One of the first “essays” I ever wrote in elementary school was in response to the heavy question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I am not sure this translates correctly in English, but there was a clear indication in the teacher’s inquiry this was about our professional aspirations. I correctly predicted at the age of six that I would move to “California, Beverly Hills” (which is one place) and inevitably be added to the cast of the epic tele-universe “Beverly Hills 90210″ Aaron Spelling produced. Without irony, I consider my watching of this show about bratty teenagers dealing with their brattiness as a key paragon in my successful and organic learning of the English language.
Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch 2002 (HC&F hereafter) incited a flurry of discussion in response to its distinction between the faculty of language in the broad sense (FLB) and the faculty of language in the narrow sense (FLN): “FLB includes a sensory-motor system, a conceptual-intentional system, and the computational mechanisms for recursion, providing the capacity to generate an infinite range of expressions from a finite set of elements. We hypothesize that FLN only includes recursion and is the only uniquely human component of the faculty of language.” (HC&F, 1569). The implication is that the observable structural differences between human language and other forms of animal communication can be explained by the exclusivity of recursion to human language. This statement also operates on the assumption that recursion is a universal trait of human language.
Image courtesy of this site.
Daniel Everett’s work with the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon presents evidence contrary to HC&F’s claims. Everett found that the Pirahã language lacked embedding, at least representational recursion1: “Pirahã does not make use of CP-embedding or recursive possessors.” (Kinsella 2010: 188)2 Nonetheless, they can, through other linguistic and pragmatic means, express concepts which in other languages would be expressed recursively (ibid.). Everett says “..Pirahã most certainly has the communicative resources to expresses clauses that in other languages are embedded…” (Everett 2005: 631) Therefore, though Pirahã does not seem to have recursion, it is by no means restricted in its expressive capacity, countering the claims of Hauser, Chomsky and Finch 2002 regarding “the rich expressive and open-ended power of human language (based on humans’ capacity for recursion),” which capacity they claim animal communication lacks because it does not exhibit recursion (HC&F, 1570). If Pirahã’s expressive capacity is not hindered by its seeming lack of recursion, then perhaps recursion is not in fact a distinguishing feature of human language (Kinsella 188), or at least not the only one: perhaps it can be found in non-linguistic and non-human domains.
Image courtesy of HC&F 2002.
This may in fact the case. HC&F 2002 themselves speculate that recursion may be evident in animal navigation and kinship cognition, and songbirds have exhibited the capacity to comprehend recursive hierarchical syntactic structure (Abe & Watanabe 2011; Gentner et al 2006). Bengalese finches exposed to an artificially-constructed, center-embedded birdsong grammar “revealed a striking sensitivity to the recursive structure of the grammatical strings [they] were exposed to.” (Bloomfield et al 2011) The finches responded equally to familiar and novel grammatical strings, but decreased in response when presented with ungrammatical birdsong strings (ibid.). This indicates that recursion is not necessarily specific to humans, and that it is only sufficient, not necessary for human language, as Everett’s work with the Pirahã indicates. Therefore, since recursion as a unique feature of language is questionable, it would be fruitful to comparatively investigate the other possibly-distinguishing properties of language— the syntax-semantics interface particularly, as well as the lexicon and the nature of phrasal categories (Kinsella 2010).
*Tammy is a print publication that features poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and criticism from the esteemed fringes and unguarded egresses of American letters, international writing in translation, and forms of visual art and poetics that lend themselves to the printed page. The third issue has just arrived and the editors are now reading for the fourth issue. Visit www.tammyjournal.com for more information.
I think I sleep in a peel that fits me better than a collar
This poem came from my experience living as a banana in a Safeway for nine days before the produce people noticed me, and then they marked me down. An old woman with a pegleg bought me. This will appear soon in the ebook, The Wind Cannot Remove the Stench in My Bones, with art by Andrew Jurado.
note: I’ve started this feature up as a kind of homage and alternative (a companion series, if you will) to the incredible work Alex Dimitrov and the rest of the team at the The Academy of American Poets are doing. I mean it’s astonishing how they are able to get masterpieces of such stature out to the masses on an almost daily basis. But, some poems, though formidable in their own right, aren’t quite right for that pantheon. And, so I’m planning on bridging the gap. A kind of complementary series. Enjoy!
February 17th, 2014 / 11:26 pm
“Johnson sliced through South Africa the way a blade goes through a perfect fillet steak. He cut through the quivering hunk of meat, showing no mercy to the tendons and muscle fibres that once held it together and exposed sparsely cooked flesh.”
– Firdose Moonda, at espncricinfo.com, describing Australian Cricket fast bowler Mitchell Johnson.
