Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
—Charles Caleb Colton (British author, 1780-1832)
When I was earning a MFA in Poetry Writing at The New School in Manhattan, I had the privilege of studying with the poet and writer David Lehman. David had a certain way of teaching, bringing in poems and encouraging us to try the same things, and we started to sort of catch on. During one workshop class another student finally asked, “Is it ok to imitate somebody?”
To which David replied, “I think imitation is a fine way to learn how to write.” And he said it with his very dry tone of voice that meant he thought it was maybe the only way to learn how to write.
And when I thought about it, I realized that that’s what I had been doing my whole creative career, even back before I began writing, when I was playing music: I would find a bass player I liked, like Steve Harris from Iron Maiden, and learn all his songs so that my ‘style’ of playing began to be like Steve Harris, with superfast galloping right hand rhythms. But at the same time, I would be learning all of Geddy Lee from Rush’s bass lines, more melodic, sometimes actual bass melodies under ringing guitar chords and his style would also be incorporated into mine. The two styles (plus others—Jaco Pastorius, Billy Sheehan) would weave together into something new, something unique to me, something mine.
The same thing happened with the bands I was in. If we all liked the guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen, then our original songs sounded like Yngwie Malmsteen (lots of harmonic minor melodies). That was ok, because Yngwie Malmsteen got a lot of his exotic middle-eastern ‘chops’ from Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple. He even dressed and posed like Ritchie Blackmore! But he was also influenced by Jimi Hendrix, so had some weird psychedelic bluesy stuff thrown in there. Plus the speed of Paganinni’s violin works. But if we also liked Metallica, then we’d incorporate crunchy guitar rhythms, and growling vocals. Or Queensrÿche, with high , clear, singing and harmonies. That’s how garage bands work, really, by doing ‘cover’ songs of favorite bands, and filtering in aspects from all our favorite groups into our own original work. One of my favorite Metallica albums is Garage Inc., because it’s a two disk (back when there were discs) compilation of all the covers songs they ever recorded, giving fans an at least partial look at where they came from, from British kings of heavy metal Black Sabbath to obscure Los Angels hardcore band The Misfits, to the weird Danish singer King Diamond, but also alt-rock Australian singer Nick Cave, and even 70s pop icons Blue Oyster Cult and Queen.
Likewise, every writer has a long ‘family tree’ of influences. We’re all children of our literary parents, and grandparents, and great-grandparents! I could list dozens of influences, starting in fiction, from Kerouac, Hemingway, Marguerite Duras, J.D. Salinger, to Melville, Shakespeare, Cervantes. And the poets: Snyder, Ginsberg, Bukowski, O’Hara, back to Milton and Dante. Not to mention philosophers like Sartre, Nietzsche, Mencius, Chuang-tze, and Plato. Plus, who knows, maybe my favorite songwriters as well, like Lennon, Leonard, Dylan, Townes Van Zant. Or course everyone shares some influences and has their own. Some people can’t stand Bukowski, others love Virginia Woolf. That’s what makes us all unique voices. The most unoriginal writers are those who aren’t well read. If all you’ve read is the Harry Potter books, then all you’re going to write is a cheap imitation of JK Rowling.
By the time I was concentrating on writing in college I was starting with short, small poems, but when I took a contemporary poetry class from Diane Wakoski at Michigan State, she played us, among other things, a recording of Anne Waldman reciting her famous long poem “Fast Speaking Woman” (short excerpt below)
I’m the discerning woman
I’m the dissonant woman
I’m the anarchist woman
I’m the Bantu woman
I’m the Buddha woman
I’m the baritone woman
I’m the bedouin woman
Shortly after, I wrote a poem called “Slacker” (which was a buzzword at the time inspired in part by the Richard Linklater movie of that name) and though unfortunately I don’t have it any more (or maybe the Gentle Reader would say fortunately) I basically took Waldman’s premise of repeating a word at the end of different phrases and the energy that kind of repetition can (and in her case does) evoke. For example, “I’m a long haired slacker/I’m a guitar playing slacker.” etc. I’m not even doing myself justice for back then, but at the time it was a real jump in my writing, to longer lines and poems in general, as well as getting me into the use of ‘chanting’ and repetition as a way to build power, a technique I still use. And, Diane loved it and said I should send it out to literary magazines (I didn’t—at the time I was too intimidated by that process).
