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Interviews with Ira Lightman about Plagiarism in Poetry



The following are three interviews with Ira Lightman on the subject of plagiarism in poetry




Interview with Amy Mackelden



Ira Lightman is a poet and performer who has also made public art throughout the North East of England, the West Midlands in England and the South West of England. In 2015 he made a documentary on Ezra Pound for Radio 4. A mathematician by training, he is very interested in pattern and autism, considered separately and together.


Amy Mackelden is an Entertainment Writer at Bustle. She co-founded Butcher's Dog and recently co-edited Issue 8 with Clare Pollard and Sophie F Baker. She co-edits the blog Clarissa Explains Fuck All, and has written for New Statesman, The Independent, Hello Giggles, xoJane and Kinkly. Her theatre show MS Is My Boyfriend is currently in development, supported by Arts Council England.





AM: Why do you care so much about plagiarism?


IL: I don’t as such. I didn’t before 2013, although I remember being interested in the Joanne Benford case, and following a website showing her sources and what she’d done with them, and not feeling on her side but on the side of the people whose work she seemed to have mined.


I don’t find it burdensome either. I quite like the detective work involved, and I have developed an instinct for spotting bad joins in a piece of work, where something doesn’t feel like it’s come from the same mind as the rest of the poem. I like it when I can compare an original with a plagiarism, when I find the source poem and put them side by side: I find it an act of reading, albeit misreading or messing up the poem the plagiarist has read. Everything that’s good about the original poem seems to come up shiny when you free it from the mess the plagiarist has made of it; and yet I might well have passed over the whole original poem if I’d seen it in an anthology. It’s like seeing someone struggle over reading it aloud with incompetence and simultaneous awe.


AM: How did you start out investigating plagiarists?


IL: I took an interest in the first Christian Ward story, where his competition winner was said to copy Helen Mort’s ‘The Deer’. People were speculating about it, and I set out to find both texts and compare them: just to have the answer, really, and stop all the “what if?” Then a friend found a second one. Then I started looking in earnest, everywhere I could, for Ward poems and read and checked them all: to get a sense of what was him, and how many there were. I revealed a few, and kept a lot back: because, to begin with, he only admitted to the ones that he knew others knew about (although the second one was conveyed only by email, through a friend of a friend).


I turned out to be good at finding sources, on ones others had checked. I was insistent against people who said “I bet it’s all plagiarised” and insistent against anyone saying it was “just the once”. I wanted to find out the truth.


Then, because I was good at the source-finding, people came to me with other ones. I’ve never found the first poem, in any case. That’s found by people who know more poems than me by heart and can recognise them when they hear the poor copy. They come to me, and I find more. I suppose it’s a kind of responsibility. I liked, in a recent Singapore case, when a team formed, and they find ones I missed, and generally did lots of the work. I found one they didn’t.


AM: Are you surprised by the reaction to your discoveries?


IL: Yes. I don’t like it when people swear about the people involved; it doesn’t seem necessary to throw playground nicknames at them. I had a few surprises on Facebook when fellow poets asked hard questions, but these inquisitions mostly went well in the end (passionate response is better than bored nodding-along, sometimes).


AM: Do you ever feel like you shouldn’t be doing what you do?


IL: No, not really. I hear it when others say I should be getting on with writing poems, but poems seem to be coming at their usual rate. I do find the battles a little bit stressful: they appeal too much to my combative side, and that isn’t very calming, my blood running cold etc. I don’t like the thought of nobody helping, and people getting away with it. Let me say, I don’t feel that particularly about plagiarism-sleuthing, any more or less than I think about anything as life runs out, there doesn’t seem enough money or pleasure etc.


AM: While you have the support of some poets, you have many critics also. Why do you think that is?


IL: I don’t think I have many. A few trolls on YouTube. Some London poets who always get on the shortlists and think I’m a jumped-up oik/don’t like not to set the agenda. Avant-garde poets who think it’s all a sign of the corrupt samey mainstream. People who are best buds with the plagiarists. The supporters hugely outweigh the critics. The criticism I found hardest was from Rory Waterman, on Facebook; but I debated him at length and, I would say, we became friends over it. He had a genuine case: don’t sweat the small fry; and don’t forget to write your own poems.


It is my first experience since school of just being thought of as a dick by some, but the quality of the criticism by and large means it doesn’t hurt.


AM: Isn’t everything plagiarised?


IL: No. The exact words in the exact same order, over the ten or so sentences of a one-page poem, don’t resemble another as closely as a plagiarism resembles them. They’re not all great, but not plagiarised.


AM: When the plagiarism was close to home in the case of Sheree Mack, did you have any qualms disrupting the tight-knit community by exposing her?


IL: I lost a close acquaintance, who’s her close friend, and that still hurts, and I didn’t see it coming. I resolved to treat Sheree exactly the same as I’d treated Christian Ward, David R. Morgan and Graham Nunn: personal communication, an offer to help them prepare a public and credible account, a chance to tell me all the borrowings so I didn’t have to slog around finding them all, and so on. I wasn’t anything like a regular on the Newcastle scene. I just went into sleuth mode.


The aftermath has certainly made me think about what the aftermath might have been around the other people I’d investigated. Resentments lurk. But I mainly found that afterwards. I also, as in all cases, strengthened relationships with people I’d always had a good feeling about.


AM: Do any plagiarism excuses—absent-minded borrowing, forgetting to reference, creative process—ever hold true?


IL: Not in my experience.


AM: An important question: do you make any money from being a plagiarism sleuth?


IL: I've been paid about Ł300, half for an article and half for doing a presentation + Q&A at a literary festival.


AM: Do you plan to make any money off the back of it?


