April 10: Stolen Poems

Or: if I write a poem in a notebook with my headphones on, does it count?

After reading a recent blog post about this experiment by Robert Sharp I got the 'fear' ("I am a name! Not just a poem!") and started wondering what the central act of NaPoWriMo really is: to write poems, or to make them available online. Since the act of writing has shifted from paper to screen, there is a fluidity between the private act of composition and the public act of publication that often disarms me.

I saw, also, that Carrie Etter is taking down her drafts after a couple of days, which is very interesting: a way to return the ongoing process to private space, perhaps after receiving some constructive comments, and a way to avoid poem-theft (which is commoner than you think: if you put a poem online, it's likely to appear in a dozen other places, often under others' names) as well as slipping Robert's pertinent identification of the competitive nature of NaPoWriMo online. 

The 'fear' - of losing self, and losing the creative impulse - was made more complicated last night: I arrived home full of intentions to be open, to share, to spill -- only to discover that my debit cards had both been stolen, and also discovered (thanks to the 24-hour card service) that I had kindly sponsored someone's £1000 long weekend. To add irony to injury, I am certain that the cards were nicked while I was in a stationery shop. Buying a blank notebook.

So in return I have turned to poetic forms of theft with a vengeance: a poem called "Sappho's Cookbook" that's inspired by a poem by 18th century poet Elizabeth Moody, entitled “Sappho Burns her Books and Cultivates the Culinary Arts, [On Miss R. P.’s Saying she would find Love only if she did so]” (you can read this very funny poem in Roger Lonsdale's "Eighteenth-Century Women Poets"). It struck me that in Sappho's poems food and love are musically entwined, but I could only think of the famous "apple on the highest branch" as proof. However, Anne Carson's completist translation of the fragments, If Not, Winter, turned up dozens of foodstuffs and even a very Nigella-like recipe for goat braised in wine in fr. 40.

But being as the poem is composed by direct quotations from a living poet's translations -- exceeding the various intellectual property laws governing quotation (by percentage of the original, I think) -- I can't really post it here. But if you own the book (and it's one of my favourites), you too can play "Sappho's Cookbook." The joy of cooking books is all in the Easter egg hunt for resonant phrases to steal.

Or perhaps borrow. In The Gift, his study of creativity, Lewis Hyde writes that the gift is always on the move, that creativity stems from a willingness to share, exchange, give without thought of receiving or accruing. Carson has written about the economics of poetic language, asking what we waste when we waste words, in Economy of the Unlost, a study of Simonides and Paul Celan. Her focus there is on invention and memory, but I could imagine a sequel in which literary borrowings (quotations, echoes, intertexts, forms, translations) are read through different economic systems, from the potlatch to the hedge fund -- how would a futures market of poetic quotability fare? How do you repay your debt for the 'borrowed' illumination of an epigraph? Do some poems or poets profit from others, or does circulation balance itself out. Our language for language is full of financial metaphors: 'coining' a new word, for example.

So here's a (mostly) borrowed poem, taken from the virtual realm (and the public domain) -- an interview with Margaret Atwood in the New York Times (read online), and some lyrics from a song by Kelly (aka comedian Liam Sullivan). More on/of/from this poem to come...


"Debt is part of the human condition. Civilization is based on exchanges — on gifts, trades, loans — and the revenges and insults that come when they are not paid back. Some of our earliest writing, in cuneiform, was about who owes what." Margaret Atwood

"Debit? Credit! Forget it,
Just get it!" Kelly

debit puts the I in debt