The Venus Flytrap: Piracy, Privacy, Popularity and Poetry

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It’s not every day that one finds oneself as a subject of a social experiment. At the risk of being frozen out of polite poetic society, I have to admit: I felt just a mite gleeful at having my identity misappropriated for inclusion in a 4000-page pdf anthology of pirated poetry.

The idea was simple: collect together some 3000-odd names of poets, randomly generate cryptic and rather dreadful wordlists assembled into poetic syntax and misattribute one to each, publish the whole thing as a pdf without the authorization of those whose names are used, and watch a congregation of middle fingers go up in the blogosphere.

Now, most people don’t take poets very seriously. The word alone conjures up an image of a limpid-eyed, lily-livered, lovelorn loon. This may be why 20% of us die of suicide, overcompensating as usual for all that lack of attention. You see, poets take themselves very, very seriously. Nowhere better can this be seen than in the reaction to the For Godot anthology, put together by three self-described “poetry researchers”.

The personal contact details of one of the editors were distributed by a poetry community organizer. Comments flooded in demanding deletions (and yes, apparently lots of poets have Google Alerts for themselves). The word “anarcho-flarf” was invented for the new genre. Anarcho obviously referring to anarchy, and flarf meaning “avant garde poetry that mines the Internet with odd search terms, then distills the findings into verse”. The less offensively intelligent among us stuck to “pirated poetry”.

But with all due embarrassed blushes for some of my fellow poets, the fake anthology does raise some interesting questions. To what extent can one really control one’s public identity, and at what point does one’s name become public property? If one’s name is public property, does this by extension mean that the person is also fair game?

I’ve had a lot of secondhand rumours come back to me. Some have a vague basis in truth that has been distorted, while others are so far-fetched that they’re clearly the work of vicious minds. For instance, I am supposed to have posted pictures of myself in a bikini online, thereby blemishing my fitness as an appropriate role model for impressionable Indian girls. Trouble is, I have never owned a bikini. I am also supposed to have tried to murder my mother-in-law. Trouble is, I have also never owned a husband (and not because he was suitably disposed of too, either).

So I do see the point of some of the anger over this anthology. It is annoying, at the very least, to have one’s name misappropriated. Also, if the world is destroyed and all that remains is the Internet, those awful generated poems are going to be credited to us. We’ll be to aliens what Sarah Palin is to SNL.

But truth is, as far as the anthology is concerned, I don’t mind so much. I have a soft spot for guerrilla art, and it’s a backhanded honour in its own way, since piracy always means popularity. It’s also pretty unlikely that my name will be noticed amidst the 3,163 others, and I wouldn’t care about the hardcore stalkers who might find it anyway. It’s equally unlikely that I will ever again share space all at once with Dorianne Laux, Anna Akhmatova, Adrienne Rich, Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes. For the non-reader, suffice to say that they are also known as some of the frequent cameo roles in the modern poet’s wet dreams (and isn’t that too identity misappropriation?). And that little giggle is surely worth a terrible poem I didn’t write.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

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