Plagiarism as Pedagogy

One of my best students was a plagiarizer. I felt stupid, when I found out—I had known her for two years, and I had worked with her intensively as her thesis adviser, for months. And I wasn’t the one who caught her, either, which was embarrassing because the poets and poems she plagiarized were ones I had told her, specifically, she should read. I had read some of the exact poems she’d ripped off, many times, myself; I had assigned them to her.

So I did everything you’re supposed to do in this situation. I contacted the Dean of Students office. I asked the student, via e-mail, to meet with me, telling her ahead of time that I believed she had committed plagiarism and that we needed to discuss if and how we’d move forward from here… it was very near the end of the semester, and her thesis was supposed to be finished in two weeks.

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Books by Their Covers: best poetry presses, by design

Here’s some Not-News-To-Anyone: poetry doesn’t sell itself. Successful first books, in particular, depend on a poet’s overall visibility online, a real-world group of friends and friends-of-friends to assist in writing and publishing reviews, the poet’s willingness to go on a thankless monetary sinkhole of a cross-country “tour” with several other poets packed in the back of a beat-up 1997 Honda Civic with no a/c, and last but not least: the artwork and design of the book itself. Is it pretty? Would it look good on your pillow?

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Gatekeepers Part Four-point-Two: in defense of “telling” and sentimental preachiness

Two winters ago, brand-new to the creative writing community of Madison, Wisconsin, I was at ground zero of the national debate on union rights, caught in a throng of 70,000 protestors marching around the State Capitol, screaming “Whose Streets? Our Streets!,” “This Is What Democracy Looks Like!,” and “It’s Not About The Money, It’s About The Rights!” while a choir of scarved-and-mittened “radical grannies” belted “We Shall Overcome” through a PA system on the Capitol lawn, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson milled about, waiting for his time on the microphone.

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Gatekeepers Part Four-point-One: on why the [red] pen is mightier than the sword (and other politically useful clichés)

Nearly ten years ago, when I was a twenty-year-old baby-poet with a sense of self-importance even more inflated than it is today, I organized a “Poetry in Protest” reading in Amherst, Massachusetts to demonstrate against what became, a couple months later, “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

My work screening manuscripts for this event forever changed the way I understood what it meant to be an editor. Increasingly, I viewed every editorial choice as a fundamentally political decision that went far beyond an assessment of aesthetic quality—not just in terms of selection based on a diversity of aesthetics, identities, and literary intentions, but also the much more taken-for-granted criteria we use to decide whether a piece of literature is good or bad: chief among them the notion of “accessibility,” the very idea of “cliché,” the truism “show, don’t tell,” the widespread use of qualifiers like “sentimental” or “didactic” to justify why a poem or story fails, and the general reticence to ignore an author’s biography or lived experience in favor of evaluating the author’s work “independently.”Continue Reading

“Pineapples Don’t Have Sleeves”: On Assessing Absurdity

In the days immediately following my last post, in which I stumbled semi-sensically through the difficulties of assessing images that are designed (at least in part) to resist explanation, Facebook lit up with a series of articles about a talking pineapple that recently appeared on a New York Public Schools System standardized test, much to the confusion of test-takers and to the ire of standardized testing opponents. I couldn’t have been more pleased.

Or more irritated. The pineapple in question was the central character in a parody of Aesop’s “The Tortoise and the Hare,” originally written by Daniel Pinkwater (who is, I should say, one of my childhood heroes) and then adapted significantly by Pearson’s test writers and administered to 8th-graders. In the wake of controversy surrounding this test, New York’s Department of Education has made the text of the story and its associated questions public online, but the gist is this:Continue Reading

Gatekeepers (Part Three), on comparing apples to desperate, near-extinct marsupials braving the Pacific in coconut dinghies

At its most basic, a literary editor’s job is a series of “either/or” decisions, or a long and hopefully-not-very-drunken game of “would you rather”: the editor takes a stack of poems/stories/essays and weighs them against each other to choose what gets published and what does not. This is the most-fundamental-possible description of the job: editors judge quality, however subjective “quality” may be; they accept and they reject.

This task is pretty straightforward during early rounds of editorial consideration. But as the field of contenders for an issue narrows, often warranting long, drawn-out discussions, editors frequently have to make quality-judgments about two or more works which are so drastically different that comparing them to each other seems impossible and absurd.Continue Reading

Gatekeepers (Part Two), why my pop-music philistinism makes me fear for the poetic canon



Gatekeeper, seasons wait for your nod. / Gatekeeper, you held your breath, /
made the summer go on and on.

Here’s a confession, Ploughshares readers: I’m a musical dinosaur. I have an unabashed love for Green Day and Counting Crows, and I’ve listened to Wu Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers almost weekly for eight years. If pressed, I can pick out a photo of Lady Gaga or distinguish between the voices of Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne, but that’s about it. This is how I found myself exclaiming to some friends, several months ago, that I’d recently “discovered” Feist, a singer who (it turns out) has been in the public eye for at least a decade. Oops. Continue Reading

Gatekeepers (Part One), in which I play my flute in a meadow and lament The Death of the Editor

Gordon Lish

Editors aren’t what they used to be. I admit that I don’t have much authority to say so: I’m young(ish), my editorial “career” spans a whopping four years, and I didn’t grow up with a quill-pen in the days before simultaneous submissions, hand-delivering my poems in the snow, up-hill both ways.

Still, it seems obvious that being an editor today is nothing like being one a century ago, and shifts in the editorial landscape have been given too little attention, compared to shifts in the larger literary landscape. So how has editing changed, apart from the technological advances we can’t ignore? And what do those changes mean for future writers and editors?Continue Reading