(Cricket, fyi, is sometimes called “The Gentleman’s Game”)
We began with no fanfare:
We found our way:
We made promises we couldn’t keep:
We joined in:
We thought things over:
We were honest with ourselves:
We stood corrected:
We anticipated a trend:
Lisa Maria Basile, author of the chapbooks Triste (Dancing Girl Press) and Andalucia (The Poetry Society of New York), is one of the hardest working poets in New York. She is the Founding Editor and Publisher of Patasola Press, Assistant Editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal, and Editor-In-Chief of Luna Luna, my favorite online magazine.
On top of her editorial work, Basile works as a QA Assistant at MacMillan Publishers. She is a busy woman. Not too busy, it seems, to have written a third book, forthcoming this year on Hyacinth Girl Press.
I love war/lock, and believe it will be among the most important books of poetry released this year. Basile’s candid portrayal of abuse and survival is confessional in the best possible way, in that it is never self-indulgent and is, in fact, an act of generosity. Stories like these remind us that we, as trapped as we may feel in our respective subjectivities, are not alone.
…but then got ran over by a bus and died. No im totally kidding! but you really did get the flu and couldn’t join me.
The talk was at Housing Works, and it included two other speakers: David Gordon and Michael Kunichika.Your expectations were unclear: talk about Russian writers who, though they left us long ago, remain potent presences for readers and writers today. From Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to Vasily Grossman and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, we’ll learn about obsession, madness, realism, fables, and more, in an event with all the drama and pathos (well, at least some of the drama and pathos) of the great Russian novels themselves.
Here are all the texts I would have sent you, in chronological order and without clarifying who said what, because color-coordinating via SMS goes a step too far:
truth-seeking urgency intrinsic in russian lit
antithesis to beckett & writers who focused extensively on beauty of language
falling in love w/ english language, less plot driven urgency
dostoevsky similar to conrad in terms of truth-seeking urgency
multivocality of dostoevsky
there is no right, just different truths
dostoevsky threw the best literary parties (metaphorically speaking, as a creator)
proust s parties were too long, and maybe the guests were wearing better clothes
abstract psychological curiosity in motives, including abnormalities–>russian approach
going in depth for big questions, characters not being introverted
serialization of lengthy works, such as ‘war & peace,’ adds towards creating a broader debate. they become part of the broader debates occurring during their time
some compare the creation of microcosms of russian lit to ‘the wire’
comparing to british office, where they look at the camera at moments of despair but the viewer cannot do anything to help // to embarrasing dostoevsky characters
nabokov disliked dostoevsky for his “bad writing”
dostoevsky had a v diff approach to writing from nabokov: almost got executed literally, then was told he had another five years
that is also why dostoevsky did not pursue inanimate writing, unlike tolstoy (?)
nabokov didn t like music!
neither did dostoevsky !! (probably diff reasons)
saul bellow s ‘dean of december’–>similar urgency in truth-seeking (someone from the audience)
can reading a book be so vivid it appears like a different life?
if yes, it depends on willingness of writers to go to great lengths in creating characters who go too far, embarrass themselves/ are visceral
perhaps a key element that helps bring about the urgent truth-seeking: religion s role for the writers
religion, like their fiction, was trying to explain what goes on beyond the physical
nabokov s direct ancestor was dostoevsky s jailor. weird how he was not willing to cut him any slack, considering
dostoevsky was crowd-pleasing oriented bc he lived off writing
In case you missed it (I almost did), “On Smarm” is an important essay.
Speaking of the Believer, do you remember that Philip Seymour Hoffman interview? I will miss him. That seems strange though, even impossible, because that Philip Seymour Hoffman, the one I know, exists in images projecting from themselves. And those will go on sparkling, like prisms in post-loop pulse ad infinitum.
Honestly, I love books more than money, sex, or bourbon. But book readings are often a pretty lame way to spend an evening. They’re pompous, silly, poorly planned, and excruciatingly dull. They accomplish nothing. And the majority of people who come to book readings have already read the book so it’s not even like they’re good marketing ploys.
Reader-friends, it doesn’t have to be this way! Books are awesome, most authors are engaging, intelligent people, and bookstores are certainly the fun places we all love. Therefore, let’s bring our noggins together and think up a bunch of ways to turn these indomitably boring events into lively festivals of literary hoopla and excitement. Let me start us off with 8 suggestions:
#1. No introductions – This will cut down the pomp by a solid 50%. No blathering adulations or list of prizes. Just say the author’s name, a book title or two, and get the show on the road.
#2. Don’t let the author sit down – Get kinetic, Orhan Pamuk! Let’s move it, Lydia Davis! Shake that money-maker a tad Marilynn Robinson! Give us some energy and zest. Do a little hula and shimmy shimmy. No chair, no podium, no hammock or beanbag contraption to rest your writerly body on. Instead move around and hell, if the energy sags, do what the jazz musicians do and improvise a sentence or two.
