Ownership: Whose poem is it anyway?

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Whose poem is it?
Fictional Friends
Saturday, 17 September 2016

Ana, Anna, BettyAnne,
David, Jane, Lachlan, Margaret, Neil,

            I spent a happy two hours on Saturday afternoon in a literary workshop with a group of Fictional Friends. We were work-shopping a colleague’s story. It had been circulated to us the week before and we had all had a chance to read it and offer our responses. The author joined in the discussion quite freely and the conversation was in depth and very pointed.

Without giving away any intimate details, I believe that the general points that arose in the discussion are well worth opening up to a wider audience. I will leave them in question form.

1. The narrative voice: Is it stronger than the voice of the characters and should it be? To what extent should the narrator dominate the story? Should the characters have pride of place? How do we seek and find a balance between narrator and characters, especially when the author’s own voice, in real life and literature, can be so strong?

2. The focal point: What is the focal point of the story? Should it have a single focus, a single slug line, a sentence that can sum it up? Is it about the conflict between two characters in a dysfunctional marriage? Is it about a tit-for-tat relationship with secrecy and revenge at the heart of it? How should the story be focused so the spotlight falls on one of these elements or highlights the potential conflict among all three?

3. The characters: Is the narrator a third character? Are the two main characters evenly balanced? Do they have to be likeable? Are they likeable? Can they be strengthened? If they are not likeable, can their unlike-ability be softened in any way so the reader draws closer to them? Can the points of conflict between them be sharpened or focused more clearly? Should the story be lengthened to include more background detail? Should it be shortened and made more incisive? Are there non sequiturs, false trails, red herrings that can be eliminated?

4. Dialog: Is the dialog genuine and believable? Do people really speak like this? Is the couple communicating or are they merely talking at each other without listening? Is their lack of communication, via the dialog, a key component of the story? Can this lack of communication be strengthened? Is their language unique to them, each of them? Are the ‘he said’ / ‘she said’ necessary when there are only two characters? If their speech and points of view are distinctive then dialogic pointers are not necessary, surely? All ‘saidisms’ should be removed, ‘she squeaked, he sighed’, shouldn’t they? Such ‘saidisms’ can be paraphrased within the text, can’t they?

5. Punctuation: Does the punctuation need a copy editor to sort it out? Does the punctuation enhance the meaning or confuse the reader? Do the traditional forms of punctuation hold good in the age of texting and twitter and tweet? Surely the punctuation should be standardized, possibly for the narrator and the two main characters? Standardized, perhaps, but according to whose rules? Or does the narrative create its own rules?

6. Dramatic Irony: How much does each character know? How much should the reader know? How do we let vital information become available to the reader while keeping it secret from the other characters? Do we achieve this via dialog? How do the various narrators work in this context omniscient, narrator as character, narrator with partial knowledge etc?

Two writing tips:

1. Stay in the mood: We work hard as authors to create a mood for our characters and our readers. Once we have created that mood, we must stay in it. Anything that breaks the audience’s attention must be avoided: punctuation mistakes, spelling mistakes, authorial intervention, ‘saidisms’, sudden changes in character, words that are obtrusive … avoid too, those little jokes that we love so much, especially if they do not contribute to the story  … they distract the audience from what’s happening … avoid our favorite repeated phrases … non-essentials must be left out … get in the mood … stay in the mood.

2. Read your work aloud: This is one of the best ways of concentrating on what you are writing. Two techniques: (1) record your work, close your eyes, play it back and really listen to it, perhaps more than once. This allows you to focus on rhythm, structure, and movement. (2) Read your work aloud as you are writing and after you have written. For me, in poetry, this includes the finger-tapping, syllable counting, rhythmic mode — a sílabas contadas, as Fray Luis de León, one of Spain’s most rhythmic writers, used to say.

At the end of the session, the author responded to the commentaries and then invited each of the work-shoppers to offer a condensed suggestion in a line or two. My own went like this: “You have heard thirty-five to forty different suggestions. You are the author, only you. You most focus clearly on your story and choose those recommendations that suit you best and move your story forward in the way that you want.”

Waking in the early hours of the night to converse with the Harvest moon that still drifted through the night sky, the following very different thoughts came to me. They come from my long-term experiences with work-shopping, schools of creative writing, and editors who decide what parts of an author’s work they will publish, and then ONLY with appropriate and editor-approved changes.

Whose poem is it anyway?
When we workshop a poem or a short story and
when we receive all this feedback,
what is our role?
Is the poem or the story still ours?
Whose story is it?

  1. Editors.

            My first editors insisted on re-writing my texts. They wanted me to say and write things this way, not that way. “Here’s your poem,” one wrote back. “Resubmit it like this and I’ll publish it.” It wasn’t the way I wanted it, but I did what he said and my poem was published. House editorial style: same thing. Whose poem is it? Mine, because it bears my name … but did I want it written that way? Good question.

