The Voices of Hurricane Katrina, Part II

Reflections on found poetry and the creative process.

by Raymond McDaniel
Gerard MalangaNew Orleans, LA, September 8, 2005. Photo: Jocelyn Augustino, FEMA Photo Library.

On the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we heard from two poets who describe how primary sources from the disaster can and should be used for art. This is Part II. Read Part I: What are the ethics of poetic appropriation?

* * *

When the Poetry Foundation approached me about writing an essay that addressed my process in writing Saltwater Empire, my initial response was to decline. I thought they were asking me to do the impossible. I don’t know what I did; I only know what I tried to do, what I wanted to do. And as everyone who has ever published (or even shared his or her work with another person) knows, the gap between what you think you did and what other people think you did is wide, and from that discrepancy proceed many surprises, some pleasant and some less so. One way to characterize this breach between intention and effect is failure—if you want to achieve X but instead provoke not X but rather Z and perhaps even 8 and even *, then you can, from one perspective, be rightly said to have failed.

The Voices of Hurricane Katrina, Part I
By Abe Louise Young
What are the ethics of poetic appropriation?

For instance, in composing my collection of poems called Saltwater Empire, I wanted to manipulate my own experiences in a way that approximates autobiography without the deficiencies of that genre, but I also wanted to include other experiences without putting words in the mouths of people who can speak for themselves. Subsequently, I’ve been praised for the ventriloquism of those passages that are purely autobiographical and damned for using the words of others in alternative passages, even when I’ve acknowledged having done so.

* * *

I resist autobiographical writing. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to practice the art; I just don’t trust that it provides what it advertises. I don’t often try to write within its protocols, and thus I’m not very good at it. A reader won’t emerge from my poems with clear confidence in either backstory or the “thoughts” and “feelings” of the speaker who may or may not approximate me. My first and third books—Murder and the forthcoming Special Powers and Abilities—rigorously exclude any first-person speaker who acts as a stand-in for the poet. But for Saltwater Empire, at least, I’m in there, if in complicated ways, the explanation of which goes to what the book desires, and what I desired in making it.

* * *

I’m always homesick. This isn’t a motivation with much of a critical pedigree, although I could tart it up with a Freudian unheimlich or ideas of abjection. In homesickness I desire an impossible condition. I grew up along the coastal regions of north Florida, not destitute but poor enough to live in constant fear and uncertainty. This kind of fact usually informs autobiography, but also leads to mistakes that drive me away from the practice. I don’t want to be identified as poor or Southern or white, not because I need to deny those things, but because each category provokes a response that obscures more than it reveals, because all categories, by definition, are prohibitive and thus often inaccurate even when technically true. I also don’t want to capitalize on those attributes, because growing up where and how I did afforded me a sharp insight into how ugly the concentrated force of those attributes can be.

But my resistance springs primarily from that sense of inaccuracy, and that qualifies homesickness. I long not for the material conditions of my childhood (spare), nor the social ones (stark), but rather the state of being categorically indiscriminate. If ignorance is a form of failure, then this too is welcome in that I miss ignorance, if ignorance allowed me to see and hear more clearly than its remedy would.

What kind of ignorance am I talking about? A form of awareness that acknowledges a collective belief in categorical distinctions but does not allow that belief to determine what is possible. An ignorance that knows the impossible is the commonplace. For example, it’s believed categorically impossible to simultaneously renounce and profess religious faith; to be both black and white; to talk fancy and talk plain without faking one or the other. These so-called logical impossibilities simply disguise what we prefer to be true. Binaries are clarifying, and again, we often prefer clarity to accuracy. Maybe the things I’ve listed aren’t impossible, but you aren’t supposed to do or be them, and you certainly aren’t supposed to actively seek to dissolve the boundaries without which we cannot make easy sense of the world.

But that’s the point. Easy sense of the world is not the world. The world is everything, and it occurs simultaneously. We deny this because it’s easier, simpler, to do so. And we see evidence of this denial in every community we occupy; poetry is no exception. Indeed, it offers a peculiarly toxic example of the rule. Are you one of us, or are you one of them? Traditional? Experimental? Post-avant? Neo-lyric? School of Quietude? Conceptualist? Flarfist? Formalist? I speak for none of these, though I’m often amused to find that enemies of one approach will frequently stuff me into the category they most violently oppose, with no acknowledgment that the self-professed practitioners of that form wouldn’t have me for kisses and strawberry jam. I once got roughed up twice in one night, the second group seeking to save a person they thought of as their racial comrade from the depredations of the first, only to turn on me for what they asssumed was my homosexuality. Homesick.

* * *

When I was in my early 20s I lived in the Florida Panhandle in a tiny apartment complex that catered equally to alcoholics, folks on their way out of state assistance, students on shoestring budgets, and a catastrophically eloquent cast of drug salespersons. For me, the primary appeal of this complex was that it sat adjacent to a far better pedigreed set of apartments that featured a pool to which nonresidents were denied access, a rule we regularly ignored. One day in late August I was sitting out by that pool when it started to rain. The rain was the exact temperature of the air, as was the water in the pool. I couldn’t distinguish them by degree of heat; I could distinguish them only by form and pressure. All three—water, air, rain—felt like different shapes of the same substance. Different, yet the same. Impossible.

The desire to reproduce this effect with language is the aesthetic and ethos of Saltwater Empire.

* * *

When I started writing poetry in a social context, as a member of a community rather than in isolation, appropriation was the devil-word du jour. I understood why. Appropriation meant theft, but theft exists on a moral spectrum; appropriation was an exercise in unearned privilege, and thus the most reprehensible theft of all.

In terms of writing, and of art in general, most people respond to this idea programmatically. Some believe the superimposition of the idea of ownership on creative activity is absurd; they often claim that art cannot exist without appropriation. Some cast a cold eye on the long history of who these ideas have served and who they have silenced, and mandate strict regulation of appropriation for the sake of justice for those for whom justice has always been in short supply. These positions seem radically opposed, but some adherents of each think the issue easily resolved. I’m not so sure.

One of the assumptions some readers of Saltwater Empire made was that because they heard a panoply of voices, I must have paid careful attention to the wide variety of people who occupy what was once my home. To an extent, this is true. But the assumption overlooks the more intriguing fact that I am that wide variety of people. As competitive as those dictions might seem, they represent a singular experience. I don’t think this is unique; I’m curious as to why people reflexively believe that one language is the language of the poet, and the remaining are languages the poet has imitated or stolen. And I’m especially curious about why they believe which is which, and what that suggests about class and how it influences assumptions about who uses the language, and how.

* * *

I was in Florida when Katrina lacerated the Gulf Coast and laid bare the chicanery of the Army Corps of Engineers and much of municipal New Orleans and Louisiana and Mississippi. I’m certain that my reactions were those of anyone familiar with the city and the region, those of anyone with friends and family there. When I returned to Michigan, however, I realized it was foolish to assume uniformity of reaction, because in conversation about the events, a co-worker said that he believed “those people knew what they were in for, and if they didn’t like the risk they should have moved.”

I did not respond to this exchange diplomatically, but what I took away was the phrase those people. I knew what this meant, what it was code for, and while it invited self-righteous indignation, it also reminded me of the television coverage of the Convention Center and the Superdome, which oscillated between empathy for the people trapped there and a racially inflected revulsion at those people’s behavior.

Because of this, and because some of Saltwater Empire is set in New Orleans and all of it in the Gulf and Caribbean regions, and because it already concerned ambiguities of race and speech and class and crime, and because I had relied on metaphors of rain and flood, I thought it would be a conspicuous absence to not include Katrina and her aftermath. But because I wasn’t there, I didn’t want to ventriloquize those who had been; doing so would have violated the spirit of the book, and dangerously confused the argument I was tacitly trying to make about the breadth of language one life can contain. Because I still wanted to focus on speech and its uses, I began searching online for oral histories, and thus came across the extraordinary Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster and Oral History & Memory Project, begun and curated by the writer, poet, and activist Abe Louise Young. The archive is an inestimable set of records, both a vivid catalogue and a grim necessity. In reading through the transcripts on the site, I noticed first their variety: any five of them described a more nuanced portrait of the events than any 50 hours of television coverage. I also noticed a compelling pattern of referents, perhaps because they corresponded to the subjects to which I’d already committed myself. I copied several of these transcripts into a separate document. I isolated phrases, sentences, and clusters of sentences that touched on one of a set of referents (God, family, statements of inquiry, et al.). I began reassembling them into couplets which, in their final form, would become “Convention Centers of the New World”—a long poem broken into several sections and scattered across the manuscript, itself already made of several poems of consistent style or form likewise scattered.

I had two goals. The first was to provide a rhetorical counterpoint to the remaining sections, many of which were written in various combinations of the third and second person, both plural and singular. The transcript passages I excerpted and recombined were mainly in the first person, but I arranged them so that it would be impossible to confuse that first-person speaker with a singular character; for example, the first several pages of the second section of “Convention Centers of the New World” include first-person claims of having, alternately, five, nine and eleven siblings, as well as being both male and female, parent and child. No reader could believe this voice was singular, even if it spoke as such, even as I tried to make the transitions as seamless as possible. I hoped this would both ease and confuse the reader’s expectations of what it might mean to speak and be heard, especially since the poem regularly presents contradictory claims and convictions about its subjects. Those contradictions, and the degree to which they alone can communicate a whole, determined the sequence of the couplets and the reason for their arrangement.

Although it never occurred to me that anyone could possibly mistake how the poem was made, I cited both the source of the text and the methodology in the front matter of the book, as well as including an expression of thanks to the organizers, volunteers, and interviewees. I also encouraged readers to visit the site for themselves, a recommendation I’ve made in interviews and at readings since, because regardless of any controversy regarding my use, it’s an invaluable civic record and deserves greater attention and support.

I did not, however, ask permission to use the transcripts, for one very simple reason: I assumed that the records were public, that they existed to be public. “Please explore our new digital archive of oral histories. We encourage you to read, reflect, and respond to these stories,” reads the home page of the site; I did, and made any readers and listeners I may have had aware of the poem’s origin, conception, and execution.