#3. Shout “BAM” before turning each page – “The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she—BAM!!!—had said. It made me uneasy, as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to exact a contributory emotion from me.” That’s right, read it, Fitzgerald!
#5. Gesticulate rabidly, do 10 minutes of reading max, and if the reading gets boring accept the occasional heckle – “Hey Cheever, you suck tattersal cock!”
#6. End by telling us a local anecdote, good bookstore memory, or about your literary arch-nemesis – This will help personalize the event. A little showmanship goes a long way in creating a compelling public experience.
#7. Don’t let that person in the audience ask questions – This is BY FAR the most important suggestion because you know EXACTLY who I mean. We can’t let this person hijack the show. Have courage, bookstore employees! Even if the question-asker is a regular who always buys hardcover, tell them the gag order’s in effect for the common good of everyone else. We thank you greatly.
#8. Serve booze or juice and light snacks afterward – It’s why people love art events, the free wine and Triscuits. Somebody could take a dump on the floor of his sublet and so long as there was two-buck chuck, Cheese Nips, and a trendy promotional flyer loads of people would come to view it. Food equals turn out. Turn out equals energy and press. Also, free Ritz crackers and tiny paper cups of wine will get people to stick around and probably buy the author’s journeyman collection of short stories.
Now these suggestions are just Part 1. Part 2 involves more excitement and maybe violence. We need to take dramatic steps to invigorate today’s literary players so they’ll create engaging personae, which will outlive them. We need a new flock of writers to replace the likes of Norman Mailer, Lillian Hellman, Gore Vidal, and Hunter S. Thompson.
At AWP this year, the coordinators should host off-site events to keep everybody on their toes. Perhaps a charity boxing match between Colson Whitehead and Richard Ford. Or a street rumble between people who like prose poems and the rest of the world. Somebody can take a folding chair to Gary Shteyngart’s face WWF style. I’d pay money to see that. Violence and fiendishness are, weirdly enough, sometimes useful shortcuts to developing literary personae. Let’s make this thing memorable. BAM!!
Alex Kalamaroff is a 26-year-old writer living in Boston. He works on the administrative team of a Boston Public Schools high school. You can read his other writings here or follow him on twitter @alexkalamaroff.
I. Two Days After Whateverdaythegrammystookplacethisyear
I was taking about sex with a new person when I said I was annoyed choking is not on the table as an option. Then I said my ex’s name and remembered how she loved it.
“Oh, I know,” came his Freudian drip. I then punched him pretty hard on his arm, but without being violent. I was kind of upset, but I also knew he didn’t mean to hurt me, his tongue just worked faster than his brain in that moment.
The weird thing is, Billy was probably the victim in all of this. During a time we were trying to be over I surrounded myself with friends who weren’t shared, friends who didn’t let me respond to her manic pleas for reciprocity. So I saw the blocks of texts arrive, and I ignored them, but not because I wanted to ignore them. I was still forcing myself to not respond. That’s when it happened. I know because we eventually got back together and she never told me. But one day I went through her phone and saw her bragging texts about Billy and how he fucks like a rabbit and how the best part of it was that Billy was my good friend. She was bragging about it, but how unfortunate was that? She, who I successfully ignored, intentionally turned to someone else to hurt me for ignoring her. “Positional play is the maneuvering of opponents into the forced clarification of their (but not your) tactical lines of action,” and that was what she was doing. But we all got played in the end, thankfully including her.
Sometimes we do things for unclear reasons. Maybe because they feel good. Is that a reason? I think so, especially when I do the things. Is it worse when the sex is perfect with an idiot or when the sex is boring with a genius? I dunno, but I hope to have less of it and try to make it meaningful.
There is this mix I was listening to recently and it is very good, but I have a problem with it: it closes with a juxtaposition of Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” and Britney Spears’ “Everytime.” Hopefully, I need not clarify why that poses a problem, but if I must let me say I have a problem with myself for feeling sorry for Britney, when she was the one doing things for unclear reasons because they felt good. ”This song is my sorry,” is a fucked up lyric to be used in a pop song when it is truly personal, and in Spears’ case at that time it was. 
You might remember my friend “Billy?” You probably don’t, so here. We grabbed lunch together last week, it was pretty fun. We got Ramen and talked about stuff on a broad scale: the things we are doing for money, the people we have been getting naked with and, naturally, cultural ephemera. An ephemeron we addressed for example was the Grammys ceremony and how we felt about some of the performances and awards. Of course neither of us was able to watch past the first half, or perhaps nothing of note happened in that half. We shall never know!
