The Question of Appropriation or the Anxiety of Influence, in Either Case, Merely Scratching the Surface

On August 31, 2010 at 12:44 am New Orleanian wrote:

In New Orleans we say We ain’t studyin’ about you

On August 19, 2010 at 3:13 pm Sheera Talpaz wrote:

For someone so self-righteously interested in equitability, Abe Young’s piece is wholly unjust to Ray McDaniel. In her piece, Young calls out McDaniel as a racist, an exploiter (a capitalist? poet), a fellow of white privilege, an unethical oppressor. He’s practically an Ezra Pound or James Dickey. For anyone who doesn’t know Ray but has read the book, this is patently absurd

In response to two very intriguing pieces on Harriet this summer, one by Abe Louise Young, the other by Ray McDaniel, the comment boxes filled up. Here is a sampling:

I am deeply disappointed by McDaniel’s response to these accusations

McDaniel mined that project for his own gain

taking/borrowing/stealing is just that and should not be tolerated much less celebrated.

the authorship of these Katrina survivors is simply not valued here.

outrageous plagarism

Why aren’t the “found” voices ever white?

McDaniel joins a long list of orientalizers, appropriators, and invasive translators: Edward Fitzgerald, Richard Burton, Matthew Arnold, Fenimore Cooper, and Erza Pound.

This is a shame.

and finally:

the question is still on the table: Does Mr. McDaniel — or anyone else — have ethical obligations to request permission when the law does not require it (i.e., when fair use is strictly followed)?

Thanks Ms. Hickman for restating. The question is, yes, must a writer ask for permission? When and why, and how. And really, why does it matter?
Words fail us Virginia Woolf said eight or so decades ago. How to make them fresh? How to make them mean something new? Who of us can find completely new language?
Much of the poetry I encounter is appropriated whether it’s acknowledged or not. I listened to Heather McHugh on a podcast, outline the writing of a poem. She had overheard the story on the radio, and when the storyteller was finished, moved, McHugh took up her pen. The poem she read seemed to me an exact account of the story she recounted hearing on the radio.
This happens ALL THE TIME.
If any one of the lyric or narrative poets writing in Canada who base many of their poems on news events, stories overheard on CBC, or read about in non-fiction texts hears, say my story for example, on the radio, or reads my story in a book and jots down my words and rearranges them in a poem, must they ask or seek my permission to publish their interpretation of my story? Legally, and in terms of a piece of intellectual property, the original needs to be changed a certain percentage. But what constitutes change? Enjambent? Metaphor? A recognizable voice? Different language? Shift in perspective? Re-writing? Here the entire text is lifted and re-constructed. But this reconstructed and re-imagined is an important point isn’t it?
Here’s something to consider. In conceptual writing Kenneth Goldsmith argues the work is only as good as the idea. So if someone has a better idea of me than I do perhaps they will tell a better version of me? Are we reacting to the idea that shapes the poem rather than the content? Are people angry because these stories are “stolen” or because a conventional speaking subject has been undermined? Or because they don’t recognize themselves in someone else’s idea of them? If their ideas matched would everyone be happier?
More simply, if someone takes a poem of mine, as they have done, and rearranged it, should I be flattered? Depends on how it’s done it would appear. I am certainly not always happy. Is my happiness an ethical barometer? Probably not.
What I’m sensing here is again a concern for right action, of moral judgement. This is the stuff that tends to be at the core of the arguments about why lyric poetry is more honest than avant garde, more human. This leads to discussions of intention. Of sincerity. That’s a slippery slope.
Abe Louise Young, a New Orleans native, a social justice activist, and poet, begins her article with this:

When I launched Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History and Memory Project in the week after Hurricane Katrina hit, my goal was to help restore authorship and narrative control to people who had been assaulted by media images of themselves as criminals. I had a vague idea that one day I might work these testimonies into a book of poetry—I had just graduated from the Michener Center for Writers with an MFA in poetry—but that notion was quickly discarded, in part because none of the narrators liked it. Rightfully, they wanted to be the authors, and they wanted their narratives published in full.

McDaniel, a professor and a poet from Florida currently based in Ann Arbor, begins his article this way:

When the Poetry Foundation approached me about writing an essay that addressed my process in writing Saltwater Empire, my initial response was to decline. I thought they were asking me to do the impossible. I don’t know what I did; I only know what I tried to do, what I wanted to do. And as everyone who has ever published (or even shared his or her work with another person) knows, the gap between what you think you did and what other people think you did is wide, and from that discrepancy proceed many surprises, some pleasant and some less so. One way to characterize this breach between intention and effect is failure—if you want to achieve X but instead provoke not X but rather Z and perhaps even 8 and even *, then you can, from one perspective, be rightly said to have failed.

