In the past few months I have been submitting a lot of my poems to various small presses and the like, hoping to find homes for them. I have had some successes (see Potatoes) as well as a steady stream of rejections. I have also been working on developing a small book of poetry. Poetry is my first true love when if comes to writing, as I love the way you can express something in this form.
This past week the Pushcart nominations came out, which is a prize for poets featured in small presses. A few writers I follow on Twitter were nominated, and I am thrilled for them. I always thought when I was younger that poetry was dying, but I see a resurgence now that I am trying to publish that bolsters me and shows me how wrong I had been. To be nominated for a Pushcart would be an honor that I hope one day to achieve and the poets that are up for it deserve it. Except one.
Of course, she’s not nominated anymore.
Shortly after people shared their joy at being nominated, Twitter turned sour when poet Rachel McKibben’s tweeted that stanzas of a poem she had written were lifted by another poet, and that poem was nominated for a Pushcart prize. The poet (who I will not name because she doesn’t deserve it) even had her reimagination of McKibben’s words tattooed on her arm. The poet wrote to McKibben to tell her of the infringement, using words like “lift” and “paraphrase” as though they don’t also mean “steal.” It then came out that McKibben is not the only poet she has lifted from; there are at least two others. Since this news broke, the poet in question has been dropped by every press she was associated with.
When I was younger, I had a poetry community on Blurty, an old blogging platform. There were a good number of people in the community, and we posted our poetry for sharing and workshopping. One day a poet contacted me and said my poem was on another blog with another name. I immediately contacted the person, threatened legal action (though I’m sure I had no recourse) and they took it down, but never wrote back to me. I wondered then how many people they had stolen from. I’m flattered, really, but I also want to fight you.
I had a friend once who liked poetry and always wanted to read mine. Then one day I asked if I could read some of hers. She had hand-copied at least two poems into her notebook and signed her name on them that I had read in Teen magazine when they had a poetry page. One I even had cut out of the magazine and put in a scrapbook, so I was able to verify that she had in fact copied it, word for word. I never lent her my book again after that.
Plagiarism is not a joke. You don’t get to take something just because you like it, or because it resonates with you. Changing it a little is not making it your own. Writers have a job to do and when you steal our words, you steal our purpose. If you can’t write your own material, you’re not a writer, you’re an impostor, and there is no room for that in what we do.
I don’t know what possessed this poet to do what she did. I don’t know why someone stole my poem, or why my friend thought copying others work made it her own. I don’t understand this because I was born a writer, I’m not someone who wants to be one. I have no choice. It’s in my blood, just like theater (which has been nipping at my heels lately, but that’s a whole other blog post) and gardening and loving my family. I can choose whether or not I write but if I don’t, it gnaws at me like the need for a cigarette, gripping me until I give in. I am constantly terrified of plagiarism. Hell, I’m even afraid I’ll write something original that is too close to someone else’s originality. I never want my words stolen; every writer deserves the credit for what they pen. It is unfortunate that there are people out there that don’t understand that. Create your own art; don’t steal from someone else.