What we do know: Billy is dating someone seriously, and she is taking him a lot more seriously than he is her. She is “intense” and “confrontational.” She senses what they both know. Basically what he is saying is that he is not up for it. He likes her, but she feels for him in ways he doesn’t. I tell Billy to tell her that he knows her intuition is right. To stop playing along and pretending he doesn’t see what she is right to notice their “thing” is missing.
Must we pass over in silence what we cannot speak about?
THE *REAL* GRAMMYS, HAPPENING EONS BEFORE THE SUPERBOWL
I watched them with my friend who will not be told when she must cease thinking about Beyonce’s net shorts. (“i hate how everything moves so quickly. it’s like just because a few days have passed doesn’t mean i’m not still thinking about the grammys. sure, not MOST of the grammys. but i’ll be thinking about her netted costume for a WHILE. why does the internet want everyone’s brains on fast forward?”)
I could not believe how fortunate it was that I happened to be near a television! I was casually complaining about life to a dear friend on a Whateverdaythegrammystookplacethisyear when all of a sudden… Beyonce! I never fully get how award shows work, their purpose and how the selection process works for who gets nominated for what. But if they start with Beyonce, I am totally mesmerized and willing to watch with full attention and the occasional loud “OH MY BEYONCEEE!” There were multiple of those, and people on the receiving end of Beyonce’s electric chair were electrified, as expected, jumping up and down their couches everywhere, unless they lived on the West Coast, and thus were penalized for their decision .
The *Real* Grammys seem to be organized by a panel of Ladies… who Love Cool J. Why is he the presenter? Why do they keep Doin’ It (feat Leshaun)? The sartorial negligence of the Cool James was apparent as he momentarily shared a stage with an immaculately dressed First Husband of America. Let’s just say there were no ZZZs in Jay-Z’s perfect outfit, and even less ZZZs were there to be found in the way the Presidential couple looked like while performing together during the *Real* Grammys, intoxicating everyone with their intoxication.
The deep blue sea of sartorial hmmms deepened further when our favorite Neptune decided to hide his crown under a hat, and all of humanity wondered: “Pharrell. Why!” He was still perfect, and at least wasn’t being ridiculous like those dudes who must have been sweating balls in their anonymity protecting helmets.
But looks and looking supa dupa fly are not all that matters in music these days. The young musicians have set up the bar mad high, where only Lordes can fly, and your prepackaged Dark Unicorn won’t fly you there despite its hypnotic beat (gah, this hasn’t happened to my brain (?) since when Gwen Stefani was cheerleading) that encourages obsessive repeat-play.
If the producers of your album aren’t Illuminati, you might have to join a circus. In the words of pop-princess (does she keep being princess until Madonna dies?) Britney Spears: “There’s only two types of people in the world: the ones that entertain, and the ones that observe.” Pink misunderstood the distinction and thought being observed was synonymous to entertaining, but acrobatics are all the ZZZs Jay-Z was missing that night. Except for her thigh strength, which so wow, very anti-ZZZ!
Anyway, time to get serious-y. Let’s address the thing that agitated most of us about the *Real* Grammys: Kendrick Lamar—who was, is and will always be objectively the best in everything for which he was nominated—didn’t win anything. Then the band (is Macklemore a band? or just that dude with the two-year old Freeman’s Alley barbershop hair a solo thing?) made the crass, gross error of trying to recognized their (his?) inferiority by sharing the thought with all their fans. This literally felt like a violent slap to everyone: (1) the people who might have thought Mackleduders deserved to win stuff, (2) the people who wanted Kendrick to win stuff and were frustrated he didn’t, and (3) let’s not even think about all the other very sensitive and insecure artists who were both nominated and lost and not even publicly recognized by the true winner of stuff they lost as the ones worthy of winning.
To think this band (or dude? I really have to find out at this point!) would even consider considering publicly sharing a private message he sent which should have been private, because eww band or dude, get a publicist! The negative criticism they (or “he,” whichever is correct!) have received is totally deserved. Bad apologies are in poorer taste than not apologizing at all, and this one was a very selfish and self-aggrandizing one. The reason this “apology” really sucked was the way it was portrayed and whored out via social media. There is a Kendrick song called “Real.” It is greatly introspective and reflective, further showing where in the “real nigga” doctrine Kendrick falls: he is not obsessed with appearances in a way consuming his music’s production.
The song stresses the importance of showing up, of being “real” in a way that is vulnerable:
The reason why I know you very well/ cause we have the same eyes can’t you tell?/ the days I tried to cover up and conceal/ my pride, it only made it harder for me to deal
[*end of serious-y chunk*]
Speaking of #Unapologetic, sources close to the Barbadian queen of pop Rihanna have revealed to TMZ the star watched the show at the comfort of a new planet she recently purchased. While she is considering Stay-ing there a while, TMZ has learned that Rihanna used telepathy to support her bestie (hmm. Cara?) close friend Katy Perry during her Grammys performance. “Where have you been?” thought Katy in the secret illuminati witchlanguage she shared with Rih, and then she felt the transcendental high-five from afar.
