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Some Final Thoughts, With Gratitude
I haven’t been the most prolific blogger this month, but I have been eagerly reading my fellow bloggers’ posts, as well as some of the responses that have come through the transom. One thing I’d love to direct readers’ attention to is this response to my last post on defending the workshop by the writer Luisa A. Igloria. This is just a sampling of some of the questions she raises:
[W]hat happens when the writer/teacher leading the workshop is one of those who continue to be viewed as still un-homogenized (despite the gift of naturalization)? when that writer/teacher’s comments on language/usage– or more likely her use of language, herself– are called into question because her words are viewed to emanate from that very same (but amazingly invisible to everyone) doe-eyed elephant in the room? What happens when the matter of his intelligence, credentials, and suitability to the profession are deemed subject to further and more stringent validation even if he has performed and produced and published at par with (and even exceeding) his colleagues?
I’m grateful for her response, since it reminds me about some big blindnesses I have in workshops, too, which is that writing is, obviously, a truly international art. There are so many more parts of this conversation that need to be heard, to paraphrase Igloria, and I hope you all take the time to listen to her.
Speaking of writing as an international sport (albeit occasionally played by dodgy rules as some have had the misfortune to learn this year), I was also struck by Sandra Beasley’s very measured response to being plagiarized by the English poet Christian Ward in the New York Times. I’m going to admit that my first response to this piece was discomfort, since—as Beasley points out–Ward also plagiarized a poem of mine many moons back, and has since been revealed as the plagiarist of more than a dozen other poets. Beasley’s piece reawakened a lot of feelings about this incident, but none stronger than a deep sense of embarrassment and, too, nervousness about how Ward himself must now be feeling. Although I wrote an angry open letter to him myself on my blog, over the months, this anger has faded to sadness. Embarrassment is still the strongest emotion that I feel–who wants to be known as the chump whose poem is taken, who gets asked (as I am now) at every public reading what I think about being plagiarized?–but I’m also increasingly unsure what all this scrutiny is doing to Ward as a person.
But my initial reactions perhaps were off the mark. Beasley’s point was to tell us what it’s like to discover that your own words have been taken from you: something, over the past months, I’d had the luxury of forgetting. Her essay was a necessary and self-empowering step to settle accounts, for all of us. But what’s most important for me to remember is that I got what Beasley has not gotten, and deserves to get, which is an apology.
For some people (and I’m not talking about Beasley here but other writers I’ve encountered on the internet), an apology doesn’t seem to be enough. As the winter months have rolled by, I’ve silently watched a small cadre of English writers on Facebook essentially fox-hunting Ward, sniffing out his every publication in order to find more evidence of plagiarism, to read and minutely decode his explanation of events. Their dedication has been admirable, as from what I can tell none of these writers has been plagiarized themselves, but it has also been obsessive and, yes, extraordinarily brutal, since when all is said and done, the same result applies and the same rough public justice meted out: The poem is taken, the plagiarizer deserves to be heaped with shame and humiliation.
I don’t want to further humiliate Ward, though I suspect hurting him is impossible NOT to do by choosing to write about this subject. The fact is, I don’t really want to talk about Ward at all, but our reactions to what Ward represents, turning him—as he has now been changed over the many months—into the kind of faceless cypher that frustrates, infuriates, baffles and frightens writers on two continents. I understand the rage, of course, but I think that rage exists in order to cover up a deeper anxiety that dogs the lives of writers. There is no money in either publishing OR stealing a single poem, and perhaps because of that there is nothing, in the end, that can be done to protect the poem or the writer. I’m not immune to the irony here—that being paid to write this post I am now capitalizing on a plagiarist and being rewarded for it far more than this plagiarist was ever rewarded for stealing my own poem—but the fact is, once we publish anything, we have little control over how it is disseminated, read, used, reprinted. Perhaps this mimics the larger fears that a writing life represents: over time, we have little control over how much money we’ll make or what subjects move us, the nature of our talent, the way in which our abilities expand—or contract—in age, whether the poems will last a minute after our own deaths. We may not be able to secure the fate we wish for ourselves as writers, and somehow I think plagiarism boils all of this terror down into one concentrated poison.
Interestingly, last week I was having a conversation about this with a poet I met out in Texas, where I was doing a reading. Over drinks the poet asked (as I am now always asked) what I thought about being plagiarized. I shrugged; I said that, for me, the event was over and it no longer carried much of a sting.
“But did he explain why he did what he did?” the poet asked. I said no, he had simply apologized.
“So he didn’t tell you what he was thinking?” the poet prodded. “He didn’t offer you any kind of explanation at all?”
I shook my head again.
“But why?” the poet demanded. “Why would he have done it?”
The answer is, I don’t know. I hadn’t asked for an explanation: I’d asked for an apology. And I’d gotten what I’d asked for.
That haunting question “But why?” kept coming into my mind this past week while watching the news unfold after the Boston bombings. There’s been a lot of speculation, a lot of fear, and I’ve found myself utterly sucked into the half-stories and truncated facts as they bubble up to me: who did it, where were these young men from, why did they do it?
Each day that rolls by seems to provide less closure. By the end of the week, I became particularly frustrated with the interviews with the men’s mother, who kept asserting—against all mounting evidence—that her sons were innocent. I kept grimacing at my computer screen, cursing at it, willing the woman to just break down and admit that her sons were responsible, as if—once this admission was made—something would slip into place, she could finally confess whatever story about her sons that would make sense of this past week.
I’m bringing this up not to make an analogy between plagiarism and the random bombing of innocent bystanders—which would be grotesque—but to point out that there might be a central flaw buried in this question we love to ask each other: “But why?” It’s a question I’ve gotten asked a lot these post-Ward months, as if I had some special insight now into a total stranger’s life. It’s also a question I’ve asked others when confronted with something I don’t have the imagination to answer for myself. We have a hunger to ask that question and hear a reply, but when has it ever been answered to our satisfaction? Why does the inability to explain what we inherently know has no explanation raise such violent feelings in us? And, were we actually presented the “true” answer we asked for, would we be able to believe it?
I think, in the end, I have actually been quite lucky. I didn’t ask why: I asked for an apology, and because I could get that, I could also get closure, and the tentative feelings of forgiveness.
So for that, I’m grateful, as I’m grateful for the opportunity to yap away at strangers for a month, as I’m grateful to the Poetry Foundation, which makes all our work accessible online to an even wider audience of potential plagiarists. This past week, it’s poetry again I’ve been turning to, haunted by the uselessness of that question “But why?” Reading some of my favorite poets, like Marianne Moore and Rainer Maria Rilke and Elizabeth Bishop, poetry reminds me that there is no ONE answer, but a multiplicity of possibilities that show how experience doesn’t dwindle to a single point, but gets fragmented further into more and different perceptions. It’s funny to me that I’m the kind of person who likes the unresolved ending of a poem, but who spends her life stomping around rooms, wailing at the unfeeling ceiling to provide concrete answers to life’s mysteries. In the end, I don’t know why someone would steal a poem, just as I don’t know why, thinking about it now, I’m still moved by such a wild kaleidoscope of emotions. Perhaps I should take a lesson from poetry which, when a good poem takes the time to ask itself “Why?”, knows well enough not to answer.