The Argotist OnlineTM
with Ira Lightman about Plagiarism in Poetry
following are three interviews with Ira Lightman on the subject of plagiarism in
Interview with Amy Mackelden
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.
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.
Why do you care so much about plagiarism?
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.
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.
How did you start out investigating plagiarists?
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).
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
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
you surprised by the reaction to your discoveries?
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,
Do you ever feel like you shouldn’t be doing what you do?
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.
While you have the support of some poets, you have many critics also. Why do you
think that is?
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.
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.
Isn’t everything plagiarised?
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.
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?
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
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.
Do any plagiarism excuses—absent-minded borrowing, forgetting to reference,
creative process—ever hold true?
Not in my experience.
An important question: do you make any money from being a plagiarism sleuth?
I've been paid about Ł300, half for an article and half for doing a
presentation + Q&A at a literary festival.
Do you plan to make any money off the back of it?
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
Has there been any correlation between your plagiarism work and your poetry
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.
Has the plagiarism sleuthing influenced your poetry?
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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
with Katy Jones
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.
is a pseudonym, as the interviewer prefers to remain anonymous.
What do you feel is the appropriate response to an allegation of plagiarism?
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.
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.
poet Ted Berrigan didn’t do any of this; but then nobody complained to him
about use of their poem.
How did you first get involved?
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.
Do you think you have ever failed to cite a resource/appropriated material?
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.
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?
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.
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
How should things be referenced?
“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.
What is your response to allegations that you are a bully?
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.
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
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.
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.
If say, for example, someone has used obtained a degree/job through it?
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?
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”.
Why is plagiarism damaging?
I think mainly because it demoralises, and it rewards phonies.
Why if you have raised the issue of plagiarism do you continue to follow
Because people leap to the assumptions “it’s a one-off” and “I bet
everything they do is plagiarism”.
Are you a witch hunter? Are you causing a moral panic—mass hysteria?
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.
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.
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
Why do you choose Facebook as the medium for doing so? Does this not make it a
more personal attack?
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.
Why do you think people plagiarise?
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
How much of a problem do you think plagiarism really is?
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
Are there any losers?
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.
What is your response to the reasons that have been given for sampling?
you sample, you have to give credit, and money. There is plenty of writing using
sampling that I like.
Historically this has frequently occurred; why is it a problem now?
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.
All words have been said already?
In the exact order that they’re said across a whole page from beginning to
end, they haven’t been said already.
The plagiarists I know you have found are British and Australian, are Americans
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.
Do you think people could be cyber bullied as a result of your investigation and
do you think they deserve it?
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.
Do plagiarists deserve to be called plagiarists?
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
Is plagiarism an offence? Should there be a move towards a legal redress:
adjudication in court rather than on Facebook?
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.
Ira Lightman & Katy Jones
with Rory Waterman
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.
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.
What makes something plagiarism, in your eyes?
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.
Do you feel satisfied with yourself when you uncover plagiarism? Is it a healthy
satisfaction? If so, why?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Which of the plagiarism cases you have dealt with are you most proud of? And do
any make you feel uneasy?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.)
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
Would you be sad if the leads dried up?
No. I do like to feel useful, though.
© Ira Lightman & Rory Waterman