Then everyone bought things and companies were so, so happy! Well, almost everyone bought things. Mostly women who wanted to wear all the beauty products that made their stars look like stars. Men would have to wait for a sports event, like last year’s Beyonce performance at the sports thing which made Janet Jackson a star.
In conclusion, the *Real* Grammys didn’t really change anything, but that’s okay. Because the Grammys rarely do that. It is mostly public opinion that shapes who the big figures are in culture, and all the individuals who are nominated for these awards have acquired a level of respect as artists significant enough to see Taylor Swift going hard to Kendrick live, which is fine and great and super, but remains besides the point. When our cultural curators shift our attention to something silly, even if this silly something is endearing and well-intentioned, they (the curators) have taken our attention away from something else.
Who chose the direction to focus on Swift—and more extensively—before showing us an enthusiastic Hova? Probably the same exact person who gave Macklemore the award. It wasn’t me. But if it were me directing, I would have focused on the performance exclusively, out of respect to the person on stage. If a majority of the population only likes stuff because other people like it, then please save the stuff I like from getting Grammys!
III Nine Days After Whateverdaythegrammystookplacethisyear
He felt sad, he said. It was the morning after he stopped hating himself for being kinda in the gray area for so long in private. The night before he had send me a text: “It’s over. A little back and forth but we both agreed it was checkmate. Broke up in Central Park, lol. It went so well/ was our first real convo. Probably the best convo we ve ever had. I feel surprisingly sad.”
I was really proud of him. And of me, for challenging him to be upfront about his lack of genuine want in his relationship. But I also felt meaningless. I wasn’t even able to arise in my person the decency Billy was finally able to come up with for his new ex.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent, I guess.
 I know this with certainty, because this was the first song Spears wrote. She wrote it with a woman named Artani, who then went on a Greek reality-talent show, called “Fame Story,” which everyone in Greece watched at the time because we were trying to not focus on our faltering institutions as a nation.
Artani was dealing with a breakup while Britney was trying to face the new Justin Timberlake as an ex, who had released “Cry Me A River.” The song was personal, and “Everytime” was a vulnerable response to it, but how vulnerable was it really, when it was a pop song and it was created for everyone? Doesn’t that take away from it in serving a purpose as being a meaningful apology? I think it did/ does/ forever will.
My favorite NBA player, Larry Johnson, had a gold front tooth, yelled at the ball during free throws, once told an interviewer that his diet consisted of soda and candy (imagine reading this as a teenager) and had a series of TV commercials where he transformed into his alter-ego: a gray-wig wearing, puffy flower dress clad, narrow vintage glasses wearing, “Grandmama.” I fondly remember wearing his replica jersey (the very first of these ever for sale) several sizes too large, more dress than jersey.
The editors of Catch Up were kind enough to answer a few of my questions about their badass journal.
How did Catch Up emerge?
Jeff: In the early 2000’s, William Cardini and I founded the artist collective The Gold County Paper Mill. Together with our pal Chuch, we produced comics, zines, and weirdo DVDs. But in 2008, I moved with my wife from Austin to Louisville, which meant the performance art we were making together would become fairly impossible. Catch Up started as a way to continue the collaborative projects that WIlliam, Chuch and I had grown to love.
Catch Up was intended to be an object-based series of collaborations put out by the GCPM. The “first issue” was a t-shirt. That idea fizzled out quickly. Having enjoyed producing our own books, we decided to try our hand at publishing others. Will is a cartoonist and I’m a poet, so we just mushed those two things together.
Once in Louisville I met poet Adam Day and designer Rob Bozwell, who both quickly joined the team. Will enlisted the help of another frequent collaborator of his, Josh Burggraf. The five of us turned Catch Up into the fucking dope journal it is today.
After a few more shake ups, moves, marriages and babies, Catch Up is now run by myself, Hannah Gamble, Gary Jackson, Peter Jurmu, Pete Toms and PB Kain.
What is your VIDA count?
In case you missed it, the NBCC announced their newest awards finalists. According to their selections, the only publishers publishing award-worthy material are FSG and Knopf, plus a meager handful of others that are not FSG or Knopf. Obviously the NBCC committee has never seen this list. The number of presses that aren’t FSG or Knopf would blow their minds!
