appropriation

New Plagiarism Accusations Spark a Twitter Debate on ‘After’ Poems

Photo: Studio MPM/Getty Images

When Claudia Cortese took to Twitter to accuse another writer of stealing her work, she didn’t mince words. In a thread published December 7, Cortese called out poet Lisa Low for a litany of literary sins:

Lisa Low not only plagiarized my words, images, lines but — even worse — she stole my voice, my trauma, the girl I love most in this world — the girl I spent years creating, the girl who let me pour into her all of the pain and pathology of my girlhood — & it is NOT OKAY.

It’s true that some of Low’s “Ruby” poems — those written as letters to a fictionalized version of herself — are remarkably similar to a series that appeared in Cortese’s 2016 book, Wasp Queen. But unlike the plagiarist Ailey O’Toole, whose unmasking rocked the small-press poetry community earlier this month, Low had given Cortese credit. Nearly two years earlier, she had published the Ruby poem “Letters, Part 1” in the literary journal Quarterly West as an explicit homage; the subscript below the title read, “after Claudia Cortese,” the standard way of denoting works inspired by another poet. And at the time, Cortese didn’t seem to mind.

“When it first got published I sent a link to her,” Low says when I reach her by phone. “At the time she responded positively to my poem, and I took that to mean that she appreciated the way I drew inspiration from her work.”

As it turns out, Cortese was more conflicted than that. “I remember feeling uncomfortable at how similar they were to my poems,” says Cortese in a phone interview. “But I told myself, essentially, ‘It’s okay.’ I didn’t want to be someone who wasn’t supportive of another poet.” So Cortese wrote it off as an isolated event. But in early November, one of her friends reached out to her after encountering another “Ruby” poem in the journal Waxwing. The similarities continued — and now a friend was validating her concerns.

Cortese isn’t the only small-press poet wondering out loud or online whether “after” poems — which can connote anything from “in homage to” or “in conversation with” to “in the style of” or “inspired by” — are sometimes used as cover for laziness or even outright theft. Ailey O’Toole had written poems “after” others, including Amber Tamblyn. In the wake of her exposure, some are arguing that even these amount to plagiarism.

There’s nothing straightforward about the debate, and nothing particularly new about the “after” convention. Poetry is a medium in which sampling, allusion, and conversation have always been part of the game. In one famous example from the end of the 16th century, Christopher Marlowe wrote a poem about a shepherd attempting to woo his love, a nymph, with all sorts of extravagant promises. A sample stanza reads:

And I will make thee beds of Roses

And a thousand fragrant posies,

A cap of flowers, and a kirtle

Embroidered all with leaves of Myrtle

A contemporary, Sir Walter Raleigh, then wrote a response, taking on the persona of the nymph and issuing a savage rejection to Marlowe’s shepherd.

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,

Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies

Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:

In folly ripe, in reason rotten. 

Sadly, this Elizabethan rap beef never went another round; Marlowe wasn’t around to clap back, having been dead for six years by the time both poems were published. But a response like Raleigh’s, even with its recognizably repurposed language, would have been considered fully within-bounds.

“Writing ‘in the manner of’ is a totally accepted thing,” says David Orr, the New York Times’ poetry critic. “In the old apprenticeship model, you’d have poems in the manner of Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman. Catullus is really popular because he has these dirty sex poems, and you can’t write as many of those now. Say your poem is after Catullus, and you can get away with something you might not have been able to get away with.”

The great thing about Catullus is not just that he’s raunchy; he’s also dead, along with all the classical poets from whom writers can borrow as liberally as they like without having to worry about copyright law or Twitter drama. Things get much murkier when a contemporary poet starts to sample from his or her peers. Today’s debate stems not so much from a sudden boom in “after” poems, but from their use by poets borrowing from each other when neither is particularly established and both are very much alive.

