Over the last few days, the UK poetry community has been engaged in a fierce dialogue revolving around Ira Lightman’s recent (and massive) discovery of plagiarism on the part of Sheree Mack, a poet from Newcastle and frequent, vocal participant in the online workshopping group 52 (run by Jo Bell). Lightman was alerted to the possibility of some uncredited ‘borrowings’ in Mack’s second collection Laventille (Smokestack Books, 2015) and once he began investigating he uncovered 12 poems that contained stolen lines. Lightman confronted both Mack and the publisher, Andy Croft. Their reactions were contradictory in both content and tone.
Mack produced a pseudo-apology that allowed her to ask for forgiveness without first admitting that she had done anything wrong. She states:
Pressures of doing too much, and impatience to be published, feeding the public machine with work has made me slack, and I have made mistakes in my record keeping and attribution. I fill journal after journal with writing, personal and professional, sometimes going back years to mine or rework things. It is blindingly obvious now that I didn’t take enough care to ensure what may have started off as a prompt was labelled accordingly at the outset, or that perhaps through revisiting and redrafting over time I have lost track of their inception. Never, never, have I set out to deceive, mislead, or appropriate the work of others.
I acknowledge the accusation that Ira Lightman has posted about my writing. I hereby publicly apologise to my readers, the poetry community and most of all to the poets whose work I have unintentionally appropriated.
This apology is problematic at best. The phrase ‘feeding the public machine with work’ implies that the blame for her plagiarism lies with her readers for demanding so much of her writing. Her description of her process is laid out in such a way as to normalize the act of reading a poem in someone else’s book and taking whatever lines she likes, jackdaw fashion, to suture (clumsily) into the stuff of her text.
It is impossible to unintentionally appropriate anything. If a person walks into a shop, examines a scarf and decides (because the price is too high for them) that they will slip it into their pocket and walk out the door, that person (unless they are suffering from a mental illness) is intentionally doing something wrong. If they get caught by a security guard, and the store decides to prosecute, the thief is not the victim and blame cannot be shifted.
Of course, this analogy fails to capture how intensely personal plagiarism is. The shop assistant was not emotionally invested in the creation of the scarf.
I wrote, in a Facebook post about plagiarism, that I think it’s a type of intellectual violence. The plagarist takes something essential to an author (their ideas, and the ways in which those ideas are presented) and cuts them to pieces that they suture together with rough-twine connective-tissue and allow to slouch into half-life like a less eloquent version of Frankenstein’s Creature. They take the fruits of months (or years) of another person’s intellectual life, their work, and blithely mutilate it to serve their temporary need.
Getting published in this way must be a sour sort of victory; the thief’s smug sense of sly triumph contrasted with contempt for the readers that are so easily taken in, mixed with a crippling sense of insecurity. I cannot imagine that the cut-and-paste effort is worth the personal cost.
When the publisher was given the chance to respond, he did so with the vitriol of a man caught out by his own ignorance. Croft attacked Ira Lightman personally, denying all claim of wrongdoing while still admitting that all outstanding, uncredited copies of Mack’s book would be immediately pulped. His post on the Smokestack page mixed a palpable sense of (slightly heteronormative) anger at Lightman for uncovering the thefts with a denial of any wrongdoing on the part of his author – a position that was heavily undermined by the fact that he has arranged for all of the offending books to be pulped:
I recently received an e-mail from a Mr Ira Lightman, making allegations of plagiarism regarding Sheree Mack’s collection Laventille. These have since been made public on his Facebook page (among a great many photographs of Mr Lightman), kick-starting a long and mostly unpleasant ‘thread’ of abuse directed at Sheree.
It seems to me incredible that this wretched creature can have read Laventille so thoroughly, so forensically, without apparently noticing what a brave and beautiful book it is. He says nothing about the quality of Sheree’s poetry, about the book’s portrait of the 1970 Black Power revolution in Trinidad, or about the balance the book achieves between documentary history and poetry. He makes no comment on its place in the dull context of contemporary British poetry, its contribution to the tradition of Black writing, or Sheree’s place in Smokestack’s list of radical poets.
This approach will prove, I think, to be a mistake. It is the responsibility of an editor to vet the contents and legitimacy of the authors that they represent. If such thefts are brought to light, an honest publisher will respond with grace and sorrow. An honest publisher will work to make amends at once.
I am reposting an example of one of the plagiarized poems below, provided by Ira Lightman, alongside the original.
Men of Terry Street
by DOUGLAS DUNN
They come in at night, leave in the early morning.
I hear their footsteps, the ticking of bicycle chains,
Sudden blasts of motorcycles, whimpering of vans.
Somehow I am either in bed, or the curtains are drawn.
This masculine invisibility makes gods of them,
A pantheon of bots and overalls.
But when you see them, home early from work
Or at their Sunday leisure, they are too tired
And bored to look long at comfortably.
It hurts to see their faces, too sad of too jovial.
They quicken their step at the smell of cooking,
They hold up their children and sing to them.
The Men of Success Village
by SHEREE MACK
They go out at night, come back early in the morning.
You hear their footsteps, the tinkling of bottles;
sudden blasts of calypso music, whining of dirty mas.
Somehow you are either in bed, or at the table, waiting.
This masculine invisibility makes good of them,
a phantom of bare feet and string vests.
But when you see them, home early from work
or at Sunday church, they are too tired,
bent, longing for rest and peace.
You hurt to see their faces, too sad or too large.
At the smell of cooking they quicken their step
They hold their children at arms-length and chastise.
Lives wasting and smoking in the dark.