IL: I'm trying to write a book about it. It's not happening quickly. I'm writing it my own way, for a small press. I don't anticipate much royalties. I have been trying to become a creative writing lecturer (and was before 2013): publications help with that so a salary from that would be some money off it as a part of my publications (if I complete it; and bear in mind that universities tend to prefer academic articles in journals over a book, never mind a book not from an academic publisher). Books of poems count as much or more for these university applications.


AM: Has there been any correlation between your plagiarism work and your poetry sales?


IL: I have earned precisely nothing from poetry book sales all my life. My invitations to perform poems are coming at the same rate, possibly reduced since the plagiarism work. I did get filmed doing a gig as part of a Channel 4 news item on poetry plagiarism. It led to exactly zero invitations to perform, and I wouldn't have expected it to, and didn't do it for that reason.


AM: Has the plagiarism sleuthing influenced your poetry?


IL: I don't think so. I'm very present moment when I write and forget my context or recent history, and inspiration is coming at the normal rate. I'm not at a particularly autobiographical stage of my writing life anyway.


AM: Is there any coming back for a plagiarist?


IL: Yes. There have been examples in the 1990s. I think it's harder now, because this is an era where people like to have villains and un-persons. The way back is to give a thorough and honest account, and to survive people's many many questions over many patient years. And using other people's texts is fine by me, as long as you credit and have permission.


AM: The publisher says they'll reprint Sheree Mack's collection with acknowledgements. What does this mean for poets who don't agree to their work being referenced?


IL: The publisher says a lot of things. He's recently pretty much said he disrespects all applications of copyright (perhaps he'll be okay if nobody buys his books now but just gets free pirate editions). It's a position he never held before and very much looks backdated and improvised and may well paint him into a corner. I don't think he'll print poems heavily borrowed from poets who've refused permission. I thought the plan was to produce a new Mack book with no plagiarism in it?


Andy Croft was informed in March 2015 that poems by Ellen Phethean had been borrowed by Mack. He noted this on the book's website. He didn't say Ellen was privatising poetry or was some kind of counter revolutionary against his anti-copyright cause so I suspect he doesn't have an anti-copyright cause at all. Mack herself volunteered a second name, or initials, for Joan Johnston, although Mack (and Croft) left it to others to examine this in detail. At no point in those two months did any further names come forward. Did Croft ask or check? Did Mack check? The book could have been withdrawn then and set up to be rewritten without plagiarisms and no scandal occurred. It could have happened quietly. Few had copies of the first edition, so few they could have been contacted and the whole thing buried. I might have been told eventually and have eventually looked into all the other Mack books including the one that has the same title as her PhD thesis. Perhaps this would only have been kicking the can down the road. As it is, I was approached in May 2015 and found lots more. Would I have remained silent about the earlier publications? Perhaps not. But they would have deserved more sympathy for trying to redeem Mack's writing and teaching and advocacy by doing more than denial.


His and her actions, with no account at all from her of how the many borrowings came about and a full list of them and no account from him of what strategies he considered in the two months from March 2015 (and I can forgive him his disbelief; not everybody knows that plagiarism tends to be serial), have helped stir really bad blood on the North East poetry scene. I am on record as saying several times several positive things about what good both people have tried to do. Mack initially said she had no grievance against me (the day after I revealed a dozen or more heavy borrowings in ‘Laventille’) but then that statement disappeared. Croft has done literally nothing but call me names and be negative towards me. He has openly imputed total malice to me and total innocence to Mack. One wonders what kind of a world he lives in to think like that. They both owe it to a scene which has nurtured them to be open to questions and adult in discussions, to engage with criticisms that many people (not just I) have put. Not just to write a little red book of why he thinks he's right and then hand out copies and recite from it. Reprinting the book is a bit like doing this. If Croft accepted the book in its exact form before, why is it still working as a book with those poems removed from it? Surely it should be a new book done from material that it's legal to print and in which all the poems hang together? To announce defiantly that you'll bring out what's left of the old book or what you can get away with... is still like carrying around your little red book and refusing ever to improvise, but always to recite over and over your mantra (just in an arbitrarily reduced form). It's being a crybully, it's parading victimhood as if there were no room for manoeuvre, as if he had no part in painting himself into that corner.


Why not just say: I plan to bring out a book without plagiarism in it? Because that's banal. Because that's what everyone has to do. And then rise or fall on the strength of the writing. Does he think that people are going to flock to buy a banned book, a naughty book that breaks the rules, when it's poetry? Then I hope the books have a really popular touch. They won't be bought because of a plagiarism scandal alone, I suspect.




copyright © Ira Lightman & Amy Mackelden





Interview with Katy Jones



Ira Lightman is a poet and performer who has also made public art throughout the North East of England, the West Midlands in England and the South West of England. In 2015 he made a documentary on Ezra Pound for Radio 4. A mathematician by training, he is very interested in pattern and autism, considered separately and together.


“Katy Jones” is a pseudonym, as the interviewer prefers to remain anonymous.





KJ: What do you feel is the appropriate response to an allegation of plagiarism?


IL: If the resemblance is as close as in any of the cases that I have highlighted, then give an account of why somebody else’s poem has wound up extensively re-used by you without acknowledgement; to make that account believable when all of the unacknowledged borrowings in your work come to light; to endeavour to acquire the permission of the original author (whose work you are effectively reprinting—anthologists have to do this, and pay reprint fees, unless waived by the author); if permission is denied, then withdraw the work; if permission is granted, then acknowledge the work, preferably with a crystal-clear statement (e.g., “this poem uses poem X by poet Y, making only minor alterations” and not just “after Y”); to make a statement at least as public as any publication of yours which has used the borrowing, because the work is now out there under your name as if you originated it, and some may accuse Y of having plagiarised your poem.


If you haven’t plagiarised, and have only coincided once in your career with another poet’s poem, then explain where your lines came from, and make an account of writing your poem. There are unfounded allegations, usually based on coinciding over an idea.