Contemporary poets also often draw on deeply personal and traumatic experiences — experiences that tend to be bound up with identity. The blurrier the boundary between real life and narrative, the more fraught mimicry becomes, even if done with the best of intentions. (Consider the modern valence of another word for borrowing, appropriation.) When Low initiated a conversation in verse with Cortese’s Lucy — described in a tweet as “a character who could embody the pain my body could no longer hold” — she was also, if unwittingly, starting a public conversation with Cortese herself.

Low wasn’t thinking about that when she began writing her Ruby poems; in fact she says she hadn’t even read Cortese yet. But after encountering the other poet’s work in the journal Blackbird, she was inspired by its epistolary format to try it out for herself, as a way to “give my character some agency.”

In hindsight, Low regrets that she waited until after publication to reach out to Cortese. But it’s not hard to see why she didn’t realize it might be a problem. Despite their ubiquity, “after” poems don’t really come with a rulebook. Meghan O’Rourke, the incoming editor of the Yale Review, offered some guidance in a phone interview: “There’s a fine line between cribbing and writing an homage inspired by somebody. You should be able to tell. If you feel your poem is way too close to someone else’s, it’s probably too close.” But what if you don’t? Rookie poets who lack the skill or experience to transform inspiration into innovation — or who simply don’t know what they don’t know — can easily blunder into problematic territory.

The conflict between Cortese and Low is a compelling example of how one person’s genuine attempt at homage can be another’s blatant appropriation. It could also have been amicably resolved, and almost was: a full month before she publicly accused Low of plagiarism, Cortese reached out to her privately, and the resulting exchange — which Low uploaded to a public Google doc for the sake of “transparency” — shows the women engaged in a productive, if occasionally tense, dialogue that seemed to be approaching resolution. Cortese initially asked Low to stop publishing her Ruby series entirely, but then retreated to a request for more detailed citations of her work — a request Low says she agreed was “completely reasonable.” She was awaiting confirmation on the details of attribution when Cortese pulled the callout alarm.

Cortese concedes her about-face was abrupt, but explains that she didn’t trust Low’s good intentions. She also found some of Low’s other imagery suspiciously similar (a toilet scene, a reference to scab-eating), and she was put off by Low’s failure to explicitly apologize or promise to tread more carefully: “At no point did she say, ‘I’ll make sure that in the future my Ruby poems don’t borrow so heavily from yours.’” Convinced that Low was trying to shirk responsibility — and with the Ailey O’Toole controversy still fresh in her mind — she decided to go public.

Cortese is adamant that she never intended to wreck Low’s career. But at one point she did tag a Jezebel reporter suggesting she look into the story, apparently unaware that Low had already announced she was abandoning the Ruby project. Meanwhile, the published Ruby poems were removed by editors at some (but not all) of the journals in which they appeared, and Low is trying to put it behind her. “I felt that the project had become too stressful and too toxic for me to continue working on,” she says. “I’m genuinely sorry that I’ve hurt another poet whose work I admire.”

Still, she regrets leaving Ruby behind. Despite coming “after” Cortese’s work, the poems also told a story that was personal to her — “an Asian-American experience of being silenced and [of] invisibility.” The fact that Cortese is white and Low is not has complicated the discussion in a community that places a premium on intersectionality, and perhaps for the better: In contrast to the O’Toole scandal, the debate surrounding both Low and the general topic of “after” poems has been marked by an understanding of both its complexity and the need to engage in good faith. Different poets will have different ideas of what constitutes fair use, or good taste. And that’s just in cases of intentional homage; sometimes, what seems like an allusion (say, eating scabs) could just be a coincidence. As Orr notes, “Poets are funny about this stuff. Everyone is so invested in their work that they can start seeing their work in everything around them.”

The best solution might be for poets to assume ignorance before malice, and to ask questions before making accusations. But it also behooves writers intent on entering into dialogue with other poets on the page to start by doing so IRL — to practice an aesthetic version of affirmative consent. “You might want to find out,” says Orr, “whether they want that conversation to take place, whether they’re open to it — because they don’t have to be.”

If not, there’s always Catullus; dead poets don’t tweet.