Tumblr Change

I’m somewhat disappointed to notice this month that Tumblr  has changed. I’ve used it first as an experiment in microblogging and then because it had a feature that was very useful — posting by email. That feature just disappeared, and I’ve confirmed through their support that it has been discontinued. (If you care about that, write support and let them know; they said they’re collecting feedback.)

Post by email was an attractive feature because I often receive announcements that I want to pass along. In my case, I primarily want to give them to the students in our MFA program in creative writing, but emailing all of the students each time is a pain. I might be able to set up an email nickname with all their addresses, but maintaining this list would become a burden. I could set up a mailing list. But then I worry that students won’t check their email or will ignore these messages that come in with all their other ones.

So instead, I set up an announcement discussion in our Program Lounge in Canvas (this is like a course, but everyone is in it as long as they are in the program). I could copy and paste into that, but an easier solution was to have the Tumblr blog, which I could post to by email. The discussion in Canvas could then read the blog’s RSS feed, so all my announcements would go into this course. Or students can just follow the Tumblr, if they prefer.

Now that I can’t email posts to Tumblr, I’m looking for another solution. One workaround, of course, is just to copy and paste into the blog, but this involves a few more steps than I’d like and isn’t much more efficient than just copying and pasting directly into Canvas.

Another workaround is to read the email messages on my iPad. There I can “select all” and then share to the Tumblr app. I tried this, and it might be a good solution as long as I remember to do email on my iOS device (I assume Android would be similar). It involves a couple more steps than emailing the post to my blog, but maybe a few less than copy and paste, since I can keep the app logged into Tumblr. I will probably gravitate to either copy and paste on my computer or sharing through the app on the iPad or a combination. And if none of those work, I may go back to the old-fashioned email list.

Plagiarism in Creative Writing

The recent plagiarism controversy sparked by Melania Trump’s speech to the Republican National Convention on August 18, 2016 has me thinking. Besides the obvious political ramifications of being found to have used ideas and language from Michelle Obama, which has to be embarrassing on multiple levels, the controversy has raised issues of plagiarism definitions and importance.

Apologists have claimed that the speech used common words, that only a small part of the speech was copied (2 paragraphs from Michelle Obama’s speech). They have said she didn’t intend to plagiarize, so it isn’t plagiarism. These are all familiar ‘defenses’ to anyone, like myself, who has taught composition or any class that involves writing. And they are no defense at all.

The passages in question clearly follow the language of the original speech closely with only minor changes being introduced. It’s a classic case, and in a classroom, as Professor Laura Struve has pointed out, depending on the school’s and the instructor’s policies, it would receive a 0, at least until the problem was corrected (if that option is available). In composition and other academic writing situations, we have established strategies to deal with plagiarism detection, avoidance, and punishment, as Struve eloquently points out.

In the world of political speeches, things may be a little murkier, but the fall-out from Ms. Trump’s speech is an excellent reminder that a 0 on an assignment is a relatively minor punishment when compared to embarrassment on a national stage.

The world of Creative Writing, though, is a combination of the academic world and the political world. In a creative writing class we are held to the same standards as other academic writing, yet the conventions for attributing a source are nowhere near as established. No one expects a parenthetical citation or bibliography or list of works cited in a short story, play, or poem, though it could be done and wouldn’t be at all surprising in a creative nonfiction essay.

Creative writers are more likely to live in the real world, where expectations and conventions of attribution are more fluid, yet the consequences of an accusation of plagiarism can be devastating. Still, writers often allude to or even borrow from other writers’ work. The idea of sampling in music has crossed over to creative writing in recent years, and there is a long history of adaptation, parody, and creative reuse. Conventions about authorship have also changed dramatically in different periods. All of this leads to a more confusing landscape, and yet some basic principals and strategies can be observed.

The first is that creative reuse of material needs to be creative. Ezra Pound’s dictum to “make it new” is a good place to start. For example, a found poem takes existing language and re-envisions it with line breaks that cause the reader to find new connections or pay attention to a different aspect of the original text. If your use of material does not change the way we see that material in some way (perhaps through recontextualizing, parodying, or satirizing the original), then it will likely be seen as too derivative at best and plagiarized at worst. If you use the words or ideas of someone else without having a good reason to use them, it would be better not to do it!

Writers do rely on the concept of fair use, making an allusion to another work by quoting or paraphrasing a short passage. When the allusion enriches the work at hand, this makes sense. Writers then face the question of whether and how to indicate what they have done. If the allusion is brief and to a well-known text, often no attribution is necessary. It will be recognized by most readers. Even obscure references are sometimes made without acknowledgement, leaving the reader to figure out the allusion or to rely on footnotes provided by editors.