The poet Ted Berrigan didn’t do any of this; but then nobody complained to him about use of their poem.


KJ: How did you first get involved?


IL: Very much by accident. I was discussing on Facebook the first newspaper article about Christian Ward, and the alleged close resemblance of his competition-winning poem to a poem by Helen Mort. One contributor to the discussion accused us all of believing a mere rumour, and not having checked the Ward and Mort poems. So I went and checked them. I was prepared to believe it was a one-off, but two or three friends told me “plagiarists never do it once”, and then another friend found a second case with Christian Ward using someone else’s poem wholesale. At the same time, Ward was saying that his reputation was being unfairly maligned—there seemed a risk of legal action against the newspaper who carried the Ward/Mort story - and that the use of the Mort was an accident. This seemed less plausible once a second case had come to light. I started to look into everything I could find, online or in magazines, by Ward, and ran searches on all of it. I found a lot more cases, including in poems others had checked and found “clean”. I began to see I had skills to bring, and determined just to find out all I could. I was bizarrely fascinated.


KJ: Do you think you have ever failed to cite a resource/appropriated material?


IL: In my published work? No. I have echoed the odd line here and there, but nothing on the scale of taking someone else’s poem, altering “she” to “he” and the nouns and passing it off as my own originated poem. I did once copy two sentences in an undergraduate essay, which didn’t count towards my final degree (which was primarily end-of-course exam based). My tutor spotted it, I think, and read the sentences aloud, announcing with a raised eyebrow that this was unusually good and measured prose for me. I blushed scarlet. And never did anything like that again.


KJ: Why do you feel the need to search out information on plagiarism—active investigation into the issues— even after it has been brought to light?


IL: As in, map a complete picture of an accused plagiarist’s whole body of work? Fascination. This has helped me build up a modus operandi, things to look for in future cases, and to note differences between cases. It actually annoys me when people say “I bet everything they ever wrote is a plagiarism”. I prefer to know the facts. I also, genuinely, believe in the rehabilitation of people caught plagiarising. First of all, it’s ok to work with other people’s texts, but you must cite them, or be prepared for possible consequences if you don’t. Second, if you aspire to be a poet who doesn’t use other people’s texts and doesn’t plagiarise, you need to build trust. This can only come from an honest account of your work to date.


I have hesitated, for a long time, to make any kind of book or even academic paper about plagiarism, precisely because the main point is to bring the activity to light, stop the person carrying on regardless, and gain some redress for the poets who have had their work misused. I fear that to write up the cases in a book would only be to drag the accused through the mud again.


The difficulty with that comes when there are still unaddressed issues and unsolved problems in one or two cases. Then I need to detail all of my work precisely to carry authority when asking for more attention to the unaddressed and unsolved. My goal is not to put people in the stocks, though. If anything, a full account shows that the most famous case, Christian Ward, is far from the most outrageous, and, if anything, he was the most talented poet of the lot, and didn’t need to rely on passing off others’ work as his own. The public record at the moment doesn’t see Ward that way. The other case was C. J. Allen, who was very talented indeed, and not a full-scale borrower. Lumping them altogether is unhelpful, so maybe the story needs to be (carefully) told in a book.


KJ: How should things be referenced?


IL: “This poem uses poem X by poet Y, making only minor alterations” or “this poem piggybacks poem X by poet Y” and not just “after Y”. The phrase “after Y” used to be used to indicate you were making a general attempt at the style, either referring to a well-known poem by Y or inviting you to look over Y’s whole body of work and think about Y’s general contribution to the art form. It was not meant to indicate close use of nearly all the exact words of any poem by Y, well known or not. The one exception would be when your poem was a translation of a specific poem by Y, but translation always offered an interpretation, and a bit more work, than a text-collage with a few words of your own thrown in. Certainly poets of the past, like Coleridge, got into trouble by throwing in paragraphs translated from other authors that weren’t marked as translation. There is an interesting context there, though: that Coleridge was bringing in other texts from the international Romantic movement, itself distrusted and thought seditious by some: so that to name names too would possibly switch off the reader by switching on their prejudices against foreign thinkers they’ve heard have a dubious philosophy. None of that applies to the plagiarists: there was no controversial prejudice around the authors they plagiarised, only a faint feeling of stealing from better poets.


KJ: What is your response to allegations that you are a bully?


IL: I think that depends on what people’s expectations are of correct conduct as a poet, at least as much as of correct conduct as an investigator. I can certainly see the argument that poetry is low-paid or unpaid, that it does (or should) have an element of play (including, as with kids, naughtiness). I can even see that people who object that their poems have been plagiarised and that they feel hurt could be seen to be over-reacting, and that we could file these cases under the usual heading of “that plagiarist is a bit of a selfish jerk, and I think I’ll gossip about what a selfish jerk he or she is” rather than making a big public hoo-ha. I had previously had an eye on the case of Joanne Benford, an Open University lecturer who was exposed in the Daily Mail for plagiarism. I looked into the website and Facebook pages that laid out the close resemblances (and the speed with which Benford seemed to be deleting evidence of them). I didn’t think her accusers were bullying her. I might have, if they showed no evidence, but they showed loads. The tone didn’t seem especially vitriolic. I didn’t think of her as misunderstood in her playfulness but (it seemed) getting prestige which can’t have harmed her as a writing teacher out of publications she didn’t deserve the prestige of.


Certainly, I can see that somebody who is being hugely embarrassed (not least by a Daily Mail article) might want to delete his or her presence from the internet and run and hide, without necessarily thereby admitting to every accusation. C. J. Allen was quite like that, in my opinion. He was taken to be admitting to acts of talentless copying, and that really wasn’t the case. He just didn’t want to fight his corner, and felt, I would guess, horribly embarrassed and under attack.