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
(Simon & Schuster)
(Yale University Press)
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
(Cornell University Press)
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
(Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
(University of Pittsburgh Press)
(University of Arizona Press)
Paisley Rekdal got two Facebook messages last January from fellow poets who had some disturbing news: a poet in England by the name of Christian Ward had taken an old poem of hers and published it, barely altered, as his own. Her first reaction was to wonder if it was some kind of experiment. Perhaps by changing the gender of the author of a poem about infidelity and infertility, he was teasing out new meanings?
Then she saw the “new” poem, with its new line breaks and minor but grating word changes. It was obviously a work of deception, not conceptual play. “That’s the thing that enraged me,” she said recently. “If he had just plagiarized the poem and published under his name, I would have been less annoyed. When I saw he wanted to take part in something I had done myself and claim it as his own, I felt kind of violated.”
Rekdal, who responded to Ward with a righteously angry blog post (and later a more melancholy one), is not the only one feeling violated these days. The poetry world experienced something of a plagiarism epidemic last year. CJ Allen withdrew from the shortlist of England’s Forward Prize in September when it was revealed that he had plagiarized some of his past work. Australian poet Andrew Slattery was stripped of three prizes when it turned out he had cribbed from Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, among others. When caught, he claimed the poems were written in the cento form, in which each line is pulled from another source; he also called his work “a cynical experiment.”
The list goes on: British poet David R. Morgan admitted last spring that many of his poems, stretching back to at least the 1980s, had been plagiarized. Rekdal’s perpetrator turned out to have stolen from several other poets, including Helen Mort and Sandra Beasley. Graham Nunn, longtime organizer of a major Australian poetry festival, was accused last September of at least eight instances of plagiarism, which he defended in part as “sampling”; on his blog, he wrote that “[r]eading and listening to music are a vital part of my process” and that “parts of the original text are creatively appropriated in the formation of a new work.” These are all published, and often prize-winning, poets—they are not students or amateurs. Why did 2013 become the year of the plagiarists?
Writing is a dance that involves imitation, inspiration, and originality. But all things considered, writerly disapproval of plagiarism has remained remarkably consistent over the centuries—really, even over millennia. The Roman poet Martial accused his rival Fidentinus, whom he called a “miscreant magpie”: “My books need no one to accuse or judge you: the page which is yours stands up against you and says, ‘You are a thief.’” Martial was particularly galled that Fidentinus had mixed in his own inferior work with Martial’s original material. Yes, approaches to borrowing and attribution have shifted over time, but wholesale copying has never been kosher.
T.S. Eliot, who relied on other sources for much of “The Waste Land” (plagiarism or allusion?), famously wrote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Less often quoted is the next line, “Bad poets deface what they take.” This is what seems to gall many victims of plagiarists: to see their poems reprinted in weaker versions than the original.
Ruth Ellen Kocher, a Colorado-based poet and professor, recently learned that her 2004 poem “Issues Involving Interpretation” had been plagiarized online by an Australian named Vuong Pham. Pham kept her line breaks intact but changed a few words and added some new lines. “When he stole my work, he didn’t make it better,” Kocher said. “If my work was going to be taken and pilfered in that way, I would have loved to see it undergo a transformation and evolution.” Instead, she said, it reminded her of a “reverse revision”: his small changes actually made the poem worse.
Since the 19th century, when the Romantics embraced what Marilyn Randall, a professor of French studies at the University of Western Ontario and the author of a 2001 book on literary plagiarism, calls the “authentic poetic soul,” borrowing has become even more cemented as a literary crime. (Rekdal refers to her plagiarist as a Romantic, because “he was trying to tie his own imagination to the poem and claim it.”) Even in our age of collage and appropriation and “intertextuality,” it’s only at the extreme edges of such experimentation that you’ll find even mild defenses of outright plagiarism.
Despite the fact that plagiarism has always been taboo, readers are often more forgiving of historical offenses. As Thomas Mallon puts it in his insightful 1989 book on plagiarism, “Stolen Words,” “Everyone enjoys a good scandal in the present…. What we seem far less able to endure is that plaster cast falling from the library shelf: Its shattering somehow bothers us more than the live body going off the cliff.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, was an inveterate thief, but he remains firmly in the canon. Hart Crane borrowed heavily from a lesser-known poet named Samuel Greenberg, most notably in his early poem “Emblems of Conduct.” (“No doubt he meant to acknowledge his debt,” James Laughlin wrote in 1939. “It simply slipped his mind.”)
More recently, the British conceptual poet Ira Lightman, who was behind many of last year’s revelations, got involved simply because he didn’t see anyone else doing it. “The poetry world is genteel,” he said. “People don’t like to make any kind of stir.” Lightman has taken it upon himself to comb through suspect work, alert the victims, and publicize his findings.