Famous writers from the past seem to have done this often, judging by the notes found in anthologies and critical editions. Contemporary readers should remember, though, that expectations have changed over time and that what we now see as an obscure reference may have been better known at the time it was written. We shouldn’t take the need for footnotes in historical texts as license to be obscure or derivative now.

Some writers have indicated they were quoting, simply by using quotation marks, even if they didn’t name the source. Other writers have found ways to acknowledge their source more directly. Often the choice depends on the amount of text that is quoted or adapted, how well-known the original text is, and how important it is to the author that the source be revealed. For instance, Marianne Moore often quoted from obscure scientific journal articles in her poems without naming the source; the quotation marks were enough to indicate language coming from outside the text.

If we’re talking about a word or phrase that alludes to another text, no reference may be needed, but if we’re talking about extended references to the same source material, acknowledgment is probably wise. Here are a few strategies a writer might consider.

  • Name the author or title of the source within your text, title, or subtitle. Finding an unobtrusive way to mention your source is often the best strategy, if it can be done.
  • Include an epigram: a brief statement, usually in italics, under the title. This may be as short as a word or phrase, such as “after so-and-so” or as long as a quotation from the original source. The epigram can provide enough space to explain the context of the original material, even the date or journal of a published source. Or it might hint at the original without explicitly giving all the details.
  • Add a footnote: though less common, this strategy has been employed by some writers to document their borrowing. Footnotes have also been used as another layer of the creative text, and may be as literary as the main text of the piece.
  • Write annotations: though these usually follow the text, rather than appearing on the same page as a reference, annotations can be used to explain what has been used and how, pointing the reader to the original source texts if they are interested in pursuing the topic further
  • Write an acknowledgement: in a book, the acknowledgments page is often used to discuss the inspiration for a work and how that source text has been used.
  • Include an Author’s Note at the beginning or end of the text to explain what your source is and how you have used it.
  • Mention your source in your contributor’s note: with magazine publication, the writer’s choices are more limited. An epigram may seem too artificial for a given reference, yet you might tip your hat to the source in your note.

What strategy you use (and I’d be interested in hearing others) will depend on the situation. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer the way there is for academic essays. Yet usually there is a simple solution that involves one of these methods or a combination. If your intention is good and you make an honest attempt to acknowledge your source material, there shouldn’t be a problem. If you’re sloppy or only go half-way to pay your debt to your sources, it could be embarrassing.

In a class, I always tell my students to talk to me about what they’re doing to work with a text. In that situation, there should never be a question of plagiarism. In an academic context, plagiarism is about academic dishonesty. If you tell me what you’re doing and we agree on strategies to deal with it, then there shouldn’t be a question of your honesty in the class. I may tell you that I think you need to do more to make the source material your own, but if we’ve agreed on a plan for acknowledging your source, then you’re being honest and aboveboard. If, on the other hand, I discover you’ve used material inappropriately and we haven’t discussed it, then there could be trouble. When a work is published, especially if it is a full-length work, then legal questions of copyright and permissions also come into play. Quoting from song lyrics can get very expensive, for instance, since the music industry is extremely vigilant about copyright.

Of course, the grossest cases of plagiarism usually involve someone stealing someone else’s full text and passing it off as their own. There’s absolutely no excuse for that, and the ramifications, both in the academy and the real world are and ought to be severe. For every other form of honest and creative use of a source, there ought to be creative ways to pay homage to the writer who came before.

Writers can learn from the strategies other writers have used. Creative writing students can rely on their professors, and publishers ultimately rely on their legal staff to make sure they have all of their bases covered.



Follow-Up to “Adapting Traditional Form”

When Christie Collins asked me to write a micro essay on craft of 500 words for her blog feature “Craft of Literary,” I decided to write about my process of adapting the Japanese form renga for my book Barrier Island Suite. In order to stay within the word limit, I kept my focus on that form, but now I thought I’d add a little on my own blog about how the form and the book developed.

The variations of the renga stanza (that I discuss in the original article) became the dominant form for the first 20 poems I wrote for Barrier Island Suite. However, whenever I tried to explain that the form was based on either renga or on tanka stanzas, people would invariably take issue. Tanka magazines, for instance, didn’t want the poems because to them, a tanka, like a haiku should be a single stanza. There didn’t seem to be a place for longer tanka-influenced poems. In the end, I stopped explaining the stanza (until now) and simply let it be. Yet I had considerable success placing the poems in mainstream literary magazines when I didn’t mention the source of the form.

On the other hand, working in this form led me to try my hand at haiku, and I’m pleased to say that I’ve finally written some that really fit the form and have been published in Valley Voices as “Tombigbee River.” There are times when adherence to existing forms ought to be valued, in other words, just as there are times when the form may be adapted, even bent out of shape until it is nearly unrecognizable to all but the poet.

