By Sam Cha
Anybody following the Lisa Low thing?
The Lisa Low thing’s a lot like the Ailey O’Toole thing; Ailey O’Toole being the (young, white) woman who published a bunch of poems that plagiarize—line for line, stanza for stanza, punctuation mark for punctuation mark—work by other poets (many of them POC); among others, our very own Rachel McKibbens (poetry editor here at Radius, along with yours truly). And then got a Pushcart nomination for the poem that she plagiarized from Rachel. And then got a forearm tattoo of the first line of that poem to celebrate. And then took a photo of the tattoo and put it on Twitter. Which, as tweets go, approaches the Trumpian in terms of self-aggrandizing delusional myopia, if not in terms of empty-headedness, repetitiveness, cynicism, tedium, and evil.
(I’m digressing. Sorry-not-sorry. I just can’t pass on—up? over?—the low-hanging fruit. In Christian mythology that’s the act that makes us human in the first place, and I’m not Christian, but I’ll be damned if that’s not one of the greatest psychological insights in all of literature. Actually, if there is a Christian afterlife, I guess I’m damned regardless, because Heaven’s the original country with a border wall, so fuck your thrones powers and dominions, your princes and principalities, forever and ever amen. But you know what I mean.)
Anyway: Lisa Low’s an Asian-American poet who has, in the past two years, published a number of poems that are, as far as I can tell, all either “after Claudia Cortese” or “after Jennifer Jackson Berry.” (All of the Claudia Cortese ones have been taken down; all of the Jennifer Jackson Berry ones are still, as of 12/18/2018, available online.)
“After,” here, means that she’s taken poems from these two poets, field-stripped them, and then built them back up with different nouns.
There’s a medical technique called decellularization, in which you take an organ from a donor or a cadaver and you kill all the cells in the organ (by rupturing the cell membranes with enzymes and/or “ionic detergents”) and wash them away. What’s left then is a gauze of gristle, a ghost-organ spun of ivory glass. Doctors call it a decellularized whole organ matrix. They use them as bio-compatible scaffolding for stem cells, in order to grow, for example, new heart valves, bones, skin, whole rat lungs, & c., & c., to graft onto a new body.
This is a good description of Low’s (recent, published) body of work.
One thread that runs throughout the denunciations of O’Toole and Low is that the plagiarist, by co-opting the original, is stealing not only language or work or voice, but life; trauma. She is claiming the experience—the form, the content, or both—of the original author as her own. The original author’s body; their body-of-work. “I didn’t really understand at first how much she had truly climbed into my story and worn my skin,” says Rachel McKibbens, of O’Toole. “Lisa Low not only plagiarized my words, images, lines but — even worse — she stole my voice, my trauma, the girl I love most in this world — the girl I spent years creating, the girl who let me pour into her all of the pain and pathology of my girlhood — & it is NOT OKAY,” writes Claudia Cortese.
In this context, the organ that the plagiarist decellularizes is the skin. The pattern of scars on the skin. The pattern of scars that the original poet has learned, slowly, painfully, to read as if it were a language. The scars they have learned to trace and pair (inside of left wrist to under the right eye to just beneath the knee) and compare and rhyme, in order, making characteristic gestures, hard or soft, slow or fast, smooth or staccato, over and over, until the poet has forgiven herself her grief, her hurt, her body. (That’s what anybody’s story is, in the end: a forgiveness.)
Lots of poems are like that. They depend on a poetics of presence. They work as a series of gestures that the text guides you through; gestures that suggest vividly, musically, and unforgettably the experience of being somebody else—somebody else’s scars; somebody else’s forgiveness. And what a relief it is to be somebody else. Not because you’re unhappy being yourself, but because being any person is a heavy weight, and sometimes we need to put it down. And because being somebody else reminds you that you are not alone.
And yes! Yes, the speaker of a poem is not the poet. The speaker of the poem isn’t even really a speaker. The speaker of the poem is a pattern of words. And the words, which do not speak, have no body, no scars, no forgiveness. We all know that. But they suggest somebody who speaks and who does. And this person is for us simultaneously not real and very, very real. And we can love them for their realness to us without losing sight of the fact that we are imagining them on the evidence of a few marks made on wood pulp. We are all capable of holding contradictory ideas in our heads. When I read a poem I am myself and not myself; I am Sam but not just Sam: I am Sam-reading-a-poem, the poem diffusing through me, opening up like one of those paper flowers you put in a cup of water, the sharp black barbs of serifs working into my nerves, the lines (verse and fish and phone) spooling out of my body, and like religion I know that somebody is on the other end.