* * *

When disputes arise over the ownership of language, we can turn to the law, but copyright law is an irreconcilable muddle, and the law serves money first, organizations second, and justice rarely. And the question of justice can be reduced to questions of ethics and morality. Ethics describe rules, but those rules lack meaning if they don’t draw upon moral conviction, and so the issue finally isn’t what one can do, but what one should do.

But as we’ve established, it’s hard to know what you should do when the gap between intent and effect stretches wide. And we cannot really go to intent, either. Does it matter that I wanted to draw attention to a dangerously simplistic representation by making a more complex one if my methods cause offense? What if they offend some but compel others? No programmatic belief regarding what does or does not constitute appropriation, or what it even means, can adequately address all subsequent questions.

When Saltwater Empire was presented to me as using appropriation to blend the political, the private, and the public, my first question was: how can you tell? Does it even make sense to blend things already cast in the indivisible alloy of actual experience? What does it mean that we believe these things so discrete that any writing that fails to further such distinctions becomes unusual?

But these are a reader’s questions, and while I was once the writer of the book, or its compiler, or the agent of its assembly, or the means by which it occurred, that part’s over now. I could fuss and lament, and protest that what I wrote has been wrestled from my intent and transformed. But that would be a redundant and fundamentally inaccurate complaint. It would make it seem as if, once upon a time, the book belonged to me, and now it isn’t mine.

Of course it isn’t. It never was.

Originally Published: August 18, 2010


On August 18, 2010 at 11:11am Carol Flake Chapman wrote:

Like Abe Louise Young, I interviewed survivors of Katrina, though my role was as a journalist. I feel a deep rage on her behalf and on the behalf of those whose words were appropriated - - inappropriately. Without permission. Raymond McDaniel never even contacted Abe or the project, but simply took what he wanted. The idea that what Abe and her volunteers produced was in the public domain, as something to be used for one's own work and for one's own benefit without permission, is so ingenuous as to strain credibility. What McDaniel has done is plainly and simply unethical. Shame on him. The idea that a "poet" could simply bypass all the hard, heartbreaking work of eyewitness reporting and simply appropriate the words of the survivors as "found" material is extremely offensive. They were not flotsam from the storm to be picked over.

On August 18, 2010 at 2:18pm Blake Lassier wrote:
That was a valiant dance, but wouldn't it have just been easier to say, "we differ as to the role collected words and stories play in poetry, but I should have asked, or at least had a conversation, and I apologize."

On August 18, 2010 at 3:47pm Margaret wrote:
Ray, this is Margaret. Your article was referred to me by a friend who also teaches writing. I am confused, disturbed, saddened, shocked. I can't believe you never even tried to contact Young or the members of the project. I admire your language here, and I understand your explanations. What I don't understand is why you didn't even try to contact them, didn't try to make any sort of connection to the people who voiced the words. I know text=text, I know the Derridean or Bakhtinian arguments that can be made. What I don't understand is why you didn't at least try.

On August 18, 2010 at 6:57pm Ellen Dore Watson wrote:
As McDaniel himself recounts here, the ALIVE IN TRUTH website encouraged people to "read, reflect, and respond" - which he apparently twisted into a justification to use the material in whatever way he wanted --and now he expects to be forgiven because of his high-minded intentions? McDaniel neglects to mention that the website also listed contact information for permissions requests- which he ignored in his rush to get to the writing desk, because it really was all about him, just as this jumbled piece of writing is. Does he really still not realize that he owes Antoinette and the other people whose words he appropriated an apology? WHERE'S THE APOLOGY?!

On August 18, 2010 at 7:46pm Jonathan Skinner wrote:

You seem to be dancing around the issue. I think it would have enriched your project immensely to have contacted the authors of the oral testimony you used (as you were using it and, in any case, before publication) and made them a part of the project, somehow. Many of them would probably have been interested in your aesthetic exploration of questions about identity, experience, speech, language. Many of them would have been delighted to find their words contributing to great poetry. Many would have wanted to be drawn into the community (or communities) of your work and to draw you into their own communities. And some not, perhaps--those authors should have been given the right to decline. The ethical issues around oral testimony are more delicate than those around written material and the nature of "public domain" there is more sharply graded. You know that. I guess one value of this transgression could be to foreground a needed conversation about the ethics of appropriation and the nature of documentary art in a networked, digital age. The question of poetry's relationship to community also sits the heart of this conversation. What do you consider to be the community (or communities) of your work? Should we use the Internet to expand and enhance bonds of reciprocity or to blast away at these bonds? For that conversation to progress, though, we will need a little more straight talk.

On August 18, 2010 at 9:31pm George wrote:

There's a lot I could say about your rationale here, but I think I can sum it up by simply noting that you used the word "I" 89 times. Like Margaret, I wonder why you couldn't call, email, write? Does it make your art more pure to avoid actual relationships with the people you wish to speak for?

On August 18, 2010 at 10:22pm david wrote:

Ray It takes you a long time to get down to the actual heart of the matter, and when you finally do, it's pretty weak. This is different, it seems, than most flarf / con-po projects, which sample from a broad range of sources (the exception would be vanessa place, a project that comes with its OWN ethical dilemmas, but at least those ARE in fact public records). You yourself admit that you first stumbled upon the Alive in Truth site, decided to draw extensively from it, and yet it NEVER occurred to you to contact anyone for permission? wow. so you never hesitated for a moment to think that people who gave oral histories of a sensitive and disturbing nature, and those who painstakingly compiled them, might want to be asked before someone else decided to repurpose them for a different project entirely? The words are simple, Ray: "I should have asked for permission." Writing after the fact about how many props and kudos you've given to the Alive in Truth folks cannot make up for it.

On August 19, 2010 at 12:23am merry winslow wrote:

After the hurricane I drove from California to Austin in order to work with Alive in Truth assisting evacuees get services, furniture, clothing and housing. in assisting them we became safe venues for listening to their traumatic stories. when we taped their stories we assured them it was not for commercial use. in my opinion their trust was violated and our work was stolen by this man. perhaps unwittingly, but irresponsibly, and inexcusably for someone with his standing. these survivors deserve the benefit of any proceeds their words may earn.

On August 19, 2010 at 8:35am D'Ann Penner wrote:

For the past five years, I, like Abe Louise Young, have had the rare privilege of sitting with now 290 African American survivors of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans and sharing a stretch of their emotional journeys. I keep up with many of them to this day. One of the things that weighed on the souls of New Orleanians after Katrina was the way in which they felt their experiences, words, and emotions were exploited and misused by the journalists and scholars who descended, however well-meaning, on New Orleans and points of exile in the storm’s aftermath. Because of this, I drove thousands of miles and spent countless hours working closely with the 27 narrators’ whose testimonios were published in Overcoming Katrina (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). The purpose was to honor their wishes and their lives. It is not an easy process. Academia does not reward such efforts, and to a certain extent, we are all complicit in some of the circumstances that may have clouded McDaniel’s judgment. In the specific instance of “his” convention center poem, the temptation to plagiarize is not beyond comprehension, if only because the real authors’ words are so much more powerful, eloquent, and fitting a description of the demeaning events than those of a privileged white man whose life experiences could not have taught him to begin to imagine, much less find a unique vocabulary of his own to describe. But I am struck by his presumption that he had the right to lift verbatim without quoting or consultations with the readily accessible director of Alive In Truth, Abe Louise Young. An email to her would have taken 60 seconds. Nothing could have been easier as a beginning gesture of respect for the men and women whose experiences he purports to represent. Sadly, his behavior is reminiscent of 19th-century cultural imperialism. If his intentions were as he describes them, I can only hope that he would request a meeting with the man and women he has morally injured for the purpose of apologizing without defensiveness and, then, seeking to understand what they think restitution would meaningfully look like.

On August 19, 2010 at 8:41am Lisa C. Moore wrote:

Nice try. But it's very telling that you say "I copied several of these transcripts into a separate document" with absolutely no indication that you had requested permission to do so. All writers should know copyright law for this country, particularly before they go to a publisher, manuscript in hand, and initial the clause in the book contract that says the writing is all yours, your creation, you are not impinging on anyone else's rights. Then you say "I assumed that the records were public, that they existed to be public. 'Please explore our new digital archive of oral histories. We encourage you to read, reflect, and respond to these stories,' reads the home page of the site." First, you know what happens when you "assume." Second, the site said "read, reflect and respond," it didn't say "copy and make it your own." MAJOR ERROR on your part. You need to apologize to the people whose stories you took, in a big way. As in call them, visit them, look them in the eye, and apologize. I'm pretty sure they would appreciate the effort. I'm pretty sure Abe Louise Young can put you in touch with them. And I'm speaking as a New Orleans native, as a book publisher, and a cousin to a survivor of the horror that happened in the New Orleans Convention Center that last week in August 2005, when the levees broke.

On August 19, 2010 at 3:43pm Sheera Talpaz wrote:

Lisa, you make several assumptions here too. You say Young would be happy to point Ray to some survivors to whom he could speak? That's not true. Ray doesn't mention it in his article, which he intended to be fair and thoughtful, but he did try, on multiple occasions, to contact Young to talk and apologize. She refused. Furthermore, copyright law is a lot murkier than you suggest. Obviously, Coffee House didn't think there were legal issues with Ray's book. In fact, what he did is legally considered fair use, since he cited his sources and made no attempt at hiding his methods.

