Thursday, 30 July 2015

Begged, Borrowed, or Stolen

There has been a bit of a stramash concerning plagiarism of poetry lately. It’s nothing new – poets have pilfered from other poets for eternity, and some of the great poets are impenetrably hard to read simply because the obscure referencing is far too deeply-layered for the unenlightened. But when a poet takes another’s poem and, changing just a few words, publishes the thing as if it is their own work, alarm-bells ring in the offices of intellectual property lawyers.

Sometimes we are influenced by other writers, or hear words or phrases that get so under our skin that we re-use them without realising. The 20th Century composer, Vaughan Williams, used the term ‘cribbing’ to describe the skill of using another’s musical idea. He said that cribbing was permissible as long as you knew that you were doing it. Music and poetry, however, are rather different forms.

One of my Phone Box Tales, which I performed at the 2013 Fringe, was about a man who spied on (or, more accurately, stalked) a poet and, stealing a bunch of dis-carded drafts of her poems got them published. I stole the idea for that story from a friend who happily permitted me – as long as I acknowledged her in the dedication! But the character in my story knew exactly what he was doing.

Other art-forms present issues when they are stolen or appropriated. A friend (now ex-friend) told me last year that her Masters Degree (in Creative Industries) had been jeopardised by someone who had plagiarised stock-photos for their project – a collaboration between students. My hunch is that it was this friend who had done this, since she only graduated recently, nearly a year after the Degree Show. The university must have given her a second chance. But theft is theft.

When I was doing a Creative Writing course with the O.U. I made the mistake of sending in a poetry assignment with one-too-many poems. The tutor, thankfully, discarded the extraneous poem in her marking. However, it meant that I couldn’t submit that poem in a subsequent assignment because it would have been picked up by the system. It seems that students can’t even plagiarise themselves!

I asked my erstwhile friend why people would want to plagiarise: surely artists and creative types strive for authenticity? She mumbled something about laziness, or hope that they wouldn’t be found out. She never uttered anything stronger, or voiced concern for the other students on her course. Her main beef was that the cost of the course would be wasted.

To be a good artist, or an original creator, you have to develop a voice of your own. To do that, you also have to soak up all available influences by reading, viewing, learning, and listening to everything there is. I get irritated by young poets who think they are teaching kids about poetry by presenting their own take on the form (which is in fact performance art, not poetry) having never studied poetry themselves. Simply passing off the great masters as ‘boring’ is arrogant, and ignorant.

Some of my earliest influences, from school-teachers, continue to feed my poetic voice. I latched onto the pop-poets (the Liverpool Sound) when a middle-school teacher enthused about Roger McGough, but I was 19 before Brian Patten impacted on me. We were fed the War Poets, but it was Pat Barker’s trilogy that brought them alive years later. I got the Sylvia Plath confessional stuff, yet it took decades to understand her universality. As for the Romantics: I’ve barely scratched the surface.

All these – and many other – styles affect and influence me, and if I steal or crib or pilfer from any of my favourite (or even, less-favoured) poets and writers, I make my official apology here. Sometimes, however, I write poems that are nonetheless based quite closely on existing pieces. I think this may be called pastiche. That said, at risk of plagiarism, here is my take on a Roger McGough poem.


Dining Solo


When Roger McGough bought fish & chips for one,

He felt like a priest in the chip-shop cue.

And it’s true: sometimes, when I sit in a café alone

I wish I had someone to share my pot of tea-for-two.


I’ve also learned, on the subject of plagiarising oneself, that there is a tricky problem when submitting work to a publication or competition if it has already appeared on a personal blog or other form of social media. To publish = “make public.” However, one is allowed to use a 10% sample. So here is a wee taster of a story that I am currently sending off for publication:

(extract from 'Revenge' - a short story)

                We did all the things that new lovers do: the furtive glances led to casual coffees; texting became frequent; we’d meet in favourite places. The glances led to kisses; the rapid-fire texts turned suggestive; the places we met became ‘special’ and – finally – we consummated our relationship in a way that no film can. She was, at first, reticent to commit, but I let it pass. On my side, there was a secrecy to which we were both sworn. My position in the University gave her a frisson; me, a vulnerability.

                As summer lingered, I knew time was on my side. If money can’t buy love, it sure as hell can’t buy time. Once, as we sat on newly-mown grass in the Gardens, she suddenly said: ‘I’ve got a secret.’

                ‘Oh?’ I sat up, curious.

                ‘It’s a biggie,’ she added.

                Quietly pleased to be let into her confidence, I said, ‘Go on.’

