Stop copying me! is something we’ve all heard and most likely shouted at some point in our lives (insert image of grubby younger sibling here).
Copying someone has a largely negative connotation—implying that you, as the copier, are incapable of coming up with your own ideas, creating your own path, or worse, being your own person. Time and again those who copy others, especially in the arts, are considered posers, imposters, fakes. But we also know that copying can be a good thing, especially when we’re trying to learn something new.
Do it like this, and here, let me show you are intrinsic expressions in teaching. And See how she does that? Or have you tried it like this? are phrases long tossed around the art studio, the music studio, and the writing studio. Imitation and emulation are the ultimate copy jobs. They are fantastically important practices for artists, exercises that serve as necessary learning tools and a means by which the new pay homage to the experienced.
What stirs an artist to emulate could be anything. Last fall Galway Kinnel, one of the poets I have long admired, passed away. The very afternoon I learned of his death I penned a poem after him. Or, I should say, I penned a poem in the style he usually employed in writing his own works. In doing this, I felt connected to him and empowered through my grieving process to carry on what I believe as a writer he strove to do—as we all do. I helped to immortalize him in my own small way.
Poet Jia Oak Baker wrote “You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies” after viewing a mixed media art piece of the same name created by Yayoi Kusama. Baker writes:
“I experienced Yayoi Kusama’s art installation at the Phoenix Art Museum for the first time almost four years ago. I had only heard about the ’firefly room‘ and didn’t know Kusama’s body of work. Since then I’ve come to learn of her influence in and contribution to the art world.
Jane Hirschfield wrote that, during writing, in the moment an idea arrives, the eyes of ordinary seeing close down and the poem rushes forward into the world on some mysterious inner impulsion that underlies seeing, underlies hearing, underlies words as they exist in ordinary usage.’ I think this describes something I felt that evening standing there in the mirrored room, but it wasn’t until after viewing other galleries, a late night dinner, and getting stuck in the rain hailing a cab next to a tattoo parlor, that I got a chance to sit down and write. By then, language seemed unlikely to capture what was viscerally and ephemerally felt. I did the best I could to write it down.
Since the poem is an ekphrastic piece, I wasn’t trying necessarily to emulate the exhibit—it was more an attempt to reproduce, in a poem, the emotions I felt.”
Being so obliterated by the art piece is what stirred Baker’s poem into being. Here it is:
You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies
had best not feel too much. The night train rushes
through the meadow, and its two-step rumbling reminds you
you are alone. When the room begins to spin, it forms
a union with the light. One unceasing streak turned circle.
And you, surrounded by mirrors, go vertigo
in the immense empty between one minute
and the next. Fireflies expand into stars. Who are we
to find in infinite spaces but ourselves? Call it an ostinato,
a vamp. The unchanging refrain of beginnings and endings,
starts and stops, resonates in time like steel on steel,
and we know it. Somewhere, deep in the tall grass,
my hands are still fastened to his holding fast.
And here is a photo of the art piece:
The response of the poet is as remarkable and stunning as the original art piece. Art feeds art, as it should. The need to bear witness and to connect is the driving force in the creation of both of these works. Baker’s poem not only further illuminates Kusama’s art, but invites us, the reader to engage more deeply with the work. Another thread is sewn.
Poet Cassie Pruyn’s “Girl Games” was written to emulate Derek Walcott’s “Summer Elegies” (from The Arkansas Testament, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988).
“I emulated a poem by Derek Walcott because I was required to by a professor, frankly. I had never read Walcott before, nor had I ever attempted to write a poem employing rhyme before. I resisted this exercise mightily, although I did admire “Summer Elegies” upon reading it. The imitation exercise had very specific requirements: 7-10 stanzas, 6-7 syllables per line, 3-4 similes, and “end-stopped stanza breaks,” which made it easier to funnel my frustration into a very particular set of constraints. Once my ear got a little practice the lines started coming easier and easier. By the end of this exercise, I realized rhyme would become a friend of mine.”
Here is Pruyn’s poem:
Long Island, Maine
I cupped your toe in my palm.
I pressed against the throbbing.
We’d left home in high-noon sun,
beach-combed without stopping.
On rocky island fringes
beneath the wood and wrack
lie shell shards un-compacted
and shattered Rolling Rocks,
but still we practiced footwork
on boulders that ringed the beach.
On barnacles in tide-muck
it was you who bore the breach,
but it was me who bore the risk
like a jumper in the wake
of all our contact missed
of all our escapades.
Like that night we sipped the necks
of half your grandma’s booze,
quoted lines from Beatnik texts,
coquetted with the Muse,
or when we cradled trays
at that charity affair,
hid the glasses, cleared the plates,
got drunk beneath the stairs.
