April 27, 2011
. . . “everything
turns into something else, and slips away . . .”
— E.E. Cummings, 1894-1962
We’re coming to the end of National Poetry Month. I wrote a piece here for the first day, updating my literary whereabouts. I was coming to the end of a month-long effort to develop a lecture/slide presentation about cemeteries, I was excited about having just been published in Glimmer Train, albeit by the side door. (It’s not a short story, but a short craft piece about my process, a great honor to be asked to write, a great thrill to see it live online.) And then I disappeared from here again.
I did post a few lines from poems each day to my Facebook page, but I never got back to this. The distraction, the energy thief that kept me away from this, and from other things I wanted to do, was Melanie, my black bitch, the name I give to the depression that sometimes overtakes me. This course has been especially troublesome, enduring now for more than a month, increasing rather than abating after the successes of early April.
I’m working hard to manage this period. I have a lot of help, in the form of the practical strategies I have learned over the years, as well as the love and support of some extraordinary people who love me very much. I plan my days to include more interaction with some of those people, and I am finally, tonight, taking up the virtual pen again.
Because it is National Poetry Month, I’ve seen the annual increase in hits to a piece I wrote originally in 1999 and reposted in 2008. “For Your Edification and Amusement” tells the story of a concrete poem I wrote when I was twenty, about a boyfriend who had broken up with me, a poem I recycled across other relationships that ended, and that I eventually shared with my students. You should go read it now to fully understand “the rest of the story” that I am about to tell, but also to see the picture of me at 20. Those were the days, my friend!
I started thinking about “the rest of the story” today in a writers’ group discussion of plagiarism. Someone mentioned a recent case of someone publishing a book of poems that had been culled from various online sources, wondering if this were a widespread problem. It’s probably not, was the consensus, but everybody seemed to have a story about someone who knew someone whose work had been stolen thus.
Here’s my story.
That summer of 1967, after the handsome “older” (he was 25) Navy veteran dropped me for a leggy blonde and caused me to write a poem sighing over my first breakup, I spent some time with a young man I met at a party, a friend of a friend. He had rusty red hair, a scowl that I can guess has turned into a sneer now that he’s in his sixties, and an attitude of superiority. Maybe I’m thinking about him today because, put about seventy-five pounds on him, and he looks like Donald Trump, only more arrogant.
We went about for a few weeks, then he went away with his family for a month. We started up again when he came back, but then I met somebody else, and so did he, and before we both returned to our separate schools in late August, we agreed that we probably wouldn’t see each other again. As a parting gift, I gave him the poem (pictured at left, for your edification and amusement), with his name, “Evan,” in the slot formerly occupied by the name of the original recipient, “David,” at the bottom of the shape.
Two years later, I happened to be in the apartment of a friend who had gone to Evan’s school. I came across a copy of the school’s literary magazine. Paging through it, I discovered “Question,” laid out just as you see it here, but with “Jennifer” as the lost love remembered. (Maybe she did have big hands.) The author? Evan the Erstwhile Boyfriend.
Was I annoyed? Angry? If you don’t know the answers to those questions, you haven’t been reading me very long. There were some phone calls, including one that very night. Evan’s mother told me where he was, at someone else’s party, and I called there. (This was before cell phones, before you could rattle in somebody’s pocket and yell at him no matter where he was.) I don’t remember now if I ever talked to him about this. I know I later reached someone in the office of the English department that had oversight of the literary magazine (not a major project for the college) and lodged a complaint, but I don’t remember what came of that, either.
About ten years ago, I made the acquaintance of someone who teaches creative writing at the college in question. I asked him about the literary magazine, which had ceased publication quite a while before he arrived. He found some copies in a closet, and called me, and together we went through the issues at hand. We did not find the one I remembered that held my purloined poem. Nor did we find any other work by Evan (or work claiming to be by Evan) in the issues that covered his years at the school.
In my essay about the poem, I talk about how my students, boys and girls alike, would write it down when I used it in class, possibly against the day when they might need to express those feelings. Of that idea, I write, “I like to think of those seventeen lines residing in sundry diaries and yearbooks and jewelry boxes, like cherished copies of ‘Footprints’ tucked into prayer books.”
I wonder if Jennifer still has hers.