On August 19, 2010 at 4:51pm Malka wrote:

Wow. The politics of identity are tricky, aren’t they? I have read Raymond McDaniel’s book. As a native of the “Saltwater Empire” myself, the images created by his arrangement of words resonated with me in ways that most attempts to capture the experience of my home have not. Although I do not read a lot of poetry, I attended a reading that McDaniel gave at a local college. While I enjoyed and was moved to hear his poems read in the familiar voices of the coastal South, I was also moved by the care he took to credit the Alive in Truth project before he read a few sections of the poem that features some of the lines from the narratives collected in that project. I was inspired to explore that website as a result of McDaniel’s praise for it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t know the website (or Young’s project) existed. I’m grateful for his recommendation that I check it out, because it is an incredible project and a valuable record of one of our nation’s most horrific, multidimensional tragedies. And then I heard that Abe Louise Young is upset that Raymond McDaniel stole the words of the individuals whose narratives are featured on Alive in Truth. What is she (and many of the commentaries on this site) really upset about? On the one hand, Young seems to be making a case that McDaniel did not give proper citation to her website. Okay, he addresses that, and given the esteem with which he seems to regard her website, and the overt credit he gives her for source material, I find it impossible to infer either a cavalier attitude or malicious motives on his part. In fact, it is my understanding that McDaniel attempted to call Young to talk to her when he was informed that she was upset, and she wouldn’t talk to him. Why not? It would seem that, for two people who traffic in words, there have been precious few of them exchanged directly between them. Their essays can’t even share a page together! Really? This fair use issue, while it may be of legitimate concern, seems to be a distraction from the issue that Young claims to be her real problem with McDaniel’s work. So Raymond McDaniel is a bad white man for stealing the experiences of people who did not give explicit consent to him for their use. This after they were promised by a good white woman that they would always have control over the use of their narratives. Young, who I have reason to believe is well-intentioned, writes that when “a white person takes the voices of people of color for his own uses, without permission, in the aftermath of a racially charged national disaster, it is vulture work—worse than ventriloquism.” With the exception of acquiring direct permission from the semi-anonymous participants in Young’s project, how has McDaniel done anything radically different from Young herself? Both artists strive to raise awareness of the morass of political, economic and moral issues that have been inextricably woven into the history of the watery South, and both seem genuinely concerned about the well-being of the people who sustained soul-crushing losses when Katrina brought the whole festering boil of racial and class politics to a head. Young writes of initially considering creating poetry about the Katrina ordeal out of the narratives she collected, but did not do so because her narrators did not like the idea. So out of respect, she deferred to their wishes. She also says she offered specific “commitments” to participants about the rules surrounding the use of their narratives, and stated that “[o]nly after offering these commitments did we feel comfortable showcasing these narratives publicly.” At some point, then, Young (and whoever else constitutes her “we”) made decisions about what was in the best interest of these narrators. What was Young’s point of bringing Saltwater Empire to Antoinette’s attention? What were the chances that this woman, who Young vividly describes to us as having a lot going on in her life today, would come across a book of poetry published in modest numbers by a not-for-profit small press? I work in a building with many English professors, and they weren’t aware of the existence of McDaniel’s book until he was scheduled to come to campus for a reading. Rather than serving as a “heads up” to Antoinette before she had some inevitable encounter with McDaniel’s book, it seems that Young owns much of the responsibility for any unhappiness Saltwater Empire caused this woman. And Young is correct: “Context is everything.” In what context was McDaniel’s work presented to Antoinette? Why is her resulting pain the fault of Raymond McDaniel, who used a small bit of her story, rather than Young, who deliberately brought to her attention that which would have more than likely never entered her awareness? Who is really culpable for the emotional damage here? Further, the racial assumptions built into Young’s essay, and present in many of the posted comments, reveal a privileging of a different kind than discussed in these writings: the superiority of the suffering of people of color. In no way do I discount the suffering of any of the survivors of Katrina. I cannot express with words how that event and its aftermath affected me, both practically and emotionally. This is why I am grateful for poets who can do so for me. But many comments here seem to assume a great deal about Raymond McDaniel. He must enjoy many privileges, given that he is white, male, heterosexual, educated and living in the United States. Well, generally each of those social variables does give individuals relative privilege. But if it is irresponsible (and I believe it is) to assume we know everything about all survivors of Katrina based on the narrative of one, it is equally irresponsible to assume we can know everything about Raymond McDaniel based on his photo on the back of the book. I don’t think denigrating his life experience is any more appropriate than it is to do so to anyone else. Without having spoken to McDaniel prior to the release of these essays, Young paints him as one in a long line of oppressors, stating that what he “has done is reminiscent of what has happened over and over again in America because white privilege blinds people to the consequences of their actions.” Without actually meeting McDaniel, how does Young know for certain that he is white (whatever that means)? How does she know he is privileged? Due to Young’s refusal to respond to McDaniel’s efforts to speak with her, his essay on this site has been his only opportunity to explain himself. Essentially, he narrates the process by which he produced Saltwater Empire. In other words, he tells his story. According to Young, “…the storytellers are the gift-givers, extending truth, trust, intimacy, and contact with their lived experience.” Raymond McDaniel has described his lived experience in his essay, so why is his story not afforded the same respect as the stories of those featured on Alive in Truth. This seems to me extraordinarily hypocritical at best, and reflexively judgmental of McDaniel, at worst.

On August 19, 2010 at 7:41pm Michelle wrote:
Given what has happened, one way
McDaniel could begin to make amends
would be to first admit that he should have
asked. Once that admission is made, the possibilities for reparations are endless.

On August 20, 2010 at 11:52am Lopez wrote:

It's interesting that Malka suggests Young should never have informed Antoinette that her story was used in McDaniel's book. Wouldn't that be a patently disrespectful action, the opposite of treating her as an equal in the situation? Because the woman is poor and unlikely to go to a poetry bookstore doesn't mean she shouldn't know what's happening with her words or testimony. As an author, I wouldn't appreciate that kind of assumption. I like to know wherever my writing shows up. Here's a question for the debate: do we consider Antionette and the other people who gave their histories to the Alive in Truth project to be authors? Or are they in a different category because their words were delivered orally? If you were the person in question, would you consider yourself the author, even though you spoke and did not type your words? When I'm interviewed on the phone and the answers are printed, I still expect to be quoted as their source. But does the form of oral history change the meaning of authorship? We need some people from that field to weigh in here, I suspect. McDaniel's personal friends insist here that he tried to contact Young to apologize. Given the tenor of his essay, I wonder what "apologize" means to him. It seems appropriate that someone notified the ethics board of UMich, since if what Young says is true, thirty pages of his text is not original. I think we'd have to hear from both Young and McDaniel personally to know what kind of communications they had. When a copyright issue arises, God forbid, and lawyers are involved, the individuals do not communicate directly, but through their legal advocates. I wonder if that's what's happening here. Perhaps Young told McDaniel to contact her through her lawyer. Perhaps someone should call Coffee House Press to ascertain if there are legal negotiations taking place around this book. I'm just speculating, as is "Malka." Only McDaniel and Young know the content of their exchanges, and the tone. Let's keep the conversation focused on the essays and issues, rather than descending into a personal war between supporters of each author. There are important questions to discuss from both sides. I'm grateful to both authors for bringing them up with such a bang, and glad the Harriet blog highlighted this debate. It shows that poetry "does matter, after all."

On August 20, 2010 at 12:20pm Amy wrote:

How hard is it to apologize, or admit that you should have requested permission to use other people's stories in your work? I think Coffee House Press should pull this book, and issue a new edition only after permission has been granted to use any of the work that McDaniel has stolen. This is what happens when other publishers, such as Random House, discover their authors have plagiarized work. I hope that McDaniel holds his students at the University of Michigan to higher standards of academic and creative integrity.

On August 20, 2010 at 12:45pm Malka wrote:

Well, Lopez, poetry certainly seems to matter to the people on the Poetry Foundation website. After my posting last night, I started thinking of how very disconnected this entire debate is from anything really having any impact on the daily lives of the individuals from the Alive in Truth project that everyone here purportedly is so concerned about. They can't eat these debates, or pay rent with the rants. This entire conversation, while about interesting and important issues, strikes me as having become extraordinarily elitist. It is intellectuals arguing with intellectuals about issues that, to most people outside the world of poetry, are of no consequence whatsoever. I am still very disturbed by the tone of the attacks on Raymond McDaniel, who I DO KNOW, who I know to have been devastated when he learned that Young was upset, who I know did apologize and ask what he could do to make the situation right in Young's eyes, who tried to contact her more than once and was told she would not speak to him, and who I also know didn't enjoy great profits (hello, not-for-profit press?) or career advancement (same job, not tenure-track) from this book. What he did was credit the Alive in Truth project and its participants at every reading he gave. I echo another poster here (and I hope I'm not guilt of theft here) when I ask: what would Young have McDaniel do at this point, beyond what he has done? And how much PRODUCTIVE work could all of us who have been debating this have done out in the world while we have instead continued this masturbatory intellectual exercise, with a side order of personal attacks?

On August 20, 2010 at 1:17pm Keith Taylor wrote:

(Disclosure: I am Ray McDaniel's colleague and friend) The questions about appropriation are absolutely necessary, and I would hope that Ray McDaniel continues to be invited to be a part of those discussions. The questions of fair use are clear: McDaniel acknowledged his use of the material at the beginning of his book. I, for one, read that before I read his book, went to the web site, saw the invitation to respond, and understood McDaniel as doing just that. I hope that the power of this collection is not forgotten in the discussions. The passages using other people's words are only part of this book. I think many readers will agree that McDaniel's passionate work honors his fellow citizens of the Saltwater Empire.

On August 20, 2010 at 2:44pm Michael M. wrote:

Ray McDaniel did nothing wrong, from what I can tell. It's interesting work, and an interesting conversation. Best, Michael

On August 20, 2010 at 3:14pm LH wrote:
I'll be referencing both of these posts,
the poems, the website, the comments,
everything, in a conceptual writing class
this fall. This work does matter. These
conversations matter. These questions
matter. Poetry takes the work forward,
more people discover the work of
Young, and McDaniel, and the
testimonies of Katrina survivors and

No one can really say how a readership
will react to a given work, no matter how
"ill" or "well" intentioned it is.

