Learning from Hoaxes
November 29, 2017
Tomorrow, Thursday, November 30th, poet and nonfiction author Kevin Young will be presenting on his latest work, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, and in conversation with Seattle writer Melanie McFarland at Benaroya Hall. Tickets are just $10 as part of our 2017/18 Hinge Series, and they’re still available here or at the door.
In anticipation of Kevin’s talk, WITS Writer-in-Residence and SAL event staffer Letitia Cain takes us through a catalog of the fakes, the forges, and the frauds of literature, asking the hard questions about the connections between life and creative work. (Plus, she gives us a hoax-inspired writing prompt for you to try at home… carefully!)
By: Letitia Cain, WITS Writer-in-Residence & SAL Event Manager
Kevin Young’s newly released book, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, dives into the tradition of hoaxes with gusto. In this time of fake news stories and what feels like layers of deception, this book is released with perfect timing to delve into the historical perspective of forgeries and how they connect to race and the rise of America.
I first became interested in literary hoaxes a few years ago, while researching some of the more famous, or perhaps more accurately, infamous poetry hoaxes. This literary tradition that underlies much of modern writing fascinates and appalls simultaneously—yet it also influences how we write today, whether we realize it or not. In Bunk, Young examines not just literary hoaxes but the culture of hoaxing in America, an even broader subject that I can’t wait to read more about.
Hoaxes have a long history in literature, and some very interesting poetry emerges out of them. But first, what is a hoax? The derivation of hoax is not completely known, but the word came into usage in the eighteenth century, meaning to deceive by a fiction, and it is thought to probably be a shortened form of hocus pocus, a jugglery, trickery, first used around the 1600s. Hocus pocus is thought to be based originally on the Latin phrase hax pax max Deus adimax, a pseudo-Latin magical formula often used by jugglers or magicians.
A literary hoax is writing, such as a poem or a manuscript, which is either deliberately misattributed to a historical or invented author, or is a purported memoir or other presumably nonfictional writing deceptively presented as true when, in fact, it presents untrue or imaginary information. Literary forgeries are not a recent invention and have been traced back as far as 530 BCE when Onomacritus, the Greek complier of oracles, wrote poems and oracles under the name of Musaeus of Athens, a poet-prophet.
Other names for hoaxes: literary forgeries, frauds, fakes, impostures, spuriosities, and counterfeits. Literary hoaxes are different than plagiarism, which is to steal words or ideas from someone without giving credit to the original author. However, they still have an air of illegitimacy about them, construed as amusing and not regarded as a serious literary offense—more like literary hanky-panky. But this is not always true, and more modern literary hoaxes have taken on cultural appropriation in less than amusing ways.
Forge: to make or fashion, fabricate, to make a fraudulent imitation of — all derivations of Middle English forgen (originated in 1250), to fabricate.
The original meaning of “forge” was not seen as negative or fraudulent; a forgery is still a making. But forgeries are also scandalous. As Young explores in his book, the long history of hoaxes extends past the literary world and pervades American culture. Why does it still shock to read about the different ways people have been hoaxed throughout history? It happens today—look at the controversy surrounding fake news. The hoaxing continues.
So, why are literary hoaxes important? Literary forgeries and hoaxes disturb the society in which they are produced; they ignore limits of what is permissible in the writing world. Literary hoaxes also double as cultural critique, intending to embarrass or expose biases and undermine literary credibility in the community. They also aspire to make art, to create new ways of expression. Hoaxes change and shape literary history.
Here are a few poetry forgeries that influence modern poetry writing:
James Macpherson, who forged manuscripts under the name of Ossian (1760), is credited with ushering in the Romantic movement in European literature, and both Napoleon and Goethe were great fans of his work. Thomas Chatterton, who forged poems under the name of 15th-century monk Thomas Rowley (1767) and then poisoned himself at the age of seventeen, was greatly influenced by Macpherson. Chatterton also exerted a strong influence upon the later Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge and Keats. Rossetti claims: “Not to know Chatterton is to be ignorant of the true day-spring of modern romantic poetry.” Where would romantic poetry be without hoaxes?
The Spectra Poetry Hoax (1916) cemented modernism as a style of writing and attracted the attention and admiration of William Carlos Williams, Amy Lowell, and Harriet Monroe before the hoax was revealed. The Australian modernism movement produced its own hoax, the Ern Malley Hoax (1944), which created a new post-modernist style of poetry unseen up until that time. Even O’Hara and Ashbery claimed to be influenced by Malley, even though Malley proved to be a hoax.
