This is no. 43 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
The day after the 2015 AME Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, another poet—seemingly out of nowhere—sent me a poem by Mary Oliver. They said it was because, when they read it out loud, the voice they made (or tried to make) was mine. Instantly I loved the poem, “October,” and I told them so. Still, because “October” made its way to me the day after terrible news, it also unsettled me. It moved me, but at the same time I felt the need to move against it.
As in many Mary Oliver poems, the speaker attends to the natural world and her place in it. She asks, “What does the world / mean to you if you can’t trust it / to go on shining when you’re // not there?” By the end of the poem, it’s clear that the speaker has decided, at least for now, that in order to truly love the world, she has to be reconciled to the fact, the beautiful fact, that it will (that it ought to) go on without her. That the world will not at all be diminished by her not being there to witness it. The poem ends: “so this is the world. / I’m not in it. / It is beautiful.”
The speaker of the poem wrestles with her own attachments to herself. She is trying to let go of her importance, to get out of the way. But by addressing a “you”—presumably a reader—in the poem, she makes an argument that extends beyond herself; she stakes out an ethical position. Most days it’s one I would agree with. Most days I would have left the poem unbothered. But on that day after the shooting, feeling acutely all of the ways in which the people I call mine are told they do not have a claim on the world in the first place—are dispossessed, are rubbed out—Oliver’s call for self-diminishment felt plainly, profoundly wrong. I wanted to see what would happen, therefore, if I used the structure of Oliver’s poem but turned the argument against itself. This experiment resulted in “Bad News, Again,” a poem that rewrites “October” but asks the first, urgent question embedded in Oliver’s longer one: “What does the world mean / if you can’t trust it to go on?”
A handful of the poems in my new collection, Dispatch, perform similar experiments, insofar as they try to redirect contemporary poems I love to different ends. As a result I feel very anxious about the new iterations of old conversations about plagiarism, theft, and ‘after’ poems that have surfaced online in the past few years. Anxious, in part, because I did not have a developed sense of the ethics of such a practice when I first took it up. I still don’t. However, these conversations often seem to miss that there are multiple reasons one might “steal” or “borrow” or “deface” another’s work. There seems to be an assumption that the only potentially defensible motive for imitating another’s work is a sense of uncomplicated admiration. But when is admiration ever uncomplicated? What if, for example, you suspect the work you admire does not respect you, or cannot conceive of you? What if your admiration is not only enabling but also deeply injurious? What if, in this case, theft and/or defacement might be an ethical response?
In an oft-cited passage from The Sacred Wood, T. S. Eliot insists: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” In my defense, I do not think that I have written a better poem than Mary Oliver, not by any measure, but the point was to make her work consider me. It seems to me that is what love demands.
Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.