The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

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IX. What Is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is a grievance in the marketplace

One of the most debilitating functions of social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram

Is their ability to solidify the bounds of discussions efficiently and ruthlessly

Before they can be interrogated in any meaningful way

They are—by function—antagonistic toward imagination and self-critique

However, they are frighteningly good at drawing and reasserting lines

For others to prove their loyalty

My primary concern

When the newest poetry controversy begins to propagate itself

Is that the bounds of the conversation

Are set early on these platforms

Enforced along hierarchies

Tied to the precarity of poets

Who depend on institutions and academia

To feed themselves and their families

Even if these conversations are cathartic in the short term

At times it is those boundaries which end up having the lasting impact

When we discuss something like plagiarism

It is helpful to take a step back and determine what it is we are

Actually talking about in a way that disengages the conversation from

Aggrieved and Aggressor

How would you feel if you encountered a poem in the wild

Which appeared to have taken the skeleton of one of your own

Replacing only minor words here and there

But overall maintaining the structure and the flow


Personally, it would depend on a multitude of factors

Is the poem better than mine?

If so, yes, I would be furious

But it's important to note that my anger

Has nothing to do with poetry

In this case, for example, poetry itself has benefited

It is I, personally, who is aggrieved

A lot of the conversation around plagiarism

Takes a universe of things for granted

For example

What is a poem?

The way I've seen plagiarism described

One gets the impression that poetry is real estate

One surveys the wildscapes for

In order to claim and invest

Given the real precarity that American poets live

I can understand why people would be defensive of their investments of time


Fundamentally I do not believe

That the marketplace of poetry is the tool to rectify the failures of capitalism

I hold a very Romantic view of poetry

The Outside speaking through the poet

The only talent of the poet

Not being the origination of the poem

But how deftly they can stay out of the way

And let the Outside through

From this position

The question of plagiarism becomes moot

In terms of the actual damage it might do to poetry

It does none

If you believe in the Towering Figures of Poetry

Plagiarism has the potential to do more damage

As not giving the right poets the stage

Robs the world of poetry

For a poem is merely a work of individual talent


As I think is often the case when it comes to derivations

The poem that draws from my own is of ambivalent quality or obviously lower

What would be the grievance?

It depends on what the poem is being used for

If the poem has won some amount of money

I might think

Hey, that's my money!

If the poem has gained some acclaim I might think

Hey, that's my spotlight!

This, also, has nothing to do with poetry

This is the result of the marketplace

(Which we have helpfully named "Community")

Would the problem of plagiarism


If there was Universal Basic Income?

I wonder

If it were not that so many poets are vying for the same academic jobs

If it were not that so many poets live in precarity

Would plagiarism mean anything?

If it is an economic question

Are we addressing it in the right manner?

If it is a question of Art

Are we using the right definitions?

I don't doubt that there are scenarios where I would be furious if plagiarized in the manner we have collectively decided constitutes plagiarism

But there are also scenarios I can think of where I would feel only mildly annoyed

Or ambivalent

Or amused

Here's a scenario where I would be furious:

Someone with much more capital in the Community takes one of my poems and publishes it in an institutional journal to acclaim and for a monetary reward

Here's a scenario where I would be amused:

Someone with little to no capital publishes a poem on tumblr

There is a helpful heuristic

That I like to consult when working out ethical issues

Is there a power dynamic?

I find it very difficult to cathect to those scenarios where the party claiming grievance

Is the one with power

On the other hand I find myself often

Incensed when the aggrieved party with power

Uses their power to punish the other

As if aggrievement itself

Makes the question of power dynamics irrelevant

There are I think

Larger concerns that are being obscured within conversations around plagiarism

They are concerns of marginalization

They are concerns of tokenization

Of translating trauma for the whitewashed marketplace

Of cashing in on the pain of others

Plagiarism itself however

Cannot not be considered the primary originator

Of these concerns

In fact

What is being described as plagiarism

Can itself be a tool

To interrogate these hierarchies

The problem then

Is when we misplace our anger onto something like

The idea of plagiarism

We provide it as a tool by those currently in power

To further solidify the hierarchies

We might be under the impression

We are erasing

The very accusation of plagiarism

Begins to carry with it the halo of marginalized trauma

Which is sometimes seen as a valuable asset in the marketplace

Thus come those looking to cash in

And the platforms we use to have these conversations

Facilitate and optimize this process

So that you end up with a strange mélange of crowds

Sincerely cheering on those with power who might feel aggrieved

Against those without power

Who have no one to turn to

This shifting

Whether intentional misuse or confusion of terms

Is not tethered to individual people

It is not curative to point at individual people as bad actors

Because it is not as if shunning every individual bad actor

Every time they are discovered to be bad actors

Will mean we get rid of bad actors forever

We need to change how we engage in these conversations

If we are to sincerely attempt Community

We need to reorient our understanding

Of the poem


Roberto Montes

Roberto Montes is the author of I Don't Know Do You and Grievances. His poetry has appeared in The Lambda Literary SpotlightGuernicaPEN America Poetry Series, and elsewhere. 


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

All Issues