For instance, in composing my collection of poems called Saltwater Empire, I wanted to manipulate my own experiences in a way that approximates autobiography without the deficiencies of that genre, but I also wanted to include other experiences without putting words in the mouths of people who can speak for themselves.

Abe Louise Young collected stories from survivors of Katrina. She wanted to write poems about them, but in the end, chose to build the archive. McDaniel found the archive and used the stories to help write his book. Of his project he says:

When I was in my early 20s I lived in the Florida Panhandle in a tiny apartment complex that catered equally to alcoholics, folks on their way out of state assistance, students on shoestring budgets, and a catastrophically eloquent cast of drug salespersons. For me, the primary appeal of this complex was that it sat adjacent to a far better pedigreed set of apartments that featured a pool to which nonresidents were denied access, a rule we regularly ignored. One day in late August I was sitting out by that pool when it started to rain. The rain was the exact temperature of the air, as was the water in the pool. I couldn’t distinguish them by degree of heat; I could distinguish them only by form and pressure. All three—water, air, rain—felt like different shapes of the same substance. Different, yet the same. Impossible.

The desire to reproduce this effect with language is the aesthetic and ethos of Saltwater Empire.
In a review of Saltwater Empire over at The Believer Stephen Burt suggests McDaniel achieves such an effect. He never once mentions the appropriated texts, though he does refer to the voices of the people, and very specifically I might add, and he does make a connection between McDaniel’s text and CD Wright’s “documentary poems.” Here’s one of McDaniel’s poems. It appeared originally on the Poetry Foundation:

Assault to Abjury

Rain commenced, and wind did.

A crippled ship slid ashore.

Our swimmer’s limbs went heavy.

The sand had been flattened.

The primary dune, the secondary dune, both leveled.

The maritime forest, extracted.

Every yard of the shore was shocked with jellyfish.

The blue pillow of the man o’ war empty in the afterlight.

The treads of the jellyfish, spent.

Disaster weirdly neatened the beach.

We cultivated the debris field.

Castaway trash, our treasure.

Jewel box, spoon ring, sack of rock candy.

A bicycle exoskeleton without wheels, grasshopper green.

Our dead ten speed.

We rested in red mangrove and sheltered in sheets.

Our bruises blushed backwards, our blisters did.

is it true is it true

God help us we tried to stay shattered but we just got better.

We grew adept, we caught the fish as they fled.

We skinned the fish, our knife clicked like an edict.

We were harmed, and then we healed.

“Assault to Abjury” from Saltwater Empire by Raymond McDaniel. Published in 2008 by Coffee House Press.
Note the rich detail. Note the us of we. “I wanted to manipulate my own experiences in a way that approximates autobiography without the deficiencies of that genre,” McDaniel says.
Over on Young’s stream I made a comment about my mother who used to threaten to sue me if I told her story. Here’s a response to that point:

And LH: he did not write about these people, he took their words. And you and your mother? Well, you know your mother, don’t you? Mr. McDaniel may be a lovely person, I don’t know.

Yes, I know, I know my mother, but the point is, does she know where she ends and I begin and vice versa? Or, where does her story end and mine begin? What exactly is mine to use? How can I separate my story from anyone else’s? How can I make sure I use none of her words, or her not use mine? If she writes down my words before I do, can I then not use my own words without her permission? This is very complicated. And this is the core. The problem persists with everything we witness, we read, we see.
When I was in high school the BC writer Andreas Schroeder appeared in our gym one day to talk to us about writing. One of the things that stood out, that made me feel absolutely sick, was the statement that if we gave back all the words and stories that we had been given, or had taken from others, we would be left silent, mute, entirely without language….how was I ever to write?
I take the matter of telling stories extremely serious. Most writers do. The question of appropriation has given great writers considerable pause. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong, for example:

In November, 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered that some 150 Africans be murdered by drowning so that the ship’s owners could collect insurance monies. Relying entirely on the words of the legal decision Gregson vs Gilbert—the only extant public document related to the massacre of these African slaves—Zong! tells the story that cannot be told yet must be told. Equal parts song, moan, shout, oath, ululation, curse, and chant, Zong! excavates the legal text. Memory, history, and law collide and metamorphose into the poetics of the fragment. Through the innovative use of fugal and counterpointed repetition, Zong! becomes an anti-narrative lament that stretches the boundaries of the poetic form, haunting the spaces of forgetting and mourning the forgotten.