Like scrap sea glass un-battered
attempting to be smooth,
I told you when it mattered
in truth I wanted you.
It was our last Maine summer,
too short to play “girl games,”
but when next spring I found her
you turned absolute with rage.
Senior year you wrote a poem
on spotting me in a crowd.
Now it’s me who’s writing poems
and “years from now” is now.
Pruyn’s is a perfect example of how the practice of imitation helps stretch the poet as artist. As poets, we (hopefully) read as much as we attempt to write. But going one step further and emulating those that we admire as an exercise cannot only open doors, but can also blow the roof off and help us to explore the sky.
I love Pruyn’s answer to my question about revision:
“I believe I did revise this piece quite a bit after doing the initial exercise. I removed a stanza that had initially served as the final one because the penultimate worked better. Or I realized months later, for example, that in order to make a rhyme work I’d chosen some words that simply weren’t accurate—in the description of the beach in the second stanza for example. As in, it sounded nice but it wasn’t true. I made those kinds of revisions. A poem like this is hard to revise—because if you change one thing, chances are you’ll have to change the whole stanza. It’s so interlocking in that way. But still, revision is important and almost always necessary, so it’s a process of fine-tuning again and again and trying not to have the whole thing fall apart in the meantime. Revising this piece allowed me to take complete ownership of it, too—to move away from what might have felt, initially, like a simple exercise, and to make it a poem, my poem. But of course, a poem never belongs to its author: it belongs only to itself. So perhaps the act of revision, in this case, freed this poem to be its own poem-beast in the world!”
Imitation, in this case, was the first step in a true process of discovery. Pruyn had never before attempted to write in rhyme. But in this process she learned not only the mastery required but practiced enough in the revision process to understand and then engage in the mastering herself.
Emily Shearer’s poem “I Do Not Have A Horse” came from an entirely different place. Shearer talks about what drew her to the piece she imitated, Tomaž Šalamun’s “I Have A Horse”:
“I stumbled upon this particular poem having never before encountered Šalamun’s work. I was immediately intrigued by the voice. Additionally, I am taking Czech language lessons and recognized Czech-looking accent marks in the spelling of his name. I was very curious to find out if the poet was Czech, so I did a little research and discovered he was Slovenian and had been considered a leader of the avant-garde in Eastern Europe. Since I had recently moved to the Czech Republic and had (and still have) a lot to learn about Eastern European literature, poetry in particular, I thought that by crawling inside his words and trying them on for size, maybe I could wiggle under his skin and gain an understanding of his perspective.”
This poem is the result of Shearer’s research:
I Do Not Have a Horse
I do not have a horse. I am not afraid.
I do not have a record player, because my record player broke and all the music sounds
so much better the way I remember it before the needle gathered dust
I do not have a mother. I do not have her smell of Mary Kay emollience and spoonfuls
of vanilla ice cream dipped in Sanka.
I do not have a skateboard or a Trans Am or a license to drive a bus. I do not have
I do not have the conversions memorized.
I do not have a fish tank or a birdcage because fish tanks are too
and birdcages don’t.
I do not have the solitary key. There is no solitary key, though
there is only one door.
I do not have a Turkish visa, an imminent domain, a parallel bag of apples. I do not
have relativity. That is to say, whatever.
I do not have a cottage in the wood. I walk by this cottage I do not have on my way
home most afternoons. I do not have the slightest idea.
All my ideas, well, let’s just say I do not have a sponge absorbent enough.
I do not have a Christ child in my crèche. I do not have a half-empty bottle of French
perfume. I do not have a pair of roller skates.
Yet, still. My feet glide and the sidewalk slips beneath me like a ribbon. I do not have
time to fall.
In this case, Shearer’s process stems from a different place than that of Baker or Pruyn. Shearer chose this poem based upon her desire to better understand another culture, as well as her interest in the language itself. She was drawn to specifics:
“I especially love the line,
I have six really good poems. I hope I will write more of them.
Something about the rudimentary sentence structure and the exposed vulnerability made the speaker very likable to me. I wanted to know more about this guy, so the research I did led me to the discovery that this poet was from a new part of the world I was only just beginning to explore. Emulating the poem was my own form of linguistic and anthropological field work.”
Shearer’s precision and imagination create a poem that not only is reflective of Šalamun’s piece, but one that, like Baker and Pruyn, invites us into the speaker’s world as well. We’re not just taken to the same place again, but brought further in, or along, on a tremendous and completely different journey.
For artists the world over, and dare I say poets especially, emulation, reiteration, or imitation of those we admire is a connective tissue, medium, and fodder. It’s a necessary extension of the conversation in which art and artists ask for and need to know they’ve been experienced.
From one poet to another I beg of you, please don’t command, stop copying me.