Plagiarists like Low and O’Toole undermine all of that, obviously.
It would be tedious to detail. They present (v.) but aren’t present (adj.); there’s no there there. You think you’re getting a person or maybe a person behind a representation of a person but you’re getting a person behind a representation of a representation of a person. You want the show and that which passes show but you get a show of a show. I’m losing my religion.
You get the gist. I’m tired just thinking about it.
But, but, I can hear some of you saying already, #NotAllPoems work like that. #NotAllPoems depend on a poetics of presence!
And you’re totally right. It’s easy to imagine a valid—if excruciatingly uninteresting—poetic practice that would consist almost entirely of the process of de- and re-cellularization. With two small but crucial additions.
What Low could have done, in order to transform her writing into actual poems:
1) Say, explicitly, that each of her poems are built on the decellularized scaffolding of such-and-such a poem, using the patterns of other people’s scars.
2) Come up with an convincing reason/justification for this practice. Make sure that the text supports this reading.
I’m not saying that they would then be good poems—though who knows? But they’d at least be poems.
And they wouldn’t be worse than, for instance, the entire oeuvre of either Kenneth Goldsmith or Vanessa Place. They’d fit right in, in fact.
Goldsmith and Place still, by the way, have careers, and an audience.
When you’re rich, white, and have a Poetry Foundation bio, you can stand up in an auditorium at Brown and read the autopsy report of Michael Brown out loud as a poem in 2015 and still go on to have a whole two day spring symposium dedicated to your work in Athens, Greece, in 2018. You can tweet the text of Gone With The Wind on an account with a picture of Hattie McDaniel as Mammy—because giving away a racist text for free online is what counts as anti-racist art in 2015—and turn around and say that your critics are Philistines who want “art that’s sanitized, art that’s playing safe, art for the market,” and that real art, like your work, needs to have a “certain amount of cruelty,” needs to “touch nerves.”
Then you go to your dayjob, where you’re a lawyer who represents convicted indigent rapists on appeal, and you take notes, you write down the details, you copy down other people’s trauma for later use.
You’re going to put them in your book, which will consist entirely of long quotes from “statements of facts” that you have filed in court on behalf of your clients. All of which, since your clients are convicted rapists, depict violent sexual assault.
It’s in a good cause, you say to yourself. I will make the reader question their relationship to the text; to the object of paper and glue and ink that they have bought which is the material form of the text; to the facts I will present in or through the text—facts that by virtue of being presented through the medium of consumer object, of book, already seem distant, seem possibly fictional—thus calling into question the very idea of “fact” (even cruel and horrifying and traumatic “facts” about rape and child rape and incestuous child rape), when mediated by the market.
My art is a frontal assault on capitalism, you say to yourself.
And when you have this thought—every time you have this thought—the tiny hairs on your forearm stand straight up.
Our writings are now identical to writings which already exist. The only thing we do is claim them as our own. With that simple gesture, they become completely different from the originals.
I am a dumb writer, perhaps one of the dumbest that’s ever lived. Whenever I have an idea, I question whether it is sufficiently dumb. I ask myself, is it possible that this, in any way, could be considered smart? If the answer is no, I proceed. I don’t write anything new or original. I copy pre-existing texts and move information from one place to another.
There are two book
versions of Gone With the Wind by Vanessa Place. One version gleans the
racist language and imagery of the original. The other simply reproduces the
entire book such that there are two complete volumes of Gone With the Wind
in WorldCat, the collective library catalogue, one by Margaret Mitchell, one by
Vanessa Place. The Estate of Margaret Mitchell is notoriously litigious, and
the State is the enforcer of its copyright. By isolating the appearance of
blackness in the first book, I invited Mitchell to sue to recover the “darkies”
she claimed ownership of; by reproducing the entire book I invited suit for
wholesale theft of intellectual property. The question was whether the State
would uphold Mitchell’s right to profit from her appropriation against my
appropriation of her.
