91 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.
I ended my last diary entry with these words - 8th of May and who knows what may happen?
Well, now we know. Or do we?
A hung parliament? when things are hanging they dangle and twist, prey to every little breeze. Nothing strong or stable about it, and no clear direction.
As says Shakespeare Henry VI part 1
‘Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!’
But that is to give way to negativity and hopelessness. Change always shifts folk out of their comfort zones, before they know what good may be round the corner. Of all the strange events in our current political circumstances the one clear message is that we cannot anticipate the outcome.
So, we carry on writing and going to literary festivals or having holidays.
My Building Worlds workshop at Penzance Litfest was well attended - I had a lovely book-lined room in old Morrab Library, a private collection like the Lit and Phil, with big windows onto a subtropical garden. Of my 13 participants, one was a man and one an 11-year-old boy whose mother had asked his headmaster for the day off to attend, because he was a keen writer. To the Head’s credit he agreed and Nathan wrote a dramatic action-filled opening scene for his world of dragons and forests.
I also attended a workshop, led by Stella Duffy, Impro for Writers. She had us all up on our feet, talking, working in pairs and then writing. She got us to draw a huge cross on our page before we began to write, insisting that by crossing it out beforehand, it took away the pressure to make it ‘perfect’ - we pre-empted it being ‘rubbish’. She leapt about, stood on chairs, wrote on flip charts, flung her arms in the air, swearing and pointing to folk at random, asking questions. Hugely energetic and fun, but also inspiring.
I spent a hot afternoon at the Jubilee Pool, filled with sea water and pleasantly cool and salty, then afterwards I took the Literary Tour of Penzance in the golden haze of early evening and learnt all sorts of fascinating facts. We began at The Acorn, a venue that was the hub and box office for all the Lit Fest events, opposite the old Penzance Registrar’s Building where Dylan Thomas and Caitlin got married. They honeymooned and got drunk at The Ship Inn in Mousehole, the site of my first alcoholic experience. I never looked back.
The full quote of the Shakespeare speech is this, finish it how you like:
Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto …
It came into my head the other day that whenever I moaned or wept on Julia’s shoulder about how unconfident and dissatisfied I felt about my writing, she’d say ‘Good. That means you think you can do better!’
She always managed to find a way to turn a negative into a positive. Her memory and voice is still strong in my mind and in everyone who knew her. It’s coming up to the announcement of this year’s Julia Darling Travel Fellowship award winner - June 4th at Ouseburn Farm in Newcastle 4.30 - 6.30. Tickets include a cream tea and a glass of fizz - very Julia.
Last year’s winner, Michelle Green will be talking about her award, that took her to Hayling Island. I’d never heard of this tiny place, off the south coast, until friends moved there, and they were as surprised as anyone that a writer should want to visit and write about it. I went there myself in April, before a trip to the Isle of Wight (another of Julia’s old stamping grounds). Hayling’s a bit like Stepford Wives country, apparently stuck in the 1950’s, but some of the seaside amusement parks have died, leaving it like a piece of flotsam after the tide’s gone out, rather sad and dilapidated in places. But it’s on the rise; with London house prices so prohibitive, people are buying in Hayling and commuting. Who wouldn’t want to live surrounded by huge skies and wide seascapes filled with an ever-changing vista of tankers, liners, yachts and ferries and a hazy Isle of Wight on the horizon? I’m sure I’d swim every day if I had the sea literally on my doorstep. But, like the Isle of Wight, it feels a little like Deep England, which is, to quote the Guardian Pass Notes:
“The Good Old Days, the home of decency and sportsmanship. The home of well-kept lawns. The home of leaving your front door unlocked. The home of Kiplings, both Rudyard and Mr…Deep England is a term coined by academic Patrick Wright, but the notion is being resurrected in the hearts of the villages and market towns that voted to leave the EU.”
The thing is, it’s possible to live a sort of head-in-the-past type of lifestyle down there. The world looks unchanged, and feels far away from the problems of deindustrialisation and a shifting cultural demographic.
So I think - If parliament has to quit the Palace of Westminster for a few years while it undergoes a refurbishment, let the MPs come and base themselves up here in Newcastle or Hull or Leeds. Let them see a different sort of Deep England at close hand.
Julia may have lived in Winchester and holidayed on the Isle of Wight, but she never lost the desire, or let an opportunity go by, to be subversive. And I quote from one of her early poems ‘Janet’ in Modern Goddess:
the tourists have complained about me and you
the music, our faces, cracked hard with make up
pop up at the windows when they take their photos
we are the mosquitoes who buzz round the cattle
the lazy fat tourists, the boys in their gowns
So I urge anyone to buy a ticket and come down to the Ouseburn Farm on Sunday 4th June and celebrate writing, travel, Julia and subversion, before the 8th when who knows what will happen.
I’m reading online articles and newspapers, morbidly avid for information to get a grip, some clear understanding, on the turbulent times we live in - Brexit, Trump in America, the rise of the Nationalist Right in Europe. There’s a lot of anecdote and ironic joking mixed in with polemic out there, and some serious thoughtful stuff too. I don’t know quite what to think anymore.
Writing is some sort of answer, like a conversation with oneself, and so is reading. I read Ali Smith’s Autumn, described as the ‘first post-Brexit novel’ which is a fascinating attempt to anatomise and explore the ‘nation’s psychology’ I suppose:
“All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic. All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.”
I’m also reading Writing Motherhood, a creative anthology, edited by Carolyn Jess-Cook. I have a poem in it among many other wonderful women poets, but it also has essays and interviews. It is a real attempt to get under the skin of what it means to be a mother and a writer. I wish I’d read it when I was a young mother, struggling with my own doubts about writing alongside the difficulties - the cast-adrift sensation of being in a lonely boat of two - me and the baby.
This important book says the ‘unsayable’, reveals the deep-seated contradictions of wanting to be a mother and then being appalled at the reality. It also gives hope and strategies to live through those life-changing first years.
By the time I was pregnant with my second child, I was having my work published in the Poetry Virgins’ anthology Modern Goddess, and I was au fait enough with babies to scribble beginnings of poems while peacefully breastfeeding (which was the only time my second child stopped crying). I was forty-one: a late starter, a slow reader, always trying to catch up with the rest of the class.
I particularly liked the article from Zoë Brigley who asks and I quote:
‘Does creativity have to be incompatible with domestic life?”
She argues that being a mother doesn’t have to mean being conventional or boring, and:
“The tortured male genius with the sensational life is a dead end as a productive route to creative success.’
Julia Darling always said she wrote as a way out of the slough of motherhood, a creative response. Finding myself a single mother, I didn’t have the luxury of being a ‘tortured genius’ - angry and tortured though I was. In the end I found writing was the only response, the only life-affirming, positive answer to circumstances that were crushing me. It’s the old cliché - you just keep on keeping on.