Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On Plagiarism: An Open Letter to Christian Ward

Dear Christian:

         The first time I experienced being plagiarized was a few years ago. I was calling my parents to check in on them, as I do weekly, and got into a long conversation with my father about the recent success of a much younger cousin of mine, who had just sold a popular web-based company he’d developed. We were talking about his extraordinary success—quite proudly, as if we’d had something to do with it—and while we were talking my father mentioned that he’d once proofread my cousin’s college entrance essay for him. It was only natural he would have been asked to do this: my father has a PhD in Political Science and spent a couple of years as a teacher at a local college. Years of close reading had trained him not only to be an excellent editor but to have an exceptional memory for facts and passages of text, improving on what I suspect now might be technically classified as an eidetic memory.  “Listen to this,” my father said, and recited for me the basic narrative of my cousin’s essay.
            The essay was about my cousin and his mother, and the fraught time they’d had together on a trip to Asia. My cousin and aunt are both Chinese American, and though they may appear visually “the same” to outsiders, my cousin wrote about how they are in fact quite different. My aunt was born in Malaysia and emigrated to the United States: in many ways, she still has the immigrant’s hunger for success and to instill in her sons “Chinese” values of loyalty and duty. My cousin, on the other hand, was born in Seattle and raised to be the normal, if astoundingly intelligent, American teenager. For these reasons, and other, he could and could not relate to his mother, was and was not part of this Chinese identity. The essay ends with the two of them arguing in a restaurant, in front of a shopkeeper who watches the two of them closely until they stop and then approaches them. The shopkeeper looks at my cousin.
            “Your mother?” she asks in English. When my cousin shrugs resignedly, the shopkeeper nods and says, “Same eyes. Different feelings.” Then walks away. My cousin smiles, and my aunt coughs. They decide to pretend she is right.
            “Isn’t that extraordinary?” my father asked me on the phone, recalling that last passage.
            It was. Because that scenario, indeed that very ending, was mine. This was almost the same story—and end line—I had written myself in an essay entitled “We Do Not Belong Here We Are Only Visitors” that appeared in my first volume of essays The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee. My essay, too, was about the fraught relationship between a child and parent, in this case of different racial appearance and ethnic loyalties, who spend a difficult period of time traveling in Asia together and who end up in a shop, arguing in front a shopkeeper. In my essay, my mother and I stand before the shop keeper, hissing out our resentments at each other in front of a long bolt of cloth, all the while regarded with curiosity by the shopkeeper.
            “Your mother?” the shopkeeper finally asks me, in English. When I nod, she takes the bolt of cloth from me and begins to ring it up. “Different faces, same feelings,” she says. My mother coughs and I smile too broadly. We decide to pretend she is right.
            This is exactly how my own essay ends. And now you can see why I might have been struck by the similarity.
            It is possible that my father, who might have read my essay long before, got it confused with my cousin’s college essay. But like I said, he has an amazing memory for the books he’s read, and when I told him the ending of my essays—an essay published in a book that I know my uncle and aunt purchased to support me,  that I had seen lying around their house, and that had been published a year before my cousin would have begun applying to colleges—my father finally admitted he had never read my own collection. “That’s extraordinary,” he said again, but softer now, calculating the likelihood that my cousin, accidentally or not, had plagiarized the ending of his college essay.
            I didn’t say anything. My cousin is family. I felt, of course, a moment of piercing annoyance at the possibility that he had done a bit more than “borrow” his ideas for his own essay. I was also bemused by the fact that this same essay was one of the many things that helped get him into a fancy ivy league school, where he was trained to be an entrepreneur, and from which he’s since graduated to a successful career in technology. It doesn’t hurt that he has, from what little I know about his personal life, never written a poem, story or essay since.
            You’ll notice I used the word “bemused” above. That’s a word Helen Mort used to describe what you did to her when you took her poem “The Deer” and passed it off as your own. Helen Mort is clearly a very good poet, because that word “bemused” exactly describes much of what I feel too: a heady mix of anger, resentment, amusement and bewilderment, even a touch of embarrassment as well. But though anger falls first on that list of nouns, it is not, in fact the first emotion that I feel. To a certain extent, I feel more pity than anger, mixed with the chagrin of feeling that what you’ve done really isn’t that far away from what so many writers do and have done, what we flirt with continually in our own work.
            I have a poem entitled “The Orchard” that appeared in my last book of poems, Animal Eye, which I agonized over. I had been reading Robert Hass’ book Time and Materials and I was deeply struck by his poem “Pears”: a poem that among other things chronicles, through the frame of a dream, the death of his English uncle and the passing away of one world (the world of what we might consider “Old World” values) into the more modern world of the speaker. Two deaths wrapped into one, signified by a bird that flies away at the end of the poem. I was moved by this poem, and began working on a similar elegy that takes the same dream-narrative frame to describe the death of my Chinese grandfather, who had always seemed to be fluent in English but who I recently was told had actually not been able to speak English much at all. The effect of this on me was that one narrative erased the next, making my grandfather appear to “die” twice in my memory, so that now I can barely remember his voice, or any single word he said to me, at all. My poem is set in the garden my grandfather built, and like Hass’ poem, contains an image of a bird which, at the end, flies away. “The Orchard” and “Pears” are formally and, to an extent, thematically very close to each other. And I was terrified someone would think I had plagiarized him.
