Chipping In Late on Plagiarism in Poetry

Speaking of coming to things late: I know it’s two-month-old news and thus completely forgotten and assumed to be done and dusted, but I wanted to chip in quickly with some random thoughts on the recent poetry plagiarism “scandal”, which has been kind of fascinating and baffling to me in equal measure. So I will.

1. There’s such a thing as a poetry plagiarism detective.

I know that’s not his official title, but I’m tickled that there’s someone out there dedicating so much time to googling poems to find out who’s ripped off who. Mr. Ira Lightman, I salute you. Pissing a lot of people off, too, it would seem. Anyone who wants to watch car crashes 140 characters at a time, though, now has that option. Which is kind of fun.

2. Does this mean that poetry judges are going to start using plagiarism detectors?

One thing that hasn’t come out of anything I’ve read is a response from any of the judges or prize committees about what they’re going to do to revise their submission processes to avoid future acceptance of plagiarised poems. I would assume they’re all talking about setting things up the same way that universities do – plagiarism filters are pretty easy to get onto. The issue, I would imagine, would be finding the resources to support a plagiarism scan for every entry – by which I mean finding someone to actually do it. Given that most poetry competitions – and poetry journals – seem to not have enough manpower to even put together rejection letters, this is a bit of a challenge for their already stretched resources, but I think it’s pretty obvious that this is an important enough issue that finding those resources should be a major priority.

3. Did they give the money back?

Another thing I haven’t heard about is whether these plagiarising poets are going to give the money back. I’m pretty sure that none of them have it lying around – if I’d won $10K or whatever it is for a poem you can bet I would spending that shit pretty quick. Nevertheless, it’s a question worth asking and one I’d love to know the answer to.

4. This whole thing is eerily like that Andrew Masterson novel.

In Death of the Author an academic and minor poet has a bunch of his poems published under someone else’s name in a bunch of small literary journals. The book revolves around the idea of the pettiness and irrelevance of that kind of crime, with some funny scenes involving the poet reporting the plagiarism to the police. I guess the idea of plagiarism is pretty common, but I was waiting for someone to mention this book. Maybe I missed it.

5. You’re never going to find out why they did it to your satisfaction.

It seems like this kind of literary hoax/scandal thing turns up pretty damn often: Ern Malley, Helen Darville, that thing where publishers were tricked into rejecting a Patrick White manuscript… And when it does, there’s often a blogger or reporter who wants to sit down with the person who did it and say “So. Why did you do it?” Sure, it’s great confrontational reporting, but the only conclusion you’re ever going to walk away with in that scenario is either a) “They’re nuts” or b) “They’re lying”. Maybe both (cf. Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey). Sometimes you’ll get the poets themselves issuing quasi-apologies too, as has been the case with both G. Nunn and A. Slattery, but those are always kind of limp and unsatisfying too. I think plagiarism is an unconscious, compulsive behaviour – a kind of sociopathy that doesn’t simply stop or go away after it’s been revealed or discovered. People plagiarise for internal reasons that they don’t – that they can’t – properly understand or articulate. As David Brooks pointed out in his excellent Sons of Clovis, why would you ask a liar why they lied? And why would you think that the answer they gave you wasn’t a lie?

6. One of the (alleged) plagiarising poets was (allegedly) plagiarised by another (alleged) plagiarising poet, who himself was published by another one of the (alleged) plagiarising poets.

This is just a little thing, but when I visited Vuong Pham’s blog and read over the list of acknowledgements that he’s provided, which is a list of poems he’s used as the basis of his own poems, I noticed Andrew Slattery’s name among them. Recursive much?  Also the fact that one of Pham’s chapbooks was published by Graham Nunn gives the whole thing a subtle collaborative flavour, whether that’s reflective of actual events or not.