In her text on the text Philip recalls in detail the lengths she went to try to find some way to tell the story in a way that honoured those lost voices. You can hear her read and read my essay in response to her text on the Influency website but for her discussion on her process you have to, and should, acquire her book.
Here’s another, slant, take on the discussion, this from Gregory Betts’ essay Plunderverse:

Plunderverse makes use of the wealth and waste of language by exploiting the unattended information in a source text. It makes connections and variations of a previous author’s words to create a different poem from the original piece. But, whereas found poetry and the like celebrate the random connections discovered by abstract rules or unconventional readings of source texts, delighting in the dissolution of communication and the disjunctive semantic fragments that survive, plunderverse celebrates the possibilities of speaking through source texts.

Plunderverse limits its own expression to the source text, but attempts a genuine, divergent expression through the selection, deletion or contortion of it. Plunderverse makes poetry through other people’s words. The constraint is not random, but merely an accelerated variation of the basic fact of language: we already speak in each other’s words. Plunderverse exaggerates the constraints through which we realize and discover our own voice, re-enacting the struggle against influences and cultural histories. It does not try to obscure, bury or overcome influence, but, in fact, celebrates the process by which influences vary into and inform our own voices. It foregrounds the process of language acquisition, reveals the debt of influence and exploits the waste of language.

Okay, but the voices of Katrina cannot be said to be a “waste” of language. Nor are Shakespeare’s sonnets, the site of Betts’ last plunderverse project, but still.
One feels an enormous sense of frustration on the part of Young, I get that. She has gone about the work of collecting these oral histories. I get that. She has created, or been part of creating a database to share these oral histories online. There is a sense of ownership, or at least stewardship, of guarding these texts. Particularly because this population has a long history of erasure in America. I get that. She has directly stated that “permission” should have been gained prior to using the material. I get that.
I admit to feeling queasy about this issue on several levels, but I’m not sure “permission” would assuage any of my discomfort. What are the perimeters of theft? What does it mean to re-imagine or re-conceptualize a story? A text?
Keep my name well, my grandmother said shortly before she passed away. I’m her namesake. I carry her being, and her stories, and to the extent that I can, I have a responsibility to bring them forward. Thinking about appropriation though, how can I do that? How can I tell my mother’s stories now that she is gone? I have an ethical right to do so given blood, yes, I suppose on the one hand that’s true. But I have my mother’s insistence that she is legally bound to her narrative, not me. That threat to sue remains a powerful block even though later she recanted. So, while I have versions of her stories in various states of completeness in a box hidden in my basement, I have also the threat.
Do we not, as writers, have an obligation to tell and retell and rewrite whether or not we have a legal or moral right?
Perhaps sentiment, personal entanglements, and above all “I” don’t have a place here. Or do they? Allow me to appropriate some of the comments to try and make sense of the heightened feelings. There is a sense of someone having ripped off someone, a sense of being “deeply disappointed” by the text, by “McDaniel’s response to these accusations.”
There is the matter of respect: “Young approached the narratives in a respectful way,” but evil “McDaniel mined that project for his own gain” he is a thief and “taking/borrowing/stealing is just that and should not be tolerated much less celebrated.”
More and more moral statements: “the authorship of these Katrina survivors is simply not valued here,” but how does one show value? This is “outrageous plagarism,” there are allegations of racism: “Why aren’t the “found” voices ever white?”
There is the desire to try and construct an ethical system for the poet, one with clear guidelines and warnings: “The danger for the poet, then, is to get the facts right, and not to put words in the mouths of real people who cannot speak for themselves.”
A championing of the moral truth of a given approach: “ideas here are opening a broader accountability for us as writers and truth-seekers.”
There are broad statements, “McDaniel joins a long list of orientalizers, appropriators, and invasive translators: Edward Fitzgerald, Richard Burton, Matthew Arnold, Fenimore Cooper, and Erza Pound” and a general expression of, again, a desire for and belief in discussion of intention and process:
with the right care and respect the anthology could have made a significant contribution, without that work it remains the poetic equivalent of disaster tourism.
It’s true, we do. “As writers we have an obligation to deeply consider the ethics of our process without relying on simplified notions of “stealing” and such.”
We also have an obligation to be up front about our own intentions–in a way the best argument for a conceptual practice which is clear in its terms and its practice. Another good question:

Is there a reason she wouldn’t mention or be accountable for every step she’s taken *away* from engaging with Raymond, for two years now, while otherwise engaging his publisher, his employer, attorneys maybe, Alive in Truth participants & the public?