I have always been careful to state that these works are not parodies i.e., not protected by fair use or other copyright exceptions. I am stealing the material from Mitchell because I believe she stole it first. Neither of us has any right to the matter (as in the lives) therein: the only difference between Mitchell and me is that I already know I am guilty.
This is about an older woman uh, who uh, who uh, a man came into her house, this man that she’s defending um, and, uh, b‐uh orally cop—copulated uh, uh, raped her, uh, on and on and on. This is a very very difficult text. But what this is, is this is Vanessa’s day job. This is what she’s doing for— And then she just turns around and publishes this as her poetry. As her—as this kind of kind of uh, you’re taking aliened, aln—I’m sorry, alienated labor, and turning it into unalienated labor.
A superficial reading of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” is a hell of a drug.
A superficial reading of Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Quixote of Pierre Menard” is a hell of a drug.
An inability to distinguish between explanation and apology isn’t a drug, though.
It just means that you’ve failed at being a decent fucking human being.
Yes, that whole Conceptual Poetry thing, the Uncreative Writing thing, is bullshit. Sorry-not-sorry Marjorie Perloff. It’s trollery. Dead-end nihilistic bleh. Verbal beige. 4chan plus pretension, and minus clout. Cold oatmeal and phlegm topped with a sprinkling of fingernails.
look at me I’m so transgressive amn’t I cool now give me
a handjob without lube or an honorary doctorate
from the University of Bologna because I want
to wield cultural power but I cannot allow myself to feel joy
And it runs on copy-and-paste, on text manipulation, on search and replace, on crtl-C, -V, and -F.
But if you were to put a gun to my head—Trotsky’s, not Chekov’s, please—I’d have to say: Sure. Fine. We can call it poetry, if it matters that much to you.
I don’t particularly enjoy it, and that’s by design. The only novel thing that Conceptual Poetry does in writing is that it disavows pleasure. Which is, as I’ve already said, bullshit. Harry Frankfurt famously defines bullshit as verbiage that has been produced without a concern for the truth; I want to gesture here towards a definition of bullshit in poetry as verbiage that has been produced without any love of the reader. Because if there is such a thing as truth in poetry, love for the reader is it.
But Conceptual poems work just as well when you don’t read them, because you are not the audience. The ideal reader of much of Conceptual poetry isn’t, in fact, human.
The ideal reader of a Kenneth Goldsmith poem is a search engine. And/or Alexa. And/or Siri.
The ideal reader of Gone With the Wind @VanessaPlace is WorldCat. And the Margaret Mitchell Estate. And Twitter. Not the people who keep these entities running, but the entities themselves, these organisms made of code and legal codes and ink and electricity. Texts for nothing, texts for silicon, texts for court, texts for tenure. Texts for electrons and punishment. Old text, new text, any text but true love.
Where humans come into the picture is in their reactions to the fact that Conpo doesn’t care about people—it’s in their reading of their alienation from reading.
And that’s where the real work of Conpo happens. In the detailing of reasons why we should care that we don’t care about these poems. In the reading of our reading of our alienation from reading.
I think of it as the Danerian school. Daneri being the godawful poet in Borges’s “The Aleph” whose actual art is not the writing of poetry, but the invention of reasons why his godawful poem should be admired.
But Conpo is still poetry. Or, at the very least, art. It’s bullshit—often pointless and boring and sometimes hurtful or harmful bullshit—but it’s not, on its own terms, fraud. Per se.
I’ve heard, by the way, that Perloff herself’s not above a bit of—well, let’s call it borrowing. But don’t quote me on it. I may have heard it from somebody with a Pulitzer, but then again they or I might be misremembering. You know how that goes. Everybody has a terrible memory, especially about plagiarism, unless you’re that Harvard kid who got caught plagiarizing a novel a few years ago and said that she must have unintentionally quoted whole passages verbatim because she had a photographic memory and remembered everything. Except, you know, she forgot that she was remembering. Them apples: I don’t know that she liked them that much, once she got to eat them.
A candidate for the best Conceptual poet of all time is Satoshi Nakamoto, the anonymous/pseudonymous inventor of Bitcoin.
