67º ~ light showers, gray skies, multiple birdsongs, the privets all in bloom (ugh...privet blooms make privet berries, privet berries make privet seeds, privet seeds make baby privets which must be pulled)
I have been a fan of Simone Muench's work since I read Lampblack & Ash (Sarabande, 2005). Last week, I had the time to read Muench's latest, a chapbook of centos from Black Lawrence Press, Trace. (It looks like Sarabande has just published a full-length collection of these centos as well: Wolf Centos.)
A cento is typically defined as a collage poem made up of lines from other poems, sometimes by the same author, sometimes not.
In Trace, each poem is titled "Wolf Cento" and is listed in the table of contents by first line. The thread of the repeated title reinforces the theme throughout this book, as we are in the land of the wolf, the land of forests, huntsmen, and animal instinct. The closeness of animal instinct and what we think makes us human (thus above the animal fray) is at the heart of the matter.
In the back of the book, where I normally jot notes to myself about a collection, I have one small phrase: sound explosions. That sums it up for me, and here is an example from the first cento in Trace.
With flowers in their lapels, nine
howling wolves come hungering.
A surge of wet syllables
dangles from their mouths.
As alway, Muench delighted me with her images and I found myself underlining multiple lines on each page. And there, dear reader, is where I hesitated. Just whose words was I underlining? And with that, my mind went all wonky on the idea of authorship. At the end of the book is a two-page list, tightly packed, of "source materials," a list of names in alphabetical order with no titles of individual works and no connections to Muench's individual poems.
Let me pause to say that at the same time I was reading Muench's book, I was grading final essays in Comp I, essays in which students were meant to demonstrate synthesis of source material and proper MLA documentation. In other words, the time was ripe for me to question the cento.
As a composition instructor, of course, I am hell-bent on making sure my students give credit where credit is due, as an artist, this often conflicts with the idea of shared material and the way artists build new pieces of art from the work of those who have gone before. This butts right up against my work in paper collage, where I was so concerned about copyright that last year I consulted a copyright lawyer about the work I was doing.
The letter of the law is that the way I do my paper collages, I am violating the copyright held by every photographer, artist, and graphic designer who produced the image I cut up. The letter of the law is that when we write centos, unless the original work is out of copyright (and that is very rare, as even texts from Homer's time are often still in copyright for the translator, or the work of writers from the first half of the 20th century are often still in copyright for a family member or trustee), we are violating copyright.
Yet, the cento and the visual collage are clearly "new works." The way Muench smashes lines together or deftly weaves them into a new fabric is her art. The way she sees connections and makes for us as readers some wholly new experience is her art. Is that art by its nature something less than a poem in which she brings each word to the page on her own? Is the cento that much different from my own experience with word banks, in which I "steal" words from other writers and smash them together to form lines of my own? Where does the line exist between raw material and theft?
I know that in other cultures, the idea of individual ownership is not so onerous, but in the 21st century American world of "me, me, me" "look at what I did" the cento (and the collage) stands out as a challenge it seems, as a place to acknowledge the makers of the original pieces while at the same time enjoying and celebrating the new creation. And Trace is certainly a collection that I celebrate.