This is the story of a runaway poem.
About 15 years ago, I’m lying on my back getting the wax ripped off my legs and trying not to pass out when the woman doing the ripping says, “You were on the radio this morning, how nice!” I looked at her thinking she was mistaking me for someone else.
“No, it was you. That man in the morning that reads poems, he read yours.”
“Not possible,” I say, realizing she meant Garrison Keillor, “I’d know about it.”
“Yes, yes. Erica-Lynn Gambino—he read your poem.”
So I phone the local NPR station, and sure enough that morning’s Writer’s Almanac poem was mine. I think: you have to get permission to read someone’s poem as part of a national radio show, right? Apparently not.
Flash back to 1989, where I was an undergrad at N.Y.U.’s Gallatin School, studying under the wonderful Lorie Hartman. You did a lot of tutorials then (maybe you still do), as Gallatin followed the Oxford University don system. Lorie being my writing advisor at the time, we decided to do a poetry tutorial. I had been writing a lot of poetry (as one does when one is in college and a lit major), and Lorie agreed I could study Sylvia Plath, Jim Morrison, and Galway Kinnell, but only if I threw in William Carlos Williams.
I wasn’t a fan of Williams, truth be told. His poetry never affected me very much. The mythologized story of his having been a struggling insurance salesman in New Jersey for most of his career was unnerving and it seemed like bad karma to read his work (he was a physician, actually, and excelled at both medicine and poetry, like my advisor at Bennington College, the celebrated writer Arturo Vivante, with whom I studied for my MFA).
Lorie said, “You have to read ‘This is Just to Say’ and then we’re going to talk about it. It’s my favorite.”
So I read it. Alone, in my apartment. It was a place I’d shared with my boyfriend of 4 years, whom I’d just recently had the guts to kick out (tumultuous relationship involving drug abuse, other women, etc., long story). And something clicked with that poem. I came to our next tutorial with a response I’d written to Williams’ loving but sardonic apology of plums:
This is Just to Say
(for William Carlos Williams)
I have just
asked you to
get out of my
Lorie thought the poem quite clever, and Williams gained a little spot in my heart (somewhere above Eliot but below Dickenson).
Some years later, the poet Dana Gioia informed me that Canadian editors Katherine McAlpine and Gail White were putting together an anthology of women poets’ responses to male poets’ work. He urged me to send them my “This is Just to Say, for William Carlos Williams.” The editors loved it, and included it in the 1996 anthology “The Muse Strikes Back.” http://www.amazon.com/The-Muse-Strik...
Years went by, and I was mainly writing novels and short stories, as well as working as a journalist and feature writer for various and sundry outlets. Poetry was put on the back burner. I also got married and took my hubby’s last name (another long story). It was around this time that I was getting my legs waxed in a little salon in Southampton, L.I. near where we lived, and found out that somehow Garrison Keillor (or his staff) had stumbled upon my poem in this Canadian anthology.
Note to all poets: Garrison Keillor does not need your permission to read your poem on air nor, apparently, does he need your permission to re-publish it in his anthology “Good Poems.” Because that is exactly what happened next. http://www.amazon.com/Good-Poems-Gar...
And when I called his office to nicely inquire as to how Mr. Keillor was able to read my poem and re-publish it in his own anthology without my knowledge (and publish it under my maiden name, which had not been my name in 4 years), the answer was “implied permission.” Meaning: if Keillor reads a poem he likes, the very act of him discovering it is “implied permission” to re-publish. Hmm.
Well, that’s all right, because who would really turn down the honor of being associated with Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac show, or his book based on it? And, yes there is something about hearing that strange, shaky voice reading your work after saying, “Today is the birthday of…” that makes your heart jump a little with pride.
And now comes the really strange part. Jump ahead a few more years, and the internet is a widely-traveled civilization where people share everything. You can look up books you thought were out of print, and poems you might like. Only, if you’re me, you are too busy reading actual paper-based books, and writing your own books, to ever think to Google your own name (was there even a Google? I remember some other search engine involving a dog mascot that was more popular then).
By 2003, unbeknownst to you, the poet, your little poetry exercise for college (the one anthologized and read on NPR without your knowledge, the one you only gave permission ONCE to publish, back in 1995), appears in 3,000 entries on Google. Not only that, but it—your poem (not Williams’)—is now being responded to by other people in their own poetic response. In English. In Japanese. In German. In Italian. As in: A Worldwide Response to Erica-Lynn Gambino Huberty’s Response to William Carlos Williams.
I discovered this because, just prior to “Googling” my own work, I received the most interesting letter from a composer in Ohio. He wanted permission (actual permission, with official legal document enclosed) to base a choral piece on my poem, “This Is Just to Say for William Carlos Williams.” I was taken aback: a choral piece? From this shitty little comedic jab at my now long-gone Ex? Was he kidding? He was not.
At this point, my husband—who didn’t even believe NPR had used it until he heard the recording they sent—is dumbfounded but concerned. What could we do to get people to at least ASK ME (not pay me) to use the poem, so that I had some control over my own work? I mean, Just BLOODY F—ING ASK ME!
Several friends have suggested I have t-shirts made, and mugs that print the poem on it, with my name; my own website devoted to the poem—this could be my path to fame! But I’m on my fifth novel, my umpteenth short story, showing my fine art, and still freelance writing. Never mind my two kids. I have time for mugs like I have time for another migraine.
Every once in a while, I’ll Google the poem and see what’s doing with it. People are still discovering it and re-tweeting and re-blogging it. Somewhere, someone has probably anthologized it a few more times. On the Amazon page for “Good Poems” it’s one of the few in Keillor’s collection that people comment on.
It’s vaguely annoying to have it re-published with my maiden name, but many people have apparently figured out that I am me, and are now publishing it under my current last name/nom de plum. Which makes this all the more nefarious, actually, because somewhere during the publication of my own books and articles and essays, people began to figure out I was a published writer (and therefore deserved the courtesy of JUST BLOODY F—INK ASKING!).
This morning, a friend of mine sent me an email that said, “Why aren’t you here?” with a link to a Jezebel article by Kate Dries (http://jezebel.com/this-is-just-t...). I don’t know how I slipped past this latest comment on Williams’ poem. Or the This American Life’s story on it. Perhaps it’s been so many decades of responding to my response to Williams, that no one remembers how it all started. No matter. It was only just a little college exercise…