I’m no fan of the Daily Mail, but I have also seen the usual actions of modern institutions: to brush things under the carpet, and pretend they don’t exist. Sometimes the power of the press helps against the near-roadblock intransigence of institutions. If institutions were quicker to act, look at the facts, and try to come to a solution fair to all parties, that would be great. But, often, they just don’t. They favour the status quo, and who’s already won, and who’s already passed, even if they did that unfairly, and shut out candidates who might well be better qualified.


I have often acted when there’s been a roadblock. I have tried to watch over all the threads and blogs I can, and to intervene if things descend to mere personal vituperation. My goal is always that the person accused makes a clear honest account that tally with the facts. I try to send an email to the accused, and ask for this. On occasions, that has worked brilliantly, and quickly: credits have been added, and the borrowed-from feel better. What is bullying? Always calling somebody names and never seeing anything they do as creditable or possibly creditable. I don’t do that. Yes, after my intervention, when (after trying to go privately), I go public, then a great big millstone is shown around the accused’s neck. But it was always there.


KJ: If say, for example, someone has used obtained a degree/job through it?


IL: Then it becomes more serious. In the case of creative writing teachers, they have the job because they are both teachers AND writers. Sometimes they want to plead that they have great teaching skills, and years of experience, that is being ripped up if they’re called a “plagiarist”. But you can’t get one of those jobs as a good teacher alone (which is a subject all its own). You have got entry to the experience on perhaps bogus grounds, and beaten another candidate who also might have grown into the job. You might also be plagiarising from your students (and how would anyone check that unless the student kept the work and could prove he or she had written it first?). Students, I can say from personal experience, can be hugely demoralised very easily in writing classes. I see huge potential for abuse, and for taking work from a better candidate of writer-teacher, and I don’t like it.


KJ: What do you feel should be done to prevent plagiarism?


IL: Some have argued for a moratorium on any workshop exercises of writing based on “ghosting” other people’s texts. I don’t go that far (not least because students have to read in order to write, and such a moratorium would feed straight into the idea that writing must always be from personal experience in one’s own words with no risk of contamination from others—an idea which, frankly, curses writing-teaching). I would argue strongly for detail and honesty, and statements like “this poem uses poem X by poet Y, making only minor alterations” and not just “after Y”.


KJ: Why is plagiarism damaging?


IL: I think mainly because it demoralises, and it rewards phonies.


KJ: Why if you have raised the issue of plagiarism do you continue to follow through?


IL: Because people leap to the assumptions “it’s a one-off” and “I bet everything they do is plagiarism”.


KJ: Are you a witch hunter? Are you causing a moral panic—mass hysteria?


IL: I think there has been unease and worry. People send me perfectly innocent poems that take inspiration from one line of someone else’s writing and are clearly worried they may bring down a scandal on themselves. I think they do this because they haven’t looked at the plagiarists, whose modus operandi is nothing like theirs, and because they don’t want to conduct themselves in a high pressure way as if making hit films or top ten singles. I can completely sympathise with this last part. People just want to bumble along, and very few would ever consider passing off someone else’s whole poem as their own, let alone denying it aggressively when approached about it.


There is clearly a problem that would-be writers are getting reluctant to read again, which is a bad thing. There is also a problem that someone accused of plagiarism becomes a famous name, someone to point at or whisper about, which is a horrible pressure on anyone. In many ways, I’d like the whole discipline of creative writing teaching to be thrown open to clear examination: maybe it should be given to people who aren’t good writers but are good encouraging teachers (as long as it’s fine to say openly “you nicked my line”; in other words so that teachers know they can’t get away with plagiarism anymore than students can). I don’t like people getting arts grants to be writers and then fulfilling it by plagiarism, though.


I think the analogy of “witch” is unfair though. Not least because it historically implies misogyny, which is not the case in my work. It implies exploiting the irrational, and that there is no case to answer, that the tests set present a foregone conclusion and nobody can get free of them once accused. Very few are accused (very few plagiarise). These are more, in a sense, lawbreakers, even if for petty offences in some cases. They’re not witches. There is no lynch mob. But there is circulation of information, and a lot of people ready to say these people have done wrong and not right. I don’t think the only alternative to “why sweat it” and quiescence is that you’re a witch hunter.


KJ: Why do you choose Facebook as the medium for doing so? Does this not make it a more personal attack?


IL: I think it’s less public. It goes out to other poets, and not to people who will apply the wrong context (e.g., it’s as bad as making a million dollars stealing a film or song). I prefer the information to go out there in a limited way, so that a plagiarist preparing a pack of lies about what they’ve done and why they’ve done it knows that the truth is known. I don’t want to set it in stone. I prefer to let it be known that a few hundred people know, and then wait for the plagiarist to make a statement and full account.


KJ: Why do you think people plagiarise?


IL: Very hard to say, and each case feels a bit different. There have been some very good readers among the plagiarists, people who read more poetry than I do. Perhaps they are very moved by it, and desperately want to say “me too”. One learns a lot by close study. It’s what I do when I translate a poem, or parody a poem.


KJ: How much of a problem do you think plagiarism really is?


IL: I think it’s a tiny problem, covering 1% of all published poetry at most. It just throws light on several other things: institutional intransigence for one; the fear of using other people’s texts and being “too postmodern” among them.


KJ: Are there any losers?


IL: Yes, as there always are from dishonesty. A lot of poets don’t like being plagiarised. I’m not here to tell them to “grow up” and not tell people who tell them to “grow up” to “grow up”. There are people losing study places and job places to people who shouldn’t be there.


KJ: What is your response to the reasons that have been given for sampling?


If you sample, you have to give credit, and money. There is plenty of writing using sampling that I like.


KJ: Historically this has frequently occurred; why is it a problem now?


