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Intertextuality: Can I be Original?

Madonna Delfish, Fall 2005

My writing as a poet has been heavily influenced by writers like Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, and Alice Walker and Slam poets such as Black Thought and the Last Poets. These writers write and speak about the struggles and uniqueness of Black culture. Their individual experiences and political stances as well as the influences of other artists are evident in their work. For example, in Giovanni’s poem “Revolutionary Music,” she quotes some of the lyrics from Sam Cooke and James Brown to illustrate her personal views on racism and the equal rights movements. Hughes, in his piece titled “Message to the President,” skillfully incorporates the political events of his time into his poem, using it to sardonically articulate his views on racial inequalities. Black Thought and the Last Poets utilize jazz and urban hip hop along with their idea of Black to relay their message.

In writing my individual poems, I find it difficult not to incorporate the style of the writers mentioned. I gained my consciousness of Black culture and struggle through the words of these writers, so their ideas have no choice but to be reflected in my own writing. I wrote a piece titled “Books not Bombs,” which originated during the time the troops were being sent to Iraq to fight a war that was unnecessary in my opinion. The students at my high school and schools around the city were walking out of class to protest in city hall; however, we were told that we would be suspended by the principal if we left. I felt that the administration was silencing our voices by holding us with the threat of suspension. In this poem, I used a line from a local pop song from the group OutKast: “They’re throwing bombs over Baghdad, but what about the bombs that are exploding right here, right now.” Using this line mimics Giovanni’s and Hughes’s incorporation of musical lyrics of the time to make the piece relatable to the intended audience. I was also influenced by the social political climate that was being hotly debated at the time (war). My particular social influence is reflective of Robert P. Yagelski’s essay, “Who’s Afraid of Subjectivity.” In his essay, Yagelski used Donald Murray’s experience of writing and rewriting a poem, which was reflective of his war years and the political controversy of his time. As Yagelski puts it, the politics of Murray’s time “provided impetus to write the poem and helped shape the very content of the poem” (213).

One of the most recent poems that I have written was greatly influenced by what I see in my community, in school, and in the underlying political messages that are not articulated by the authority. These are people who have the power to inflict change on a mass scale, for example, politicians and teachers. The idea steamed from a conversation that I had with a white female who used the word Ghetto to describe a Black female, wearing what appeared to be a work overcoat, standing at the light with two children. I explained to her that the term Ghetto might mean that this women might be a victim to welfare, she might be permanently molded into public housing, she might need her check to go from hand to mouth, she may at times have no food to eat, and her children may be growing up in a scene of violence and the poverty of living in the slums of the city.

After I articulated to her what the term Ghetto meant to a struggling single parent Black female, I went home and put my pen to paper. “Yo! That’s like so…so Ghetto.” I used her exact words to begin my poem, along with the images from a newspaper article written in the Metro stating the statistics of the young lives lost to violent crimes. I made reference to my personal experiences and observations of what a single mother has to suffer through, “ they say who feels its knows it . . . have you ever felt the hunger pains of the working single Black mother who cries at night because her babies are cold and screaming.” My use of intertextuality is clearly evident within these lines; I used social and personal events of my time along with commonly used clichés to help utilize Nancy Sommers’ morphed theory on using authority “…to use them and make them anew…by confronting these authorial voices, I find the power to understand and gain access to my own ideas” (29). The authority in my piece is evident with the use of quotes from the newspaper and personal contact with the Ghetto life. Instead of restating a common theme found in Black literature, I used that influence to help me formulate my own words and ideas about Black struggle.

This particular poem is not made up of other texts directly; however, it does illustrate traces of influence from the delivery style used by Black Thought and the Last Poets. Their use of jazz and sing-song conveyance is evident in my piece when it is recited. I used the concept from one of the Last Poets’ piece, “America is a Terrorist.” This piece highlights Black struggle in White America and the effects of Black on Black crime. Putting it in Yagelski’s terms, “In other words the self that defines “me” is socially constituted self, and the social and cultural aspects of that self may have much more to do with how I write and some set of cognitive skills” (29). Yagelski’s quote solidifies the fact that the writer does not and cannot write without being directly or indirectly influenced by other writers and the social times. His quote also reflects how I cannot see myself as the isolated writer that creates original ideas. This single quote shows my writing becomes a product of borrowed subjects that I use to recreate the original ideas while forming my own by adding my experiences.

The fact that I use other writers and social influences in my writing does not indicate that there is some sort of dual ownership because like me, Hughes, Giovanni and the earlier mentioned artists were all influenced by their contemporaries and ancestors. If writing ownership is being questioned, is it fair to say that we all are some how plagiarizing? I think that it is impossible to write without allowing our personal views, biases, experiences and social influences to seep into the pages. In terms of my individual ownership, I know that what I have written is mine, but in the same way I have to acknowledge that I have been influenced by other writers. If these writers did not exist (along with their work), I would not know how and what context to write on; to be honest, I probably would not be in the major that I am in and writing as a passion would be non-existent in my world view.

If we are to question the individual ownership of every writer, we would all be seen as plagiarists. As artists and professionals, borrowing ideas and using them to form your own world view in a text cannot be wrong and should not be challenged. Can we really imagine writing as it is today without the content and influence from other writers along with the social and political climate of the time? Where would the writer then receive the incentive to write? Would discourse be the same if the writer was not a social being who is influenced? Within writing, I think that the writer’s originality comes from what is identified as personal and individual to them. The experiences that show up on the page are personal and unique to the writer and that in my opinion is where a personal stamp of ownership can be administered to the art.

Works Cited

Giovanni, Nikki. Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni. New York: Morrow, 1996.
Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Ed. Arnold Rampersad.
      New York: Vintage, 1994.
Sommers, Nancy. “Between the Drafts.” College Composition and Communication 43 (1992): 23-31.
Yagelski, Robert. “Who’s Afraid of Subjectivity?: The Composing Process and Postmodernism or
     a Student of Donald Murray Enters the Age of Postmodernism.” Taking Stock: The Writing
     Movement in the 90’s
. Ed. Lad Tobin. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1994. 203-17.