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. The second in the series is here. What follows is part 3, the final in this series.
- E. Kristin Anderson
- Chen Chen
- Wanda Deglane
- Teo Mungaray
- Jeanne Obbard
EKA: Do you think epigraphs play into this at all? What’s the best way to use an epigraph?
TM: I think I’ve said a lot about epigraphs already, haha.
JO: I think epigraphs are very straightforward and clear. I like seeing what the poet was reading, what they were reacting to, what they were pinging off of, or what made them mad. It gives me a little window into the preoccupations of the mind that wrote the poem and thus a better entré into what the poem that follows is trying to do. From an ethical standpoint, I like that an epigraph is directly quoted.
I think as long as you’ve got two sets of quotes and the writer’s name attached, you’re above-board. Now from another point of view, if you are quoting a very famous or successful poet, you might be putting your own work in a bit of a shadow by using an epigraph, but that’s really another topic.
CC: Epigraphs can be gorgeous. Startling. Or, unnecessary. Again, I have to think about the conversation generated—the relationship between the quotation and my work.
By the way, I have a whole collection of potential epigraphs. For instance, these lines from Federico García Lorca: “Like a snake, my heart has shed its skin. / I hold it here in my hand, / full of honey and wounds.” And these lines from Louise Glück: “It was a time / governed by contradictions, as in / I felt nothing and / I was afraid.”
One small, pesky problem: the poems to which these epigraphs belong have yet to be written. You know, by me.
EKA: One of the major issues with the recent plagiarism we’ve seen in poetry is that many of the poems that this author lifted lines from lead to not just stealing words but also appropriation of culture and trauma. Do you think this is something that poets need to think about even when writing otherwise ethical response poems?
TM: It depends. If the poem is truly a response poem, then inherently it is empathizing with the original poem and entering into that dialogue.
I think a poem by someone who’s never experienced the trauma the original poem is expressing, and [that] isn’t doing the work to unpack that lack of experience, is going to write a disingenuous, superficially pitying poem. If I wrote a poem in response to someone’s child dying (something I’ve never experienced), I’d have to do a lot to justify why I’m responding, right? I probably wouldn’t write that poem anyway—what would I have to say?
WD: I think that, had this been an appropriately written and credited response poem, it wouldn’t have nearly been such an egregious appropriation.
But, like Teo mentioned, I would feel nervous about writing in response to something I’d never experienced. Perhaps a line or image from the original text would inspire me, but to try and put myself in conversation with trauma I’ve never faced? Oof. It might be helpful to try and really understand who the original poet is, and what they’re trying to say.
JO: I think this is just about boundaries, right? And our boundaries as artists are of necessity somewhat porous.
But the ethical thing to do with other people’s trauma or experience is just to listen, not to attempt to co-opt it. This is true for poetry; also for life in general. There are poets I read whose experience and language are very different from mine, for instance, who are people of color or LGBTQ or don’t have the same set of privileges I have.
If we are looking at the reading of poetry as a conversation or a social transaction, then what I get from reading them is that their stories inform my view of the world, that their language sinks in and changes my brain a little. That’s what I get out of the interaction—that I am transformed. It’s not my job to transform their experience.
CC: I think poems come from deep vulnerability … and reach toward readers’ deep vulnerabilities. So it seems to me that there is, with every poem, this relationship or a relationality between self and other. And how can I write anything true if I’m only drawing from someone else’s vulnerability and experience—without risking anything from myself?
I’ve been working on poems in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting back in 2016. I’ve been asking myself: what is at stake here, for me? What is my relationship, as a queer Asian American living in Lubbock (and then in Rochester and the Boston area) to the gunned down queer people in Orlando, many of them Latinx? I can’t write these poems as though I am them, or their families, their beloveds. I’m not. In writing these poems, I have to be clear about my subject position and what my relationship is to these specific folks and this specific violence.
EKA: How can editors do better at spotting plagiarism, especially when it comes to response poems?
JO: I hate to think this comes down on editors, who already are mostly doing what they do for no money, and for the love of the art form, and often to the exclusion of their own work. But I do think, as Rachel [McKibbens] recently tweeted, that any time a poem gets submitted with an “After” notation, the journal should look at the original artwork.
TM: I agree with Jeanne. I think it’s important for a journal to investigate and respond ASAP if any concerns are raised, but there’s a certain amount of trust between the editor and the author that what they’re submitting isn’t a cheap rip-off. If I can’t trust a submitter to submit their own authentic work, then my job as an editor becomes almost impossible.
WD: I’ve started my own tiny journal the same week as this plagiarism incident, so it’s definitely made me wary. I’ve put in my own guidelines that anyone who submits a piece drawing inspiration from another should be prepared to show me the original material, which I think is pretty fair.
On the other hand, I agree with Teo and Jeanne. It’s terrible that editors would have to be responsible for catching someone else’s misdeeds, especially since, before all this happened, most editors seemed to trust that the work they receive is original. It’d be a whole lot of added work if every editor had to check if each piece submitted to them was plagiarized. Like Teo said, it’d basically be impossible.
CC: Yes, as others have said, journals need to do their own homework. It is part of the job of editors to spot plagiarism, before publishing. If it comes out after that plagiarism has occurred, then editors need to respond quickly—apologize (without excuses) publicly, as well as privately, (to the author and/or to the publisher, if possible) and remove the piece(s).
With print editions, a note of apology could be inserted. At the very least, editors should acknowledge what has happened across the journal’s social media platforms.
EKA: To wrap this up, what are some of your favorite response poems that you’ve written? Drop a link or two here:
TM: I don’t really have any out there, but I have a few drafts I’m working on.
JO: I usually write from a very internal motivation. But I wrote an entire poem in “response” to a phrase that was floating around the cultural conversation about gun control. There was (and is) this paranoia being voiced by conservatives, that liberals are “coming for your guns.” It’s such a dumb idea, but the phrase has a great sort of shorthand syntax. I wrote the whole poem out of both embracing and refuting that phrase. And the second layer—I was inspired by the incredible poem by Elisa Chavez, “Revenge.” I wasn’t trying to respond specifically to her poem (that’s impossible; it says everything), but her poem’s angry, confrontational, funny voice shook up my brain when I read it.
WD: I recently wrote a poem in response to a phrase I’ve seen a lot of people tweet, “a group of men is called a threat.” I think originally it was supposed to be a kind of dark joke, like “a group of whales is called a ____, and a group of men is called a threat!” But it seriously spoke to me and the fact that I’ve been raised to constantly be on my guard and steer clear of men, and so have many other women I know.
CC: “The School of Joy / Letter to Michelle Lin,” which borrows a phrase from Pablo Neruda:
“I am reminded via email to resubmit my preferences for the schedule,” which responds to “The Singers,” a story by Ivan Turgenev (in particular his haunting ending).
An excerpt from “A Small Book of Questions,” a longer, essayistic piece which uses Bhanu Kapil’s twelve questions from her book The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers as an organizing device.
EKA: I’d like to share this selection of poems I’ve been working on in response to episodes of The X-Files that were published at Yes, Poetry at the end of last year since I referenced them in some of the discussion.
For me, these are a way for me to engage with and access contemporary social issues and my own trauma while responding to and engaging with an iconic TV series.
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.