IL: I think it’s just a moment when people are talking about it more, and perhaps I’ve played a small part in being somebody who will investigate. People often bring me one case, of one borrowed poem, that they’ve come upon by accident, and they haven’t been able to find more by the same perpetrator. I normally can. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to circulate my findings widely. I do think it’s easier in the era of cut and paste, easier to do and easier to spot, and it’s possibly also an era in which a plagiarism wouldn’t be so easily noticeable, because we aren’t at one of those junctures where there’s an “in” generational style: instead, everyone is bumbling about in this “a poem just happened to me” mode, and things seem more plural and less distinctive. Plus there’s writing on several continents in English.


KJ: All words have been said already?


IL: In the exact order that they’re said across a whole page from beginning to end, they haven’t been said already.


KJ: The plagiarists I know you have found are British and Australian, are Americans more honest?


IL: Nope. If I were based in the US, I bet I would find loads. I’ve been investigating a lead on two big US names for 3 years, but I need to be in US libraries to do so properly.


KJ: Do you think people could be cyber bullied as a result of your investigation and do you think they deserve it?


I don’t think there’s been a percent of the bile and threats of violence in an average Twitter storm directed at anybody I have investigated. Given the state of the modern world, I think poets who’ve done this have been roundly told off, and faced a few snarky jokes. From the point of view of somebody saying “can’t we just forget about this, and move on, and I won’t do it again”, I can see that somebody would feel attacked. I think nearly all of them experiencing having each act in their catalogue of acts not as the catalogue being shown to them (or chickens coming home to roost) but as a piercing and unpleasant arrow each time. I can see how that would feel like cyber bullying: attacks grouping up, day after day. What I want is for them to stop ploughing on regardless. There may well be a better way to do this (more like an old-fashioned newspaper story, building up the whole picture and then releasing it in one dump). I’m open to all suggestions about improving my method. Don’t ask me to do it all behind closed doors. I’ve tried that, and mostly they stonewall and pretend there’s no problem.


KJ: Do plagiarists deserve to be called plagiarists?


IL: Yes. Do they deserve everyone talking about them negatively for days and lots of stress? No. But it’s not just me who opened that Pandora’s Box, and I take no glee in watching these things unfold. I try to urge calm and rationality and honest openness.


KJ: Is plagiarism an offence? Should there be a move towards a legal redress: adjudication in court rather than on Facebook?


IL: It’s a bit petty claims, isn’t it? And as with many such things, there is always a risk that the judge may throw it out, and the whole thing have been expensive without resolution. And it’s not up to me: I haven’t been plagiarised. What I do is say “look at this next to this”, and lay out facts. As I say, I’m not against use of other people’s texts. I don’t think they’re bad or ugly texts. I just don’t like people blustering out a bunch of obvious untruths that they’re going to do it and it doesn’t matter about the feelings of the borrowed-from, or that it was an accident, just the once and they didn’t mean to.




copyright © Ira Lightman & Katy Jones





Interview with Rory Waterman



Ira Lightman is a poet and performer who has also made public art throughout the North East of England, the West Midlands in England and the South West of England. In 2015 he made a documentary on Ezra Pound for Radio 4. A mathematician by training, he is very interested in pattern and autism, considered separately and together.


Rory Waterman is a poet whose Tonight the Summer's Over (Carcanet, 2013) was a PBS Recommendation and was short listed for the Seamus Heaney Prize. A second collection is forthcoming from Carcanet. He lectures in English at Nottingham Trent University, edits New Walk and has written books on twentieth-century poetry. He also writes about poetry for the Times Literary Supplement and other publications.




RW: What makes something plagiarism, in your eyes?


IL: Passing off work, or not intervening when your fans enthuse about your poem or lines from your poem, as if you had originated them from being a deeply sensitive person forging the conscience of your race in the smithy of your soul (not my line). Basically, taking someone else’s whole poem, altering very little of it, and reprinting it with your own name on it as if you wrote it.


RW: Do you feel satisfied with yourself when you uncover plagiarism? Is it a healthy satisfaction? If so, why?


IL: I find it a little bit like restoring a damaged painting. I usually only investigate from a tip-off (although I did catch a student plagiarising once, because the style suddenly ran too smooth in their submission, given the rest of the lines). I look through as much of the work as I can, and find a poem that feels confident but also confusing and botched.


I procedurally and slowly work through half-phrase by half-phrase, working with the little elegant building blocks and ignoring the proper nouns (which the plagiarist usually alters). When I find a match, and find the original poem, then all the hints of meaning I’d got under the botches and confusion in the plagiarism suddenly shines through. The original poem comes through, and, if anything, more precious to me because of the restoration process. That bit is healthy satisfaction.


I don’t assume that all the poets who have made the originals will feel violated, or anything other than embarrassed really. There is some satisfaction that I can have a conversation with them about rescuing their poem, caring about their poem, in a sense.


I like the fact that I’ve broadened my understanding, because every case is different; and a small part of me feels glad to find it’s a thing that a number of people do, so that less pressure is put on the one or two more famous ones who came first (in this new wave of discoveries) like Christian Ward. There is a puzzle-solving element that gives me satisfaction.


But does it feel like I felt when I went into school and sorted out kids who were bullying my sons? No. I felt momentarily very aggrieved against these school-tormentors, but also could feel for how isolated and often dysfunctional they were. My sons went through misery; people being plagiarised don’t. It felt like clouds clearing and blue sky coming through, but I’d hope that the bullies themselves would find a place and a function and feel loved and able to be creative. And plagiarists are, 99%, nothing like bullies, even pathetic ones who are just picking on one or two kids where they can get away with it.


