Plagiarism is the highest crime an artist can commit since we survive on our imaginations. Our thoughts are our currency. But as in every justice system there are degrees and contradictions. Petty thefts are not only tolerated, but encouraged. T.S. Elliot, in an oft-abbreviated quote worth reading in its entirety, states that “Mature poets steal.” Nearly all undergrad poetry students take part in at least one found poetry exercise where they are sent out to scavenge words from the fire extinguishers instructions, soda can labels, warning from student health pamphlets. Then back in class, they wrestle to massage their scrounged vocabulary into lines and stanzas greater than their parts; to see the splendor waiting in fragments. For the last few months I have shoplifted words liberally from my daily reading. When my own prose lags I go to my list and read “whipsawed,” “raw-boned,” “carousel,” “luster.” The right word is waiting there to fall into place. Then I can go on. Never steal lines, but pocket single words on the sly. Beauty will be exonerated.
Do this. Go to a place foreign to your experience. Become a strip mall explorer. This week I wandered into a violin shop with no musical ability, history, or cultural touchstone beyond fiddles bowed wildly in the bluegrass dive bars of my youth. It was an empty midday and the owner, with nothing else to do, generously gave me a tour of each gleaming wood grained femme oiled with care. Violins from Norway with carved dragon heads like Viking longships. Body-less practice violins whose strings could only whisper notes. Violins the size of my hand meant for toddlers. He played a Stroh violin with its tin horn amplifier while telling stories of European street musicians long dead. I learned about horsehair strings, and the best rosin. Each instrument was its own handmade creature. The owner glowed; consumed with his singular passion. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t there to buy. I listened with genuine interest, and that is all anyone truly wants- to be heard and matter. I left serene, if envious that I will never have such a sole obsession in my life. My magpie mind roams to learn. It drifts to catalogue souvenirs and stories that glimmered.
“There has to be an imaginary point, a non-place, where language intercepts with our concepts of time and space. And he is a stranger at this crossing without words or bearings.”
–Don DeLillo The Body Artist
One of the books I read this week that I can’t recommend enough is Don DeLillo’s surrealist short novel The Body Artist. In such a brief work it strikingly interweaves questions of time, reality, consciousness, being, gender, memory, and art. It is one of the few books I’ve read twice this year, and I still feel as if there is so much there to mine.
My own writing is going well. The new novel is advancing with care. I am also line-editing my punk rock coming-of-age novel Dream Kids before its next full content edit. Punk rock is a hall pass; an invitation to devolve into the gross kids we were and love in memory. Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” becomes The Cramps “Naked Girl Falling down the Stairs.” We need dumb fun. We need to play. We need to remember to forget.
Don DeLillo The Body Artist
Listen to this:
Sloppy Seconds “You’ve Got a Great Body, but Your Records Collection Sucks”
Niccolo’ Paganini “Caprice for Solo Violin, Op.1 No. 4”