphrasis?
TM: No. I regard ekphrasis as writing after another medium. So as you write after TV shows or songs, you’re engaging a different medium. For me, an “after” poem enters into dialogue with the original and so never crosses that mediary boundary.
JO: I have to agree that I don’t think “after” poems qualify as ekphrasis. I’ve written a lot of ekphrastic poems after visual art. In fact, I think painting may be the art form most similar to poetry in some ways; paintings are out-of-time; they happen all at once, the way a poem does. They can be logicless and strange; they reward re-seeing; they have layers of meaning. And of course, if you respond to visual art, that certainly avoids any sticky issues with language or accidentally repeating someone else’s voice, unless you’re transcribing Cy Twombly or something. Please don’t plagiarize Cy Twombly, hahaha. :p
CC: I’m so intrigued by this idea of “after” as ekphrasis. Sometimes, another poet’s work and vision are so far from my own—I could see calling a borrowing from them a kind of ekphrasis. As though they are working in another medium. Maybe I would feel this way with borrowing from a poem not written in English, and leaving those words untranslated in my own poem (written in English or written in a hybrid of English and not English … the same not English as the borrowed text—for me this would be French or Mandarin). I’d love to try this!
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.