But even Lightman, who spent untold hours last year ferreting out violators, doesn’t want to banish them indefinitely. “I don’t see them all as these sinister, plotting, Machiavellian characters,” he said. “I see it as a corruption. And we’re all vulnerable to corruption.” He suggests that transgressors retreat to self-publishing for a few years, prove themselves honest, and then return to the fold.
If plagiarists are not sinister and Machiavellian, then why do they do it? This question gets asked every time there’s a fresh revelation of plagiarism, whether it’s in the literary world, journalism, or academia. There’s never a satisfying answer, but there are at least lots of guesses, often somewhat at odds with each other: laziness or panic, narcissism or low self-esteem, ambition or deliberate self-sabotage.
In poetry, at least, everyone agrees it’s not about the money. “One of the hardest things is that the stakes in poetry are not very high,” Kocher said. “I’m not a rocket scientist. I’m not going to cure cancer with one of my poems. I don’t get paid an extraordinary amount of money, and I don’t have any great notoriety outside of the writing community. So to take something that most people engage in as an act of joy and sully it this way—it just seems one of the most egregious offenses.”
But does anyone write just for the money? Laurence Sterne, the plagiarist author of Tristram Shandy, said he wrote “not to be fed but to be famous.” Now, of course, he is. It worked.
The Internet has made both plagiarism itself and its detection much easier for everyone. But the major cases that came up in 2013 have all concerned British and Australian poets, often, but not always, cribbing from American ones. Despite some speculation that our national character makes us less likely to plagiarize—Americans are obsessively respectful of private property! American egos are too big to rely on other people’s work!—there’s also the possibility that Americans have simply been lucky enough to not be caught in the current dragnet.
For one, the primary detective is British, more familiar with the Commonwealth scene than the American one. And it’s not as if Americans haven’t been caught in the past. An Iowa poet named Neal Bowers, a former editor of Poet and Critic magazine, wrote a 1997 book about tracking down the Illinois elementary school teacher who published work copied from Bowers in 13 journals over the course of a few years. “It’s a very uneasy feeling,” Bowers told the New York Times at the time, “a bit like having a stalker.”
The gut reactions of the plagiarized are hard to predict. The poet and essayist H.L. Hix, for example, found out in October that his work had been lifted by Graham Nunn in an Australian anthology of love poems. He said his first reaction to getting the news from Lightman was sheer surprise: “As a poet one gets used to being completely ignored.”
Some victims feel moved to reach out the perpetrators. Kocher sent a note to Pham through Facebook after he posted a brief apology, which has since been removed, on his blog. She hasn’t heard back. (Pham has defended himself by saying he was simply naive and not taught about proper attribution; he also recently wrote that he has become a victim of cyberbullying.)
After Paisley Rekdal posted her open letter to Christian Ward on her blog, she also asked online for an apology from him. She got one: a one-sentence email that she recalls as something to the effect of “I’m sorry, I’m not this kind of person.” It’s the kind of open, vacuous statement that could make you hate someone, or feel sorry for them, or both at once. “He gave me what I asked for,” she said, “but he gave me no more than what I asked for.”
Is there such a thing as a resolution to a plagiarism story? Plagiarism isn’t a crime, there’s no universally accepted punishment for it, and the perfect expression of contrition may never come. Hix, for his part, says he has no plans to get in touch with Graham Nunn. “These were love poems that are being stolen,” he said. “I don’t have any more interest in speaking with Mr. Nunn than I would with the person who had broken into my house and stolen my property.”
Janey Smith is a writer in San Francisco.
What struck me immediately after my dad died is that the grief I felt seemed simultaneously the most and the least unique feeling in the world: in its singularity no one could understand it; yet in its universality, to some extent, everyone could. I was comforted by this; by this sense that millions and millions of people have been in this situation and got through it. Time rolls on.
I find it interesting that in the therapy I’ve had since he died uniqueness and originality are subjects I’ve returned to again and again. Primarily, it has to be said, I’ve spoken about these subjects in terms of disappointment at realising that aspects of my personality I’d always thought were just completely my own are not really, after all, so unique. I don’t know what it might mean; perhaps it’s some sort of accounting I’m carrying out: what’s me; what was him etc? Perhaps, as well, I may just have sublimated the wanting of an original grief; that desire then emerging in another form? I find a possibility of truth in that. I realise I have a problem with grief: I feel guilty about indulging it. My dad dying was the terrible thing and that anything else might come close to causing me an equivalent level of pain – I mean even my grief over him dying – feels like something awfully hard to accept.
