In my secret heart, I have always longed to live in the Victorian era. Through the rosy-tinted glow of idealized histories (the sort that neglect to mention things like head lice), I’ve imbibed stories of poets corresponding with ornithologists about the precise cadences of particular birds, or of carriage traffic jams in Albemarle Street before public lectures at the Royal Institution, or of the first print run of On The Origin of Species selling out in two days – of a time when science seemed to be a valued, respectable and essential part of all civilized laypeople’s repertoire. But as much as I like the notion of science’s elevation in popular culture, it’s the idea of interdisciplinary correspondence that for me holds the most romanticism.
My second novel, The Honest Look, is officially released on Saturday. During the course of finalizing the copy, I embarked on a few Victorian-style adventures in correspondence of my own, all involving poetry. The scientist protagonist in my novel is a closet poet, and the book is peppered with references. When I received a casual email from one of my contacts at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press in summer that we needed to start working on seeking permission for all of the quoted poetry not yet in the public domain, I had little idea how problematic this might be. We were about six weeks from going to press, and my contact set about the job with cheerful optimism. And soon slammed into a brick wall.
It turns out that many major publishers stipulate that permissions requests must come in writing – through the post – and that turnaround can be several months. When it comes to poetry, there are often scores of publishers peddling various editions, and of course we needed to secure multiple rights (US/Canada, UK, World etc.), which often are held by different publishers. When you send off a letter and no one answers, you start to wonder if anything will ever happen. As my contact reported back that she was having problems with four of my poems, even mooting the idea of possibly swapping them for older ones, I started to get very worried indeed. Some of the quotes were actually integral to the plot, and I didn’t see how I could replace them at such short notice. Coincidentally, that very week, Tony Woodlief wrote a wonderful piece in The Wall Street Journal about how publisher obstructionism – and high cost – had caused him to cut song lyrics from his book. In his words, “Modern copyright practices spur artists to unmoor our work from what has inspired us. Art–along with many artists supposedly protected by these laws–is arguably poorer for it.”
As a scientist, this was uncharted territory. When you need permission to reproduce a graph or figure, you just email a friendly person at the journal in question, and it’s all sorted easily. But scientists are also used to recalcitrant theories and obstacles. Perhaps that is why, ultimately, I enjoyed the challenge of cracking each of the poems in turn:
Quarry 1: Edna St Vincent Millay, Dirge Without Music
Essentiality, on a scale of 1 to 10: Enters the plot at a pivotal moment, contains key messages. Also, provides the title of the book. Although in one moment of panic I actually considered rewriting the scene so that the heroine is shown reading the poem but only paraphrasing from it in her head, seemed a last resort. So, a 9.
My father once had dealings with Edna’s sister Norma, who was looking after Edna’s estate when he sought permission to photograph Edna’s garden for the cover of an edition of her Complete Works. Sadly, Norma had long since passed away herself, so we had no personal leverage. After exhausting all leads with publishers of various editions, my contact at the Press did a bit of intense Googling and came across the Millay Society website, which turned out to hold the copyrights. A few emails later and permission had been granted – free of charge, an unexpectedly generous bonus.
Quarry 2: José Angel Buesa, Poema del Amor Ajeno
Essentiality, on a scale of 1 to 10: Absolutely pivotal to the plot – used as part of a romantic stratagem by one of the characters. So, a 10.
Buesa was an obscure 20th Century Cuban poet, so obscure that the only Wikipedia entry about him is in the Spanish version of the encyclopedia. Hours of research on further Spanish language websites failed to produce even the name of a publisher for various poems reprinted on the internet. Indeed, I was starting to worry that Buesa did not, in fact, actually exist. And then one morning, one of my Google searches threw up the name of a professor at Columbia University, Gustavo Pérez Firmat, in scholarly connection to Buesa. Pérez Firmat replied immediately to my email, telling me that the poem had originally appeared in Oasis, self-published by the poet in 1943. “I have a xerox copy of the book,” he wrote, “and there is no copyright indicated.” His view was that there was no potential liability in quoting from this poem, and that many collections had reprinted it freely over the years. Afterwards, we engaged in a pleasant exchange about the poet and his work, and he even checked over my translation of the poem – which fortunately was deemed sound (aside from one phrase which I’d subtly tweaked for the purposes of the narrative).
Quarry 3: Miroslav Holub, The Moth (translated from the Czech by D. Young and D. Hábová)
Essentiality, on a scale of 1 to 10: Not important for the plot, but featured in a key emotional moment – an absolutely stark and beautiful stanza, as well as humorous. Replaceable, but at a cost. So, a 6.
Having had zero luck with Faber & Faber, the publisher of my edition of The Rampage in which the poem appeared, and with Holub deceased, I decided to stalk the translators for clues. Lo and behold, David Young turned out to be an emeritus professor at my alma mater, Oberlin College. (Any Obies out there will know of its strong bonds of loyalty, and could imagine my sudden optimism.) Young replied to my email straightaway: “Well, shame on Faber and Faber for dragging their feet like that. They don’t even own it! Their book is out of print.” And, as luck would have it, Oberlin College Press itself had published Young’s translation of _The Moth _ in a collection entitled Intensive Care (1996). As the publisher and translator, Young was delighted to give us permission to quote the entire poem, for free. A few quick emails with OCP sealed the deal.
Quarry 4: Margaret Atwood, More and more
Essentiality, on a scale of 1 to 10: Utterly irreplaceable. Is delivered at a romantic climax of the book, and is one of those poems so eerily suited to the situation that one could not imagine anything else in its place. A definite 10.
This was the one poem I was sure I couldn’t crack. The publishers were monolithic imprints, their silence deafening. Unlike university professors and poet societies, one can’t just email someone like Margaret Atwood – although I did try to track down an email address of an agent, with no success. And then, as I sat there, utterly stumped, I suddenly thought: is Margaret Atwood on Twitter?
The answer was yes – with followers approaching 100,000. If I addressed a public tweet to her, asking for her help and intervention, how on earth would she ever see it in such a raging torrent of a timeline? Nevertheless, it was worth a punt. I put a lot of thought into those 140 characters, waited for when she was likely to be awake in Toronto, and then fired it off.
Within minutes, this:
Followed by a direct message, and then a lively email exchange in which I explained why it would be a crime to replace her poem with some ancient effort from a Dead White Male. Her reply kicked off with: “Just go for it. I will deal with the flak.” She explained the complicated copyright situation, sympathized with the impossibility of permissions quagmires in general, and then told me just to have my publisher her send a cheque for an appropriate amount and she’d divvy it up to the right places personally. A few further emails with her personal assistant secured the transaction.
The novel involved other bits of correspondence, too: the native Spanish and Dutch speakers who helped me select phrases to add color to the text – I speak both languages, but not very proficiently – and who helped persuade me to drop the accent mark from one of the character’s names, because that’s what long-term ex-pats tend to do. Then there were the scientists I consulted on the molecular biology of Alzheimer’s disease. And of course, the many dozen volunteers who read through various drafts, skewering me with heavy criticism and tough love. (My favorite line of marginalia, from Professor Clare Isacke, is still “Ludicrous! That is to say, utter tosh.”)
It’s been a great adventure, and a deeply satisfying meeting of minds. And all of it was greatly facilitated by methods of communication beyond the Victorians’ wildest dreams.