MONTPELIER, VERMONT — The quote is attributed to Pablo Picasso: “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.” The line has been quoted enough that it’s lost a bit of its oomph. But I liked how poet Ilya Kaminsky began his discussion of the subject in his informal talk here at my Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing residency: “Steal is a good word. It’s an action verb. It’s much better than to have.”
Kaminsky–already at a young age a giant in his field, and someone who the evening before took our breath away with his dramatic reading–has little tolerance for writers of any type who say their work honors another writer, or pays homage to the writer or their work. “It’s not about bowing” to the other writer, “it’s about binoculars.” In other words, he wants us to spy on what others are doing and do it ourselves.
We all went on a whirlwind tour of the history of poetry, from the Old Testament to the present day. Time and again, Kaminsky showed us examples of one poet stealing another poet’s techniques, but he kept repeating one point over and over again: IT DOESN’T MATTER WHOSE POEM CAME FIRST.
Each poet–each writer–brings their own perspective to the work. When the Polish poet Tymoteusz Karpowicz transformed the “time” construction from Ecclesiastes to examine a post-Holocaust in his appropriately titled “Ecclesiastes,” it took nothing away from the beauty or the message of that chapter of the Bible.
“What was taken or stolen isn’t important,” Kaminsky said. “It doesn’t matter who took what from whom, it matters what you do with it.”
This lecture was of particular interest to me, because I’ve encountered the word “steal” in numerous contexts connected to writing in my professional life. I’ve confronted plagiarism, in which someone else falsely represents another’s work as their own. And I’ve confronted copyright infringement, in which one author’s writing is appropriated for someone else’s use without the original author’s permission. Clearly Kaminsky isn’t talking about those examples, although our U.S. legal notion of copyright “fair use” creates confusion at times as to what is theft and what is not.
This is not the place for that discussion, however. What I took from Kaminsky’s lecture was that I should not only be learning the craft of writing by reading great writers–as Larry Sutin and others strongly advise–but I should feel free to appropriate wholesale the techniques and approaches they use to good effect, even if the appropriation is noticeable. Perhaps in poetry, where words stand out amongst white space, it’s harder to hide the appropriation. But Kaminsky’s talk made me rethink my relationship to authors I am “honoring” in my writing, such as Joan Didion and Tobias Wolff. Perhaps they don’t need me to honor them. Perhaps I should just fully embrace stealing from them, that is, fully adopting the techniques that work for them in my own work without shame.
I’m sure you’ve heard that Picasso quote. I’ll add the Isaac Newton quote as well: “If I was seeing farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.” This could all be a matter of semantics, but I would welcome your thoughts on the relationship between our own artistic production and those who come before us.