Poets Doing What Poets Do

A Roundtable on Plagiarism and Intertextuality 

In September 2017, The Guardian published an article about poet Ira Lightman’s crusade—some call it a witch hunt—to identify and publicize plagiarism in poetry. As The Guardian profiled Lightman, the “poetry sleuth,” they also revealed his findings: poets Lightman has accused of plagiarism based on the patterns he uncovers. One of the accused, Sheree Mack, explained her mistake as “poor record-keeping” in an intertextual process where she used other poets’ work as scaffolding to write her own poems. 

In another instance, Lightman revealed that poet Pierre DesRuisseaux’s book Tranches de vie featured many plagiarized poems, including a copy-cat version of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.” DesRuisseaux, who was once the parliamentary poet laureate of Canada, had published the volume in French, a possible explanation for why the similarities may have gone unnoticed. Other news outlets quickly picked up the story, spreading the news of the French-Canadian poet who had (almost) gotten away with plagiarizing Maya Angelou, Tupac, Charles Bukowski, and more. 

In each of the cases that the poetry sleuth pursued, questions were raised. Is this plagiarism or intertextuality? What is plagiarism in poetry? How does intertextuality influence the way we write? Should plagiarism be considered differently in relation to poetry and prose? What implications might this have for us as writers, and as teachers of writing? 

On November 2, we opened these questions to a roundtable of poets, writers, translators, and teachers at the K-12 and post-secondary levels. In the first part of the conversation, roundtable participants focused on Lightman’s efforts and how they distinguish plagiarism from intertextuality.

Erika Luckert: It’s really exciting to have so many people with different lenses on this conversation, both as writers and as teachers. When this issue first popped up, a whole bunch of people were sending the article to me because I’m a poet, and a Canadian, and I translate, and I teach freshman composition, which means finding a lot of plagiarists. It felt like the intersection of a lot of different hats that I wear. But one of the first things that started to irritate me about the issue was that the only people talking about it were either journalists or Joe Blows in comment threads, and I wondered, where are the poets having this conversation? Where are the teachers having this conversation? I’m curious to hear what your first reactions or feelings were when you read this story breaking.

I feel like writing is a constant attempt at adaptation

Amina Henry

Jenessa Abrams: I think I was really interested in the element of punishment that seemed to be a big thread through a large portion of the piece. I think the topic of plagiarism is really complex. I think there are ways that people are using other texts in manners that can produce really interesting art. Obviously sometimes it’s completely malicious, but the idea that someone who does something wrong in art should be condemned so completely and totally is fascinating to me. I think I resisted that idea. Not that they should get a free pass by any means, but maybe they should be forced to create new work and sort of open a new space instead of just shutting the doors completely.

Amina Henry: On the one hand, I did feel for the original poet whose work was presumably being plagiarized. On the other hand, the examples they gave in the article felt like, okay, I can see that it’s plagiarism, but they also did change words. There is this idea of sort of paying homage to other writers. I feel like writing is a constant attempt at adaptation. You’re always sort of using stories that you’ve heard, so where is that line? Who gets to decide that your work is original and your work is not?

Nicole Callihan: Towards the Canadian poet I felt this weird anger. Not Ira Lightman. In a way, I’m intrigued by him, and intrigued by the idea of looking for patterns across things. But DesRuisseaux, the Maya Angelou poem, “I rise. I rise.” And then, to know that he also stole from Bukowski and Tupac without it being noted that he was playing with these or trying to bring them to light. It just felt really wrong to me. I think the case of Sheree Mack was the one that I was most intrigued by in here. Saying it was sloppy note-taking and that she just had all these journals for years and years that she had made notes in. I was intrigued by that case because it felt trickier than just taking poems and saying they were yours in another language.