                ‘I’ve always secretly wanted to have a child. On my own.’

                ‘On your own?’ I pointed out: ‘Impossible!’

                ‘Not so,’ she explained: ‘You can buy the means off the internet.’

                Perplexed, ‘But…’ Touching the fingers of her left hand I said: ‘You’ve got me.’ Her hair dropped over her eyes as she lowered her head.

                ‘I know,’ she replied, a half-smile breaking on her lips as she moved to kiss me: ‘I know.’

                By autumn, it was over. Not a word, explanation or reason. Not a hint of the season which had warmed our bodies was to be seen. I dropped by her flat one evening, but looking through the bare windows saw the room was cold and empty. She was gone.


If it doesn’t find a home, and I have whetted your appetite, I guess I’ll let you have the remaining 90% at some point. Unless someone else steals it from me first. Next month, I will conclude the story of the past four blog-posts and tell the truth behind my poetry.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Secrets and Lies

Anyone reading this blog for the first time might want to read the two preceding posts, since this is the continuation of a long tale. This is a story of secrets, lies, deception, and control. In Anglican liturgy there is a sentence that precedes the rite of confession: ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.’ Avoiding theology, I prefer to use ‘wrong’ rather than sin.

A few months ago I saw a short article on manipulators. I wish I’d read it twelve months ago – although I had no idea at that time that I was being duped by an unscrupulous, frighteningly duplicitous person.

This woman, who I have been at pains not to name or identify, had no concept of wrong. She showed no remorse for the wrong-doings in her life, and was equally dismissive of my difficult past. When I opened up to her and shared elements of my personal history, making myself totally vulnerable, she expressed nothing but unflinching support and respect for me. Expressing her thoughts on love, however, apparently scared her. I never imagined that she had an ulterior motive.

How could I do anything other than believe that she was scared of love? Or was reticent to name it? Like the queen in Suzanne Vega’s song, she closed herself up like a fan. She spoke of a ‘bird in her chest.’ Sometimes the feathers fluttered pleasurably; other times, this thing threatened to angrily burst out of her chest. How could I interpret this? In poetry, of course. Since I assumed she had some knowledge of classical music – she claimed to be giving violin lessons, though I never heard her play – much of my poetry was based on song. One was after a beautiful song by Delius:


Twilight Answers

With a lowly rumble of chords and a spiky tritone
Delius evokes the forest’s misty floor, from where
a herd-boy lifts his horn and, calling through
the enveloping dark, gives ear to the reply.

He senses through the throbbing harmony
the shepherd in a clearing in the dying light;
his horn-call as it penetrates the canopy
calls out to someone, somewhere, hearing,
as the silent sun goes down.

He knows she’s there, can almost hear
the evening breeze like feathers in her hair.
But in the fading light, with drooping semitone
he, lowering his instrument, loiters yet alone.

The composer conjures another throbbing
expectation and although, in the distance,
the shepherd now hears a yearning sobbing
his lips remain unlicked; retaining his stance
he sees the sun going down.

So Delius repeats the now-familiar strophe
as if to tempt, avoid, or coax catastrophe;
the crackle of twigs in the early glistening
gloam assures the shepherd she is listening

but will not, or cannot, or perhaps, chooses
not to answer. He lifts his horn a final time
and as darkness falls the herd-boy refuses
to hear the piano’s final diminishing  sigh
that saw the sun go down.

She was, it seemed, creative. I’d seen some of her photography when idly googling her name on the internet. She made films too, apparently. She sent me a short piece which she’d put together, based on a poem. In the film-captions, she credited herself as the writer, dedicated it to me, and put the name of the voice-over – a university colleague. For this reason, I cannot post the film on here. But I can put a link to the film which she’d taken, cropping the ending and passing it off as her own.


Morning, Noon, and Night

The cuckoo, according to the rhyme,
allegedly changes its tune over time.
As a chick, it starts out with a semitone;
a tentative chirp in its burrowed home,
then expands to a whole-note interval
to celebrate its fledgling festival.
It’s not long before the minor-third
becomes the adolescent bird,
then, brighter still, comes major next
as the cuckoo attempts to flee the nest.
As the interval grows ever-wider,
the cuckoo finds it increasingly harder
to establish itself with its broken voice,
and nature gives it little choice
but to steal another’s nest (or lover)
and repeat the same tune over and over.


