In grade six I did my first act of plagiarism. I entered a poetry contest with a Halloween poem that my sister had written seven years ago, when she was in elementary school. It was a terrifying poem that took place in what I imagined was the backyard of my house. It scared me so much I thought it was excellent. It was excellent. But it wasn’t mine.
I don’t know why I did it. I loved writing. My sister was the artist; I was the writer. She wrote too; I drew too. But that poem had affected me in such an important way the first time I read it years ago that I wanted other people to feel the same way I did. And I couldn’t write something that good. So I submitted it to my teacher and she submitted it (maybe) to a poetry contest we never heard back from.
I remember that English teacher so well, just like every other English teacher I’ve had. I was so receptive in those classes, so hungry to learn. I remember she once wrote “plausible” on the board and we insisted that she had gotten the word “possible” wrong. I remember she had us write journals and I told her everything. I remember the thing about how she never sent in our Halloween poems.
I had my students write Halloween poems this month. I thought I would let them freestyle it until I found this, a poem by Neil Gaiman called “Instructions.” So the students each wrote their own instructions. Everyone’s poem was incredible. Everyone’s poem was frightening. It’s amazing what foolproof, creative productions can be made from copying a poetic form. I believe now in haiku, in sonnet, in a way I hadn’t before. I understand the merit in mimicking.
But why did I just take the poem as it was? Why didn’t I play around with it and make it my own? What I remember clearest is the feeling of getting away with something, which I soon after realized was not something anyone cared about. It was the opportunity I missed. I never wrote a scary poem.
I just read The Mist by Stephen King after being haunted by the movie version for two years. The book version is less awful because of a different ending. But it’s also more terrifying because it’s written in words and words are what move me. It struck me in both that novella and the poems of my students that what is scary lies in the detail. It is the image that frightens, not the idea.
Maybe I was scared to write the poem. I’ve always been afraid of lights off in the bathroom – being in the presence of a mirror when I can’t see myself in it. I’ve always been afraid of ghosts and witches, things behind me in the dark and in front of me when I open my eyes from sleep. I’ve always been afraid of the moment where I set my feet on the ground off the side of my bed, always been afraid of stairwells and the backseat and empty houses. But those are all just ideas until you place them in a poem, until you give them life through the power of a verb, the tint of an adjective, the smile of properly placed punctuation. And that’s when the chills run up the spine. That’s when poems come to life. That’s when you become so manipulated by the magic of words at the age of 12 that you do something you know in your gut is the wrong thing, all for the sake of literature.