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.

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