Literary scholar and professor David Banks maintains that when a culture is faced with ontological anxiety about how we are put together, such as a culture of immigrants, then we are left to reinvent ourselves and therefore, hoaxes become part of our natural literary genre. You don’t have to exist to exist; you can make it up.
More modern poetry hoaxes prove disturbing, less funny and frequently involve cultural appropriation. As Young states in Bunk:
“Once the hoax meant to honor, now it embraces horror; once it sought to praise, today the hoax mostly traffics in pain.”
An example of this is the hoax of Araki Yasusada. Yasusada claimed to be a Japanese Hiroshima survivor who wrote a collection of writings and poems. With a compelling back-story of himself surviving the bombing of Hiroshima but his family perishing, the poems and other writings are largely thought to be a hoax credited to Kent Johnson, although Johnson denies it. It appears that Johnson, a white American who lives in Indiana, has impersonated a Japanese Hiroshima survivor. This hoax brings up questions about authorship, identity—who is empowered to speak and from what position? Who has the right to take on the historical telling of events?
Another example comes from The Best American Poetry in 2015, edited by Sherman Alexie. He selected a poem for the anthology written by Yi-Fen Chou, “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” that was later revealed to be actually written by Michael Hudson, a white American poet. Alexie kept the poem in the anthology, which caused even more controversy (see Alexie’s response here). The cases of Hudson and Johnson show how hoaxes generate contention within the literary community while it grapples with expressions of power from white people who appropriate other cultures and take license with agency, authenticity, and expression.
Besides learning about literary history from these hoaxes, what can we use or take from them as writers? Through my studies of different poetry hoaxes, there are some common elements that seem to allow the hoax to emerge and to free the usual style of writing for the writer, to create something very fresh and new. And fresh is what we are going for as writers, right? I ask my middle school student writers all the time, Is it fresh?
1. Invent a persona—
Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) is famous for writing from over seventy different personas—he called them heteronyms. As a side note, Pessoa’s heteronyms are not considered hoaxes. He claimed each persona and wrote from within his own milieu. Each persona has an identity and a name. So, name your persona. It can also be helpful to find an old postcard or picture from a flea market or antique store that you are attracted to and use that as part of the backstory. It could be a picture of someone, a vacation spot, an object. I like to keep a collection of these that I flip through when I need an idea of what/where/who to write from.
2. Invent the backstory for the persona—
Give your persona a bit of backstory. Sometimes the persona is identified through an occupation, but the backstory could also be where the persona is from or is currently living. How does the persona like to spend time? What are her/his/its passions, hobbies, obsessions? Write all this down.
3. Now, write a poem from the perspective of this persona and use techniques used by the Ern Malley Hoax—
The Ern Malley Hoax was written using many different techniques to create a new style of writing. Try one on and see how it works for you. Or try all of them in one poem.
1. Dictionary—open dictionary to a random page and pick a word. Put this word in the first line of the poem. Continue doing this for every line or every other line.
2. Shakespeare—find a play or poems by Shakespeare. Borrow words or phrases from Shakespeare and put them in the poem. Often, random selection works best, so open to a page and use what you find there.
3. Find some Keats or Shelley poems—open to a random page and use a line, phrase, or words and insert them into the persona poem. Alternatively, use every seventh word of a Keats or Shelley poem and string those words together, adding in words or phrases from your persona poet.
Let the subconscious persona do the writing. Consider this a form of Erasure or Found poetry. Weave randomness into the poem. Let yourself go and do not edit (not at first). Revisit this persona from time to time when you write. See what she/he/it has to say—this is not an alter-ego but someone else. Intersperse lines that you have written in the work that need a home and have not yet found one. Most importantly, have fun!
If you would like to edit and consider publishing these persona poems later on, I would recommend that you do so and that you also claim the authorship as a heteronym or persona. I also think it is preferable to identify yourself as part of the persona, as opposed to creating a hoax and sending it out into the world (see last paragraph).
A word of warning: hoaxes can become much larger than intended, creating a living entity (think Frankenstein) and have a lasting influence for decades to come. So, write and beware: you don’t have to exist to exist, you can make it up. Just remember, once something is created, it might just live on.
Letitia Cain is a poet who holds a MFA degree in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her poems have appeared in Switched-on Gutenberg, Raven Chronicles and Gravel Literary Journal. She teaches creative writing classes in the community that focus on the promotion of health and wellness through writing, using her skills as a physician and poet. She is the Business Manager for Poetry Northwest and also works as part of the event staff for Seattle Arts & Lectures.