During this time, the cuckoo kept on cropping up in my poetry. I had no idea that this woman who I was becoming more and more besotted with was not only too good to be true, but was stealing more than other birds’ nests. It would be a matter of weeks that the cuckoo’s call, with its ominous warning, would be heard, too late. ‘Oh, bird of fear, unpleasing to the married ear,’ as Shakespeare says. Having shared much of the poetry I was writing, my ‘girlfriend’ (not that I was able to call her that) sent me a picture that she had been working on. It was a vulture: sinister and macabre.

If this was the bird that fluttered inside her chest, there really was something strange going on. But, as I said in my previous post, there was also something far more important developing deep inside her. Then, however, at a crucial point in our relationship something shocking happened. Despite being estranged from her family whose religious convictions she did not share, my ‘new-love’ was dealt a strange blow. Her mother, allegedly prone to extreme mental ill-health, took her own life.

Around this time, my parents were due to visit me to hear a poetry reading I was giving at the National Library. I wanted to introduce them to the new person in my life. Unfortunately, she had to travel to England for her mother’s funeral. Seemingly in shock (but coping admirably) she ended up organising everything for the funeral – she even sent me pictures of all the flowers she’d bought.

She had booked a holiday with friends, due to leave the day after the funeral. I’d planned a trip to England too, so this meant a brief separation. First, we had to discuss the tricky issue of her pregnancy. We agreed, given the early stage of our relationship, that we were not ready to have a child in our lives. My fear that this bombshell would seriously undermine what was going on between us was unfounded. She professed her love for me; we made love (if only that was the true term) for hours and then, she departed for the funeral/holiday.

During that holiday, only a few weeks into the pregnancy, she had a miscarriage. I was hundreds of miles away, and could not have felt further from the person (so I thought) I loved. Then a bigger bombshell dropped. After many “wish you were here”-type texts from her holiday destination in the Western Isles, I received the message that no-one in love wants to hear. She wanted to withdraw from our intimate relationship.  

The Cuckoo and The Nightingale

                And the King…

                harkened to the Nightingale’s sorrowfulness

                ’til all his own was gone.

                                                - Walter De La Mare

Handel penned an organ conversation
between two lonely, disparate birds.
The Cuckoo and the Nightingale,
though seldom seen or heard together,
met in a Garden where a King once walked.
Though tentative at first, they talked and talked.

‘Your song is sad,’ the Cuckoo said: ‘Why so?’
The Nightingale recited melodies
relating a thousand sorry stories
of love lost, slighted, or unrequited;
of Knights-at-arms, and shepherds-in-thrall
to merciless, mendacious maidens;
of Cypress trees and a lonely King
with unexplained sadness; and willows weeping.

The Cuckoo was appalled at how
the Nightingale regaled the sadnesses
that filled the early evening air.
While she cuckoo’d her ostinato
Nightingale whistled and trilled,
and repeated his tune in a modulation.
Cuckoo continued her cliché, rejoicing
in all that was unpleasing to her friend.

‘You’re a funny little bird,’ said Cuckoo.
‘All your jargon sings of sorrowfulness
and yet you pepper it with turns and trills
and ornaments.’

                                ‘I beg your pardon,’
requested Nightingale. ‘My song goes on
while yours – little more than a cheap thrill –
is spent by June or – at latest – July.’

‘That may be true, Cuckoo replied,’
since I must fly the nest. I refuse
to waste my song in elaborate catches. I
adapt my interval to fit whatever music matches.
You move in modulation while I cadence;
your sequential passages are smart,
but I provide a satisfying answer
without elaboration of intellect or heart.

The Nightingale noticed a flaw in the argument.
‘I hear that basic tune you pipe without
emotion, simplistic. While you augment
your vocals I remain bel canto.

                                                ‘You fantasize,’
accused Cuckoo, ‘that I am common and stupid.
Though classically trained you’d be wise
to remember the potency of cheap music.’

At this point Nightingale halted his song,
although neither was out of turn. Cuckoo, however,
had seen her chance and focussed her notes on a
trysting couple who met in the Garden.
Nightingale, silent, observed as the courting
occurred and the new lovers kissed.
The Cuckoo transgressed; her melody turned
from melancholic minor third to a perfect fourth.

Nightingale chirruped and warned them
of this cheeky bird’s deceit. But cuckoos
never give a fuck whose hearts are broken,
or who may be tricked by a fleeting melody.
While Nightingale revelled in bitter malady
and analysed every single conversation,
Cuckoo adapted to whatever was wanted
and summed up the simple sexual situation.

But Nightingale, noticing that Cuckoo’s notes
were (like the lovers) already drifting apart,
introduced a tone that some describe as ‘blue.’
Cuckoo, completing the movement, instigated
a musical rendition of “I love you”
(contestable, of course) at which
the conversation of the lovers was through.
However, the birds still had to settle a score.