7. Newspapers only write about poets behaving badly.

Seems to me the only time poets get in the papers is when they’re either stealing shit from each other, making fun of each other or arguing with each other. In the last few years we had a stoush about whether slam was shit or not, poets sending each other threats of violence and issuing restraining orders, and now this. And then of course there’s the whole Ern Malley thing. Don’t the papers just love a poetry scandal? It sure would be nice to see a “POETRY IS PRETTY EXCELLENT AND TOTALLY HELPFUL AND STILL RELEVANT TO EVERYONE YAY POETRY” headline every now and then.

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7 comments on “Chipping In Late on Plagiarism in Poetry
  1. Stu Hatton says:

    “I think plagiarism is an unconscious, compulsive behaviour – a kind of sociopathy that doesn’t simply stop or go away after it’s been revealed or discovered”

    Compulsive, sure, but unconscious? Perhaps in part or on some level(s). But what Nunn was doing seemed wilful and calculated. Whereas Pham seemed ignorant of the fact that he might be doing something illicit. The Slattery case is probably the more complex one.

    “the fact that one of Pham’s chapbooks was published by Graham Nunn gives the whole thing a subtle collaborative flavour, whether that’s reflective of actual events or not.”

    Actually, in case you missed it, apparently Nunn was Pham’s mentor.

    • Adam Ford says:

      Ah – no I didn’t know about the mentor thing. Still, Slattery’s name popping up as one of the “sources” of Pham’s poetry was intriguing.

      Re: unconscious/compulsive, I guess I’m basing this on my limited personal encounters with plagiarists, where the plagiarism seemed part of a larger issue related to compulsive lying, and which synced in my mind with the impressions I got of Helen Darville from her interviews and repeat deceptions. Interestingly, this encounter I had with plagiarists involved two people, one woman who immediately admitted she’d copied it, saying “that’s just how we did it at school – was that wrong?” and a bloke who denied it down to the wire and then turned all apologetic and “i don’t know why i did it i was a fool”. I’ve encountered the guy – who just happens to also be a poet – a couple of times since and each time he’s told desperately obvious lies about himself, so no lesson learned from our first encounter, apparently.

  2. Stu Hatton says:

    Yeah, fair play. Helen Darville’s was definitely an interesting case, although it went beyond plagiarism per se.

    The only plagiarist I remember encountering was a guy in my year 10 lit class who plagiarised a poem for an assignment. It was a well-known poem, apparently, but I never found out which one. The teacher screamed at him and effectively expelled him from her class. She definitely ‘made an example of him’, in other words.

    Also, with regard to plagiarism detection, the only decent software I’ve come across is Turnitin, but it comes at a cost, and has its limitations. It wouldn’t pick up, say, plagiarism of poems from self-published chapbooks that aren’t available online. Perhaps the bigger prizes will adopt Turnitin or something like it–especially prizes awarded under the auspices of universities, where licensing the software for the judges (or administrators) may come at no extra cost.

    • Adam Ford says:

      Ha. My brother submitted one if my own poems as his own for a year ten English assignment. The teacher was my old English teacher. My brother got a B. I was happy with that mark from Mr. Hammond. He was a hard marker.

  3. Jay B. says:

    Is it possible the poets did not do it on purpose? I can´t imagine someone copying someone else´s work without any regrets and fear that they are going to be exposed. It has to be so stressful to go through with it. If they were consciously aware off committing such a crime would they feel pleasure of doing that? I have no understanding for this.

    • Adam Ford says:

      I guess it’s possible, jay, but the three poets at the forefront of this particular incident have all pretty much admitted to using other poets’ words in their own poems – what they’re disputing is why they did it and whether what they did is theft, plagiarism, deception, misrepresentation, whatever you want to call it.

  4. Andrew Masterson says:

    Hey, Adam — Nice piece, and thanks for mentioning my novel. It’s nice to know someone, somewhere, read it.

    All the best for 2014.

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Adam Ford is the author of the poetry books The Third Fruit is a Bird, Not Quite the Man for the Job and From My Head, the novel Man Bites Dog and the short story collection Heroes and Civilians.

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