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14 September 2017 Entry: "It's a steal"

Stealing, creative borrowing, copying, intertextuality, post-modernism? The issue of plagiarism has come back into the public eye because of the recent article by Will Storr in Guardian Weekend magazine on Saturday 9th September. I am mentioned in the article because I was the first to notice two poems in another poet’s collection that mirrored my own so closely it felt like reading my own poem. I was stunned.

The responses that have been thrown up to this Guardian article and the comments I’ve seen have been bothering me, partly because defences of the practice have been made by people who have not read the original or the copy, and partly because those who have, contrive to blame the plagiarised!

It also bothers me that definitions have been bandied about very loosely: intertextuality etc.

My understanding of intertextuality is an author's borrowing and transformation of a prior text, and a reader's referencing of the first text in reading the other. The point of the new text created is to comment on the original - the reader knows the original and the new text is in dialogue with it. The author is writing deliberately to comment on the original text.

‘Postmodern literature is a fairly loose term anyway; parody and pastiche could come under this label - but again, the whole point of writing a text is the fact that your reader is well aware of the original, which the new text is playing around with.

Neither of these techniques describe a poet authoring a collection about a theme, using other existing poems as scaffolding that have nothing to do with this theme. That is not intertextuality or postmodernism. And calling it ‘sloppy note-keeping’ because the author failed to acknowledge their sources is not a defence.
It is not co-incidence, it’s not the same idea in different words. It’s the same words, with a few changed. Plagiarism from the Latin plagiarius: kidnapper, seducer, literary thief.

Those of us who write or teach creative writing are well aware of the value of studying other poets and using them as inspiration to create new pieces of writing. Perhaps the new poem might start with the same first line, or quote some words from the original; however it’s done, the poem created must move far enough away to be an entirely new, unique and personal poem. No-one would fault that approach, and many collections will have one or two poems that might have ‘after…poet’ under the title, or a foot note in the back of the book acknowledging the influence of another poem or poet.
You wouldn’t expect 50% of the poems in a collection to do that and you certainly wouldn’t expect to recognise 50% of the work to be almost identical in a number of ways to other existing poems.

When I first brought this issue to the attention of the poet and the publisher, I received an apology from the poet, Sheree Mack, saying she never meant to upset anyone. Well, she did, but I accepted her apology. She also said this was her usual practice. Again I was stunned. How could a poet at such a level of publication success use such lazy methods?
As Ira Lightman, “poetry sleuth” said in the interview, plagiarists never do it once”.

Writing poetry is hard, writing anything original is hard and yes, we’re all influenced knowingly or otherwise by other texts - it can’t be helped. But no-one should set out to do it as their ‘usual habit’. There’s no quick writing-by-numbers route to good poetry.
For those who refuse to see it as copying, I give you one example:

The Box my original poem

I was eight, just long enough to lie
inside the ottoman and close the lid.
Which I did once with Peter Silkin
playing Sardines, tight amongst the cloth.
It seemed a good idea to kiss.
We put our lips together, squashing them,
felt the way our noses rubbed and bumped
and realised how difficult it was to breathe.

I heard of Peter Silkin yesterday
and thought about the ottoman again;
the musky, tight interior, could sense
his handsome face, the gentle smile,
the lack of breath, the dark, the closing lid,
the forty years that lay between.

the copy poem The Den

I was nine, old enough to know where the darkness began.
Into a carved out tunnel in the mahogany hills, I crawled
with Lionel once or twice, playing dares, tight amongst
the hard parked earth.

It seemed a good idea to touch.
It seemed a good idea for our hands to explore each
dark body. In the dark knuckles knocking bone,
finger tips delving into deep dark depths.

I heard about Lionel yesterday and thought again
of our earth-packed den: the damp, dank, moist tunnel.
I could sense his long smooth limbs, his toothy white smile,
the tingles, the dark, the close, aimless dark
and the dark lost years that lay between.

Reading that felt like complete theft of my ideas, phrases, structure, creativity and my personal experience.
Ira Lightman conducted his search with professionalism, diligence and never insulted anyone. To discover in the Guardian article that the publisher, Andy Croft of Smokestack Books, thinks Joan Johnston and I are simply ‘jealous girls’ is unbelievable. I quote from the Guardian article:
“He characterises the fuss as nothing more than “a series of low-level petty jealousies”. Mack, who is of Trinidadian/Ghanaian/Bajan ancestry, “is one of the tallest, most striking women you’ve ever come across”, Croft says. “A lot of the original animosity was from white women poets in Newcastle. I don’t even want to know how to unpick that. To begin with, it felt like some girls in a catfight, picking on the most glamorous and the most beautiful girl, because they’re not as glamorous and beautiful.”
That is misogynistic, insulting and beside the point. He demeans everyone involved including his disgraced author. Would he couch the argument in those terms if the dispute was between men?
God knows I make little enough money out of poetry, the least I could be left with is my words and my integrity.

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