Copy Paste Publish: On Appropriation

In this dialogic e-mail exchange, beaulieu and Betts discuss the politics of appropriative writing and some potential new directions for poetry. beaulieu is the author of eight books of poetry and prose including three appropriative and conceptual collections. Beaulieu’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (2007), with an afterword by Marjorie Perloff, was followed up with Local Colour (2008) and How to Write(2010). Betts coined the term plunderverse in 1999, after John Oswald’s plunderphonics, to describe an appropriate writing strategy that sculpts new poems from source texts by inserting deletions and peeling away words and letters until a new poem with a new voice emerges. The texts Betts creates, including his book-length plunderverse of William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 150 in The Others Raisd in Me (2009), simultaneously speak with and against the original.

Betts: In a parable of moral (and religious) crisis, Dostoyevsky writeseverything is permitted (Pt. 4, Book 11, Ch. 4). It’s a line that has stuck with me as a kind of ominous warning, particularly against some of the morally relativistic implications of postmodernism. It has also echoed in the back of my mind as I tread some of the politically charged grey waters of appropriative writing. Your texts have always been boundary crossing, but your most recent book How to Writemakes what I believe is your furthest foray into the potentially illegal world of literary appropriation. I wonder if you have a line where something, some literary appropriation, is no longer permitted, and how you determine that point?

beaulieu: Funny that you come to that line through Dostoyevsky, I come to the same result through William Burroughs: (nothing is true, everything is permitted). Dostoyevsky’s quotation starts with When there is no God . . . which changes the matter only slightly from Burroughs refrain. But that said, I think that appropriation does have some controversies—especially when it comes to the issues of voice, ownership, and representation. Vanessa Place has really challenged what can be done with appropriative writing by quoting statements from rape and sexual abuse trials—the ordinariness of language is set upon its head —so then, what lines are appropriate to cross? I think that what conceptual writing has highlighted is not the idea of writing or voice, but rather the issue of CHOICE. So, then, as Dworkin has said, the test of poetry [is] no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise (n. pag.) Authors are now judged not by the quality of their writing but by the infallibility of their choices—WHY have you appropriated THIS text instead of that? Why in this way? Within what framework? To what end?

Politics and representation does enter into these decisions, and the author must be able to justify his or her actions. What would it mean, for example, for a white author to have written [M.] NourbeSe Philip’sZong!, to use the language of slave-ship legal proceedings?

So then, one measurement—along a different set of requirements—is that if the text exists online, it is de facto public domain, everything reproduces infinitely online, and any attempts to control the internet will only turn into a punchline on So then, online everything truly is permitted. At its base, the net is a Borgesian library of perversions and pornography whose only redeemable feature is the card catalogue itself.

And you—what would you say are the limitations of your own appropriative practice; what are the mapable edges of the plunderverse universe?

Betts: Place, no question, is working at the far edge of current practice. I read with her in Los Angeles and witnessed infuriated, offended people walking out of her reading in protest. The problem they had with her writing, as I understood it, is similar to the old voice-appropriation debates from the 1980s and 1990s that questioned the re-victimization of disempowered people by such texts. Where, I believe, Place avoids the moral quagmire of someone like W.P. Kinsella, to pick a familiar Canadian example, is in how her text reproduces public documents verbatim, without aestheticizing the victimization, drawing attention to the extremely political and personal and charged nature of the language in these public forums. Furthermore, the common law legal system—used in English-speaking Canada and United States—follows the doctrine of stare decisis meaning that precedence determines future court decisions. Decisions are arrived at through consideration of the facts of a case. In other words, testimony such as that represented by Place as poetry influences de facto law by influencing the outcome and implications of a particular case. As this precedence becomes general law, the testimony can be said to have had enormous and widespread implications beyond the personal experiences of trauma that she documents. Her poetry works in a realm where private experience (and language) codifies public space.

For me, an important line between Place and Kinsella, or other less controversial appropriative writers (Jen Bervin, say, or John Robert Colombo) and other less notorious voice-appropriators is that only the latter exploit bad feelings between people, perhaps enhance them. To be blunt, and while intentionally avoiding the debate about whether Kinsella’s texts are in fact racist documents, a racist person could potentially take satisfaction from a Kinsella story in a way that a sex offender could not from Place.

