Public Domain: One Way Forward

As a writer who constantly needs to have multiple books open at my work-table, as well as poetry, news stories, films, and my own notes, I’m always annoyed at how much SIMPLER this process could be if many of these materials were freely available online. Now, lots of people complain about issues of ‘access’, but, even more important is the fact that new artists must reasonably engage with older works. This includes extended quotation, the re-use of elements and narratives, and other forms of appropriation that, if we’re dealing with the public domain, can all be done without the fear of lawsuits. Combine this fact with the proliferation of e-readers, and quality publishers, such as Delphi Classics, who neatly collate and optimize complete editions of writers’ and painters’ works for a mere $2-$3, and you have not only a way of deepening culture at an exponential rate, but a new business model, as well, wherein publishers have an incentive to perfect these otherwise free works by adding ‘extras’ (images, biographical notes, technical scholarship, etc.) that would simply be impossible in print books.

But, instead, America has a public domain model that allows copyright throughout the author’s lifetime (understandable, and justified) PLUS 75 years… that is, long enough for descendants to skim off of an artist’s riches, then further entomb them in a network of family lineage, publisher demands, and the divvying up of who-gets-what, as opposed to a more rational approach that would ensure culture benefits, first– which is, of course, the true aim of most great artists, who, being dead, can live in one way only. On a personal level, I’ve been annoyed, for instance, at the fact that I could not excerpt Wallace Stevens’s great Yellow Afternoon in full, in my own novel, Doors & Exits, no matter how relevant, or how long ago he’s entered the social imagination, decades after he’s died. On a deeper level, though, there’s something else amiss, and it has to do with the future of one of the best and most neglected poets of the 20th century: James A. Emanuel, whose current issues re: the public domain should alarm anyone with a genuine interest in art.

According to Dan Schneider’s recent essay on James Emanuel and the public domain, Emanuel was, prior to Schneider’s 2001 discovery, championing, and interview with the man in 2007, pretty much unknown. There were no interviews, very few poems online, and no essays on the man outside of what might be found in obscure academic circles, in a godawful niche called ‘black studies’– because, after all, that’s what the clueless academics have pinned him as, a BLACK poet who “wrote about racism” (to quote the New York Times obituary), despite Emanuel having many poems attacking this very condescension.

Today, however, his reputations seems better. This is despite the fact that his Collected Poems are still out of print, and can run for around $200 on Amazon, up from the $15 or $20 I’d seen when I first purchased a used copy in 2007, and prior to Schneider’s revitalization. Yet the publisher, Lotus Press, seems clueless as to Emanuel’s import to the poetry world, given that they are content to keep him out of print, and very possibly might (depending on contracts, their own longevity, as well as any potential family interest) keep Emanuel’s poetry holed up till 2088– a time when art will have gone through at least one another public revolution, but without the proper input of one of its own greats. This is both terrible and idiotic, given how long ago his best poetry was written, how topical, and how starved of influencing others he’s been damned to. And yes, this is ESPECIALLY relevant to black writers who wish to transcend their own forced ghettoization, not only due to issues within academia, but, as with Emanuel, due to publishers’ negligence and/or incompetence.

That’s not fair, in the micro sense, but far more damaging in the macro, if one simply takes the long view of culture and how such trajectories work. Publishers aside, academia– powerful as it is– should not be the arbiter of poetry. Poetry, that is, the words, themselves, should be the arbiter of such, and stand on its own merits. And as Moby-Dick‘s ascension (after nearly a century of obscurity), Rembrandt’s triumphs, Kafka’s late entry into the world, and Walt Whitman show, if great work is ALLOWED to stand, this means that it eventually will– whether or not its consumers really understand what the hell is going on. But not like this, though. Not if his poems aren’t even give a fair chance at being SEEN, and therefore going head-to-head against the far lesser crap (Maya Angelou, Clarence Major, Ishmael Reed, etc. etc. etc.) that passes for literature, in the same niche.

Of course, James Emanuel is just one of many potentially great writers who are being fucked over by such, as any long-enough perusal of a used bookstore might show. I can’t comment on these others, except to say that greatness, in general, has a fairly predictable fate. In the meantime, read Dan Schneider’s essay to get a better sense of such, and peruse the following poem, as a grand ol’ FUCK YOU to an establishment that does NOT understand:


A Negro Author

*by James A. Emanuel

I wrote something black today.
I wonder what Negroes will say
about it.
Tomorrow I’ll do something white
If I can hold my pen just right
throughout it.

I’d rather be devoutly me,
Do my writing in a tree,
Watch it seep up into leaves –
Whose beauty no one misconceives.

Yet, what will Negroes say (and whites)
About a man who only writes
Leaves – of a color hard to name?
I’m treed, in this peculiar game.

2 Comments Public Domain: One Way Forward

  1. Avatar photoAlex Sheremet

    These mentions suck. James Baldwin, James Emanuel, or even bad Black Panther agitprop… they all get reduced to ‘black writing,’ no matter how untrue, with their own criticisms of black contemporaries muted.


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