On August 20, 2010 at 3:27pm Charlotte Boulay wrote:

I am also a friend of Ray's, and I read the book in ms form before its publication. What struck me then is what continues to stay with me as I re-read his work now: the beauty and power of his writing. His use of the transcripts is a wonderful use, one of many possible, of the Alive in Truth materials. It was clear from the beginning that Ray was crediting his sources. He has done nothing wrong. Poets have always, and will always, borrow language from the world around us. Doing so with the Alive in Truth materials brought attention to those voices, which of course were transformed by their juxtaposition to other materials in the book of which they are a part. This what art does: it transforms. If you don't like the way it does it, that's an aesthetic judgement, not an ethical one. The material was presented as a freely available public archive. It's interesting that some people who object to Ray's use of the archival material claim that it somehow doesn't "honor" the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Who gets to define what "honor" means? Is there only one way to do it? Should anyone who writes about a sensitive or political event submit their work to an "honor board" and obtain permission first? Should poets always make sure we're not offending anyone? Obviously not. Art takes risks--it was a risky choice to use the Alive in Truth materials for precisely the reasons this conversation highlights- -people might misunderstand the motivation, or dislike the context. But I'm proud Ray took that risk, because he had something important to say, and he also loves and honors the people of the Saltwater Empire.

On August 20, 2010 at 4:22pm Lisa wrote:

While I acknowledge that conversations about the ethics of confrontation can and have derailed conversations about privilege I reject the notion that they must. I reject the notion that I must choose between two important and interconnected issues. I stand in solidarity with Abe Young in asking McDaniel to reconsider the ethics of his process in creating “Convention Centers of the New World”. I stand in solidarity with the friends of Raymond McDaniel in asking Young to reconsider the ethics of her process in confronting McDaniel, to reapproach the conversation as a discussion between two allies with differing opinions. I reject the impulse to use the authoritative word “should” which I believe villanizes. I embrace the power of meaningful, sincere questions and invitations which I believe lead to meaningful resolution. While I reject and embrace these things for myself, I honor and respect the choices of others here to do differently. I see two white artist-activists who are attempting to speak on behalf of those with less privilege than themselves. I see missteps on both sides as I see my own everyday. I see room for growth in all directions and I sincerely thank everyone involved for the growth this discussion has afforded me.

On August 20, 2010 at 6:12pm Michelle wrote:

when I went to the Alive in Truth website, I saw this at the bottom of the page: "Copyright © 2006 Alive in Truth. All rights reserved. All interviews, archival material, and photos are protected by copyright and require written permission from Alive in Truth for excerpts or reproduction in any form." Additionally, the individual oral histories, are presented with a title and author: 00000-00---off-0aliveint--00-1----0-10- 0---0---0direct-10---4-------0-1l--11-en- 50---20-about---00-1-1-00-0-0-11-1- 0utfZz-8-00&a=d&cl=CL1 I have not seen McDaniel's book, but I'm curious if there is a notes section. As a teacher, if I had a student quote from one of these testimonies in a piece of writing, I would ask that it be cited in MLA format (which would include the title of the page/article, the author, and a link to the page and the date accessed; guidelines for citing oral history can be found here istory/citations.htm). I know this is a creative work, so rules for citation can differ, but I wonder why titles and author's names were not used in a notes section? The presupposition that oral histories are public property (therefore arguing that crediting the original authors unnecessary) grounds the arrogant enclosures conducted by writers like McDaniel.

On August 20, 2010 at 11:22pm Eddie wrote:

Here is my question. So many admit that the major flaw in McDaniel's publication is that he did not write Ms. Young's organization to request permission before including them in his book. What if Ms. Young had said no? Obviously no chance of that now but I can understand if she is not willing to accept his apology if she never intended to give permission for the archives to be used in this way. A little like shutting the barn door after the horses have left. Also, Ms. Young was not the author of the works and never profited from them. She was an archivist, attempting to document and protect important voices from exactly what has happened here. I feel this correlates strongly to how our society views art. If words were a product, like a car or a jewel, ownership would not be in question. This incident would be like theft from a gallery as the caretaker screams at you to stop. Heartbreaking.

On August 21, 2010 at 3:11pm Margaret wrote:

Maybe Raymond McDaniel can pull a reverse Patricia Smith and leave poetry for journalism! What Smith did was much worse, yet she was able to reinvent herself completely as a poet. (For those who don't remember Smith's career in journalism, see: All kidding aside, this is a good lesson for anyone thinking that "because it's on the web, it must be free for me to appropriate for my own use!" If you've ever taught freshman comp, you'll know what I mean. McDaniel should've gotten permission first.

On August 22, 2010 at 2:23am Cheri Hickman wrote:

Eddie, et al: Ownership is not in question. An author is an owner for our purposes here and according to copyright law. According to Ms. Young also, as the archive is protected by copyright. Fair use -- which allows limited use of copyrighted material without requiring permission from the rights holders -- must meet certain criteria. Qualification for fair use is disputed daily. If you don't like fair use, I don't know what to tell you. It's my opinion we'd ~all~ be in a world of hurt without it (unless or until copyright is dismantled). I think fair use helps provide real and broad access to all manner of information and perspectives; it promotes visibility. It protects parody, and I wish it protected more satire. Is fair use misused? What isn't? Are there expansive and exploitative instances of fair use? Of course. Does it help to have a building full of attorneys on retainer? Natch. Are marginalized people vulnerable in this cultural production/reproduction razzle-dazzle? Yes. ***** Ms. Young is never explicit about it, but according to the law Mr. McDaniel did not plagiarize. He didn't steal, and he gave full acknowledgment. I presume Ms. Young consulted with attorneys to investigate the question of copyright infringement & whether Mr. McDaniel participated in fair use. I'll also presume there was no infringement and there was evidence of proper fair use. ***** Please don't make me out to be some fangirl of the law; I'm stating facts about it (as I understand them). Precisely because we don't want to conflate what's legal with what's moral, the question is still on the table: Does Mr. McDaniel -- or anyone else -- have ethical obligations to request permission when the law does not require it (i.e., when fair use is strictly followed)? ***** Other questions legitimately follow: Who will not have this extra-legal ethical obligation? Which individuals and groups will be protected by this extra-legal ethical obligation from others, and which will not? Why or why not? Who establishes the criteria? How much disagreement about criteria will be acceptable? Is it acceptable for different arts communities to establish their own ethical standards? If this is the realm of morality and not law, how do you want to proceed with enforcement? Encourage compliance? Manage failures to comply? Will bigotry and exploitation be the only explanations for non-compliance? ***** Here is Ms. Young's prescription for the ethical standards: "First, we have to obtain permissions and establish an honest relationship. Beyond that, it is useful to have an ongoing examination of who is benefiting from the project." ***** Except for "obtain permissions," those two sentences are not clear and thorough, they're gestural. How do you know you're having an honest relationship? What constitutes an ongoing examination? When does ongoing end? How is closure managed? How are benefits evaluated? ***** Does anyone want to ask some questions here? Look, I'm not an authority on any of these issues. I don't have any particular bona fides. But folks need to be serious about the questions -- and very serious about the answers -- if they want to be taken seriously about new norms, clear ground rules, conversation, and acceptable vs unacceptable appropriation based on community standards, not current law. ***** Please can we practice more explicitness and exploration here? The outrage might be cathartic, but I'm not convinced it's very clarifying.

On August 22, 2010 at 11:26am Lopez wrote:

Cheri, I'm not sure that the book doesn't violate copyright law. You write, "I'll also presume there was no infringement and there was evidence of proper fair use." What evidence are you basing this on? To me, the book's use of the testimonies does seem to fall within the guidelines of fair use; and, those guidelines are examined on a case-by-case basis. This is from the U.S. copyright office: "The distinction between fair use and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission."

On August 22, 2010 at 1:29pm Britta Ameel wrote:

In the way of full disclosure, I too am a friend and admirer and former colleague of Ray's. I have distant ties to Abe Louise Young but no personal relationship. Like Charlotte, I read Saltwater Empire in ms form and was transported by its thoughtful attention to language as shaped by experience and experience as shaped by language. Ray's deep and complex understanding of his manuscript's intentions as voiced here reflects a poet who enters into dialogue carefully and without blinders. I am certain Ray understood the risks involved in writing this book, and I thank him for that--for acknowledging those risks privately and publicly and still being willing to put forth something risky into the world to encourage conversation and contemplation. All good art does this, and we should be ashamed of ourselves for turning this into something so gross and overly simplified, for politicizing--nay, I don't even think we can call this conversation a political one, it's devolved so much--for trivializing and condensing aesthetics. Quite frankly, Abe's argument disgusts me. It feels like a vendetta, like her own dirty laundry, and I want nothing to do with it. And yet, here I am. I am here to defend my friend, yes, because he is a good person, and because he is a friend and he is hurt, yes. But I am also here to request an answer from Abe. A conversation, at least, not just every single one of her fingers pointing a sharp nail at Ray, even kids know that's no way to make progress in a relationship or community. Answer us, Abe. Answer Ray. Give him a call. Tell us and him what he can do now. Because I know he cares deeply--about poems and art and the Saltwater Empire, its people and its air-temperature rain. It may be hard to see that here, covered up by all these mean-spirited attacks (really, that's what they are--how can we treat such a complicated issue as being all Ray's fault??) and false arguments, but it's there in Ray's deeply felt, heartbreaking, honest and important book. Thank you, Ray.

On August 22, 2010 at 8:06pm Julie Delegal wrote:

I'm a lifelong friend of Ray McDaniel's. I'm not an academic and have barely begun, late in life, to write. For any writer to be called a plagiarist must be an electrifying, painful experience. Plagiarists don't credit their sources. But Ray did; he did not plagiarize. Cheri, above, noted same. Whatever conversation follows (and I'd be happy to see this one end) should also acknowledge that fact.

