I don’t know how else to say this: The Internet is lying to you.
Or to be more specific: The first Google search page is not the holy grail of accurate information.
This week, the United States Postal Service unveiled a limited-edition stamp featuring Maya Angelou’s visage and a really lovely line of poetry that she did not write. An intrepid reporter from the Washington Post, with the remarkable insight to go to beyond quotable.com as a resource, discovered that the stamp used a line actually written by Joan Walsh Anglund.
What I take from this is that Maya Angelou and I are basically the same person. I kid, I kid, I’m blogging from Midway Airport on a two-hour delay on my way to AWP. But really, we have at least this in common.
In the mid-2000s, I was writing a series of poems in the voices of martyrs, speaking to people alive today -- mostly Catholic saints speaking to celebrities. I believed that the series had roughly run its course when a life-changing breakup happened and I found myself reaching for some structure through which to write about the experience that wasn’t the inconsolable free-form ramblings of a sobbing woman on the subway.
I’d always read the stories of saints and their kind as cautionary tales, rather than injunctions to live the kind of life the martyr had. I’d also long held a fascination with Frida Kahlo, as a strong, loud, queer female artist in a long-term and at least intermittently dysfunctional hetero relationship with a genius-level fellow artist.
I was, however, even in my fascination, determined not to lead her life. So when the relationship ended, I found myself compelled to write one last poem in the martyr series: Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell.
The poem became a staple of my readings, and was published in Salt Hill Review in 2009. Eventually it fell out of rotation as new break-ups and new break-up poems blossomed. I figured that was the end of it and tucked it away with the other martyr poems, all destined not even to make it into a full book manuscript.
Then a funny thing happened in Internetlandia.
Ever since I learned what a Google alert was, I’ve had one set for myself. Generally what pops up are re-postings of video footage or poems published online, the occasional mention on a blog, and people using the name “Marty” in the same sentence as a rant against Senator Mitch McConnell (no relation). People really really hate Senator Mitch McConnell.
I started to get a lot of alerts letting me know that people were reblogging the poem, especially on Tumblr, which as you may know is a social media site that is, for some reason, wildly popular with perennially heartbroken adolescent girls and people who write fanfic (look it up.)
So that was great! Lots of people were reading the poem and it was making them happy, or at least less sad. And I was building a solid fan base of people not old enough to get into any of the bars where I performed.
Fast forward to mid 2012. By now, I’m accustomed to getting an alert every month or so about some new re-posting, and Google for whatever reason isn’t even alerting me to all the Tumblr re-posts. No big deal. The poem is out there doing its poem work, all is well.
Or, all seemed well. Somewhere along the way, in the mysterious labyrinth of the Tumblrverse, my name fell off.
At first it remained attached in the title, although increasingly the line breaks were disappearing or the poem was horrifyingly centered in a fancy embellished font (shudder.) Then Instagram and Pinterest strolled onto the social media scene, and someone wrote one line of the poem (“take a lover who looks at you like maybe you are magic”) on a post-it note, attributed it to Frida Kahlo, took a picture of it and therein we witness the birth of a brand new quote by a woman dead for nearly 60 years.
Small internet-based battles I have waged based on this include a heated email exchange with a woman selling a wall-size metal cut-out of the quote on Etsy, several struggles with makers of greeting cards and calligraphic paraphenalia, and a Twitter-based protest against a California-based apparel company selling t-shirts with Frida’s photo and the quote alongside their charming selection of apparel sporting close-ups of various portions of the female anatomy.
Out of concern for my own sanity and recognizing that I must have better things to do, I’ve stopped correcting the Instagrams and Pinterests that slather the line across pictures of ostensible lovers floating underwater, rocketing pink stars, Frida herself, and my personal favorite: Disney’s Jasmine and Aladdin. Oh, and the ones that translate it into Spanish.
A recent list of “Frida Kahlo Quotes You Need To Read Today” included not only the line excerpted, but the poem in its entirety, and somehow, astonishingly, the line “take a lover who looks at you like maybe you are a bourbon biscuit.”
A Google search for “Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell” produces about 19,000 results. A search for “Marty McConnell” produces about 18,000. A Google search for “Frida Kahlo quotes – take a lover” produces about 153,000 hits.
If there’s a moral to the story, it’s probably best expressed in the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln, preferably juxtaposed with a wise-looking and iconic photograph of him in top hat and jacket: Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.