Said Nightingale: ‘You started with a minor third,
but by the end a major fifth was heard.’

                                                 ‘I know,’
concurred Cuckoo, ‘But don’t imagine I don’t
feel guilty myself. Most of the lovers I court
fall apart and end up unhappy as yours.
All I do is laugh and jest and then
fly off again in search of another nest – 
in fruitless pursuit of love and happiness.’

As Nightingale half-listened she went on:
‘My sorrowfulness is never, ever gone.
While I am stuck in perfidious, invincible spring,
your sorrow (or the lovers’ you console) is done.’
Nightingale noticed Cuckoo had changed her tune.
‘I know,’ said cuckoo, sadly. ‘It’s what I do.’
So Nightingale continued his melancholy song,
while Cuckoo said again: ‘I know. It’s what I do.’


To say I was devastated understates the damage she had intended to cause me. Something was seriously wrong. The person I had been in an intimate and ecstatic relationship with for several months had dumped me by text, blocked me from Facebook, and deleted her twitter. It was at this point that the elaborate web of deceit that she had strung me along with began to unravel.



I tried to piece together

   the puzzle of our love.

But you’d placed your

  pieces upside down.


You claimed we

   didn’t fit together.

Only when you left

   did I begin to see


the fuller picture

    and the missing

piece you took

   away with you


After she abruptly and cruelly ended our relationship, I began to dig for clues. The question that plagued me was: why did she do this? I wanted to get to the bottom of it – to know the truth. As Hannah Arendt said, ‘there is only one truth, but it is alive, and so has a constantly changing face.’ I was in a desperate state of heart-break and confusion, and at that stage, still concerned for her. After all, she had just lost the child that we had supposedly created. But was this even true?

In my desperation, I went to her flat to deliver a poem in person. I’d printed it out on tiny slips of thin paper, stitched together with a feather. It was originally titled with her surname which, so she told me, meant ‘little bird.’ I’m sure that, whatever her own understanding of truth, she had been as taken in by her own mendacity as I had been deceived. But I had also managed to deceive myself, as I discovered when I knocked at her door.

Little Bird

Against all probability
and expectations of weather,
I discovered a fancy, a charm:
a tiny, exquisite feather.

I gave it to my loved one
but she wasn’t that impressed.
She said she felt it flutter deep
inside her delicate chest.
As it grew against her wishes
with teasing and with tickling
the thing became a little bird
with uncontrollable wings.
My love was, first, beguiled
but soon it turned into confusion,
for a single lucky feather
quickly grew into profusion.
It would, she knew, develop
from fledgling to fully-grown;
she felt it was far more
than just a feather I had sown.
In time the bird grew desperate,
and flapped and pecked and clawed.
It neither sang nor carolled,
nor chirped nor karked nor cawed.
It was as if the bird alive
was trapped inside a cage;
with no way of escape it flapped
in frantic, pointless rage.
I asked, what type of bird is this:
a pigeon or a dove?
A cuckoo or a nightingale;
a bird of prey or love?
She couldn’t say at first but then
declared it was a vulture.
It wasn’t quite what I had wished-
for in this wingéd creature.
She feared its wings would open wide
and break out of her frame.
Consoling her with soothing words –
she panicked just the same –
I said, this bird is real, I know:
a creature of our making.
Embrace it, place it in your heart:
it is yours for the taking.
But if she took, I’ll never know,
for the feather faded away.
The bird, disturbed, disappeared
without word in a single day.
It was at the hottest time of the year
that we came together as one.
But, as Icarus was mortal, we also
had flown too close to the sun.
The charm I gave my love was
little more than a waxen feather.
And as the sun went down, the bird
melted and slid right out of her.

Against all possibility,
in meaning beyond my verse
I discovered how a blessing
quickly turns into a curse.

If you have been following this story in the previous posts on this blog, you will know that I once saw her with a grey-haired man, about whom I knew nothing since she was careful not to reveal his existence to me. I found a link between him and her on Facebook.  She claimed he was one of her ‘best friends in the world.’ Their picture said otherwise. This man answered the door. I then learned that she hadn’t been attending her mother’s funeral two Saturdays before, as she had told me.

This man, a so-called best friend, was my ex-lover’s new husband. Her mother had attended their wedding on the day she was supposedly being laid to rest. As secrets turned to lies, at first I thought there must be some confusion. But when the penny dropped with a loud clang, I told this man exactly what had been going on. Understandably, he asked me to leave. And as I did, I swear I heard the cuckoo’s mocking call.


If I could leave this story here, I would.