On August 23, 2010 at 12:40pm Cheri Hickman wrote:

Hi there, Lopez -- I say "presume" exactly because fair use is, as they say, an argument one makes (based and judged on four specific and dynamic criteria, which I hope folks have by now read and thought about). Legal fair use is decided by the courts, and interpretation is a big factor in deciding cases. One role of an attorney is to offer recommendations as to legal merit and interpretations. ***** It's been two years since this "conflict" began, Ms. Young avoids legal arguments here, and she (now) avoids words like "plagiarism," since not to do so would be libelous. Why libelous? Because words aren't opinions, they have definitions, and Mr. McDaniel did not plagiarize and to make that claim is ethically (and legally) serious. [In other words, one doesn't get to feel that something is plagiarized: it either is or isn't plagiarized.] ***** Again, I only presume Ms. Young has consulted an attorney and been advised; I take care to note when I'm making presumptions. I presume this because of statements Ms. Young made in the past of which I'm aware (and have already noted), the formal copyrighted status of Alive in Truth, and her obvious investment in the rights of those involved with the project. ***** Absolutely anyone at all could review the four fair use criteria and try to make an argument that Mr. McDaniel does or does not fall short. I did it. And in 2009 I consulted an acquaintance who is an attorney. ***** I'm pretty interested in current copyright/copyleft forms and arguments, asymmetries in who is served and who is benefited, and how fair use doctrine currently functions in that space for everyone, including artists. (Lewis Hyde just this week published a book on the history of copyright, in case anyone's interested.) ***** You'll note that many sites include their copyright status and also advise others to follow fair use when not seeking permissions. Despite what's unfolding here, to intelligently believe one is following fair use criteria, to respect fair use with acknowledgment, isn't universally or commonly understood as a devilish practice with predatory intent. ***** I would offer that Ms. Young might want to include a statement at Alive in Truth that the organization asks for permission inquiries even in cases where fair use might apply. I'd hate to have to encounter another essay from Ms. Young constructed to support this kind -- and level -- of argument.

On August 23, 2010 at 1:01pm Cheri Hickman wrote:
[Time out! Before the stampede: For purposes here, words aren't *only* opinions or interpretative symbols. I really don't want to trigger a tangential or academic kerfuffle about linguistic philosophy. I don't have the stomach, or the heart, for it right now.]

On August 23, 2010 at 1:15pm Josh wrote:

I'd love to read articles by Abe Louise Young and Ray McDaniel about the filming of post-apocalyptic landscapes in post-Ike Galveston (my hometown): 10-monsters-movie-texas-anderson-fair- brotherhood/ "The Hurricane Ike devastated land of Galveston became a perfect set for 'Monsters'."

On August 23, 2010 at 7:07pm Chuck Powell wrote:

[Disclaimer: I am a friend of Raymond McDaniel's. I am not a poet and I am no longer paid to write creatively.] This is what I find myself wondering through this whole debate. How many victims of horrors (both man-made and natural) have been asked if their words can be used by another to translate their experience into something outsiders might understand? I wonder if any of us, whether those who are offended by Saltwater Empire or those who aren't, have stopped reading works of history or fiction about Native Americans, Holocaust survivors, the Khmer Rouge, the Balkan conflicts, etc. because we had to go see if a quote was gained not only legally but when the speaker had given permission for every possible use of their words, now and in the future, by anyone? I wonder how many of those here so offended on behalf of another would tell their own children to shut out someone who is trying to make amends, to hold their hands over their ears and sing "LALALALA" loudly so they cannot hear the words I'm sorry? I wonder how many people would find Ray such an easy hobgoblin if he were a black rapper from LA who'd never set foot in the South, and who merged some of the voices into his heartfelt new album of tracks about race and politics in America? I wonder if Abe Louise Young asked permission from the people she recorded for the typeface and colors used on her website to represent their stories?*****There are a lot of assumptions one makes regarding the intentions of others, but the point that Ray seems to be making (I'd rather not assume) is that his intent to tell a meaningful story while *justly* using the words of others was a failure to many, including the woman who had collected those words. Understand that you may have acted differently, and understand that he has tried to make amends. Understand that you may have viewed his actions in a different light if notions of who he is and what categories humanity sees him in were different. But understand that the actions were not particularly different than those that have been championed on other days in other forms...maybe even by you or those you admire.

On August 23, 2010 at 11:00pm Alan Altimont wrote:

I am a friend of Abe Young's, and I am not acquainted with Mr. McDaniel. I concur with the several writers who have argued that Mr. McDaniel's failure to secure the permission clearly requested on the Alive in Truth website was an ethical blunder. He has also, though, made an aesthetic blunder. Heartfelt though they may be, none of the many glittering abstractions of his essay manages to illuminate what is surely its most wondrous strange passage: "Because of [various thematic parallels], I thought it would be a conspicuous absence to not include Katrina and her aftermath. But because I wasn't there, I didn't want to ventriloquize those who had been...." Even setting aside the dubious assumptions that to appropriate is both ethically and aesthetically more pleasing than to ventriloquize and that these are the only two options the poor poet has at his disposal, we are left to unpack that "conspicuous absence" that would have left his book . . . what? Less "necessary?" And left the poet himself absent from the scene of disaster--which, in fact, by his own admission he was? This worry about a conspicuous absence was really a worry about fulfilling certain kinds of readers' expectations, a worry the poet attempted to dispel by taking the easy road of found authenticity. Eloquent testimony to this aesthetic blunder can be seen in Dan Nicola's 8/23 response to Ms. Young's essay. Otherwise an admirer of Mr. McDaniel's work, Mr. Nicola's new-found disappointment in "Convention Centers of the New World" reminds me of what it's like to discover in student writing instances of what we euphemistically call "inadvertent" plagiarism: yes, the references are all in order, but the language is lifted nearly wholesale from the source, without quotation. In a student it's symptomatic of intellectual laziness, of a failure of the imagination. They often can't even see how the style of the appropriated language is superior to their own, more precise, more assured. They risk getting found out because their essays would otherwise be full of conspicuous absences, realms of knowledge with which they have had no direct experience. McDaniel, it seems to me, has taken much the same sort of risk and been found out. He's done nothing illegal, but for a poet, as for many of our politicians, that's no cause for celebration.

On August 24, 2010 at 12:39am SG wrote:

There may be, in fact, fair use laws that make it technically legal for McDaniel to do what he did. If that's the case, then that's unfortunate. But art forms, I believe, need to adhere to a higher moral standard, one that acknowledges the intrinsic value of the written, or spoken, word. It seems to me that McDaniel's apologists are treading on some very shaky ground here. If it is acceptable for McDaniel to take and rearrange the copywrited words of others, then does this mean that I might publish a book of Jorie Graham's poems under my own name, and simply acknowledge that I've plagarized them all at the end of the book? Is the re-arragning really the important fact here? What if I were to re-edit the selected poems of Robert Hass, and publish them under my own name, with a brief acknowledgement at the end? Acceptable or not? And if these things are, in fact, not acceptable, then why do Hass and Graham deserve to be protected in a way that the members of the AliveInTruth project do not?

On August 24, 2010 at 11:27am rob wrote:
I wonder, have any of the negative commenters read a minor poem called "The Waste Land"?

On August 24, 2010 at 12:35pm Cheri Hickman wrote:

SG -- What on earth? Are you implying equivalency between your examples and Saltwater Empire? I can't imagine anyone would or could make a fair use argument for what you've described, not because of who the authors are, but because of the material as you've described it. You, as the author of such a book -- which would not resemble Saltwater Empire -- might try to make moral or aesthetic arguments for the project, in good or bad faith, but looking at the case law, I doubt you'd meet even one of the four criteria for fair use. -------> Have you even looked at the legal criteria for a fair use argument? Have you spent time at the Alive in Truth web site? With Raymond McDaniel's book? ------> "But art forms, I believe, need to adhere to a higher moral standard, one that acknowledges the intrinsic value of the written, or spoken, word." What intrinsic value? Of words? Why words, or only words? And why only art forms? But since you're there, I prefer to question any single prescriptive, policed role -- adhering to this or acknowledging that -- for any thinking artist standing on any piece of dirt on this gasping planet.

On August 24, 2010 at 12:46pm Malka wrote:

Rob- Thank you! I found myself wondering the same thing about Eliot.*****So, as I previously stated, I have read and was moved by McDaniel's book (the ENTIRE book, in addition to the one poem in question here that I suspect many posters on this site have not bothered to read), and have also read the Alive in Truth narratives at that website. I did the latter two years ago at the prompting of McDaniel himself. I find both works complementary and important.*****Prompted by what at times appears to be an orchestrated attempt at character assassination of McDaniel on this site, I bothered to do some research.*****Michelle, in a posting above, notes correctly that the Alive in Truth website states "Copyright © 2006 Alive in Truth. All rights reserved. All interviews, archival material, and photos are protected by copyright and require written permission from Alive in Truth for excerpts or reproduction in any form." That is what the site says TODAY, undoubtedly due to Young's upset over [her/our/their?] stories being what she deems "misappropriated."****** However, based on archival images of the Alive in Truth website, cached homepages of Young's site as late as May 11, 2008 carry the copyright statement alone (see:****** McDaniel's book was published in 2008, which means he would have originally accessed the narratives on AIT earlier than that. From conversations with him, I think he came across Young's website in late 2005 - early 2006. As of early 2006, cached pages of the website include a call for donations for the project (, in which an anonymous author (or the disembodied entity Alive in Truth) states: "You can help! If you would like to donate directly to relief and advocacy effort, or give to help a particular narrator, please specify. We will put your money to use with deep integrity, and it will directly improve the lives of New Orleans evacuees in Texas. We are committed to staying connected to our narrators and supporting them as they continue with their life transitions after Hurricane Katrina. This work is entirely dependent on donations, love, and the dedication of people who are moved to help. Can’t give money? Send a link to our website to five of your friends! Getting the stories out is our mission, and you can be part of this network simply by sharing the word". ******And now another look at the copyright page of McDaniel's book, in which he states "[f]or more information about Alive in Truth, including opportunities to donate to the organization so that it can continue to preserve the voices of the Gulf Coast, please visit their website at...."*****It seems to me that McDaniel made a good faith effort to fulfill the request of Alive in Truth: he spread the word, emphasizing the importance of financial donations to the project. Also, nowhere on the site at that time (or up to two years later) is there any requirement to receive written permission for any sort of reproduction, so McDaniel did not request such. As there was a copyright mark at the bottom of the page, he gave credit (and gratitude, and the attention of many readers) to the project and followed the fair use guidelines, as noted by Cheri.******I also attempted to find the date of registration of Alive in Truth with the U.S. Copyright Office, but don't find it officially registered. This doesn't mean it isn't a valid copyright, of course. From my admittedly non-litigious understanding, however, it does mean that Alive in Truth is unable to sue for infringement.***** So, to those of you who want to assume a nefarious plot on the part of McDaniel, Devil-Poet, to steal the earnestly transcribed words of these victims who are so hypervigilently sheltered by Young, I suggest the following: 1) give everyone in this situation the benefit of the doubt, 2) actually READ Saltwater Empire, 3) quit using oversimplifications and stereotypes to reify an assumed good vs. evil contest here, and 4) get back to work doing something useful to society, and end this strange little pissing contest.*****It is my sincerest hope that McDaniel and Young have already done so.