Last Thursday it was exactly four months since he died. I went to work; I sat at my desk; I talked to my colleagues; and I checked Facebook and my Gmail. I left at half five for an appointment with my therapist. The beginning of the week I’d felt very focussed on the coming Thursday; I’d expected it to be a tough day. As it turned out, for the biggest part of the day, it wasn’t tough at all. After seeing my therapist though things seemed totally to fall apart. I don’t know how to describe what happened other than to refer to those times a person feels hyper: a lot of energy; and, I guess, a kind of excitement at the things you might be able to do whilst in this mood; with it only slowly dawning on you that this excitement is a waste of time as this energy is directionless and impossible to focus. Well I had kind of the opposite of all that. There seemed to be a hyper-ness about how I felt, sure; yet instead of excitement featuring it absolutely was a down mood. And even now, two days later, I still don’t feel certain what happened: either I’d accessed something I’d tried to deny or I’d given one thing the name of something else out of a sense of dutifulness or, perhaps, a mixture of the two.
I wanted to tell my friend on Thursday about the significance of the day. I didn’t though. I wanted to tell it just as news but I was concerned, rather, it might come out as some kind of plea for sympathy. I’m not in a position yet to be able to assess the rights and wrongs of this.
This time last year I was involved in a brief relationship with a woman I’d met, in all places, via Facebook Scrabble games. I’d been playing online Scrabble for months – not in the hope of meeting anyone; just because I liked Scrabble – and opponents always seemed to be from London or Australia or somewhere; anyway, places very far away from where I live; this woman was from Stockport – just round the corner, effectively. Anyway, her dad had died some years earlier and she missed him very much; and she got it into her head that she wanted to meet my dad. As time passed this seemed to become more and more of a preoccupation for her; yet, it began to seem to me, more a kind of theoretical preoccupation than an actual one. What I mean is she liked to discuss meeting my dad yet never wanted to make any actual plans to that end. So the meeting never happened. She would always ask though, often even before she’d asked how I was, if my dad was okay. Since he died I’ve wondered on several occasions if I should get back in touch with this woman to let her know about my dad. I haven’t though. I think the occasions when I do consider this are times when I very much do want sympathy – and not necessarily perhaps for reasons connected to my dad. To use his death then as a means of acquiring that sympathy would feel very wrong to me.
Empathy is possible, absolutely. Regarding this idea of ‘genuine empathy’, well, if ‘genuine empathy’ is only possible between like and like I reckon it’s an idea that’s better off ditched. A person can understand and share another person’s feelings, sure; of course though they can’t access those same feelings in their particularity and uniqueness. Over these past four months I’ve been hugely grateful for the support of family and friends.
Since he died I have cried loads. The most recent time being last night at the thought of sorting through his clothes which I knew I’d be doing today. So far I haven’t cried today.
Tonight I will drink two cans of lager. Two because it’s that there are only two in the fridge. In the days and weeks following his death I drank loads and I drank all manner of stuff. The main reason for my drinking was, I think, because I just didn’t want to be at home – the home I’d lived in all my life with my dad. Drinking took me to the pub. It put me amongst people – alright, most of the time not people I was talking to (generally I’d be in the pub alone with just a book for company); it made that period between getting into bed and falling asleep last probably just minutes; drinking had a lot going for it. Today, mentioning to my aunt about the two cans I’d had last night as well, I realised something had changed: recently I’ve been drinking less.
About a month after my dad died the mothers of two friends at work died. Then the month after that the mother of a third friend died as well. I don’t think there were sky high expectations of me being able to prove particularly empathetic given what I was going through myself; and that was perhaps fortunate for me. Mike said to me though that people he would have expected a lot from at that time had, he felt, let him down; whereas people he didn’t expect so much from had really delivered. The reason for me saying this – I assume it’s clear – is that he felt I’d delivered. He meant, I think, I’d said stuff to him which was appropriate and which was useful. I’d found that easy to do though. As I said to him, perhaps I knew what to say because I’d so recently gone through this stuff myself. And that easiness is something I just don’t trust. It feels like due to it being so easy for me to know what to say what I said can’t have meant too much. Really, I mean, how useful are words? And I feel my sense of their uselessness takes something away from them even as I’m saying them. Still though, at such times words are often all we have to give.
How do we learn about death? We can learn about it from books, sure; but from books we’ll only take the generalities. Death in its horrible particularity is something we can only begin to learn about as we see those around us we love die.
Richard Barrett lives and works in Salford, UK. His poetry collections are Pig Fervour (Arthur Shilling Press, 2009); Sidings (White Leaf Press, 2010); A Big Apple (Knives Forks and Spoons, 2011); # (zimZalla, 2011); The Shangri Las (erbacce, 2013); with, forthcoming, Free (Blart Books, 2014). His work has been widely anthologized; most recently in Philip Davenport’s The Dark Would. He is a co-organiser of the Manchester based reading series Peter Barlow’s Cigarette.