Later, when I returned to Barrier Island Suite with the idea of including more of Walter Anderson’s life on shore, I realized I wanted a different form for this part of his life. The book’s title suggests a musical suite, so I also realized I wanted each section to have its own tempo the way the pieces in a suite wold. So upon returning to the project as I expanded it from a 20-poem cycle to book-length manuscript, I also returned to free verse.

Nonetheless, I knew I wanted there to be some sense of form, so I worked with different, yet regular stanza lengths: couplets, tercets, quatrains, quintets, or sestets, depending on the poem. Only in the final section did I take on longer stanzas with a more flowing form in “The Great Spirit Road,” modeled after the meandering Mississippi river, and “The Little Room,” modeled after the “Great Hymn to Aten,” since Psalm 104 (which is based on the “Hymn”) is a likely source for the murals in Anderson’s cottage.

In the end, then, the sections of the book alternate between the renga-inspired original stanza forms and more traditional Western stanzas and free verse. For me, the alternating form fits well with the different modes of life that Anderson describes in his logs.

I started the original essay thinking about form in free verse, the subject of a graduate class I was teaching in Forms of Poetry, and that is where I will end. Whether using an adapted traditional form from another culture, working with traditional European stanza forms, or writing free verse, the form of the poem and the content are always in a dynamic relationship. Form isn’t left to chance, in other words, as most of the poets we read in the class argued one way or another.

CRAFT OF LITERARY 2.3: Featuring Kendall Dunkelberg – “Adapting a Traditional Form”

In this post, I will discuss how I adapted a form for my new book, Barrier Island Suite. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because my book is just out and because I am teaching a Forms in Poetry …

Source: CRAFT OF LITERARY 2.3: Featuring Kendall Dunkelberg – “Adapting a Traditional Form”

Thanks, Goodreads Giveaway

Awhile back I tried out the Giveaway feature of Goodreads. My event to give away 5 copies of Barrier Island Suite just ended with great success. More than 5 people requested the book! Many more, in fact…

A week ago, I saw that I had 98 requests, which I thought was pretty good. So I put out a call on my Facebook and Twitter, asking for people to put me over 100. I don’t know if that request made the difference (I had mentioned it on social media when I set up the giveaway) or if people like to wait until the last minute—kind of like sniping on eBay, though it doesn’t matter when you sign up. It would be interesting, though, to see some statistics on when people join giveaways. Does Goodreads promote the ones that are about to expire? Or do people have a psychological push to sign up close to the deadline? It’s hard to tell.

This morning, Goodreads informed me that 438 people requested my book. That means in the last week, 340 people joined in, up from 98 in the previous 3 weeks. That’s a pretty interesting trend. Maybe it just takes that long to get on people’s radar as exposure grows exponentially, or maybe putting the reminder out on social media really did help. My publisher Texas Review Press also retweeted and shared my posts, so that probably made a big difference.

Thanks to all who requested a copy!

I’m impressed. If everyone who signed up for the book went out and bought one, we might have to go into a second printing soon! I doubt that will happen, but given that the price is only $8.95, it’s not much of a stretch to think some of you will actually buy a copy.

Or if you really want to read it for free, either wait until I do another giveaway—I’m thinking of doing one in conjunction with the Mississippi Book Festival—or request it from your local library. If they don’t have a copy, they might get it through interlibrary loan, and the more requests there are, the more libraries might want to order it. So it all comes around to more sales in the end.

But let’s face it, with poetry, the main goal isn’t making money (maybe doing better than breaking even, but certainly no one expects to get rich), it’s about getting the poems in people’s hands and with this book especially, it’s about getting Walter Anderson’s story out there so more people will be interested in his art.

So if you didn’t win a copy of my book, you should a least take a moment to visit the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, Realizations, or Walter Anderson Everyday to learn more about the artist I write about in my book. Maybe it will inspire you to take a trip to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and while you’re there you can pick up a copy of Barrier Island Suite…

Tracking Submissions

It was nice recently to have an email conversation with fellow writer and translator Zack Rogow in which we discussed (among other things) the ways writers track their submissions. He had recently written a blog post about this, and when updating, kindly quoted me discussing the program I created in the late 1980s to track my submission. I thought I’d add a little more detail here, but you can follow the link above to see what others have to say on the topic. Many use Word or Excel files to keep track of their work. Admittedly, my system is overly complex, but that is the result of many years of tweaking and of the power of Apple’s Hypercard program that I initially used to create it.