On August 24, 2010 at 3:17pm Cheri wrote:

Malka -- Thanks for providing further context. I do think Ms. Young has some obligation, too, to give people concerned with these issues greater access to specific chronology, content, and context alongside the essay's interpretations. That assertion is in no way meant to supplant a discussion about seeking permissions in this or other contexts. I'm not interested in some kind of argumentative triumphalism here. These issues do and will co-exist. But there can't be any good reason to then reject an appeal for things to be thorough and clear, and described and investigated well. To operate from good faith. To seek further understanding, to learn something more or something else too. And to allow that failure, questions, and disagreement are inevitable -- and can be leashed to more than one motivation or set of circumstances. Again, to assert that something could be handled in richer and more thorough ways is not to assert that you have to like something else, condone it, or relinquish other demands or expectations of it.

On August 24, 2010 at 4:21pm Alan Altimont wrote:

Rob & Malka: I see your "Wasteland" and raise you a "Paterson." Consider, e.g., the pains WCW went to to secure the permission of EP, Elizabeth Nardi, etc. to use their letters (see Paul Mariani's "WCW: A New World Naked"), which are also unambiguously set apart from the epic narrator's voice. Admittedly, this is private correspondence, but also, you must admit, these were living people. WCW extended them some courtesy. The situation is much closer to McDaniel's than Eliot's is. I have a hard time drumming up the same concern I have for Ms. Young's interviewees on behalf of Madame Sosostris, the Archduke, and Gerard de Nerval. Is there really no significant distinction to be made between one poet's appropriation of the stories of Katrina survivors and another's of "HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME?"

On August 24, 2010 at 8:04pm SG wrote:

Cheri-- Unless I misunderstand, you are saying two mutually exclusive things. First, you imply that McDanial should be judged only according to Fair Use Law, then you write that you question any "prescriptive, policed role, etc, ect" which seems, to me, to be exactly what Fair Use is. I wonder if you could clarify exactly whether you do or do not think that fair use is the only criteria by which artistic appopriation should be judged. Also, you seem to have taken a hostile tone towards me in your message to me. Why?

On August 24, 2010 at 8:18pm SG wrote:

I'm sorry to double post, but I meant to include another example to try to understand, more clearly, the stance of McDaniel's defenders. If I were to, say, go to a maximum security prison, and interview death row inmates, record the conversations and then--without saying anything to them--publish their words as my own poems, with only an acknowledgement of the process at the end of the book, would this or would this not be morally acceptable? To me, even if it were technically legal, that would be morally wrong. I'm not trying to be hostile here--but really curious what people think.

On August 25, 2010 at 12:04am Liz G. wrote:

It's settled: One should unambiguously set apart quoted material in poems including poems that address any of the following problems: certainty, identity, interpretation, displacement & categorization. I don't suppose we could just shake on it after all this . . .

On August 25, 2010 at 11:50am Cheri wrote:

Hey, SG -- I'm not implying "that McDaniel should be judged *only* according to Fair Use Law." My last post, and *all* my others (sigh), make it pretty clear (I hope) that I couldn't be less interested in dictating where or how people choose to stand about these issues (plural) -- if they position themselves anywhere at all or if they prefer a hybrid position. Judge away! ***** However, I am interested in people being clear about the terms and the facts of the discussion. I'm pro-accuracy and pro-nuance. Whether folks like it or not, this also concerns the Internet, copyright, and related things like Fair Use doctrine. There is an existing scaffolding. And it's *one* of multiple contexts, and it's one that is host to much other current argument, ignorance, and willful ignorance, and it's hard to tell the uninitiated from the idiots, from the jerks, from the opportunists, from the racists (or any combination thereof, if one finds the categorizations useful). I've tried to explain what I know about this particular context and its terms, shared some of my links, etc, for the sake of how we talk about those things here, and I've encouraged other people to educate themselves about it too. If you can bear reading all my posts (I know I couldn't), I hope that's the main of what you'd find. ***** I question any prescriptive, policed *role*; in other words, I was responding to a commenter's intimations that an artist *must* embody and perform set concerns in set ways ("adhering to a higher moral standard" -- as if that's a static, monolithic, unauthored reality for people everywhere; "one that acknowledges the intrinsic value of the written, or spoken, word" -- I would never acknowledge such a thing nor demand anyone else swear allegiance). As for being law-abiding, well, I said I wasn't going to be the law's fangirl, and I mean it. If artists anywhere want to push against the merits and morality of a law (through art, direct action, or both), think it through and then get to it. You won't hear me saying, however, that they all have that role or responsibility. Frankly and personally, it's my opinion that a bunch of them would suck at it, and their talents are probably best put to use at more oblique angles. That said, I don't think my personal *opinion* should count for much, and I don't like cozying up to it. ***** I'm sorry if my tone sounded hostile, SG. From ALY's original post to the comments, this thing has rolled out on fire, and that's really troubled me. I've tried to set myself another path, but I've surely made a hash of it more than once, in more than one direction.

On August 25, 2010 at 12:18pm Tired wrote:

Hi SG, I'm not so sure I follow this line of reasoning: "If I were to, say, go to a maximum security prison, and interview death row inmates, record the conversations and then--without saying anything to them--publish their words as my own poems, with only an acknowledgement of the process at the end of the book, would this or would this not be morally acceptable? To me, even if it were technically legal, that would be morally wrong. I'm not trying to be hostile here--but really curious what people think." /// I think that's a bit of a false analogy. How about this, in stead: X goes to a prison in the name of cataloguing, archiving, and publicly presenting the dying words of prisoners. Then X posts it on the Internet, hoping that the public will be interested, concerned, think about it, who knows. Then Y, perhaps an artist, says, "That's interesting, and I could work that into my poetry to try to bring awareness to the psychological damages of death row. I will remix other people's voices, letting them stand on their own (lest I have the audacity to imagine their experiences), cite what I did and how I did it, and bring attention to the website itself at my readings." Is this more specific and parallel analogy immoral, I wonder, and how?

On August 25, 2010 at 5:18pm Cheri wrote:

Hold on there, Tired. I think your analogy is more factually accurate, but I still think it's oversimplified and leaves out some relevant context. We don't know if Mr. McDaniel said, simply, "That's interesting, I think I'll do a, b, and c." We don't know if he was at Alive in Truth for 20 hours, 20 days, or 20 months. We know for a fact that whatever followed took less time and involved different methods than the Reznikoff and Rukeyser books. That said (apart from issues with copyright/fair use), there are no official handbooks, merit badges, or bona fides for when and how one "gets" to address issues one cares about and is concerned with. Which doesn't mean you aren't gonna get schooled. And there are different schools of schooling; probably people think some are more ethical than others. If context matters at all when thinking about this stuff, I believe Saltwater Empire's construction began around 1999 and was completed in mid-2007, during which I think it's only fair to consider that McDaniel, also a teacher, committed to some serious thinking and reading, among other things. And my eternal caveat: This is meant to function as context. It is not meant to trump or diminish anyone else's thinking, concerns, or point or view.

On August 26, 2010 at 1:06am SG wrote:

Tired-- Of course it's still wrong. In fact, here's a link to a book of interviews with actual death-row inmates compiled by graduate students: Shall we cut and paste from the book and see if we can't publish ourselves a book of poems?

On August 26, 2010 at 10:55am Tired wrote:

SG, Why is it wrong? If I want to write a poem based on witness testimony and I credit that testimony and explain my methods, what is so unethical about that? I won't have claimed to have collected the materials or to be the original voice. Is it more or less ethical than if I imagine or reimagine traumatic experiences that I myself have never been through?. I'd just like to know what you find so wrong about it, so clear cut about it, that you can say "of course"?///Thanks, Cheri, for your continued effort to contextualize. I do think analogies tend to be oversimplifications, and many of those batted around on these boards have been miscalculated at best. Also, context seems especially significant since McDaniel appears to be on trial or practically already burning at the stake.

On August 26, 2010 at 11:54am Stacy Parker Le Melle wrote:

I must begin by saying that I feel deeply for both Abe Louise Young and Raymond McDaniel, because despite the consequences, I believe both approached their work with the best of intentions. However, I read these essays, and the subsequent discussions, and all I can think of is: poet, meet consequences. The fact is that all of us writers must deal with the natural laws of the universe. Its nice that we have copywrite and fair use laws to guide us, but in the end, they don't hold much sway over the responses of those we choose to include in our stories. Now, let me say that I too have collected Katrina oral histories ( and I am also a memoirist ( Let me say unequivocally that the hardest part, emotionally, of each project, was trying to be respectful of others' stories, and making sure others were OK with how their stories were used--and yet, telling the truth as best I understood it. With the oral history project, at every step of the way I allow participants to change/edit/delete/add to their stories. The operating principle is that their stories are theirs and to the best of our abilities, they must have the final say. Can't say the same, however, for the memoir. While I felt I made good faith efforts in sharing chapters with people who entered into the storyline, I didn't approach everybody (ex. this was a White House memoir and I didn't share chapters with President Clinton or Vernon Jordan, but I did with many others, if I could contact them). I didn't do this because Harper Legal made me, I did this because I was trying to do right by these folks--and because I knew there were real world consequences to the sort of taking we do as writers. And it is taking. And I know it is taking because there were some people who did not want to be in the book at all. They had their reasons and I had mine. I had to decide that my reasons > theirs. Or at least equaled theirs. It was a very hard thing to do, and time will tell if I made the right decisions. Toughest still was that the most resistent folks were my closest family members. But I have to live with that. It's tough to go out on the record like that--especially for those of us socialized to play nice, and avoid confrontation. That is why I must say that I admire Abe Louise Young for coming out and saying what she felt needed to be said. She has clearly hit a nerve. [Last disclosure: I am a friend of ALY's as well] That also being said, I look forward to actually reading *Saltwater Empire* in full. I think there must be space and possibility to include others' words and experiences in our storytelling--that there is power and beauty in this. But then, we must ask ourselves, if we indeed care about and respect these people, show it in deed. Extend your hand (before publication!). Listen. And be ready for their yes--or their no. [One last note: I recently went to a reading where a prominent writer was discussing his book where the character was based on a still-living famous person. Someone in the audience said, you know, if you want, I could arrange it for you to meet him. The author said, no, that's OK, I don't have to... My suggestion for all of us: don't be this author. Or else it really does appear that it's all about you.]