I completely agree with you about the nature of information dissemination in this day and age. It was true before too. I grew up in the community that fostered and helped create the Copyleft movement. I’ve never been interested in the grand myth of the ownership of language—which I equate in my mind with the attempt by Monsanto on the prairies to own all of the wheat, suing farmers iftheir wheat seeds are blown by the wind into unlicensed property. Language blows freely too. When I steal or plagiarize, though, it also seems a useful part of the narrative of the text to document where the language comes from. Plunderverse is explicitly oriented towards that narrative.

I notice that you also include all citations of your appropriated texts. How important was their inclusion to you—or was that even your decision? I think of the case of David Shields who was pushed by his insistent publisher to include full citations—which he did, along with a note explaining that the citations were included under protest.

beaulieu: The decision to include the citations was—unlike Shields’—my own. I wanted to include the sources as a nod to my own bibliographical impulses (I love reading bibliographies and works cited lists, it’s often the first part of a book I read), my own interest in literary archaeology. I like your idea of including in a poetic narrative the original source of the text.

Talonbooks didn’t ask specifically for the bibliography to be included, but was concerned about the inclusion of texts that were potentially in copyright. I saw the texts I used—which are, with a few exceptions, entirely available online—as fair game, being that they were posted online. Shields’ book doesn’t need the bibliography, and I do like thecut here line he’s included in the finished book, but I do also, admittedly, like the resource they provide. I also think that including the citations allows the original texts to slide more readily into an uncanny space of familiar yet not …

As academic writers we are in a quandary to an extent—there’s an acceptance of producing work without citation when that work is creative, but not when the work is academic … but where’s the line between the two? So Shields requires citation, but Markson does not?

In terms of Copyleft, did you consider releasing The Others Raisd in Me under Creative Commons license? I was talking with Jonathan Ball around his book Ex Machina which he released with an attribution-non-commercial-share alike license—is that something you’ve considered?

Betts: It was for no particular reason that TORIM wasn’t registered under Creative Commons. To be honest, considering the kinds of experimental/appropriative work that I’ve done, I’ve always assumed that anybody who wanted to do anything experimental with my writing would automatically know that it was okay. I’d want to know about it simply because I’d want to know about it, but it didn’t really cross my mind that anybody might be slowed down or discouraged by my not making that opportunity explicit.

That said, my next project (a sampling of which was recently published by No Press) has been registered with Creative Commons to formalize its stand against the policies and machinations of the Facebook corporation. That project, working under the running title of Exquisite Corp, emerged from a simultaneous disgust with the privacy policies of the Facebook corporation and with witnessing the illegal police activities in Toronto during the G8/G20 rallies. The thing that struck me about both of those events—both of which erode privacy and citizenship—is that they are encoded with a banality, as if we’ve all grown accommodated to such impingements. Creative Commons and the Copyleft movement are part of the development of a third way that is an alternative to the eternal stalemate of either being inside the system and changed by it or else outside the system and irrelevant to it. I am always looking for new ways of sharing language and ideas without contradicting the openness of language.

The explicit use of already-written language in plunderverse or appropriative language to speak or to write seems to access an alternative and new solution to this problem. Language works within a system that constantly recycles shared words, even ideas and feelings, but the system falters when somebody attempts to arrest the flow. The problem, as Derrida outlined a while ago, is fundamental to language and makes our proprietary rules on language-use absurd:There would be no cause for concern if one were rigorously assured of being able to distinguish with rigor between a citation and a non-citation (58). I think we cite in academic papers because the identity of the authors and the history of the specific texts (including such editorial backroom mechanics as editions, versions, translations and so on) that we refer to are significant to how we use and respond to their ideas, even if we happen to think as Derrida, and as our creative work suggests, that language is more complex than is implied by the ownership of words and ideas.