I feel some annoyance when someone has beaten someone else unfairly to a competition win, say as runner-up to a plagiarist, but I also think that poetry competitions are a bit of a lottery and one shouldn’t invest so much self-esteem in them. If the plagiarist has secured funding, or even teaching, with a promise of publication or a publication record, that is more serious. But even then, I think of what I do as evidence- gathering; not using evidence to prosecute. I don’t use it to call anybody a name, not even “plagiarist”. I just note the large number of close resemblances between one text and another, and leave it to others who have set the rules to enforce them and deal with their violations.


RW: Which of the plagiarism cases you have dealt with are you most proud of? And do any make you feel uneasy?


IL: I don’t really take pride in the work, and felt very glad in a recent Singapore case that others were doing the searching (and finding sources for ones I drew a blank over). I see my role as supplanting speculation with fact, “I bet it’s a one-off” or “I bet it was accidental” with a pattern of evidence. The bits of my work that I’ve felt best about were when I was able to maintain a correspondence with the people accused. One of them was very hostile and denied all accusations from the person whose work he/she had used but then backed down and started to make much clearer more candid statements after we’d spoken; it hasn’t destroyed the poet’s reputation, or (I’ve kept an eye) the work. The other was a personal email giving me a list of everything he/she had plagiarised. I thought that was brave and decent, and he/she seemed to bear me no animus.


RW: Why do you dedicate so much time to it? You say you are good at it, but I'm good at ironing and it doesn't make me offer to do anyone else's.


IL: I’m not sure that I do. I devote time when someone gives me a lead, but it’s no more or less time than I do when I get an inspiration for a poem then work it through a draft. I suppose I always felt intuitively that my work was building towards something, but I didn’t know what. I’d need experience, a skill-base and public trust when the time came. This was largely what happened when the Sheree Mack case came up.


RW: Sheree Mack put her plagiarism down to failures in her record keeping. Do you believe her, and does it matter whether she is telling the truth about that anyway?


IL: I can’t speak for anybody else, and I’ve certainly known other people in my life who will cling on—in what looks like denial but which is also a way of putting together the story of one’s life with oneself as the hero or victim of it, and I know how necessary that has felt to those acquaintances. I’ve also known, as I’m sure many of us have, people with dementia, who repeat, and forget what we know they’ve just told us. I’d be more inclined to look at how people in the North East who knew Sheree were unqualified in their condemnation of Christian Ward, no quarter given. I guess one answer would be: show us the notebooks, and carbon-date them or some equivalent. Show us the drafts, for every case (and there are quite a few).


I remain open about it: I’d be interested to see if it were genuinely a failure in record keeping, every time. How do we know? Sheree Mack has just published some new work online, for International Women’s Day, on March 7th. One of the poems was previously published as the second poem in a selection of three; the first poem of those previous three, published before May 2015 when the scandal broke, very closely resembles a poem by another poet. Mack has never said that poem 1 was a “failure in record-keeping”. How does she know that poem 2 is now her own, and not a result of a “failure in record-keeping” too? If she can vouch for that, then she must now know all of the ones that were ever a “failure in record-keeping” and all the ones that were not. So, can she please release a list of the former, especially where some are still floating around under her signature? Would that not indicate good intent towards all the poets who do not want their work out there with her name on it?


For me, it matters insofar as it would help restore her good name. And it would also help heal the wounds in the North East. Rows about the Mack case still erupt from time to time. People are reluctant to invite people from both sides of the case (those who feel she was a victim of a witch hunt, who also coincidentally but not always tend to be published by Andy Croft, her publisher, or have to share a room with him as part of their poetry lives; and those who feel she committed plagiarism) to the same events.


I’ve no doubt that this has been a devastating ten months for Sheree Mack. I can see that she wants to move forward, still write, and to advance feminism and anti-racism (both of which are very important). This is a good part of the country, and a good scene. People wish her well, and wish Andy Croft well (for years and years of good writing and being an outstanding publisher). But people want questions answered, and a credible account. I hope the fact that I’m open to questions takes down any tension coming from me.


RW: After you uncovered Sheree Mack's plagiarism, her publisher, Andy Croft, called you a 'wretched creature' for failing to acknowledge any of the virtues in her offending book, Laventille. What are they?


IL: There are some. I like the heft of the book, the way it builds up a self-consistent picture from poem to poem, a landscape, and it is holding horrors up to the light that ought to be combated (of sexism, racism and brutality towards children).


I don’t think, though, that we should discount Kei Miller’s critique: that the actual landscape is often not well observed and leaps to inaccurate generalisations at times. We give the writer some trust, and that’s what makes the poems accumulate into a picture of the landscape we trust. Inaccuracy doesn’t help that. There should be books that challenge the whiteness and maleness of poetry privilege, and we’re fortunate that there are books that are starting to do this: more than one, otherwise all would be above a reproach like Miller’s.


I’d have a clearer sense of how to respond to Laventille if I knew all the sources in it. I found it beneficial to read the poem heavily derived from Douglas Dunn next to the actual poem by Dunn, and this was generally the case with the borrowings. Mack turned a poem about confused loving alienation towards a burly father into a much more sad poem with no love in it much at all, about a much more brutal father. And certainly these fathers exist, and there is a cathartic need for polemical work about them: fathers who bully, call names instead of ever listening to reason, and try to intimidate the rest of the wider family from ever talking to the person who objects to the bullying, or having questions of their own; fathers who shout and who do nothing but repeat their previously stated position verbatim; who never concede a point. I think there’s a need to have poems about such macho cowards.


If Mack had had permission to use the other texts, then she would have been showing some of the complex reliance on others who seem to hold some power (directly, in the poetry world, or as a microcosm of the world outside poetry) that one twists and reworks to make some kind of statement—although I don’t see how that would as neatly apply to making a poem about how she loves something the same way that, say, Rita Dove loved a similar thing in similar phrasing. It would have been an interesting book, on those terms.