Matthew Thompson: What struck me was thinking about the element of translation and how different cultures have different ideas of plagiarism. So my first thought was, is this only plagiarism in our US context? I started thinking about my own work and how I’ve definitely written poems that later, in reading whoever, I think, this is very similar to what I wrote, but I didn’t encounter this text before. How much new stuff is being written? Is the implication for overlap immediately plagiarism? Or is it ever coincidental? I’ve definitely had coincidences in my own work. And thinking about poetry in particular, how paying homage is a big part of poetry, and how a lot of prompts will be, “Pull a line from such and such a poem. Start your poem with that and write from it.” You’re supposed to erase the line, but… [laughter] Maybe you forget. I’m trying to understand the multiplicity of contexts that this issue is operating out of, and how we come to it without a single-frame mind, because it changes depending on who you’re talking to or what country you’re in.

AH: I think it’s a really hard, and maybe unfair, bar for artists to have to create something wholly new each time. I’m intrigued by this idea of someone saying, well you stole that, because it’s a hard argument to make. But it seemed like a lot of the cases were so clear. Perhaps [DesRuisseaux] should have admitted that, okay, I’m in conversation with these poets. Maybe he should have done that, but I don’t know. I don’t know if I require that.

I’ve taken these things, but if you take them and make them your own, are they yours?

Nicole Callihan

JA: In poetry, more often than in any other form, I’ve seen “after Levis” or “after Komunyakaa,” and then there’s a suggestion that this piece is going to be particularly relating to a specific text. And in those poems, I’ve seen lines being lifted but there’s a very explicit note. I was thinking about the Nabokov story, “Signs and Symbols.” It was published in the New Yorker, and then Raymond Carver rewrote the story in a Raymond Carver version and wrote “after Nabokov.” Later on, Lorrie Moore rewrote the story, and it keeps the same skeleton, but there are different story details. In the Lorrie Moore latest version, she just put “after VN” in a way that if you’re not hunting down, and a big nerd like I am, you would not know if this is a friend or if this is [referencing Nabokov’s] text. I guess it’s her way of saying, I’m copying the structure, so I’m going to pay homage to that. I don’t see it as often in other works as I see it in poetry. That’s why I was wondering, if you’re going to do something after Tupac, mention Tupac. That seems to me the line.

NC: I had a prompt for a poem a couple years ago that was: for the next week, just take notes. Everything you read, everything you hear. And then, make a big poem. It was a lot of fun and I was doing the notes and writing things down, and not even writing where I got them from. I sent it out and it got picked up by someone. And I was like, oh no! [laughter] So then, I went through and italicized everything that came from someone that I thought wasn’t me, because I thought that if I italicize it, I can be like, see! I guess I’m plagiarizing, but not really. I’ve taken these things, but if you take them and make them your own, are they yours?

EL: One of the questions that I think we’re circling around is if there is a bar or a standard or someone who determines in poetry whether something goes over the line into plagiarism. Or whether it’s intertextuality and it’s all fair game. I’m wondering, do you think that there should be someone or some part of the literary community responsible for catching plagiarism, or for putting a line somewhere?

MT: As far as the question of responsibility, I would say the responsibility would be on the publisher. If I submit to a magazine, the magazine should check that it’s my work.

AH: DesRuisseaux is interesting, because I feel like “Still I Rise” is an iconic enough poem that whoever read his version of it, a little bell would go off and they would maybe inquire. It seems hard because it’s so obvious, but maybe it’s not obvious. I’m sort of impressed by the whole situation because in general, it’s not like every poet gets published anyway. So the fact that he had a good eye enough, or something, to even be in a situation where he was going to be able to publish the poem was sort of fascinating to me.

Maybe it was a case of intertextuality. We don’t actually know for sure. Or maybe he was careless. I feel like we read hundreds of poems in our lifetime, and some sort of imprint, and you sit down and are like, I’m going to write a poem. And maybe it is sort of the same as something that you heard five years ago, and it didn’t even register. Beyond Maya Angelou, where I probably would say, no, I’ve heard this before. [laughter]

MT: Can we talk about intertextuality? I’m trying to get a better idea of what we’re meaning by the word.

