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Poetry has a plagiarism problem

An internet sleuth has uncovered a murky world of stolen lines and rhymes, raising big questions about identity and authenticity

In March this year, a woman went to the launch of Laventville, the second collection by Sheree Mack, a Newcastle poet with a massive Facebook friends list and a strong local poetry coterie. Having bought the book (which presumably means that Mack signed it for her), Imagine her surprise when, reading it, she found one of her own poems loosely copied inside it.

Plagiarism used to be something those sort of guys who would describe themselves as ‘net-savvy’ would talk about, showing up in writing workshops with a © before their names on their manuscripts, assuring you that it asserted “ownership” over their work, and that now no one could “steal their idea”.

How I used to laugh.

But fast-forward 20 years or so, and most poets won’t forget the names such as Christian Ward, Graham Nunn, or CJ Allen in a hurry. It seems there are people who really do want to steal your idea. No one knows why. Now Sheree Mack has taken the thing to a new level, and redefined what “plagiarism” actually means. The poetry world is riven.

The Sherlock Holmes of poetry

The art form’s recent plagiarism cases have been meticulously investigated by Ira Lightman, the UK’s prodigiously gifted “poetry sleuth”, who has worked tirelessly to set the record straight, to find the copied poems and restore them, as it were, to their rightful owners. He’s been accused of witch-hunting, a charge he vehemently denies. In the Mack case, the aforementioned woman spent two months of emailing back and forth with both Sheree Mack and her publisher (Andy Croft at Smokestack Books, a very well-respected northern poetry press), before she gave up and went to Ira Lightman, much as one might go to Sherlock Holmes. Mack had admitted copying two poems. Lightman reports: “The publisher seemed to have made no effort at all to check the other poems in Laventille. I found a dozen more examples in about two hours.” He then found more. And more.

Every time the debate varies; each plagiarist (like each unhappy family) is a little different from the others. The case of the Australian Graham Nunn, accused of lifting lines from Canadian Don McKay,  provoked storms of debate about the ethics of “found” poetry, and postmodern writing techniques, and the contemporary culture of poems “after” somebody else.

John Ashbery once wrote a cento – an ancient Roman form where each line is taken from a different poem – thinking he had invented the form. The former poet laureate himself, Andrew Motion, got into a bit of trouble with some unattributed quotes. Everybody’s doing it.

Pitchforks at dawn

Reactions to Lightman’s revelations have been mixed. There are two camps ranged against each other. One is the “pitchforks at dawn” set, unable to get over their outraged assertions about how borrowing some words just the same as stealing Grandma’s silver; and  the other is formed of those who feel sorry for the thief, and feel that Grandma’s silver had a kind of open-source feel about it, anyway.

The poets Mack had copied from included the well-known US poet August Kleinzahler, published in the UK by Faber. He responded saying that his solicitor would be in touch with Smokestack.

They included Douglas Dunn, whose signature poem of taciturn miners – Men of Terry Street, set in the northeast of England –  Mack transplanted to Trinidad with strange palimpsest-style changes that make no sense. In Dunn, “This masculine invisibility makes gods of them”; in Mack, it only makes ‘good’ of them. Dunn’s “pantheon of boots and overalls” becomes “a phantom of bare feet and string vests”. And where Dunn’s grim-faced heroic providers “hold up their children and sing to them”, Mack’s “hold their children at arms-length and chastise”. Her version of the poem finishes with a signature mark, a sentimental line that sums up what she’s trying to say.  The poem falls flat, the heroism of Dunn’s miners becomes merely kvetching.

Throughout 2014, the canal poet laureate Jo Bell had been running a wildly successful weekly poetry-prompt website called 52, and an associated Facebook group where members could share their resulting poems. The group had 500 members, and many of them were posting poems up every week in the very-much-closed group.  As of 21 May, Bell had discovered three poems Sheree Mack had copied from 52; by now there will undoubtedly be more.