The difficulty for Croft is that books of poems don’t work like someone reading them and saying, “I’m right”; and then reading them again and saying “see, I told you I was right”. Books hook us in, and then the good ones keep us hooked. They even, in parts, seem to contradict the whole, and then come back and you’ve gone deeper into the whole, or show that the whole is vast and contain multitudes (Whitman quote!). Once one has read into Laventille, enjoying its broad sweep and its promise of docu-poem thoroughness (which the publisher’s promotion of it hints at, not intertextual play or the song of the bard taking up all the phrases of language and liberating us all from bourgeois privatisation), one then tests that promise and reads closely, maybe speaking some poems aloud and memorizing a few. The prime effect then would have been: what interesting phrases this poet comes up with, what a poet of phraseology who hasn’t quite married it to make her subject really come alive. One would have some of the feeling I frequently have when investigating plagiarism: of a damaged painting, botches and confusion.


Some of that feeling, when one realises that Laventille has lots of borrowing, resolves into admiring the source poems that had been borrowed. Some of the feeling resolves into admiring the broad sweep (but with Miller’s reservations that it’s a bit waffly, touristy, and too broad). But nothing can fully resolve, for me, until I know all the source texts. So the Dunn borrowing works better when we know that Mack is taking a poem with a sort of happy ending of reconciliation with gruff fathers and makes it a misery poem of not even having that. Seeing the texts side by side does make a more readable text of the Mack (not just something to clear out of the way so one can see the Dunn). The use of the Kleinzahler, as Miller says, doesn’t finally resolve into more than a picturesque view of a landscape most readers won’t see, and if they do see it they’ll find the writer hasn’t really caught the exact landscape right. But, still, it functions to say: “there’s a coast, and there’s pollution”, which gives some context for understanding Laventille more than if you knew nothing.


But Laventille as a book did not, as it stood, reward close study. It was just a book to say, “See, I told you I was right”. It’s a close read only with the sources apparent. And since it freely uses at least three poems by local poets that can’t be found online, poets who could not be expected to reach as wide an audience as Mack in my opinion, I can only assume that there may be more poems in Laventille derived from sources I can’t trace. My instinct for this work, and having read every Mack publication, leads me to suspect that anyway. A full list of sources would help.


RW: You have on several occasions said that you have uncovered a recent example of plagiarism from a very well known or influential poet, but you've never made public who that is. Why not? Will you?


IL: Not yet. This is partly why I thought I was doing the work at such length, and keeping it in the news. So that others would come forward. I tend to disbelieve that this poet has only done it once; that would be unique in my researches so far. She or he covers up all half-phrases, and worked from poems shown in confidence (which the younger poet then never attempted to put in print). So it will only be by testimony against her or him that I will be able to build enough cases to expose what’s being done. The younger poet won’t come forward with the one example, so there is no extant proof. I don’t want to be sued. Of course, it’s possible it was a one-off.


I had a big lead for two cases with well-known poets in the States, but I’d need to be there to investigate.


My work to date shows: that institutions resist these investigations; that they gang up to protect friends, especially a professor (someone to whom they think they owe favours—generally a good egg); that these things happen and nobody notices; that you can’t tell a plagiarism unless someone recognises the source; that it’s not unthinkable, that it’s possible.


However, I believe, for good and ill, we live in an age where rotters do get denounced, however big they are: I don’t think there’s some mass of seething corruption and plagiarism everywhere. I think there’s some, about 1% of the time or less.


RW: Surely the more minor and desperate poets do harm of an altogether lesser kind than their more influential and hence power-abusing counterparts. Isn't an act of plagiarism more insidious when it is done from a position of power than one of weakness; and if so, why is your focus quite consistently on poets in the former category?


IL: They were telling the big lie, out in the open, and brazening it out, but could then be easily caught. The mechanisms of institutional denial, and other poets saying “don’t make a fuss”, would be the same with big fish and little fish. I was learning things I didn’t myself initially believe: that they’d do it so often, for one thing. University of Newcastle teachers were approached two months before I said anything about Sheree Mack and dismissed the whole thing, refusing to look into it, assuming that the two poets who’d come forward were the only poets involved. They didn’t bother to check Mack’s other books and basically told the complainants not to make a fuss. Imagine an institution’s response, then, when a complaint was against someone working there (Mack wasn’t). I’m learning about institutions. If they try to see that they would act more against someone in a position of power—I’d hesitate to believe them.


RW: Some of them also seem quite vulnerable—a few have talked about having mental health problems, I believe. How would you feel if you found out that one of the poets you had uncovered as a plagiarist had harmed him or herself as a result of being found out?


IL: Yes, good question. As I look back through my correspondence about Christian Ward with friends, this was the main question I was asking them: is he ok? That was when I knew we’d found two poems, and he was admitting only to one. I was frustrated when I then found a dozen more, but I could sympathise too: who wouldn’t shut down under media coverage from shareable webpages and then the national press? A friend asked on my Facebook thread: ‘why don’t you just publish his phone number while you’re at it?’ and, of course, this was what I was not doing. I was trying to lay out comparisons, to quash speculation. (Even to this day, I see people speak out in defence of Sheree Mack who haven’t looked at any of the comparisons, who just “believe in” her, and think me a witch hunter.)


The honest answer is: I think about it a lot. I always read all the accused person’s work, and I get a sense of them. I can imagine the humiliation, and that it could spell the end of a career, or the hopes of a career. That it may lead to finger-pointing or whispering from people they’ll meet in daily life who, frankly, haven’t looked at their poems or any poems, ever. I genuinely believe that, in all cases, if the poets had come forward and said, yes, it’s a fair cop, I did this, and I’m sorry and here’s a full account, that they would have been shown good will and would have had exactly the same chance as all the rest of us to rise or fall on the strength of writing or failing to write good poems. I don’t think they’d be “never published again”, nor spat at, or punched. Both Graham Nunn and Sheree Mack, who had had some funding and influence, could well have moved forward by giving a frank account and then not applying for funded positions for a good while but carrying on trying to write poems. I do, actually, think it’s more possible nowadays that an accused person could give a full and honest account quickly and then keep on in the poetry world, albeit humbled. I think that’s more possible now. In the past, it could have been hushed up, and more plagiarisms happen.