He draws a line between citational language and performativelanguage, but I think appropriation proves the lack of an edge between these types. Language can be both if it is written through the simultaneity of reference and speech act. I wonder if this moves into your work on the idea of poetics as objects?

beaulieu: Poetics as Objects was a workshop I gave a few years back through Calgary’s TRUCK Gallery’s Camper Project by which participants could earn an imitation boyscout badge for creating visual poetry and handmade books. My aim was to try and increase awareness of the physicality of writing and publishing. My own writing treats text as a physical object, something that can be manipulated much as LEGO … and is often quite gestural in terms of creation. In terms of citational and performative writing, I argue that my novels,Flatland and Local Colour, and prose collection, How to Write, are in fact transcriptions of reading practices. And that’s where the searchable text and PDFs come in—non-narrative or non-plot-driven reading is now much more possible …

Betts: Computers do change everything about reading and writing, and we are still so early in our collective encounter with this radically new technology that we likely cannot yet even imagine its eventual impact on the idea of literature. I feel like we must be in a moment similar to that period shortly after the printing press arrived, but before writers really knew what to do with it. So, naturally, they tried to use the new technology to replicate the old practices. Our first reaction to the computer has been to rather flatly import page-based writing online.

It does seem somewhat ironic to me that while concrete and visual poets were true pioneers in introducing, even, creating a radically new graphic consciousness through their work with the page and with the typewriter, visual poets today tend to be many steps behind rather commonplace explorations of software by visual artists and industry hacks. Brion Gysin’s famous line that Kenneth Goldsmith and Christian Bök like to quote is that literature is fifty years behind visual arts, but the problem for visual poets today is that they are now suddenly thrust into the same (digital) terrain as the visual artists in an era gone graphic mad because of the visual orientation and possibilities of the computer. Consequently, visual poetry is not nearly as shocking as it once was, nor as disruptive of our sensory biases: it has become somewhat symptomatic.

A similar problem haunts all of the old avenues of experimental writing. New ways will emerge to incorporate medium consciousness, including things like search functions—which out of all technologies have probably had the biggest impact on how I read. Copy/Paste has been the biggest impact on how I write. There are so many directions that new medium-conscious writing could go, and I suppose right now it is anybody’s guess. Appropriation and the conscious sculpting of source texts seem like useful applications of new software. I’ve also been thinking lately about all of the software that archivists and editors have developed to track and trace the genesis of a text. These applications have started to change how we read canonical writers, most forcibly Shakespeare. When you can see his source texts exposed on the same screen as you read his plays, they start to seem like the work of a masterful proto-collage artist, which of course he was.

All of which is to say that, yes yes yes—let’s let the physical act of writing and publishing be constantly in mind, and let that self-consciousness infuse and inform the art. That still seems to me to be an ample exit door out of the narrowing psychosocial conditions of life in the transnational capitalist bubble. Which raises a danger, of course, in the extent to which innovations in textual practice are determined by access to expensive technologies and tools. I do worry that the rush to discover the new spaces concocted by digital writing has sacrificed some self-consciousness to technological determinism. I mean, I suppose, that I still think of writing as an act on—and to a certain extent against—writing and language itself. Play too passive and you risk losing writing as a radical space. In this moment, just before computers become more accomplished than humans in producing emotive texts like lyrics, poems, and genre prose, writers can keep their relevancy by keeping medium-consciousness in their works. There doesn’t seem much point in writing anymore without that sense.

beaulieu: So then Olson’s dictum (via Creeley) that form is never more than an extension of content (240) carries forward? I’ve had extensive discussions with kevin mcpherson eckhoff about form and content, wondering if the dictum could be reversed that content is never more than an extension of form. Our discussions brought us to Beckett’s defense of Joyce’s Work in Progress in which he writes[h]ere form is content, content is form … this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. … [this] writing is not about something; it is that something itself (503).

It takes the emphasis off of semantic content on to the physicality of communication. That the form—the HOW of writing—dictates the WHAT of writing (as opposed to Creeley and Olson’s position that the WHAT dictates the HOW). That’s what bumps it against Beckett’s statement—that writing is not about something, it is that something. I’m interested in writing which doesn’t necessarily try to discuss any sort of emotional position, it simply evokes form—so the basic unit of composition isn’t the sentence, the phrase, the line, the word … it moves down the chain to the level of letter or mark.