Another example of imitating somebody is when David Trinidad, another New School instructor, had us read some poems by Tim Dlugos. I really liked one called “Brian and Tim” which is basically two columns with a name at the top of each, comparing himself and his friend:
New York Massachusetts
D.C. New York
the mountains the ocean
St. Bonny’s LaSalle
graduate degree college dropout
ex-Catholic bad Catholic
Reheboth Beach Fire Island Pines
Montaigne Frank O’Hara
Rascals The Ninth Circle
sleeping with someone sleeping alone
going home with someone on going home with someone on
the second date the first meeting
introducing self before having sex before introducing
having sex self
young men boys
The Dry Look The Wet Look
a townhouse a highrise
an altar boy a priest
A Confederacy Our Mutual Friend
conservative Republican Sixties liberal
Jockey briefs boxer shorts
I loved, and still love, how much these two simple lists reveal about Dlugos and his friend/lover/partner, and how the juxtaposition shows reveals the differences and similarities in their personalities, and their relationship. I can imagine what the two of them were like, individually, and together. I liked this idea so much I tried it myself, only with a heterosexual version, between me and an old girlfriend:
Nan & Yohe
Squad 1 Squad 2
Rochester, MN Jackson, MI
“one of the guys” loner
beer orange juice
vegetarian for health vegetarian for moral reasons
portable stove meals peanuts & raisins
A Good Man is Hard To Find Trainspotting
Nick Cave Tool
Samantha from Bewitched Samantha from Bewitched
hot, dirty sex hot, dirty sex
Penthouse Leg Show
receiving massages giving massages
w/another man while I watched w/her and another woman
5 pull-ups 10 pull-ups
5 miles 3 miles
‘69 BMW convertible ‘87 Toyota pick-up
jeans & black t-shirt jeans & black t-shirt
Tevas Converse High-Tops
men’s boxer briefs (black) men’s boxer briefs (black)
This is not to say it’s a great poem or not, but to demonstrate how I wrote my own ‘take’ on Dlugos’ idea. Trying ideas out in different form. Or trying out a form with different ideas.
David Lehman also had an interesting ‘reverse imitation’ exercise, which he called “destroying a poem.’ The idea being to take a poem that you hate (and believe me after getting an MFA degree there will be plenty poems you hate) and making it your own. For example, take all the nouns and put in their opposites. Or take the style of a poet, say simple sentences ending with periods, and write sentences dripping with sarcasm, mocking the subject matter, and end them with periods. A quick, if not profound, example being when one classmate took William Carlos William’s poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” which he hated, and changed the first two words from “So much” to “Jack shit”, so it came out, “Jack shit depends / on a red wheelbarrow / glazed with rain water / beside the white chickens.”
I myself didn’t care for the poetry of Susan Wheeler (also a teacher at the New School), nor the young L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poet groupies that followed her around and thought any other kind of poetry was shit (though that wasn’t her fault)(and yes I have issues...) so I ‘destroyed’ a poem of hers, “What Memory Reveals.” First the original:
What Memory Reveals
Angels, pulled into light—provoking the air, fall
here. You are served a fallow breakfast;
you must stir your juice. Outside, on Columbus Avenue,
a momentary lunge convenes a trafficked burst.
This is not what was intended when they took you to your first
photo session, swaddled. But intent is a ruinous composite.
There were several years of careful steps across
lower Manhattan. A looming sail in a nightmare,
a pool hall, crisscrossed by rudimentary reliefs.
Mayonnaise in a refrigerator door.
You stepped forward, into light, onto a green lawn dotted with tumblers
and the hum of Minnesota cicadas. Everywhere a firm rejoinder waved.
He whispered the simplest, pettiest of comforts. Your dress alit.
A fat man bends beneath the beaker’s proximity.
Freakish, the two that burst into your room where you
were gathering privacy frantically, phonetically.
Burnish (they are flying) regulation (appointments a
calamity of rosewood)—or perhaps they said
furnish the nation. This left a hole, that left a lacking,
and he, the dog, had it, too. (3)
Since we had just read the short story by Hemingway, “A Clean Well Lighted Place,” I stole the idea of the waiter spouting off using the word nada in every sentence to show his disdain for society, and replaced every noun, or noun phrase, in Wheeler’s poem with the word ‘nothing.’ There was the initial satisfaction of having done that, but then a weird thing happened: As I revised the poem, taking out some phrases, shortening it up, tightening some lines, it ended up being a poem I liked, which was published in FENCE:
What Nothing Reveals
(for Susan Wheeler)
Freakish, nothing burst into nothing where you
were gathering nothing frantically, phonetically.
Nothing is flying, Nothing a
calamity of nothing–or perhaps they said
nothing. This left nothing, that left nothing
and he, nothing, had it, too.
Now nothing rearranges nothing.
On the right there is nothing, nothing
or nothing, in a bright and terrifying nothing.
Nothing altered nothing. Pressed to the rear of
nothing toward nothing, you started with nothing
with nothing that troubles you still. Like nothing
who only dreamed, you can’t shake nothing.
Nothing, straightened now, is white against nothing.
Nothing confirms. Nothing replies.
