Thursday, August 19, 2010

Katrina and the waves

A couple of years ago my friend and colleague Ray McDaniel published his second collection of poems, Saltwater Empire. In it there is a poem called "Convention Centers of the New World" which is about Hurricane Katrina. Currently he is under fire for how this poem was compiled. It is a conglomeration of various first-person narratives from the website Alive in Truth, a collection of oral histories of Katrina survivors and he acknowledges such in his book.

Yesterday the Poetry Foundation published on its website On The Voices of Hurricane Katrina, Part I: "What are the ethics of poetic appropriation?" by Abe Louise Young, in which she more or less accuses Ray of being a racist plagiarist. Then there is Ray's measured response, The Voices of Hurricane Katrina, Part II: "Reflections on found poetry and the creative process." Both Young and McDaniel are good people, but I can't help but feel that McDaniel is being unfairly maligned for the world's wrongs here.

Here is my take on the issue, which I submitted to the Poetry Foundation's comments section under Young's essay:

It seems to me that McDaniel's error is in not getting permission to use stories from the Alive in Truth website. Young is, understandably, unhappy about this. However, McDaniel does acknowledge AIT in his book as the source material for his poem. He's not trying to hide anything. Whether or not one thinks McDaniel's poetic aims were realized -- or even very good in the first place -- is another matter. But even if McDaniel did egregiously thumb his nose at copyright (and I don't think he did. His poem falls under "fair use" as I understand it, whether or not Young likes how he did it), that in itself does not make him a "Neo-colonialistic prick" as someone commented on Young's Facebook page. There Young trumpets her "essay exposing the white man who plagiarized the oral histories of african-american katrina survivors--publishing them as his own poems." This is an awfully reductive way of looking at McDaniel and his work and does not do even her own argument justice. It is understandable that Young feels protective of the stories on AIT and the people who told them. There are many, many injustices surrounding Katrina and so many reasons to be angry. McDaniel, however, is not one of them. Not really. The issues about appropriation in Young's essay are important and there is no doubt a larger discussion to be had. But it seems that perhaps Young is too close to the source material. It's too raw, perhaps, too sacred in her estimation. While there is no doubt that these stories -- indeed, the people who have shared them -- are important, Young's criticisms of McDaniel's (fair)use of these stories contain a barely contained charge of blasphemy. It's an awfully difficult charge to prove. After all, what is considered sacred is hardly universal. And even when, say, two people find the sacred within, say, personal histories about Katrina, one man's attempt at honoring the sacred is another woman's perceived decimation of it. I do think intentions matter. And it's rather clear when you read the McDaniel poem in question that he is, however flawed it may seem to some, striving for reverence not insolence. Young's anger is, I think, misdirected in this case. Clearly her passion for social activism has led her to do urgent, brave, and important work and she will no doubt continue to do so. I do hope that she is one day able to see that the poem "Convention Centers of the New World" does not reduce McDaniel to a racist plagiarist.

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