Betts: The something you identify, perhaps the very kernel of contemporary / conceptual writing, seems like a writerly thinking or a form-consciousness that I suspect has been accelerated by computers and the experience of writing in the digital age. The new writing has become more akin to enacting a reading strategy by breaking a work down to the parts (its HOW) that create its meaning (its WHAT). Your Flatland seems to go even farther along this line, by actually reconciling form and content in an older text that lacked this equilibrium. It certainly seems to read a macro-oriented text through its micro particles, thereby making it that something the original text describes—the 2-dimensional world. By contrast, TORIM derails the WHAT of Shakespeare’s sonnet by exploiting the surfeit meanings embedded in the HOW—the language—of the text. From this vantage, both of these projects seem less like appropriations in the plagiarism sense than malapropisms, creative misreadings. Do you ever consider how the author of your source text would react to your project?

beaulieu: I like the idea of creative misreading—I think its a very generative term. I haven’t considered the response of a source text’s author before I’ve constructed a piece (I wonder if that’s a useful distinction, constructing instead of writing?) but I did contact Paul Auster when Local Colour was published and sent him a copy. I heard back from a secretary that he was initially bewildered but eventually flattered and thrilled by the resultant text. I have to admit that I would find it strange for an author to be anything but flattered.

Betts: I agree that there is a gesture of homage in the act. Appropriative writing captures and repurposes the excess creative energy in all texts—what Lévi-Strauss called the overspill meaning (62)—but that excess is especially present in the rich language of open texts. Whether created by constructing or writing or creatively misreading, it is a tribute to linguistic density of the author. Conversely, in the hands of a satirist like Rachel Zolf in Human Resources (which appropriates advertising copy-text), we get the pun of a source author’s density. I suppose her work highlights more creative anti-readings than misreadings. We seem to be at a crucial juncture, though, as the range of applications of appropriations is just opening up now to a widening field of possibilities. There seems to be a useful affinity between the political and the formalist implications of appropriation. I wonder how long this affinity will last? Is a conservative engagement with appropriation even possible?

beaulieu: I don’t think that a conservative engagement with appropriation is impossible—in fact, it’s happened in poetry pretty consistently across poetic style—whether that be Pound or Eliot … originality is actually quite unoriginal and unoriginality ain’t original either.

Betts: And it is good to know the limitations and potential dangers of work in this direction as well. Appropriation, though, always disrupts by restaging and recontextualizing. A seed catalogue, a legal transcript, or a weather report repackaged in a poetic text breaks the original work by drawing attention to surplus meanings at play in that language. Even Shakespeare’s plagiarism built new contexts, new plays, for borrowed/stolen words. Such creative/uncreative acts begin precisely in their failure to conserve or preserve the original, creating a dynamic tension in the slippage. There remains a potentially radical and disjunctive irony in that breach whether it is realized or utilized or not.

Works Cited

  • Ball, Jonathan. Ex Machina. Toronto: BookThug, 2009. Print.
  • beaulieu, derek. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. York: Information as Material, 2007. Print.
  • —. How to Write. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2010. Print.
  • —. Local Colour. Helsinki: ntamo, 2008. Print.
  • Beckett, Samuel. Dante … Bruno. Vico .. Joyce. Samuel Beckett: The Grove Centenary Edition. Vol. IV: Poems, Short Fiction, Criticism. Ed. Paul Auster. New York: Grove, 2006. 495-510. Print.
  • Betts, Gregory. The Others Raisd in Me. Toronto: Pedlar, 2009. Print.
  • Burroughs, William. Cities of the Red Night. New York: Viking, 1981. Print.
  • Derrida, Jacques. The Law of Genre. Trans. Avital Ronell.Critical Inquiry 7.1 (1980): 55-81. Print.
  • Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew. New York: Bantam, 1984. Print.
  • Dworkin, Craig. Introduction. The Ubuweb: Anthology of Conceptual Writing, n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2011.
  • —. Zero Kerning. Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics. Ed. Lori Emerson and Barbara Cole. Open Letter 12th Ser. 7 (2005): 75-85. Print.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss. 1950. Trans. Felicity Baker. London: Routledge, 1987. Print.
  • Olson, Charles. Projective Verse. Collected Prose. Ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. 239-49. Print.
  • Philip, M. NourbeSe. Zong! Toronto: Mercury, 2008. Print.
  • Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. New York: Knopf, 2010. Print.
  • Zolf, Rachel. Human Resources. Toronto: Coach House, 2008. Print.

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