On August 26, 2010 at 12:02pm Cheri wrote:

Huh, SG. I see you take very seriously keeping an even tone in these discussions, or do you just take seriously tagging someone else for their tone with you? Asymmetrically ethical discussions of ethics are, really, my favorite ethical discussions of all. Keep it up, folks. I happen to think your cause, or what you believe is your cause, deserves better. ***** Are you really reading any of the comments/responses, *thinking* about them, and following up with that last little nugget? I don't know what that is, but it surely isn't good faith engagement. Or not how I was taught it anyway.

On August 26, 2010 at 12:42pm SG wrote:

"I do think analogies tend to be oversimplifications." Really? How can you possibly be someone who is interested in literature and believe that? Of course it's not wrong to write about the suffering of others. But it's how you access that suffering that makes all the difference. I think taking the language, especially of those who have gone through great suffering, without asking and/or making it clear, within the body of a text, who is being written about, or who is speaking, is a violation. You don't. I happen to think by putting the citation on the acknowledgements page, McDaniel was being intentionally confusing, which he more or less stated in his essay. You think that's okay. Anyway, I won't go on, and I certainly have no interest in burning McDaniel at the stake, as you say (I've never met him or Abe Young).I'm sure he's a fine person. I entered this debate because it seems to be about what is or isn't appropriate when it comes to utilizing other people's language. That seems important to me and worth discussing. But I also understand that there are a lot of people on here, on both sides, trying to defend their friend, which seems less interesting, so it's probably better to remove myself.

On August 26, 2010 at 2:39pm Tired wrote:

SG -- An analogy, in the literary sense - - a metaphor, simile, etc. -- is a means of accessing the experiential from other points of view. Engaging in metaphorical work can, in one manner, open up interpretation, but unless you're mixing metaphors or working in very complicated ones, it's still limited in its representation. So, in that way, yes, analogies can be simplifications. And it really depends on the analogy -- not all analogies are good, appropriate, or interesting. However, I don't really think there's always something at stake in literary craft (though there can be). Now when it comes to analogies of human behavior, of motives and effects, of political problems -- this is a different realm, and so I do believe things tend toward oversimplification. An analogy in this sense is a way of tidying things up, if you will, of making the murky clear, etc./// That was merely a response to your shock that I find analogies simplistic (not always! I promise.). But beyond my own thoughts on analogy in literature or persuasive argumentation, I'd like to comment on what you find unethical about McDaniel's actions. You said: "I happen to think by putting the citation on the acknowledgements page, McDaniel was being intentionally confusing..." Where else are citations supposed to go? How can you claim to know anything about McDaniel's intentions? Whether or not people were confused doesn't mean McDaniel TRIED to confuse them, or TRIED to claim these voices as his own. McDaniel, in his essay, writes: "Although it never occurred to me that anyone could possibly mistake how the poem was made, I cited both the source of the text and the methodology in the front matter of the book, as well as including an expression of thanks to the organizers, volunteers, and interviewees. I also encouraged readers to visit the site for themselves, a recommendation I’ve made in interviews and at readings since, because regardless of any controversy regarding my use, it’s an invaluable civic record and deserves greater attention and support...I did, and made any readers and listeners I may have had aware of the poem’s origin, conception, and execution." How is that intentionally confusing? How do you read the above as unethical?///Look, I understand that you may want to leave this discussion, as it's become awfully fiery (but do think, for a moment, how you would feel if one of your closest allies were deemed a racist plagiarist over something that is debatable), but I sincerely would like to know, given the quote I posted, how you can still see this as CLEARLY unethical, or purport to understand McDaniel's intentions as such.

On August 26, 2010 at 6:48pm SG wrote:

Here's another thing McDaniel writes: "One of the assumptions some readers of Saltwater Empire made was that because they heard a panoply of voices, I must have paid careful attention to the wide variety of people who occupy what was once my home. To an extent, this is true. But the assumption overlooks the more intriguing fact that I am that wide variety of people." And later... "...even as I tried to make the transitions as seamless as possible. I hoped this would both ease and confuse the reader’s expectations of what it might mean to speak and be heard..." He's suggesting, I think (though I admit I often found his essay contradictory and jumbled at times--if you didn't, well, good for you), that he's intentionally conflated the poet's voice with the voices from the project. Which is fine, if it's clear that that's what he's doing, and there are countless ways, within the body of a work, to make this clear: There are titles (see Frank Bidart's "Ellen West), there are epigraphs, there are quoation marks, there is the language itself. This might not be exactly how he envisioned the poems, but his vision isn't the only thing at stake. And beyond this, the fact remains, he should have asked permission, and if he'd even admitted that much--that asking permission was the right thing to do--I think the criticism he's now receiving would be much more muted. I'm sure that it's painful to see one of your closest allies being criticized, especially if you genuinely feel that criticism is unfounded, but I also feel that 1) it's very difficult to look at things objectively when a friend is involved, and 2) that the poetry world, and people's opinions about poetry, is already far too ruled by friendship, allegniances, etc. I mean, think of Bishop's harsh criticism of Lowell when he "remixed" Elizabeth Hardwick's letters into "Dolphin"--does that sort of criticism between friends ever happen anymore? I'm sure that there are also people out there, who aren't friends with McDaniel, who would also side wit him, but this particular thread does seem to be dominated by friends and colleagues on both sides. To me, this has nothing to do with Ray McDaniel the person (I certainly don't think he's a racist, and as I've said, I'm sure he's a probably a good person in many, many ways) but I do think that to blindly accept the pracite sets an unhealthy precident for the future of poetry, and that was the point of the analogies: if this is acceptable, what isn't? Given your defense of this book, can you think of an example when it wouldn't be appropriate to take someone else's words, remix them, without permission, and justify the practice with only a note on the acknowledgements page? Is it always acceptable practice? Or are there exceptions? Can I take any language availabe to me and remix it? Or just certain langauge? Which language? Who's words can I take, and whose words are off limits? Who gets to make that distinction? You don't need to answer--I have my convictions, you have yours--but my point is that the question of where this leads matters more to me than any individal book. As far as anology is concerned, I'd encourage anyone who's interested in the subject to check out Douglas Hofstader's "Analogy as the Core of Cognition," if you have the time. It's unbelievably profound about the nature of the mind, and the power of analogy. The end. Good luck to everyone.

On August 27, 2010 at 12:50am Yoshi wrote:

Okay, I think I am seeing what you are arguing about. I think the question is not "Did the poet McDaniel try to confuse readers," but "Did the poet McDaniel try to inform readers?" I would say, No, because I am a teacher of freshman reading, and I do not teach students to read the Copyright page. I teach them to read Introduction, Table of Contents, Body of Text, Notes, and Afterword to understand a book. If the poet were to wanting to inform readers where this ethnographic poem were coming from, Copyright page is not the place to do that, because Copyright page is where the legal writing of permissions, date of author's birth, publisher address, and ISBN belong. He did write there where he found the ethnography. But that is confusing: in this case the reader then thinks that he had permissions, and then thinks that he made the book with the help of the people who gave the permissions, and they had some conferencing about it. So the question is not "Did McDaniel try to confuse," but "Would I have been confused if I read his book before these articles?" The answer is Yes, because I never would have read the Copyright page, and I would think then that the poet made up the poem.

On August 27, 2010 at 11:35am Dr. Kelly Manley wrote:

It seems to me that the main concern should be whether or not there are witnesses to these oral histories. With all due respect, I think that anything that expands the audience to their experiences is good. McDaniel did not profit financially and will likely not profit in terms of career advancement. High-minded arguments about intellectual property have their place, but the ultimate goal of the oral history project should be having voices heard, not protecting "ownership" non-existent material rewards.

On August 27, 2010 at 1:52pm Pat Rabby wrote:

After reading many comments, I am still puzzled why McDaniel did not conduct his own interviews and use that material in his book. That opportunity was available. If he had, we would not be discussing the matter of appropriation or improper use. Never mind the copyright page for the Alive in Truth project, although I agree that the work there should not have been appropriated. The question of doing one's own work is central to me. McDaniel took a unsavory short cut when he used someone else's project/story without permission to advance his poem. How much more would he have gained if he had done his own field work, looked the story-tellers in the eyes, and experienced their nuanced telling? I see this as a matter of integrity and authenticity for writers.

On August 27, 2010 at 6:02pm m. e. silverman wrote:

Has anyone bothered to bring up the fact of whether the poetry in question is even any good? I think not, but that is my opinion. I think there are quite a few poets jumping on the Katrina bandwagon, and I wonder when enough is enough. I was there during this horrible time, and I would never dare to do what this author did. Let's remember that Bad (with a big B) poetry will be quickly forgotten. Most poetry only has a 2 year shelf life anyway, but the more we pay it heed, the more it endures. Even bad press can be good, as they say in Hollywood.