Two words: Blockchain. Poems.
It’s going to be worth literally dozens of dollars.
You heard it here first.
What I’m saying, I guess, is that I really wish Lisa Low had at least put in as much work as Daneri. As Goldsmith, as Place.
Before she published the poems, not after.
She’s plainly capable of it, when pressed. When Cortese confronted her, this was Low’s response:
I think of it as an exploration of identity, hypervisibility/invisibility through the lens of race, and the ethics of fiction-making. Here’s how your work helped me: your poems gave me a specific format—the epistolary form between creator and created—through which I explored the implications of writing about a character of color. Here’s how I see my work as different from your project: while we both discuss adolescence and female experience, my poems, which largely appear in lineated forms, follow a character’s growth over time and, importantly to me, address racial stereotypes, microaggressions towards Asian-Americans, and generational differences in a Chinese immigrant narrative. Our projects both comment on whiteness, but I believe that my poems, from a POC point of view, are making much different assertions about whiteness than yours.
The irony is that my project centers on an Asian-American experience of being silenced and invisible in real life/the media, and that is what is happening to me now. Ruby is a version of my younger self, an amalgamation of my experiences and insecurities growing up as an Asian-American girl in a white world, and it feels like you are telling her she doesn’t matter. This is the most heartbreaking part for me.
Sounds pretty plausible, no? It’s not plagiarism, it’s commentary about the ethics of fiction-making. It’s not plagiarism, because it’s about taking a white person’s poem and repurposing it to build the narrative of a person of color. It’s not plagiarism. When you call it plagiarism you’re silencing me. When I substitute Ruby for Lucy, substitute white girl for father, put tofu where the spruce goes, put tampon where the marbles go, I am saying something specific about my experience. It’s breaking my heart! Don’t I matter?
I’d have been willing to buy it, if it hadn’t been after the fact.
But I can’t.
And as an Asian-American poet—as somebody who’s Asian-American in no small part because he wanted to write in English rather than in his mother tongue—as someone who has, in effect, given up his first home for the medium of his art—as somebody who tries to address, in his writing, identity and hypervisibility/invisibility through the lens of race and whiteness and racial stereotypes and microaggressions towards Asian-Americans, this hurts.
It hurts because Low has a point when she says it’s not the same when she addresses whiteness and Claudia Cortese addresses whiteness. It hurts because it bothers me when Claudia Cortese implies that Ruby talking about the white girls at school is the same as Lucy talking about the white girls at school. Because it isn’t. Can’t be. Shouldn’t be. It hurts because I have two graduate degrees in English and poetry, and not even the vestige of a Korean accent, and strangers on the street still ask me what country I’m from and whether I speak English and because I will bet you a solid gold toilet that Low gets those same questions—more in the last two years than ever before; more now than ever before—and I will bet you a Mar-a-Lago that Cortese does not. And because, when I see Cortese writing that she wrote in an essay that Lucy’s self-hate is shaped by living in a “white-supremacist rape-culture,” and that therefore when Low says that Ruby is “an Asian-American girl living in a white world” Low is plagiarizing Cortese’s earlier essay, I instinctively bristle, my whole body clenches like a fist, and because I then have to back down, because let’s face it, Cortese is right. It hurts because even with the screenshots of Low poems side-by-side with Cortese poems, my first instinct is protective. I want Low to be innocent. I want her POC point of view to be more than a concept that she’s deploying in self-defense. It hurts because her plagiarism makes a mockery of her POC point of view. And of mine. Because Low’s made it so she can’t, in fact, talk about her own experience and turn it into poems, and I want to be on her side, but I can’t.
It hurts because Low and I, we’re trying to do many of the same things, we are chasing down the same fucking whale. And she’s taking these concerns, these traumas, these obsessions, this work—that we share, that we investigate and pursue and harpoon, in some important sense together (I mean, sure, she does it by playing Mad Libs with other people’s syntax and form, and I do it by drinking lots of coffee and typing till I can’t see straight, but nevertheless: together)—and she’s taking all of that, and repurposing it as a goddam excuse, a fucking alibi, so that—what?
Are you kidding me?
That’s low, Low.
Not knocking Hobart, mind you.