EL: That’s one of the questions that I had, too. The Guardian article gave one definition, saying that it’s when you take someone else’s poem and use its structure, its mood, or its language as the foundation for something new. As practicing writers, I think that we probably have different nuances to how we see that.

AH: How can you be accused of stealing the mood of a poem? That feels very general. What does that even mean?

NC: That’s when it’s intertextuality and not plagiarism.

AH: To me it feels more in the camp of language. Because with structure, it’s like, I’m writing a terzanelle. That doesn’t mean I stole it because I read a terzanelle or a villanelle or whatever. That’s not me plagiarizing this particular person. I’m just taking a form that’s an established form and doing something else with it.

JA: I think it becomes more complicated with a lot of us working with younger people or in beginning writing workshops, because so many of my writing prompts are: model after this particular piece. So you are, inherently, taking the structure. I think that’s getting people who are not traditional writers or identify as writers to start working, and then you try to move away from the original text. But I don’t think that’s necessarily plagiarizing. It’s looking at a form and attempting to make it your own, and then hopefully moving even further away from the original.

It’s hard for me to think about plagiarism in a poetic context because I know so much of poetry is borrowing. It’s a part of the craft.

Matthew Thompson

EL: Do you feel there’s a clear distinction between plagiarism and intertextuality? Or do you feel that one could be mistaken for the other?

MT: I think it depends on how you come into poetry, what’s your introduction to poetry. Poetry, for me, is so much about tradition that a lot of what Ira Lightman would call plagiarism is what I would call poets doing what poets do. It’s hard for me to think about plagiarism in a poetic context because I know so much of poetry is borrowing. It’s a part of the craft. I think the rules for poetry aren’t the same as the rules for an essay, or the rules for a film. I think we’re trying to apply those same rules to everything, and it doesn’t work.

AH: It could be in a way that poetry is closer to music, and I think they have figured out that, okay, here’s the red line and you’ve plagiarized this thing because you didn’t credit this former artist for a particular whatever it is. In a way, poetry feels looser than music. Maybe it’s because a lot of the musicians are still alive to say, excuse me, you stole that.

MT: I thought about how in a lot of hip-hop music they sample the beats, and how a lot of older musicians were suing hip-hop artists who were sampling their records. And the hip-hop artists were saying this is just a part of what we do in our music, and how the rules around that had to change. Poetry is closer to that than other forms.

NC: Maybe it has to do with intent in some ways. Conceptually I can say that I’m not sure what the difference between plagiarism and intertextuality is, but I would know. The last time I wrote a poem, I didn’t feel like I was borrowing or stealing. There’s a real feeling around it, you know? Even though I’m sure it’s been said sort of the same, somewhere, in kind of the same way. It feels like a very different thing to purposefully try to pass off work that is not yours.

I do wonder about translation here, too. Who is doing this translating that makes it plagiarism? Because if I were translating it in very rudimentary French, it might not be plagiarism at all. [laughter] It might sound very different.

AH: Hearing “Still I Rise” in French is a different experience. It’s different words, it’s different sounds. It might have a similar mood or feeling, but one could argue that it’s not even the same poem, depending on how he translated it. Maybe what they’re receiving is different, and their sense of the author, which is him as opposed to this black woman, kind of reframes the whole experience for them in terms of the listener.

JA: I think the idea of how it’s translated does play a big role in it. When I’m translating things, I often get really afraid that when I start writing after I’ve been translating for a while, I’m going to start plagiarizing the writer that I translate from. Not intentionally. I loved what Nicole said about intent because I would never sit there and say, I’m going to steal her piece. But just the idea will jog something in my mind, and I’m writing in her voice all of a sudden. I love translating the person I translate because she’s very free, and I would credit her for breaking me open in a lot of ways. Not stealing from her, but taking her courage. So I do wonder what that translator brought to the text. But Amina is right. It’s a totally different experience for that writer versus Maya Angelou. Totally different.