There is nothing like nothing.
Nothing drops out.
You pay for nothing.
There is nothing to fill nothing,
nothing yawing in nothing
There’s no real difference between ‘be influenced by’ and ‘imitate’ except maybe how far in the past the verb refers to. Influence may have the feeling of taking a part, or trace, of someone’s work. Imitation sounds negative, derivative, like the phrase ‘a cheap imitation.’ I guess the fear people might have in admitting they are ‘imitating’ (versus telling themselves they're coming up with completely brand new ideas) is ending up like the Salieri character in the movie Amadeus: That in comparison with a genius like Mozart you would feel like a second-rate hack. But even though that movie is one of my favorites, there are things left untalked about, like that Mozart had to play hours and hours when he was young, hours and hours of music by other composers. Mozart did not come from a vacuum. Still, a better word might be ‘emulation,’ which, I feel, carries with it the idea of caring about the other thing/work/artist. There’s certainly no such thing as a cheap emulation!
I don't think we even always consciously imitate. In ‘real’ life, at work for example, if you like Manager A, but can’t stand manager B, when you get a chance of managing yourself, you end up imitating the things that Manager A did. But then you also bring in other ‘influences’, say your soccer coach in high school. There is even a negative form of imitation—if you don’t like Manager B, you avoid doing the things Manager B does. You may do the opposite, or something different. Anything but imitate what Manager B does. Again, maybe not consciously, but you don’t learn how to be a good manager out of the blue. Thinking about another person and how they would handle situations, in pop culture becomes the bumper sticker What Would Jesus/Buddha Do? But why not? In this case, you might call what we are doing ‘learning by example’ but that sounds a lot like imitation, though ‘imitation’ might not outright carry the idea of ‘learning’ attached to it, but it’s there: you can’t imitate anything very well without understanding how it works.
Another example of emulation in my own writing is when I read this Kim Addonizios’s poem “The Matter” in APR, which later appeared in her book, _____:
Some men break your heart in two...
--Dorothy Parker, "Experience"
Some men carry you to bed with your boots on.
Some men say your name like a verbal tic.
Some men slap on an emotional surcharge for every erotic encounter.
Some men are slightly mentally ill, and thinking of joining a gym.
Some men have moved on and can't be seduced, even in the dream bars you meet them in.
Some men who were younger are now the age you were then.
Some men aren't content with mere breakage, they've got to burn you to the ground.
Some men you've reduced to ashes are finally dusting themselves off.
Some men are made of fiberglass.
Some men have deep holes drilled in by a war, you can't fill them.
Some men are delicate and torn.
Some men will steal your bracelet if you let them spend the night.
Some men will want to fuck your poems, and instead they will find you.
Some men will say, "I'd like to see how you look when you come," and then hail a cab.
Some men are a list of ingredients with no recipe.
Some men never see you.
Some men will blindfold you during sex, then secretly put on high heels.
Some men will try on your black fishnet stockings in a hotel in Rome, or Saran Wrap you
to a bedpost in New Orleans.
Some of these men will be worth trying to keep.
Some men will write smugly condescending reviews of your work, making you remember those lines by Frank O'Hara:
I cannot possibly think of you/other than you are: the assassin/ of my orchards.
Some men, let's face it, really are too small.
Some men are too large, but it's not usually a deal breaker.
Some men don't have one at all.
Some men will slap you in a way you'll like.
Some men will want to crawl inside you to die.
Some men never clean up the matter.
Some men hand you their hearts like leaflets,
and some men's hearts seem to circle forever: you catch sight of them on clear nights,
bright dots among the stars, and wait for their orbits to decay, for them to fall to earth.