2. El Poeta-Pueblo.

I have mentioned this concept before. It comes from Ramón Menéndez Pidal who suggested that in the best oral tradition Medieval and Renaissance Spanish poetry passed through the mouths of a series of anonymous polishers who chose the best verses and strengthened them as they went along. If the poet is the people, whose poem is it? I think of soccer chants, bumper stickers, certain repeated jokes, especially old jokes that are recycled again and again with merely a change of victim. So much is in the air, so much is heard, over-heard, half-heard … where does creativity start and where does it end?

3. Originality, Copyright, and the Right to Copy.

Some of the thoughts expressed above question the meaning of ownership, originality, creativity, and copyright. How original are we? Who actually creates the ideas in the film based on the book based on the idea based on the suggestion of the anonymous voice overheard on the commuter train? When we work in a workshop, to whom does the end result belong? When we work in a creative writing program with tutors and commentators and a thesis director who rewrites, corrects, and approves the final product, whose work is it? When we work in a team, is it the final voice that determines the final structure of the entity, that is the creator and bears the label of creativity? By extension, to what extent do we have the right to listen in, to copy, to borrow, to re-create? Is a re-creator a creator and to what extent does the re-creator really create?

Just some thoughts to share with my fictional and other friends for the joy of creation never ends — and yes, we have the right to copy (with acknowledgement), to borrow (with a tribute), to change, and shuffle, and cut … for me it’s all a form of creativity. If our friends and writing groups want to join in and help us write, then why shouldn’t they? But never forget the role of el pueblo-poeta and don’t forget to ask: whose poem is it?

5 thoughts on “Ownership: Whose poem is it anyway?

  1. You have a great memory Roger! It is easier in retrospect to decide what edits to keep and which to discard – when work shopping, the first thing to remember is ‘it is your work’! I am also amazed ( with my own work and others) that the final text and the first draft are often the same in the ways that count – the message, the lilt and the language. Editing makes it easier to read and more acceptable of course. But I’ll bet Mark Twain’s first draft of Huckleberry Finn would be still be a delight to read!

    Liked by 1 person

    • When we revise, we often stray from the original. As we become more accomplished as writers, we are able to stray from the original, and then return to the original for its freshness, energy and enthusiasm. The problem is, in my opinion, to mature as writers so that we can distinguish between the genuine golden nuggets and the dross that surrounds them. This comes with experience, thought, and much practice. Rarely do we get it totally right first time: sometimes we do. But do we recognize that fact? Good question.

      Liked by 2 people

      • By extension, of course, work-shopping throws us back into the stage of “they know much more than I”. They don’t. Not necessarily. But we cannot always accept, especially early on in our writing careers (nothing to do with age), that we are actually in control of the situation. We are looking for outside support when often we should be relying upon interior conviction. This is a two-edged sword: some poets are convinced of their own greatness, in spite of the realities that point in the opposite direction!


  2. Roger,

    Thank you for including me in the discussion. It is interesting how, despite twitter and tweet, writers continue to abide by basic rules in order to avoid distracting the audience – our readers – from the story being told. A misplaced comma or a misspelled word does as much to dampen or destroy reading enjoyment as does an unintentional character shift, or an overbearing narrator who simply refuses to allow the characters to speak for themselves.

    Writers, and I speak here most directly about myself, tend to want to own every detail of each character and every nuance of the story. In fact (or opinion, at least) all writing, once committed to public domain, is owned by the readers. Public domain in this sense includes reading to an audience of strangers or presenting your completed version of a manuscript to a few fictional friends. The readers, strangers and friends, then have significant responsibility to and for the story.

    Ideas float around the universe hoping to find someone receptive enough to help the ideas express. An idea – whether for an invention or for a story – will stick around if it is being worked with, but will soon move on if it is being ignored. We probably should change the wording “I have an idea” to “an idea is trying to work through me.”

    There is a story about an author, let’s call her Sue, who was visited by an idea for her next book. She started to write the story, then let it sit on the shelf for three years while getting on with the rest of her life. Sometime during the third year, Sue met another author who was well into Sue’s story with just a few minor character alterations. The story was the same; the setting was the same; the characters were imperfect imprints; and, the mood, focus, and dialogue were eerily similar to Sue’s original concept. The idea had simply moved on. Found a new, more immediately receptive place to express.

    Intent may draw an idea close; action keeps it close. And, once expressed, it belongs to everyone. A story may ‘own’ a slice of the author, but the author can never entirely own the story.

    Kind regards,


    Liked by 2 people

    • This is a great addition to the discussion: many thanks, Victor. I like your concept of “the idea moving through me” … it is typical of the ability you have, as a writer and a person, to reverse the normal flow of ideas and to make your listener(s) re-focus on the ‘suddenly and subtly changed’ nature of the surrounding world. And yes, ideas do have a shelf life. All sorts of clichés spring to mind: ‘don’t let the sun go down on an idea’, ‘strike while the pen is still hot’. etc etc. Good to see you here.

      Liked by 1 person

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