But c’mon, sister. If you were going to sell us out, if you were going to sell yourself out, if that tiny little bit of cultural cachet that you get from publishing a piece of writing was your price, if all you were after was that charge, that feeling you get where you’re a quarter inch taller and ten extra people add you on Twitter—
—you couldn’t have held out for the fucking American Poetry Review? Or Poetry?
Or—my god—The Nation?
Low-hanging fruit again, sorry-not-sorry.
The Nation, if you don’t know, recently had their own kerfluffle, where they published a poem by Anders Carlson-Wee, in which the speaker uses African-American vernacular (poorly), in a way that verges on blackface.
People hated the poem, naturally, and said so.
Then something wholly unexpected happened: the poetry editors of The Nation issued an apology.
This of course led to a kerfuffle about the kerfuffle (kerfufffuffle?), in which many—like, literally dozens, man—well-educated and not-so-well-educated and smart and not-so-smart and misguided and very-slightly-less-misguided people tossed around terms like “re-education camp” and “craven” and “free speech” in comment sections and editorials. One eminent poet and former Nation poetry editor was to be seen, opining in the pages of The New York Times, that she’d never, in 35 years, issued an apology, not even when The Nation published Gore Vidal’s abhorrent anti-Semitic bat/bullshit; that The Nation had a proud and long-standing history of publishing wrong-headed things and not apologizing for them, starting with Henry James panning Whitman in his review of Drum-Taps in 1865; and that furthermore she had a sneaking suspicion that the current editors, if they were willing to break with such storied tradition, might choose not to publish Robert Lowell! or Ezra Pound! if they were writing today; good heavens, and clutch all the pearls.
So, you know, just to be clear, the people willing to break with a 143 year-old tradition of non-apology and complicity are, in this narrative, the ones who were “craven.”
Some of you are now googling That Voltaire Quote—you know the one that I’m talking about, the “I will defend to the death your right to say” etc., etc.—because you can’t remember the exact wording, and you want to use it in your comment.
Whenever somebody pulls out That Voltaire Quote, I know that I am talking to somebody who will not listen to me, who doesn’t care about what I have to say.
Also, Voltaire never even said it.
I wonder if people would be so taken with that quote if they knew that it was written by a woman named Evelyn Beatrice Hall in 1906?
Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote under a pseudonym: “S. G. Tallentyre.” She published ten books between 1893 and 1919.
None of it survives in the public consciousness except for that one quote.
She’s almost never given the credit for it.
Another reason why Low’s non-apology/alibi/excuse—It’s in a good cause! It’s a frontal assault on whiteness, racial stereotyping, microaggression, erasure! Don’t silence me!—hurts: because it mirrors so closely the non-apologies/alibis/excuses of whiteness and racial stereotyping and microaggressions and macroaggressions. That I-didn’t-do-anything-that-beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt-violates-
the-letter-of-the-law. That I-am-within-my-rights. That I’m-shocked-that-you-think-that. That you-must-be-mistaken. That you-don’t-get-it?-what-are-you-stupid? That that-is-not-my-recollection-of-the-events. That sorry-not-sorry. It is the ambient background radiation of the moral universe of the US. It is everywhere. Sorry-not-sorry permeates everything. Your job. Your classes. Your friends. Your heroes. Your shows. Your art. Your museums. Your historical monuments. Your drone strikes. Your national alerts. Your prisons and your prison camps. Your immigration system. Your elections. Your holidays. Your government.
Sorry. Not sorry.
I wrote, submitted, and published a de-/re-cellularized poem, at least once.
It was in a good cause.
I was re-purposing a white poet’s voice in order to stage a frontal assault on whiteness, racial stereotyping, microaggressions, erasure, and silencing.
Back in the halcyon pre-covfefe days of 2015—do you remember?—a poet going by the name of Yi-Fen Chou had a poem selected by Sherman Alexie for that year’s Best American Poetry. Then, when notified of the poem’s acceptance, “Yi-Fen Chou” wrote Alexie back with a bio in which “Yi-Fen” revealed herself to be a white man named Michael Derrick Hudson. When a poem of his got rejected under his real name, Hudson said, he’d submit it to other journals under his pseudonym. The “strategy” was “quite successful,” he said—“The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” the poem that made into Best American Poetry, according to Hudson, was rejected 40 times when editors thought it was by “Michael Derrick Hudson” and only 9 times when editors thought it was by “Yi-Fen Chou.”
