In which I correspond

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.

The Honest Look (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press) is now available:
Direct from publisher

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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23 Responses to In which I correspond

  1. Frank Norman says:

     Ah, copyright.  My (not) favourite topic. The law is wonderful vague, using terms like "substantial", which doesn’t mean what you might think, and "fair use" which is nowhere defined and anyway is different in US and UK usage.  It comes down to risk management:  what is the risk

    that what you want to do is infringing
    that the copyright owner will find out
    that the copyright owner will mind and/or take action

    If you’re publishing something commercially it just isn’t worth taking the risk. Using a short quote in an academic context it may be possible to claim it’s covered by the "review or criticism" clause.  
    We librarians have a secret email list where we can ask questions and get advice on copyright issues like this without prejudice. It makes interesting reading.

  2. Bob O'Hara says:

    Had you had any trouble, you could have sent a letter pointing out that the albino is based on a real life person, but unlike Dan Brown you decided not to change his profession.
    I should write up my review both Grrl and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  3. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Ha ha! Although I created that character long before…
    Thanks for your kind words, meanwhile. Looking forward to seeing your thoughts in print.

  4. Eva Amsen says:

    I’m confused: How did you even know the poem of the really obscure poet in the first place? I thought you must have it in a book, but then the book would have a publisher or more info, and you wouldn’t have to Google professors with Xeroxed books. (I am loving the proper-nouns-as-verbs-and-adjectives thing going on in the previous sentence.)
    Margaret Atwood is awesome. She lived in my neighbourhood in Toronto, although I either never ran into her or simply didn’t spot her because I am the worst at celeb-spotting: I have literally walked right past famous people, brushing coats in passing, and not seen them. So I’ve probably stood in line for coffee right behind Atwood a gazillion times and not seen her, but others have, and all accounts say she’s very nice indeed. This again just proves it.
    Anyway, I should pick up one of the final editions at some point, if only to check if you incorporated my Dutch spelling corrections! (Note to readers: Jenny’s Dutch is very good and there were almost no errors at all.)

  5. Åsa Karlström says:

     I love it! It’s so cool, I’m an old Atwood fan… and that twitter story is fun and cool! Happy you got permission/sorted all of them out prior to the press of the book. And the ways of the world when you meet someone from your uni/have a connection – it’s amazing.
    I’m looking forward reading it 🙂 

  6. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Eva, I found the Buesa poem, like I find so many other interesting new things, on the internet. A number of fans (mostly in Latin America) have collated his work into web pages. Sorry for not having made that clear. There were no translations available, so I did it myself. I’m much better at Spanish than English on the written page (and much better with Dutch verbally – probably because I didn’t study it in the classroom for 12 years.)

  7. Heather Etchevers says:

    I had to get permission to reprint a figure from Cuevas et al., 1984, in my Ph.D. thesis, because that was going on microfilm and being "published" as such, etc. etc. I am still scarred from the experience, which as such experiences go, actually wasn’t that bad. But it was definitely conducted by snail mail, even though e-mail existed at the time.
    I actually am saving it for the plane, but given the poetry, am looking forward to it even more than I was earlier this week. Ever read anything by Yehuda Amichai? One of my absolute favorite modern poets ever. The translations by Ted Hughes are good, but the others I’ve come across are as well.

  8. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Heather, thanks for the poetry tip! Did Hughes (another favorite) translate more than one collection? if so can you recommend your favorite?
    Yes, in retrospect we were naive about how long these things take. The Press does non-fiction science, so I guess there aren’t a lot of instances where they need to reproduce text from trade publishers. Next time we will know to start half a year before. Also, I didn’t realize that it costs the publisher money – we were lucky because CSHLP is non-profit, so there is often a waiver/discount. Next time, I might think twice before including a lot of stuff not in the public domain.

  9. Kausik Datta says:

    Reading a new story from a favorite author is always pleasurable, but getting to know the back-stories and titbits is especially exciting. I am eagerly waiting for my copy to arrive from CSHL press.

  10. Richard P. Grant says:

     I’ve just ordered two—count ’em, TWO—copies of THL. 
    It’s not that I’ve already read it, but I want a signed copy, and a mate in Oz wants a signed copy, so… and I also need to order something from Amazon for a lablit project.
    That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking with it.

  11. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks Kausik, thanks Richard!

  12. Grant Jacobs says:

     Thanks for this article, Jennifer. It sheds light on a curious corner of writing.
    It makes me think about those books that use quotes on chapter title pages. I suppose these avoid this issue as they are brief passages quotes from larger words, rather than a short work in it’s own right?
    I ask because it’s a feature I often like and can imagine using myself.

