Plagiarizing the Dead: On Poetry and Friendship -The Toast

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9781770412026In the end, the hybrid thing is like a calf strung in wire, 
and we’re pelting it with small bags of carrots. 
It’s dying because we refused to validate it 
in the way we were expected to. 

This appears in a book of poems with my name on the cover. I’m pretty sure I didn’t write this, but I don’t know who else it belongs to. There’s no one else around to take credit. 

In 2009, I got an email from my friend Samantha that began like this: “So I had another dream last night with you in it. Probably because I saw you in the afternoon. I just thought I should LET YOU KNOW.”

I’d known Samantha for two years, but we’d become proper friends only recently, and too late in undergrad to do much about it. It was more missed connection than BFF. I was going to Toronto to intern at a magazine, and she would head to Vancouver in the fall for grad school. 

Samantha’s email prodded at something strange and semi-hysterical in me. I sat on the kitchen floor of my apartment with my laptop propped on my knees trying to read the email aloud to my roommate, giving one of those terrible performances where you laugh too hard to be understood. I got it out eventually, but my roommate didn’t see what was so funny. I kept taking stabs at an explanation: “She’s insane! I love it so much!” Even at the time, I knew I wasn’t saying much. 

There was just something about the way Samantha had described her dream that got to me. I couldn’t even think about the email without laughing. One of those weird, crazy-person laughs that creeps up on you at inconvenient times—grocery store, shower, subway, gym. The kind of violent emotional reaction that has no referent in the world of other humans around you, marking you quickly as solitary and obscure and unsuited to be in public. 

A week after I got the email, I move to Toronto, and two months after that, Samantha died in a car accident. Even when a thing isn’t on purpose, often you can trace its source. This wasn’t like that. What little I know about the accident explains only why it shouldn’t have happened, not why it did: it was a light summer night, no common Nova Scotian fog, no other cars on the road, no alcohol. Samantha was asleep in the back, belted in. No one else was seriously hurt. 

In an absence of higher powers, there are still ways find order, and even answers, from the world itself. The shreds and scraps of what we know have a way of finding one another, lining up in such a way so that, at a squint, something like continuity comes bleeding through. Here is a cause, here an effect. This is foreshadowing, this aftermath. And then something comes along, and all the plot points hovering near it fly apart in a scatter, and you remember—or discover for the first time—that an event is only whatever happens. It isn’t causal or personal, isn’t a lesson or a sign. It doesn’t mean anything at all. 

For a long time after she died, I returned to Samantha’s email constantly, with the kind of diligent, almost resigned obsession I usually reserve for Facebook stalking people I’ve slept with. The more I read Samantha’s message, the more it seemed like there was some kind of prophecy in it, some kind of warning I was supposed to understand. I turned to encyclopedias of dream symbols. (Lots of entries for “calf,” not so many for “pelting small bags of carrots.”) I felt like I was sliding my hand along a wall in the dark over and over, feeling for a switch. I didn’t think Samantha’s message was funny anymore. I thought that it was vital. 

My life in Toronto went on. I got older than Samantha had been. I worked serving jobs,  went to grad school, scraped together a manuscript of poems. I began to think that Samantha’s dream could be transformed by calling it something else—like, say, poetry. As though a little enjambment would reveal whatever meaning I’d been looking for (yes, this is exactly as lame as it sounds). 

When I described the genesis of this “found poem” to an editor, he suggested I go back and try to write it on my own, without reference to the original source material. It was good advice, and I tried to take it, but by then Samantha’s words were branded on my skull too deeply to shake off. When I re-wrote the poem as my own, what came out was still, basically, the original email, altered and abbreviated only slightly. I put it in my book anyway, giving it the title “Some Final Explanatory Thoughts” and the vaguely crediting sub-line “after Samantha Li.” 

Samantha was brilliant, funny, and humane, with a mind like no one else I’ve met, and I want to say this poem keeps something of her in the world. I want to say it’s a tribute. But really, if you cut away all the swirling, attractive embellishments left by whatever it is we call “creative process,” or homage, or even grief, what remains is this: I stole an email from a dead girl because it was better than anything I could have written myself. Samantha’s strange, wonderful message has kept a power over me I’ve never been able to shake; it’s made me by turns giddy and terrified, kept me up at night, sent me into fits. It has never been either final or explanatory. It has always been beyond me. 

The cliché goes that authors are always asked where they get their ideas. If anyone ever asks this of me, that I account for the provenance of what I call my work, I have an answer that is both so banal and so completely, truly shameless that even I am unnerved by it: I get my ideas anywhere at all. I get them anywhere I can. 

Suzannah Showler was a finalist for the 2013 Canadian National Magazine Award for Best New Writer. Her first collection of poetry, Failure to Thrive, was released spring 2014 from ECW Press. She will soon be moving to Ohio.

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