On August 28, 2010 at 1:12pm Alan Altimont wrote:

One of the contradictions in McDaniel's essay that SG may have in mind is worth considering since it is so central to the essay's core logic. McDaniel starts off by stating that it seems impossible to him to describe his process: "I don't know what I did; I only know what I tried to do, what I wanted to do." Yet he concludes his thorough and clear description of what he did in fact do with the observation that "it never occurred to me that anyone could mistake how the poem was made." So, the poet seems to be claiming, I the writer have no memory/control/culpability over my work, but to you the readers this process, so mysterious to me, should be utterly transparent. This is logic serving the rhetorical purposes of the moment. Individually, though, neither statement holds up under scrutiny. Asked to write about process, he uses the phrase "what I did" not actually to mean "the steps I took in composition," but rather "the end product," which as he goes on to say, readers are interpreting in various and surprising ways. This little ambiguity is why the first statement seems so counter-intuitive. Intention, which he claims to be absolutely certain about, is usually for most modern believers in the unconscious the iffy subject, not the steps in the composition process, whose myriad permutations have been laid out by and about numerous poets for quite a long time now. It's a little bait-and-switch: it's really those pesky, unpredictable readers--what will they think of next? The second statement, and contradictory view of an entirely predictable reader, is used to try to make a case for McDaniel's due diligence. I unpack it thus: "While I've known for years how unpredictable readers can be, when it comes to deciding what lengths I ought reasonably to go to credit sources, gain permissions, distinguish borrowed texts from my own, etc., I find it expedient to do very little since I have a newfound and unshakably certainty that readers will have no problem understanding how this poem was put together." In the light of what has come before, this second statement strikes me as disingenuous and not a little self-serving. As I have tried to suggest in some of my other postings, though, the bigger aesthetic issue is McDaniel's confounding of the notion of "language(s)" with the actual words transcribed on Ms. Young's website. He, along with his similar-minded supporters, would do well to refamiliarize themselves with Saussure's concepts of "langue" (language as system, agglomeration of dialects, grammar(s), with historical dimension, etc.) and "parole" (specific instances/embodiments of language in utterances and texts). Confounding these allows for a good deal of high-minded rationalization and excuse-making for the mishandling of these real speakers' stories.

On August 28, 2010 at 5:16pm Jesmyn Ward wrote:

Full disclosure: I know Raymond McDaniel. He's my friend. Further full disclosure: I am from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I'm black. I come from a poor, mostly black community called DeLisle, and I was at home in Mississippi for Katrina. The damage the storm did on the Coast was surreal. The storm was relentlessly savage, and our experience during the storm and after the storm was harrowing. I am a Katrina survivor from the very demographic that Young works with, one she purports to defend from Ray, who she has cast as the villain in her essay. In my opinion, Young's essay misunderstands the intent of Ray's poem and misunderstands his desire to honor the voices he used for that poem. She confuses Ray's real, genuine desire to honor the experiences of the Katrina survivors in New Orleans with "colonial vulturism." Ray is from the Gulf Coast, he still has family who lives there, he lived and worked in New Orleans for a time, and everything that I've learned about Ray's background and who he is as a person convinces me that this poem does not come from a place of racist privilege, but instead a place of genuine concern and love. The work Young does is important, but in accusing Ray of these ethical violations, Young is just as much of a colonialist as she accuses Ray of being. Young assumes that she speaks for every Katrina survivor Ray sampled. She's appropriating their voices and assuming their outrage. And I think that every survivor whose voice Ray made into "Convention Centers of the New World" is not outraged, and I'm sure that many of them would find the poem beautiful, as I did when I read it. I wrote an essay that was published in the Oxford American about me and my family's experience during Katrina, and the chief response that I received from those who I wrote about, who I quoted, was that they just wanted their story told. Sure, it was great that I was doing the telling, but they simply wanted it out there. They wanted the world to know what they'd suffered. My personal opinion is that Young has constructed a shoddy argument that relies largely on pathos and knee-jerk reactions to -isms while it ignores who Ray is, his poetry's aims, and the beauty of his work. The power of his poem, and hell, his book as a whole, does right by the people whose voices he quoted and their experiences: the poem is beautiful and haunting and it sticks with the reader. As a poor, black Katrina survivor who comes from a family of poor, black Katrina survivors who live on the Mississippi Gulf Coast AND in New Orleans (two uncles, several cousins, one half-sister), I stand by Ray's poem and by his book, and I appreciate that "Convention Centers of the New World" provides another avenue for testimony.

On August 31, 2010 at 12:44am New Orleanian wrote:
In New Orleans we say We ain't studyin' about you.

On September 10, 2010 at 1:02am lowell wrote:
Isn't the entire point of a website of witness to allow survivors' stories to enter the collective national consciousness, and thereby call us to action? I can't find any grounds on which to call Mr. McDaniel's book anything other than the work of a highly empathetic citizen.

On September 10, 2010 at 1:41am Elizabeth Staudt wrote:

Others have come to his defense more eloquently, but I want to add my voice to the chorus of those who know both Raymond and his work to be beautiful, humane, and generous. _Saltwater Empire_ is not the work of a vulture (a ghastly & off-base accusation) nor a ventriloquist, and whatever the gap between McDaniel's intentions and effects (oh, that gap--any writer in this thread surely knows it well, lives in it most of the time), his book succeeds in showing the "breadth of language one life can contain," and, in showing that life, real in the book's best moments as the reader's own, closing that other gap we all know well--between self and other.

On September 12, 2010 at 3:36am Alan Altimont wrote:

Ms. Staudt--your comment lacks nothing in the way of eloquence, but I don't find it persuasive. The issue with "Convention Centers" is not unhappy phrasing or portraiture that has been deemed racially offensive. That is usually the sort of situation prompting the defense: "I didn't intend to be racist/sexist/etc." Rather, Mr. McDaniel mishandled the material he used to make his poem, first by not securing permission for its use (an ethical mistake and a discourtesy) and second by not sufficiently distinguishing it from passages of his own composition (which I earlier characterized as an aesthetic blunder). Given what I take to be your sincere belief that writers know the intention/effect gap so well, I would have guessed you would have found his claim that "it never occurred to me that anyone could mistake how the poem was made" to be just as disingenuous and self-serving as I find it to be. Perhaps your friendship with him prevents you from acknowledging the flimsiness of this claim. The "breadth of language one life can contain" has a nice ring to it, but all it does is cast a gauzy film over Mr. McDaniel's decisions and actions concerning the specific words spoken by the Katrina survivors.

On September 15, 2010 at 5:31pm Alan Altimont wrote:

As to this poet's intentions, which for his friends are of paramount importance, even Ms. Young has conceded that they may have been noble, and I would remove her mitigation entirely: obviously, the general intention of this poet was to honor the victims of both the storm and of the horrid mix of neglect and brutality that followed in its wake. Whose intentions, though, are utterly singular and pure? He himself states that he intended to write a poem about the storm's aftermath to fill a "conspicuous absence" in his manuscript, an intention that would seem to be based on considerations of aesthetics and also reputation ("What kind of Gulf Coast poet would I be if I published a book without a poem addressing the storm?"). Neither of these intentions is damning, of course, but they indicate a variety of intentions operating at once, not all ethical. And then we come to the use of the archival texts and the failure to seek permission: what intentions can be discerned operating here? First, and most fundamentally: "I intend to use these texts to make a poem." Fine (though I have elsewhere noted the problems of the handling of these texts). Second, and truly troubling, is an intention behind failing to seek permission posited by several earlier commentators: "I intend to use these texts without troubling to seek permission because I will not take no for an answer." Isn't that what really stands behind his assertion that the texts are in the public domain, to be used as he saw fit, despite Ms. Young's stipulation? My noble desire to make a poem out of this powerful testimony trumps Ms. Young's desire to safeguard this testimony--which her efforts preserved. Otherwise known as "the ends justify the means." I can understand why the poet's friends would wish to think this way, but why should they expect anyone else to?

On September 19, 2010 at 3:05pm Anny wrote:

[Disclosure: I know Raymond McDaniel] I have read the essay, Saltwater Empire, and all of the previous comments. Despite the fact that I am intrigued, enraged, and upset about this heated debate, I ask all of you to think about what you are doing. This is an intellectual debate between intellectuals who have nothing better to do than to continue this chain of comments expressing opinions on trivial matters. No matter who is wrong or who is right, does this really matter? Does this conversation (if we can call it a conversation after so many verbal attacks on each other) or will this conversation help the people that need to be helped in any way? No. This is an abstract issue you guys are discussing and no matter how much you people discuss this issue, other help-needed places cannot be helped and will not change because so-and-so said this or so-and-so said that. Really, why don't you guys go out to a third-world or fourth-world country and do some good? Have any of you been to a place that is so poor and so backward that they eat their own children? I cannot believe that people would spend time debating about issues like this while people or dying out there. All this seems absurd to me.

On August 28, 2012 at 3:46pm Simon Seamount wrote:
Abe Louise Young wrote in her essay, "I had a vague idea that one day I might work these testimonies into a book of poetry ... but that notion was quickly discarded, in part because none of the narrators liked it. Rightfully, they wanted to be the authors, and they wanted their narratives published in full."

The fact that she wanted to write their testimonies into poetry, but they all said no, then Daniel, without asking, appropriates the text and does what they told her not to do, is the key.

Daniel could very easily have written a set of poems without appropriating their words, and could still easily do so, rewriting his poems to take out their words, and republish his book.

On March 27, 2014 at 7:35pm -d. wrote:
Whoa Raymond McDaniel: what the...?!

He could have listened and learned from the discussion on authentic
voice - and self-determination.

He could have been thankful for the opportunity to move forward and
be open to humility, and humanity.

I can barely read his lengthy essay - it's so self-serving and punk ass.
He absolutely did not apologize anywhere in that whole long essay.
He's offered zero self-criticisms or possible remedies for the wrongs.

How much $ has he made on that book? I'm serious: a % profit is due
as payment to the ALIVE IN TRUTH project and to the individuals
whose words he stole. A petition needs to be started demanding
payment and/or a legal challenge to his "authorship." I think the
publisher is responsible as well, and maybe the poetry organizations
granting him awards too.

POST A COMMENT welcomes comments that foster dialogue and cultivate an open community on the site. Comments on articles must be approved by the site moderators before they appear on the site. By submitting a comment, you give the Poetry Foundation the right to publish it. Please note: We require comments to include a name and e-mail address. Read more about our privacy policy.


Article Authors
 Raymond  McDaniel


Born in Florida, Raymond McDaniel lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he teaches at the University of Michigan and hosts the reading series at Shaman Drum Bookshop. His first book, Murder (a Violet) (2004), won the National Poetry Series competition, and his latest collection, Saltwater Empire (2008), offers provocative insights into a post-Katrina New Orleans and the surrounding South. “Assault to Abjury” paints just one . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.