25th Trillium Award

Trouble in the (zeit)Geist?

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The tangible rewards of being a contemporary Canadian poet are relatively few compared to the amount of effort, and, yes, hard work, it takes to be a contemporary Canadian poet.

The tangible rewards include, and are quite possibly limited to:

  • The ability to show up at the local reading series without needing to invite your friends. (There are six of them. And they are all already there.)
  • The ability to cause a kerfuffle at the border simply by stating your profession.
  • Occasionally being shortlisted for an award.
  • Obliging your parents to Google the award.
  • Referring to yourself as ?the crack troops of gentrification? when explaining the neighbourhood you live in.
  • Spending a month or two aboard a boat in the Rocky Mountains.
  • Being discovered, four years after the publication of your book (not that you were counting), by Geist magazine.
  • Occasionally getting close enough to Ken Babstock?s bum to pinch it.

It?s the second-last item I want to discuss. A friend of mine, Matthew Tierney, author of three books of poetry including The Hayflick Limit and the forthcoming Probably Inevitable, recently had the honour of being discovered by Geist. At least, I think he did.

A couple of circumstances make it impossible to be 100% certain:

  1. The poem in the magazine was not precisely the one he had written.
  2. The name on the poem was not precisely his.

I, along with several others, contacted Geist about the similarity between the poems. (The similarity between the names, I assume, is purely coincidental.) I imagine the editors will do what turns out to be most sensible, and I doubt it?s going to be a very big deal in the end.

Still, I feel the need for a little rant about plagiarism and prestige in poetry.

Borrowing ideas and images from other people?s poems is not, by itself, bad behaviour. It is how all poetry is made.

But despite this fact, and despite our copyright-confused historical moment, I still believe there is a line between good borrowing and bad borrowing. (Bad as in wrong. Stealing.)

Here is where I think the line is: Does the new poem do something original? Is the original thing that the new poem does original enough that if the source poem were credited, people would still want to read the new poem? (The line becomes clearer when read aloud.)

Given the minimal tangible rewards for writing poetry, being proprietary about poems might seem silly. Neither Matthew is going to be made rich, or even very famous, by a poem in Geist magazine.

In all likelihood, neither Matthew?s extended family will experience much additional pleasure about said Matthew?s career choice. Neither Matthew will get a dental plan or be able to support children on the proceeds. He will be lucky to afford a decent pitcher of beer for his six friends.

But I think the ownership of the poem matters precisely because the material rewards of poetry are so few. If, after the difficult work of writing something memorable, a poet doesn?t even get to conspicuously place a complimentary copy of Geist on his (wobbly, curb-salvaged) coffee table, he might just give up. Without any money in the business, poetry runs, at least in part, on ego and fumes. As everyone knows, egos are fragile.

I sometimes like to imagine a world where the daily needs of poets are readily funded, and the profession comes with enough built-in social acceptability that no one need get too hung up on publications and awards. Poets could concentrate, instead, on—well, I?m not sure what they would concentrate on. I?d be curious to find out.*

In that world, maybe it would be acceptable to paraphrase another person?s poem and publish it as your own. Maybe we would all be happy about the possibility the new version might reach a different audience.

But there wouldn?t be much incentive to paraphrase other people?s poems in the first place, unless you were sure you could do something genuinely new and exciting with them.

On a slightly different note, here is my favourite recent article on plagiarism.

*Disclaimer: Having spent time at the Banff Centre for the Arts, I can see how the plan of feeding and housing poets carte blanche for more than five weeks at a time might well be a disaster. But I am an optimist at heart.

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