I loved it, loved its energy and humor and sexiness. Addonizio too seems influenced by, and emulating, Ann Waldman, with the use of repetition as both an anchor and a way to build energy, but with maybe a little Bukowski grunginess. Not to mention that she’s taking an idea from (or ‘riffing’ on) Dorothy Parker. I was inspired, immediately wanting to try something similar—it seemed obvious that a reply was needed, a response, almost as a dialogue/discussion with Addonizio. That, if there were a poem with (true) generalizations about men, then a man should reply back with, “Oh yeah? Well, some women....” So the next night, after letting the idea burble in my brain a bit, I wrote the first draft of what became “You might,” which was eventually published in RATTLE:
Some women let you feed them chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream spoonful by spoonful
Some women let you brush their hair before going to bed
Some women seem so terrified of contact you feel sad
Some women wonder why you are so scared of contact
Some women like to be alone, but not a lot
Some women have good relationships with their mothers though I don’t know if they’re in the majority
Some women dress sexy then get mad when you want to fuck them
Some women just laugh at you
Some women write poems you want to fuck
Some women will tell you stories while you masturbate even though they would rather you fuck them
Some women will fuck you
Some women seem to decide whether they want to marry you or not in the first month
Some women get confused when you don’t want to
Some women don’t want children but will rarely admit it in public
Some women have children alone because fuck it
Some women don’t watch tv, but not a lot
Some women go to movies alone, though not a lot
I don’t know any woman who will go backpacking alone
Some women play guitar or saxophone and you want to be with them just for that, even if they have a history of insanity in their family
Some women eat spaghetti with chopsticks
Some women smoke pot daily
Some women talk about writing screenplays
Some women actually do
Some women marry rich men because they think the men will be good providers
Some women even tell themselves that they love these men
And when they eventually divorce they marry other rich men for the same reason
And though some women might marry men who earn less money, this causes problems
Some women wanted to be vampires when they were girls
Some wanted to be mermaids
Some wanted to be catwomen with purple fur and tails
Some women act more like girls than some girls, and versa vice, and both are more attractive because of that though you’re not sure you want to be with either
Many women will take any excuse to skinny-dip
Some women like sex though many need some catching up to do
Some women have more porn on their computers than you
Some women take their clothes off for money, though these women are not recommended
Some women are more attractive when they have a boyfriend or husband
Some women bake pumpkin pies and carry them on the plane as a present when they visit you in New York
Some women sound relieved when you call and say you just can’t move to Seattle to be with them
Some women keep trying to interest you even after you have moved out, which hurts more than the moving out
Some women have been fucked (up) by their fathers and will never be right and it’s not your fault though it maybe seems like it and feeling sorry for them is not a reason to stay
Some women are fine with being with you for the month you spend in Salamanca and won’t even necessarily cry when you say goodbye in Madrid, though you might
Some women like men
Some are scared of men
Some seem to feel both at the same time, which makes you feel weird
Some women will wait for you to decide to get your life together, though not a lot, and not forever anymore, if that was ever true
Some women are right there, visible, with bruises
just like yours
I used the phrase ‘some men’ as the anchor for the chant/rant, just like Addonizio. I also used her idea of the title being a phrase from the poem itself. I included sexy things and quirky things, and quirky sexy things, about women I’d known (Biblically or not). I also wanted to my poem to end, not abruptly, but gradually, with some gentle pauses, like Addonizio’s. I like that the whole poem stands on its own, but that knowing about Addonizio’s adds to the playful ‘gender war’ effect.
I base my teaching and all my writing classes on this idea of imitation/emulation. I’ve used both of these poems into my own classrooms, creative writing and composition, and even developmental writing, to show them my own writing process, to show them this is how writing works. I always have them try writing their own ‘some men/some women’ poems as well, and they love it, I think because Addonizio gives them ‘permission’ to get funny and weird and talk about sex and gender (though there are variations, like ‘some people’ and ‘some teachers,’ for example).
Whatever word we actually use, imitation/emulation, we actually already use the concept in our writing classes, from creative writing to ‘composition.’ When we have our students read sample essays, we are not only giving them ideas for what to write about, but how to write them, from basics like how to write dialogue, to if/when to use humor or not. In fact, I’ve always thought reading is at least as important as writing itself in improving writing. This is harder to get composition students to do, unfortunately, and especially with my developmental writing students, because many don’t really read that much (no coincidence that people who don’t read enter college behind in all their subjects). I can get my students to write in class, they accept they they’ll have to do that, but to do the same with reading, to have them come to class and make them sit there for a half hour and read something, just doesn’t work as well. The best I can hope for is short spurts, poems or sections of essays. I can’t ever guarantee that they’ll consciously try other people’s ideas, but I do guarantee that those ideas go into their brains, with either positive or negative opinion of it, and that it will come out at some point. Writing teachers talk about developing our ‘voice’ in writing—this is how we do it. Whether imitation or emulation, both come from inspiration, from liking something so much you ‘take it in,’ you breathe it in. And, like breathing, it’s just something we do naturally, and something that gives us life, helps us grow, and get better. We breathe out, and that’s where our voice comes from—from what we have breathed in. Our voice a combination of the voices that have come before us.
Addonizio, Kim. ______
Dlugos, Tim. powerless. London and New York: Serpent’s Tail High Risk Books, 1996.
Waldman, Anne. Fast Speaking Woman. San Francisco: City Lights, 1975.
Wheeler, Susan. Bag ‘o’ Diamonds. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1993.
Yohe, John. “You might” RATTLE #29. Los Angeles, CA. Summer 2008.
Yohe, John. “Nan & Yohe.” Unpublished.
Yohe, John. “What Nothing Reveals.” THE HAT #7. 2007. Also appeared in: What Nothing Reveals. Ann Street Press 2010: Ann Arbor, Michigan.