I’m an NYC poet in my late 20s – I go to a lot of poetry readings. Two per week on average, which means I’m hearing about 24 poets per month, that’s at least 288 poets per year (not including AWP).
So I often find myself sitting in some dark bar or other asking myself what poetry is. What are the “rules”?
Two currently popular techniques are 1. co-written manuscripts which can either be about unicorns or sex etc. (kidding/not kidding) or often conceptual pieces of writing that discuss (for instance) what it is to be human, and 2. utilizing the texts of others through things like erasures or mash-ups. Both are forms of collaboration – one social, one solitary.
I love the idea of co-written books, but it took me many years to feel like erasures or mash-ups etc. had any validity outside of exercises.
Many I still don’t find interesting, creative, or worthwhile, but others seem to me more than the sum of their parts. Moving creativity, insightful thinking, not a “poetry puzzle game”.
To me, the great ones are about language, the way we think and process images and ideas, passion, and homage – not just something that’s clever. When you talk to a super interesting friend and then go home and write about the conversation and all the things that conversation made you think of – that’s what these types of poems are to me. Assuming the poem isn’t made out of full, verbatim lines, how is that not something you yourself made?
Yes, I think that language play for its own sake is fun and cool, but a poem I’m actually gonna pay attention to still remains something that has to punch me in the guts. Something in some way vulnerable and striking, that I’m different at the end of, that makes me want to write.
But there are many people who don’t agree with my views. I met one recently, and decided to have a conversation with them and I’m glad I did. I like conversation, and it often makes things clearer or brings up great new thoughts.
This person felt that the only true poetry is 100% original in word choice and order. I find this to be an antiquated way of viewing poetry, experiencing language both written and spoken, and of experiencing and connecting with art.
I understand and agree with the idea of the importance of credit and acknowledgement for hard work and our own creativity, which was this person’s main concern. I work my ass off as a poet, and my work means the world to me – I get it. But wouldn’t we rather be in conversation intimately with each other, not held at a distance merely reading each other’s work in public as a way to show appreciation or, more importantly, of engaging with each other?
This begs the question what does it mean to be “derivative” or to “steal”? Is binging on a single poet and then writing a manuscript where people can tell who you’ve binged on stealing, or is it just when you use their actual texts? Where do we draw the line between sounding like someone and uncreative work. What does “unoriginal” mean? What is “original”? Why do we define a work by these shades of grey rather than by the work itself? Maybe the problem is that we’re looking at a book as the complete object of a complete human, when everything’s really always a work in progress. Would that make us more open? How useful really is the question, “is that a real poem?”
Here’s the thing, people will always take bits and pieces from each other, and make things their own. It’s the nature of humans – the nature of how we learn, process, and experience life. By chewing it, tasting it, deciding things, and making something with that mush. It’s really a wonderful thing.
Is another person’s art to be respected to the point where we hold back our own art? I say no. No, nothing should hold us from our art or our journey to it, and if part of your journey needs to be erasures then write a million erasures. It’s a journey to our own understanding of ourselves, and our own fulfillment in our lives and our art.
I say – always credit; never restrain. What do you think?
*cover photo: How to Create a Simple Re-Mixing Tool (chopBook) by Joseph A. W. Quintela on rIgor mort.US
Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein is the founding editor of SOUND: a literary magazine on contemporary musico-poetics, and an associate editor for Rattapallax. She received her MFA in poetry from The New School, and her BS in classical vocal performance and literature from Mannes. Her chapbook, Quiet, was selected by Matthea Harvey as The New School’s 2012 Chapbook Contest winner for poetry. She is currently writing the libretto for Jonathan Dawe’s modern operatic re-telling of Tamburlaine. @Elkawildling