About a year ago, I was involved in a conversation with a stranger.
It was one of those spontaneous talk sessions in a library.
We didn't know each other, but we began to exchange travel stories
about Russia. After an hour, we traded email addresses and parted
ways. We corresponded one or two times, and then, as usually
happens, our relationship ended.
As the months passed, however, one of stories she told continued
to haunt me, which was a sure sign that I needed to write about
it. Like Tracy Emin, "I want to take from life," and
a few weeks ago, I decided to draft a poem. One of the first
things I did was to dedicate it to her, using only her first
name. I did this because, at some level, I knew that I should
As I worked on the poem, it developed into one with potential
for publication. Now I am faced with an ethical dilemma. Am
I able to submit the poem to journals, or will I be infringing
on her privacy? Does her story belong only to her? What is my
obligation to her?
I could think about the situation in several ways. I could
say, "Hey, she said all these things in public to three
strangers, so her stories are fair game." However, that
seems unethical to me. Standard practice when including something
in a poem or article that has been said to me, is to contact
the person and to provide a copy of the piece to allow him or
her to see how I have created something from our interaction
and "throw[n] it back into the world," as Tracy Emin
said so aptly in the above quotation. Unfortunately, in this
case, all of my attempts to email and Google the young woman
have been unsuccessful.
I could do as they do in "Law and Order." When producing
an episode that is "ripped from the headlines," they
change three details. So, instead of Russia, it could be
but wait. It has to be Russia! An incident like this could only
happen there. It tells the reader something about their government's
treatment of the poor.
I could change the gender of the storyteller, but wait! Her
experience has everything to do with the poem's speaker thinking,
"These things happen to men, not to young women."
I could change the setting of the poem. Instead of a library,
it could be
No, wait! Surrounded by books filled with
history and literature, the library is the perfect place to
open up and tell stories. My argument to keep the details as
they were has everything to do with authenticity. And if a poem
doesn't sound authentic, it will fail.
I could ignore the dilemma, send it out and hope that if it
is accepted, my muse wouldn't read it because who reads poetry
anyway? or she would read it and be thrilled by the transformation
of this event in her life. But here I am back at the threshold
of ethics again. Whether she sees it or not, whether she is
happy or not, am I not obliged in some way to let her know what
I have done with her story?
If you have read this far, you probably have already decided
to be wary of talking to strangers (if your mother hasn't already
drilled that into you). You might add to that, "especially
if the stranger is a writer." (Yes, I did tell the young
woman I was a writer on that day in the library.)
Until this dilemma is resolved more than it is at this moment,
I will continue to work on the poem, but I will not send it
out. If you have any opinions or suggestions about what I should
do, please write to me at email@example.com.
Next month's Judy's Journal will be dedicated to the making
of a series of paintings. It's a phenomenon that I have experienced
and written about in June 2005, when I wrote of my "Kinship
with Rocks." This time, I will write about "Pulses,"
a series I began in April and can't seem to stop painting. Ah,
obsession-isn't it grand?