What does it mean to “profit” from a story? There is some desire to ascribe a right profitability whereas “Ms. Young was not the author of the works and never profited from them” but McDaniel has profited. How does one profit from poetry? Jonathan Lethem on the matter of profit:

In the first life of creative property, if the creator is lucky, the content is sold. After the commercial life has ended, our tradition supports a second life as well. A newspaper is delivered to a doorstep, and the next day wraps fish or builds an archive. Most books fall out of print after one year, yet even within that period they can be sold in used bookstores and stored in libraries, quoted in reviews, parodied in magazines, described in conversations, and plundered for costumes for kids to wear on Halloween. The demarcation between various possible uses is beautifully graded and hard to define, the more so as artifacts distill into and repercuss through the realm of culture into which they’ve been entered, the more so as they engage the receptive minds for whom they were presumably intended.

I have a lot of empathy for Young, her project, and her position, but I also have a lot of empathy for McDaniel–and his tactics. I am certainly going to read the book, both to see how he has shaped the text, but also for the text itself.
Here’s another snippet from the Jonathan Lethem essay “The Esctasy of Influence: A Plagiarism” that I quoted from above:

Consider this tale: a cultivated man of middle age looks back on the story of anamour fou, one beginning when, traveling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is a preteen, whose charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator—marked by her forever—remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: Lolita.

The author of the story I’ve described, Heinz von Lichberg, published his tale of Lolita in 1916, forty years before Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. Lichberg later became a prominent journalist in the Nazi era, and his youthful works faded from view. Did Nabokov, who remained in Berlin until 1937, adopt Lichberg’s tale consciously? Or did the earlier tale exist for Nabokov as a hidden, unacknowledged memory? The history of literature is not without examples of this phenomenon, called cryptomnesia. Another hypothesis is that Nabokov, knowing Lichberg’s tale perfectly well, had set himself to that art of quotation that Thomas Mann, himself a master of it, called “higher cribbing.”

Okay, right, not the same. Two white dudes influencing each other is not the same as chronically oppressed voices once again not having their say.
The anxiety of influence is not lost on me. I feel it. I feel hostility toward what I sense as unjust, or unfair use. I feel glorious when someone appropriates a text and shows me something new in it. It’s kind of magical: take a text, toss it in the air, and reveal an entirely new way of reading it? Brilliant.
I’m also wary of arguments around “ethical” appropriation or ethical anything because what is ethical is very subjective isn’t it. I mean there are so many comments above that can’t see the respect embedded in McDaniel’s work. Can’t see how he has taken one thing and made something completely new. Connected. Amplified. Other. There is a conflation in the comments of racism and appropriation. This is not new–I recall here in Canada several accusations such as this including Kinsella’s appropriation of characters from Hobema in his stories, and Anne Cameron’s Daughters of Copper Woman. Surely there are more recent cases aside from the Young/McDaniel issue. Kinsella’s response I recall being most offended by. It went something like, if they don’t tell their stories, I will, but there was indictment there too, if I recall, insinuation about the people he was writing about’s inability to tell their own stories…
But what stands out there is actually the “I.” The problematic “I.” For really, who is taking a wide sweep and speaking for “others” or for “they” or an “individual”? Maybe what gets us, what really bothers us, is one person standing in for another. One person saying, my genius, without acknowledging the body of other geniuses that has gone into one’s own particular project. Ventriloquism is one thing. Standing in for someone, outright identity theft, that’s another. It seems clear, even from the one poem offered here, that McDaniel is allowing those voices to speak, he does not seem to be claiming anyone’s identity.
What would the best outcome for the voices in Abe Louise Young’s oral history project be? A first class documentary film based on their stories? I can see that, and would very much like to see that. And from that I can imagine the endless repsonses to those stories spinning out in poems and stories around the world because powerful stories demand retelling. That is a fact.
When I think of my mother’s threats to me I realize that at the core of her frustration was the feeling that she never felt heard, that she never fully made sense of her narrative, and frankly, that she was never able to spin it into gold. Everywhere around her narratives were being monetized, and from the outside it seems as though it’s the ones who can see the financial reward that make it so, not the one’s who have the stories… Particularly survivor stories. So many people who can write with so little to say… So, if all this sorrow was being turned into gold why not hers? She told her story again and again and again, and not only did she never make a dime from it, it was never enough to unburden her. She wanted a conversion. A conversion story. She was a powerful storyteller with a powerful story. What does it take to feel heard?
–Sina Queyras, Montreal

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