On the 10th try, the poem made it into Prairie Schooner.
“I am nothing if not persistent,” said Hudson.
Translation (from the original Smirkish): y’all wouldn’t publish this poem when you thought it was by a white guy, so I decided to go ahead and pose as an Asian woman and see if that helped! And it did! Take my word for it. I keep “detailed submissions records” that are definitely real, totally not made up, the greatest ever, the best, so it’s all true. Never mind that you can’t find any other poems published under the Yi-Fen Chou moniker on Google. That’s the liberal bias in the algorithm. Algorithms definitely work like that. Anyway, where’s my privilege now, bitches? You want some? You want some firm hard affirmative action? Come get it.
I was furious. I read and re-read the poem. I read and re-read the bio. I looked at the photo of Hudson that came attached to the coverage. I looked up some other poems by Hudson. I read and re-read those. I didn’t like them. I didn’t hate them. Still I read. I am nothing if not persistent. Patterns began to emerge. He liked alternating one- and two- line stanzas. Most of the lines fluctuated between hexameter and septameter. He liked playing with tonal shifts—the voice lurching drunkenly between Saxon (“fat whale”) and Latin (“flatulent”), between the vernacular (“am I supposed to say something?”) and conscious archaism (“atop yonder scraggly hillock”), between naked self-pity (“am I supposed to say something?”) and self-pity coated with a scrim of allusion (“Poseidon diddled / Philomel”; “Adam should’ve said no to Eve”). I could hear his voice in my head now. It quavered slightly. A slurred tenor, I imagined it, cracking on the harder consonants, stumbling and repeating a bit on the Latinisms; not unmusical, but with a sustained just-audible undertone of whine, capable of rising to a lugubrious howl, which this voice would probably, given the chance, characterize as Yeatsian. But more closely akin to the most self-consciously ridiculous bits of Prufrockery. He’d surround himself with moderately wealthy friends, the owner of this voice. The friends would put on little artsy gatherings every year or so, at one of their houses. Fourteen or so people. Two or three of them under the age of forty. One or two of them black or Asian. They’d sip wine, pick at the prosciutto-wrapped melon, and talk about the time they went to Florence, how nothing really prepared you for the angle of the sunlight, the bustle, the pointy shoes, the speed of spoken Italian, the sheer size of the David, and oh, Michael, could you read for us, please? And he would read, reedily, slowly, and all the friends except maybe one or two of them would nod sagely as he read, or close their eyes. And the ones with their eyes closed would imagine elegant people in a movie, a Merchant-Ivory period piece, probably, listening to a string quartet; they would try to picture those faces as clearly as they could, in order to imitate them; in order to put on the right face for listening to Art.
I wrote what that voice would say. I wrote it in alternating one- and two- line stanzas. I dialed some of the mannerisms up to eleven—the whine, the self-pity, the poly-syllabics. Instead of saying straight out that he felt ill-at-ease in his own language, and that the words felt fragmented, he’d coin a word, just to imply a classical or classical-adjacent education. He’d look at nature entirely through the lens of his own perceived sexual deprivation, his unwilled celibacy. He’d quote from Eliot and Melville, or try to give the impression that he was quoting, and at that he would be successful. But each allusion would be subtly off. It would be musically sound, but conceptually ridiculous. And the voice would have no idea. But the reader would.
It took me an hour. “I am Michael Derrick Hudson,” I titled it. I wanted the voice-stealer to know I was stealing his voice; was doing his voice better than him while making fun of it at the same time. I sent it to some friends, who said I should send it out to be published.
I sent it to one place, not fifty. “Despite the title, and my Korean surname,” I wrote, “I am really not Michael Derrick Hudson.” I didn’t want there to be any confusion.
“I am actually a person,” I said. In that moment, I meant everything that that implied, with regards to literary frauds, thieves, con-artists, self-pitying deceivers and habitual liars.
I think, on balance, I still do.
Sorry. Not sorry.
Sam Cha is poetry co-editor for Radius.