Copy and Paste: On Poetic Theft

Diego Báez

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 192.

“Picasso had a saying—‘Good artists copy; great artists steal.’” —Steve Jobs

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” —T. S. Eliot

Found poetry is no new art. From the refrigerator note that William Carlos Williams penned as an afterthought and later rearranged into the imagistic and understated poem “This Is Just to Say,” to the Golden Shovel form created by Terrance Hayes to pay homage to Gwendolyn Brooks, poets have taken to claiming and reclaiming language wherever they can find it. Centos, erasures, and blackout poems are increasingly common in literary magazines, contemporary poetry collections, and creative spaces, in which they are the subject of seemingly every next poetry exercise—and for good reason. This formal approach to poetry has proven successful, not just as a way for poets to generate preliminary ideas but as a method for producing fully executed works of literary excellence.

I’m especially enamored with big, ambitious found poetry projects, particularly those that use “official” language to reveal the farce of Western colonial projects. Take as one example Paul Hlava Ceballos’s Banana [ ] (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2022), which combines hundreds of direct quotations from interviews, declassified government documents, science writing, and other sources to expose the United States’ exploitative political and capitalist interventions in Latin America through the emblem of the region’s primary produce: the banana. Each quotation in “Banana [ ]: A History of the Americas,” the book’s long poem and second section, includes the word “banana,” and Ceballos’s relentless repetition creates a thrumming, searing indictment of corporate greed and multinational plunder. Cheswayo Mphanza’s The Rinehart Frames (University of Nebraska Press, 2021) achieves a similarly astounding feat of citational excess. Mphanza juxtaposes quotations from influential people in Africa’s history, including artists, politicians, and imperialists, creating a reeling catalog of provocative intertextual dialogue. The sum total of Mphanza’s efforts is best appreciated by thumbing through the twenty pages of citations at the end of the book. These are but two poets who put serious time and intellectual energy into assembling truly stunning, startlingly political works of art.

But in a landscape of nonstop language generation by artificial intelligence and algorithms run amok, ethical questions of intention, fair use, and attribution abound. What kind of text counts as fair game for crafting found poetry, and in what context is it okay to use it? At what point does found poetry become plagiarism?

The idea of theft as a legitimate creative practice is common. Take for example the epigraphs to this essay. According to Forbes, in an interview recounting how Apple took the idea for its “Lisa” computer model from Xerox PARC, Steve Jobs justified the company’s behavior by invoking the words of the great Spanish painter: “Picasso had a saying—‘good artists copy, great artists steal.’” Of course, it feels a bit disingenuous for Jobs to position himself as an artist; there was—and always will be—more money at stake for billionaire CEOs and their corporate tech behemoths than for painters or poets. Furthermore, there’s no definitive evidence Picasso ever uttered those words in the first place, though the quote is widely attributed to him. Jobs was either too lazy to check his sources, succumbed to mass misremembering, or felt comfortable enough taking artistic license to invent attributions in front of an audience. It’s possible that the words everyone believes belong to Picasso derive from T. S. Eliot: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” he wrote in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, first published in 1920.

Whoever it came from, the notion of artists and poets stealing raises enormous ethical questions. Can I copy a friend’s social media status-update for use in a poem without their permission? If a fellow poet purloins language from my work without consent or attribution, does that make them a plagiarist? A genius? The second coming of Steve Jobs? Should we allow monstrous large language models, the technology that underlies chatbots such as ChatGPT, to ingest our best lines, poems, and books for regurgitation in middling imitations of our oldest art forms?

The truth is that tolerance for imitation, reuse, and remixing will differ dramatically from poet to poet. For that reason I hesitate to issue any broad guidance or easily implementable guidelines for how to ethically engage in a found poetry practice (beyond a strict adherence to copyright law, of course). Instead I urge every writer to devise for themselves a code of ethics that enables them to creatively and drastically reframe existing language so that it forces readers to see the world differently. Writers should consult this standard should questions arise about their use of others’ work, or should they find themselves in the unenviable position of discovering an unattributed use of language taken right from their own publications.

For my own work I believe language from certain documents should be fair game to use in poems, no questions asked: records and publications of public agencies, including everything from wartime pamphlets to online inventories—anything paid for, in full or in part, by taxpayer dollars. But I also think it’s important to keep readers in mind. For that reason, it’s useful to include citations with any found poetry; that’s not because the authors necessarily deserve credit (perhaps they do) but because other poets may like to undertake their own journeys through a maze of source texts or learn how to use archives in search of their own found poetry. That’s the kind of literary expedition I can support: a voyage of recovery and reclamation.

To that end, I’d say my own artistic code of ethics hews closely to an idea introduced in Occupy Whiteness (Deep Vellum, 2024) by slam champion and Dallas poet laureate Joaquín Zihuatanejo. In one poem, “A Conversation With a White Poet at a Prestigious Literary Festival,” the speaker defends his process of erasing text from books by white, male authors and then occupying that space with “Brown verse”:

Them: But don’t you feel bad about taking words, even if it’s just three isolated words on a page, from a white, male author?

Me: No.

Them: Why not?

Me: Because you see I’m not taking any words. I’m discovering them. I’m colonizing them.

I love this idea that an act of appropriation and reframing can function as “discovery,” offering a critical perspective on the concept of colonization. It tips the power dynamic upside down in a way that seeks to return collective power to the oppressed. It’s brave, if a bit cheeky, and ultimately seeks to move the dial towards justice. I’m on board with this approach, especially as it applies to writing produced by white travel writers and Christian missionaries intent on continuing centuries of indoctrination in the global South: Give no quarter. Borrow, reframe, and reimagine. Erase and repeat. Repatriate the language to find poetry in the unlikeliest of origins.


Diego Báez is the author of the poetry collection Yaguareté White, published last month by the University of Arizona Press.

Art: Marissa Lewis