            So this is what I did, Christian: I went over and over that poem, line by line, to make sure my language was my language, my ideas were mine. The poem’s elegiac frame was Hass’, there is no doubt of it, but the heart of the poem—while touching on his—was mine. And to make sure anyone reading this poem would understand I knew the two works were connected, that the similarities were not gestural or accidental but deliberate structural responses to Hass’ elegiac imagination, I wrote in the back of Animal Eye that the poem was a response/homage to “Pears” by Robert Hass. And then, Christian, I thanked him for his work.
            You may read these two poems and feel that I did more than what I claim to have done. You may be able to point to a hundred other poems that fall into this similar, hazy category in which influence and rote copying can barely be deciphered from each other. You may think that “response/homage” might be a fancy term for the same thing that you have done. This is what I was terrified of at the time. But having read what you did with my poem “Bats,’ I can rest assured now, and forever, that there is in fact a difference.
            You took my poem. You took all its language, changed only the tense, and added ten words. Ten words, out of a poem containing 125. And then you muddied the line breaks, and you put your name on it, and you published it as your own.
            When I first heard about this from the kind and extremely scrupulous editors at Anon, where you’d published my poem as yours, my curiosity was briefly, possibly academically, piqued; I thought that perhaps you were a conceptual poet. That would be interesting: taking my poem and changing only the name as a kind of experiment, to see if an author’s gender created new meanings. Interestingly, “Bats” is a poem about the fear of infidelity and the sadness surrounding infertility. It’s pretty fucking personal, Christian, and I discovered through your plagiarism that yes, indeed, the speaker’s sex DOES matter. So does her damn identity. Anyway, I like conceptual poetry. I’m interested in “uncreative writing.” But you didn’t do that.
            You clearly aren’t a conceptual poet and you weren’t sampling language in any of the collage-type ways you now cite from poor, put-upon Eliot: you understood you wanted the poem to reflect an individual voice that comes from the particular imagination of a single author. You aren’t conceptual: you’re Romantic. And how do I know this?
            Because you fucking added your own line breaks and words.
            But though my language has gotten harsh here, Christian, that’s not what really angers me. What really angers me is something far more primal.  It’s not that you took my poem. That annoys me, oddly, in the same way that my cousin’s tiny theft annoys me. It’s not flattering, as some have blithely suggested to me that it should be. It wasn’t flattering in my cousin’s case either, because I’m fairly certain it was done out of laziness. In your case, however,  it seems to have been done out of compulsion. You’ve plagiarized other poems, and the fact that you likely got mine from a highly visible American website means that you are very likely to have plagiarized dozens of other American poets. It wouldn’t even surprise me to know that you didn’t like the poem. No, I don’t feel flattered by or angry about your decision to plagiarize me. I feel angry that I’m having to write this, in some pathetic attempt to get you to apologize. I feel angry that you made my poem worse. In this, I admit, my emotions are entirely egotistical, circling around and around the drain of my own self-loathing and self-regard, the particular pains I took over my work to make it sound original and beautiful, the particular disgust with which I am forced to regard it, broken and clunky with your new line breaks, the poem less mine now than some sort of monstrous palimpsest that only limply resembles the sounds of the original. In a way, you have taken my poem from me, from my memory of the pleasure of writing it once, the sounds I imagined and heard when I read it to others or myself. I read every draft I write out loud, Christian, so I can hear the difference in the rhythms that occur if I change even a single word. Because of this, the side effect of my writing process is that I memorize all my work, so that whatever poem I write lingers inside me, like a bell still vibrating after the sound has passed. And now that sense, those sounds, that particular pleasure of making—which is the only reward we ever get in poetry, Christian—is gone.
            So thanks for that.
            I know this sounds silly and abstract and something, really, that only some dim poet would say. But I am a poet, Christian, and I am beginning to suspect that, deep down, maybe you aren’t. Or maybe you don’t really want to be one. Because if you ever got this kind of pleasure, I don’t think you would have plagiarized Helen Mort, or Neruda or me, or anyone else, because it would be your language you would want to hear, not someone else’s. And this is what I don’t understand about what you did, or (because I am writing this, and sending it out into the ether and hoping to get some response from you, some acknowledgment, and knowing I won’t) maybe I do. Perhaps what you liked most is what I like, too: the sense of being heard, of knowing that you were heard, and publication is the easiest way to trick yourself into believing that this has happened. I get that. Clearly I get it. I wouldn’t write books if I didn’t. And I wouldn’t be writing this now, and be so angry reading the pieces in the Guardian and The Independent and The Telegraph and not seeing my name listed among the other poets. It’s disgusting what I feel, and I am continually brought up short by my self-absorption, ashamed of it, seeing myself now like some old coot watching someone else get attacked and shouting, “Hey! I once got mugged, too!” from the sidelines. That’s how this situation makes me feel. But there’s no way I can blame you entirely for that.
            But I also feel, strangely, a little like I’m stuck in my poem “The Orchard.” Only now, instead of my grandfather who’s voiceless, twice erased in memory, it’s my own work, my poem, my language. That’s the thing that’s flown away.
            So I’m writing this letter to you, Christian, because this is my news article, this is me standing on the street corner shouting about something that really makes no difference, but that makes—to me—a great deal of difference, who is angry, and embarrassed, and sympathetic, and, yes, bemused.
            I wish you well, Christian. I hope you can get over this. And I hope even more not to hear from you again.