Perhaps predictably, Mack seems to have copied one poem from Jo Bell herself – who would, had things been different, have been sharing a stage with her opening this year’s Ledbury poetry festival.

Before the controversy, Smokestack described Laventille on its website as: “[T]he forgotten story of the 1970 Black Power Revolution in Trinidad and Tobago, when for forty-five days an uprising of students, trade unions and the disaffected poor threatened to overthrow the government. The book is a ‘shrine of remembrances’ for the ordinary people behind the headlines.”

Whose life is it anyway?

There is an authenticity being claimed here. Sadly – very sadly – it seems not to be genuine. Kei Miller, a Jamaican poet based in the UK, wrote a long and thoughtful blog post about the debacle . He refers to Dunn’s poem, saying:

…to my mind, Mack’s book belongs squarely in this debate about Caribbean authenticity. A number of factors have shielded her from it so far: most obviously, her book was out for too short a time for it to register amongst many Caribbean readers and it has subsequently been withdrawn and pulped (though with a promise that it will be reissued in 2016); it was published by a press that doesn’t give ready access to a Caribbean market; and thirdly, the fact of race undoubtedly gives Mack an added layer of insulation from what one of my friends calls the ‘blacklash’. Had Mack’s collection been out for a longer time, and had it reached to Laventille and the rest of the Caribbean, and had it been published by a press such as Peepal Tree, and had she been racialized as anything other than black, I suspect she would have found herself in the middle of a whole other storm.

Though born and raised in England, Sheree Mack does have some claim to the Caribbean through parents. I believe she has family in Laventille – the eponymous community of her controversial book. But it is interesting that when she tries to evoke Laventille she has to use the template of other poems set in other places.

Is plagiarism a form of self harm?

The one thing no one really knows about these plagiarists is this: why do they do it?  It seems to me self-evident that this is self-harming activity; surely, every time a plagiarist publishes a poem and all their friends compliment them on it, it just confirms them in their own conviction that a poem is the very thing they can’t write. It must be agonising. And why poetry? You’re not going to get famous, and you’re really not going to get rich. The issue, as Kei Miller seems to indicate, is identity itself.

Accusations of racism

Having said this, one reason this particular scandal has caused such ructions is because Mack has used poetry (the question suggests itself, whose?) to gain a phD, and a job teaching creative writing at the Open University. Laventille was her second book, and publication credits mean everything in academia.

She has also, through her 52 activities, betrayed workshop culture. Writers share their drafts in absolute trust, and she has stolen the only asset they have: their work. Facebook is a big thing in the writing and poetry communities. It’s like the water-cooler at the most spread-out workplace in the world. Sheree Mack was part of this  and it’s both how she gained access to the 52 group, and also why her case has roused such emotion. She has betrayed an awful lot of people who  – even aside from those who really did – felt like they knew her. Some, loyal to her, have lashed out at Ira Lightman, accusing him of racism, asserting that “what she’s’ doing” is “more important” than small matters of intellectual property.

I asked Lightman how big the whole plagiarism thing is, in his view. Are we sitting on a sinkhole?  He replied, “I think it’s a minor problem, but it’s a problem. I wouldn’t even say 1 per cent of poetry published in the UK is plagiarised. However, what the case of Sheree Mack shows is that one can progress quite far, that institutions are slow to act and quick to cover up, and that they have a tendency to protect their own.”

He added: “I socialised with Sheree Mack, and shared a bill with her more than once, and I didn’t spot any plagiarism. The poetry world functions on trust.”

At the time of writing, he confirms that he is still looking for source poems for the ones Mack has not acknowledged, and is still very much finding them.

Katy Evans-Bush is a poet, blogger and freelance writer. Her blog, Baroque in Hackney, was shortlisted for the 2012 George Orwell Prize for political writing, and she writes reviews and features for a number of magazines. Her book of essays, Forgive the Language: Essays on Poetry and Poets, will be published in December by Penned in the Margins. She lives in London, where she also teaches poetry.