I mean, I’m talking about minute levels of integrity here. I’m not saying it’s abuse in the Catholic church. I just think the stream runs clearer if you stop trying to pass off others’ work as your own, and get on with that. Or come out as a postmodernist and attribute your sources. I think there’s more inner peace that way. My considerable qualm is that all these people’s names now come up in Google as generic baddies, as if they were serious criminals, and they’re really not. My hope was always that they’d deal with it quickly and honestly.


I always want to protect students. I think that teaching writing to students is a sacred task, and I’m horrified at the thought of bad teachers (who can be perfectly good poets) and then, as a specific instance, of poet-teachers who can’t give any account and could therefore be nicking student lines and student poems. If you’re a starter poet and you’ve published a few, you can come back more easily than a student poet who’s had work nicked by a teacher.


I generally feel an enormous duty of care towards anyone suicidal or with mental health difficulties. I also like to disentangle plagiarism from mental health, and not blame the one on the other. I will say, as a point perhaps of moral rigidity on my part, that I’ve been very close to a suicide-threatener, and I felt my strings were pulled for years and years. For my own personal wellbeing, I never respond to anyone saying “I’m going to commit suicide over this and it will be your fault”. My approach is not to pretend that I haven’t found anything, and to approach the plagiarist personally and offer to hear them out and talk about things, perhaps towards them making a credible statement. If they’re intransigent, I’m unlikely to remain silent.


RW: Some of the social media buzz around your sleuth work has seemed disproportionate, especially at first: a few people seemed to take a strange sort of vicarious gossipy pleasure out of Christian Ward's downfall, for instance. What did you make of the reaction?


IL: I never saw actual threats of violence. I think there was some harsh banter. I think social media generally tends to do hate pile-on stuff from time to time (e.g., when a friend of mine reviewed another friend of mine, and I was witness to a whole load of “well, f… that idiot” type comments; I played peacemaker behind the scenes in that incident) and I don’t like it. I try not to play victim if somebody criticises me, and not to invite people to hate anyone who criticises me. I try to calm anything getting nasty towards a plagiarist.


My position around the Ward case, all along, was that he should just say it’s what he did, and he did it to teach himself and to play with text in a postmodern way. At the time, I was very aware of having a lot of poet friends who didn’t like postmodern stuff, so I didn’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater; I wanted to take the opportunity to say that postmodern text-mixing (properly accredited) is perfectly valid. I think a lot of people were mocking Ward’s initial defence of himself, when only the Mort borrowing was known. That’s when it seemed to cross over from text-mixing to fibbing. Even so, yes, it sometimes smacked of enjoying watching a fibber fall.


I think my own problem at the time (in 2013) was that I was just using Facebook too much, and posting my every tea break and fart. So I was posting every thought about Ward. I think he was a casualty of my garrulousness, and I regret that. (It affected my own reputation a little, as an obsessive, etc).


RW: You are now surely better known for your plagiarism sleuth work than you are for your poetry. Doesn't that bother you? And are you glad to have the recognition, invitations to talk, etc. that have come from your plagiarist hunting?


IL: Well, I’ve had two invitations to talk, and about twenty tags on Facebook to join discussions or give my considered opinion, so it’s not many. I’m trying to write a book about the sleuthing, so perhaps there will be more. I think I’m also known for having Tom Baker size hair and, in all honesty, I prefer it when people make comments about the sleuthing than the hair.


I don’t think that people try to connect up my poetry with my sleuthing work: maybe a little because I am a bit of a pattern-geek and there isn’t much emotion in my work for some (just comedy); so it makes sense that the pattern-obsessive would be someone who can comb text for pattern in plagiarism-sleuthing. In that sense, it’s all part and parcel of something that gives insight into my poems.


I think I’m known, as a poet, for being interested in language-patterns in a Sherlock Holmes way and being funny/a clown, and that doesn’t seem to have changed: if anything I can try to do some more dark and angry material now and people will say “well, yes, I always knew he was capable of having a bee in his bonnet”. I don’t give many readings anyway, because I’m very much a hands-on dad, and I never did publish many poems in big places: I don’t think that if I’d never done any plagiarism work, I’d now be a Faber poet reviewed in the Guardian. I suspect more people are checking out what kind of poems I write now that they know me through the sleuthing, so it hasn’t harmed my poetry life (although I feel guilt at having other people’s career-blood on my hands as a part of that).


The feeling I was having before the plagiarism stuff was that nobody thinks there’s any meaning or catharsis in my work: they think it’s trance-like, comic, pattern-generated. That wouldn’t have changed if I hadn’t done plagiarism sleuthing, and possibly has changed now. There’s a side in my early work that’s very agitprop and protest poetry, and I’ve always wanted it there in my poetry. But maybe it’s not my fate. I don’t feel I’ve restricted myself as a poet because of the sleuthing.


As for recognition, I like it whenever anybody wants to talk in detail about things, as if understanding them might give us tools to talk to power and be more practical and make our world. I like it that people know I care about that. But in the details of the plagiarism stuff, the main job is done: to say what happened, and what the shape of it was, and not to let people lie that it wasn’t happening. I really don’t want to rehearse it over and over.


RW: Would you be sad if the leads dried up?


IL: No. I do like to feel useful, though.




copyright © Ira Lightman & Rory Waterman