  13. Richard P. Grant says:

     I wonder that, because a manuscript I’m preparing has Led Zeppelin lyrics at the head of each chapter.
    That’s not going to fly, is it?

  14. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Grant, even a brief phrase is under copyright. All those books got permission – unless the quotes were older than 70 years. This is for books – I think the rules are different for magazines.

  15. Kausik Datta says:

    even a brief phrase is under copyright.

    Does it matter (i.e. is it copyright violation) if the said quote is used with proper attribution? Doesn’t it fall under Fair Use?

  16. Grant Jacobs says:

    That’s what I was thinking myself. I have been meaning to get a better understanding of these things, but never seem to find time. (I have managed to locate a copy of Hart’s New Rules in the library and am [very!] slowly working my way through it. It might have something in there, perhaps.)
    This would seem to differ from use in scholarly or media work, where I’ve always understood it to roughly be that you can cite passages of the original, provided that attribution is given and the passage is only a modest portion of the original. (With the latter being a bit awkward at times.)

  17. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Just want to stress that I’m talking about commercial/trade fiction here, and I’m just going by things I’ve picked up from my publisher along the way. There seems to be a very large amount of money involved in using quotes not in the public domain, which increase with the size of your print run. If you read the WSJ piece I cite in the post (highly recommended), you can see great examples of this: e.g. "When I asked to use a single line by songwriter Joe Henry, for example, his record label’s parent company demanded $150 for every 7,500 copies of my book. Assuming I sell enough books to earn back my modest advance, this amounts to roughly 1.5% of my earnings, all for quoting eight words from one of Mr. Henry’s songs." (This was for a memoir, which would fall under commercial/trade).
    Fortunately for me, my publisher was often able to get a waiver or discount because they are a not-for-profit company. Also, our print runs are relatively small. Still, they did have to fork over some cash – and I’m grateful they didn’t choose to ask me to reconsider my choices.

  18. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Frank, I’m delighted to hear about your secret society and it continues to confirm my growing suspicion that librarians really are a lot cooler than the rest of us!
    I have no problem with authors, like me, having to pay to use the artistic work of others (say, poets or writers or song lyricists) when used in a work that itself is intended to earn money. What is a pity is when the amount asked far exceeds the actual contribution – as in the Joe Henry ancedote I cite above – and leads to axing of the quote altogether. This harms everyone: the writer, who can’t use the quote; the publisher of the quoted artist, who will get no money at all; and of course the quoted artist, who will get no publicity.  It’s in these situations that I feel copyright is working against its original intention: to protect the artist.

  19. Richard Wintle says:

    What a fabulous post Jenny, thanks for that backstory. You did all this in the nooks and crannies of spare time during Science Is Vital, I presume?  <— that is sarcasm, of the friendliest sort
    I love how these stories played out in such a personal way… like Eva I don’t think I’ve ever tripped over Margaret Atwood (although I also lived in more or less the same neighbourhood at one point, many years ago), and have a high-school English class inspired disliking for her work, but your story sounds exactly like everything I’ve ever heard about her – no nonsense, get it done kind of person.
    Looking forward to this book… hm, Christmas is coming isn’t it? 🙂

  20. Richard Wintle says:

    P.S. It’s showing up in, but as "temporarily out of stock". I presume that means "we haven’t received it yet".

  21. Jennifer Rohn says:

    It was all a bit confused at the end but I am assured that the stock is now filling up and should be available everywhere within the next few days/week. Fingers crossed. Unfortunately on it says "usually ships in one to two months" which is a big fat lie and not at all helpful around Christmas time!

  22. Austin Elliott says:

    Did you read the big interview with Margaret Atwood in the Absurder on Sunday, Jenny?
    Interesting sort of postscript to your correspondence with her is that her brother, Prof Harold Atwood, is an academic scientist – I think he is retired now, but a homepage from his U of Toronto lab a couple of years back is here. Given the field he is in (synaptic physiology, inc. calcium signalling) I actually might have read some of his papers, though I can’t specifically recall any.
    Margaret Atwood actually says in the interview that:

    "Human creativity is not confined to just a few areas of life. The techno-scientific world has some of the most creative people you’ll ever meet. When I was growing up, I never saw a division. For instance, my brother and I both have the same marks in English and in the sciences… My brother could have gone in the writing direction. And I could have been a scientist."

    Hope you’re going to send her a copy of your book!

  23. Ken Doyle says:

     Looking forward to the book…I’ll add it to my Goodreads list!

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