The program began relatively simply as a pair of databases to keep track of submissions. Hypercard worked on a model of index cards, so I could create a set of index cards with all of my poem titles and a list of every magazine where they were sent. Then I had another set of virtual index cards that listed the address information, submissions guidelines, etc. for all the magazines I had sent to.

Because I like to mess around with some basic programming, I wrote scripts that would allow me to search one set of cards from the other, and then I wrote scripts that allowed me to enter information in one place and send it to the other set of cards. I’ve usually started with the publisher card, added a list of titles (I’m a poet, so sending 4-5 poems at once is common), then I can highlight those titles and click a button that adds the publisher to the title card for each. I keep track of the date sent and the response.

Incidentally, I long ago decided to use the term “returned” when a poem is sent back to me. “Rejected” is just too depressing, and often isn’t really accurate. I have a comments field where I can add any personal comments I get, so I know what has been said.

Eventually life got more complicated as I sent out more and more poems, so I added a series of scripts to read the two sets of cards and generate reports. Then I added a script to generate a cover letter file for each submission — it exported the address and titles sent so I could write a cover letter. (I don’t use this feature too much any more, now that there are electronic submissions). When I started applying for grants and contests, I created a different set of cards for these (since the submission process is a bit different).

Once I published a book, I added more records for book sales, reading engagements, invoices, income and expenses (for tax purposes), etc. If I weren’t a bit of a geek, I wouldn’t have ever gotten this complex with it all.

The one drawback to my system is that it was written in Hypercard and then ported to SuperCard once Apple discontinued Hypercard. It relies on this program to run, so I have to keep a working copy and getting the data out is an interesting proposition. Someday, I might like to export it all to a PhP database and use open source software to access it, though that would involve reprogramming everything, so it’s probably a job for my retirement or for when the need arises. For now, I keep working with my clunky but powerful system.

Once upon a time, I had a dream of marketing the program as shareware, but the reality of that is I would have to write a really good help system to allow others to use it. There are so many things about it that I just know how to do, and that would be nearly impossible to explain to anyone else. But the basic concept could be ported to just about any relational database.

Why Read in Bookstores?

IMG_0217It might seem like an odd question, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about as I drive around Mississippi to readings and signings. Bookstores would seem like the logical choice — and they are, though I’ve also read at colleges, libraries, etc. Recently I heard a talk by a publicist who said she tried to get her authors speaking engagements anywhere but in bookstores, and maybe with good reason. Bookstores usually don’t pay an honorarium, and books sold at other events are often sold by the author directly, so there’s a bigger profit margin. So I get her point, but…

I’m still more than happy to drive a few hours to a bookstore at my own expense, give a reading and sign books for awhile, all without seeing any direct profit, only that eventual royalty check. So why do it?

First, I’m a poet, so if I were in this for the money, you ought to question my sanity. Of course, I want my books to break even and even garner a profit, but my expectations in that regard are fairly low. So if it’s not about the money, what is it about?

One answer is that it’s about getting books into people’s hands. We write to be read (and we hope to earn enough through writing to make it more than just an expensive hobby). Bookstores are where people who love books hang out. It seems like a logical place to find people who might want to buy your book!

Another answer (still thinking about the economics of it) is that sales in the store during a reading/signing are just the tip of the iceberg. A bookstore reading does a number of things. It gets the store to order  your books and gets them to put up a notice about your reading. Your book is featured for a time. More people will see it, pick it up, and maybe buy a copy. Often by the time I get to a store, someone has already made a purchase.

You can post on social media about every signing, and usually the stores do, too. People see you as an active, interesting writer who goes to bookstores. And finally, when you’re at the store signing books, if the store will allow it, sign some more so they can sell signed copies later. These can’t be returned to the publisher, so they are books the store is essentially committing to sell. Even if only a few people show up to a reading or only a few buy a book while you’re there, you’ve likely sold several more copies through that store.

Which brings me to the main reason I’m happy to give a signing or reading in a bookstore: to support the store. Whether I sell a book or not, people will come into a store when there’s a reading, and they will buy books. Hosting readings, bringing authors to their public, is one of the roles a brick and mortar store can fulfill that the online megastores can’t. Having an author in their store promotes the store, and having live authors around helps promote reading. When I’m doing a signing, I talk to people about my book, but I also talk about books in general and about writing. Does it matter if they buy my book, if they are more likely to read a book?

In creative writing circles, we call this literary citizenship. It is part of taking part in the culture of writing and keeping that culture going by buying books, reading books, and writing about books. So if one person shows up or 100, connecting with each person, whether they buy my book or not, is important. So is reading at libraries, book clubs, universities, book festivals, and anywhere else you can find. Some may earn you more money than others, and hopefully that all balances out in the end. But I will always be happy reading to an intimate crowd in a bookstore or signing books and talking to a few people about what I write.


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