EL: You’ve talked about translation and about sampling in music, and also this idea of intent. I’m wondering, do we as poets—or as writers in a looser form than an essay that you might turn in for a college class—have an obligation to some form of citation, some form of acknowledgement? Is there a standard practice that you see among writers around you? Should there be?

AH: I feel that when you’re talking about expository essays, so much of it has to do with fact-based things and you’re trying to make arguments, so that’s why plagiarism is a bigger deal. But poetry feels like it’s not necessarily fact based, so it’s a different sort of standard in a way.

JA: I’m reading Megan O’Rourke’s memoir right now, and I just read a passage on my train here where one of her lines says, “Someone once wrote,” and then there’s a quote and it’s not attributed to anyone. I’m so curious about that. Is this a phrase that she heard and knew, this is not mine and I want to put it in quotes? Or is she intentionally concealing the person?

MT: I’ll say, “after so and so,” or I’ll even say, “inspired by” if I pull a line and maybe use it as the title. I italicize too. In poems, quotes can be kind of clunky, so I try to use italicizing. It’s just standard practice in poems. In essays, using quotes and citing people is key.

AH: It’s funny because I feel like this issue probably should come up in the world of theater, but it doesn’t really. This theater commissioned me to write an adaptation of The Trojan Women. They said, we want you to do a translation of The Trojan Women, and I said, but it’s in English. What exactly do you mean? [laughter] What do you want? It’s an adaptation, a modernization. So I’ve pulled heavily from the original Euripides text, but it’s a completely new play, but it’s from somewhere. It’s not from my own head.

EL: Can you talk about why you would choose to make a note of something being a found poem or the text coming from somewhere else, or why you might choose not to make that note?

AH: I think it’s probably an issue of you not wanting it to be about the earlier work. I don’t want you to receive this poem as me having a conversation with whoever. That’s not what I want you to be focusing on. I want you to be focusing on this other thing. So I think maybe that’s the decision. I want you to receive it right now in this particular framing, versus this other kind of framing. If I know that it’s from, let’s say, Anne Sexton, I’m thinking of it in a different way than if I don’t know that.

NC: I wonder if it’s a different if it’s someone whose poems you really admire and you just starting taking their lines, someone who’s a contemporary to you. Does that feel different than someone who’s dead, or someone who is writing in another language and you’re using that?

EL: That’s an interesting way to pose the question to the group. What do you think you’d feel like if somebody created an intertextual poem using lines or piece of your own work without a direct acknowledgement or citation? What would your reaction be? Because we’re all living writers. [laughter]

JA: A professor at Columbia addressed this topic early on in my MFA and said something like, you might be really pissed if somebody brings in a story about a dead dog after you’ve written a story about a dead dog, but you have no claim over the subject matter of dead dogs. You just have to write a better story. At the time, I felt very angry about it. Now I’m thinking maybe you just have to write the best version of the dead dog story that you can write and make it in your own voice, perspective, brain.

AH: You can say, “I’m claiming the order,” or “I’m claiming the arrangement,” or whatever. But it’s hard to claim, “No, that’s my phrase.” It’s just words, it’s language, it’s free.

MT: I think we’re trying to apply corporate ideas to the arts. The arts don’t have that black and white standard to uphold it in the same way like, I made a Beanie Baby. You can’t make Beanie Babies now.

NC: I saw this artist today, Jeanette Hayes. I saw something come up on Facebook about her plagiarizing a Japanese artist. She was really, truly tracing what the Japanese artist did, and then selling it. It was a record album cover, and so someone called her on why this is attributed to you and not attributed to the original artist. She called it repurposing for her own good, and said that anything on the Internet is free for me to make into art. It made me think, how do we define it? When are you just tracing the lines of someone? And if you’re not physically tracing, but just copying, is that different?

AH: I think the thing with intellectual or creative property is when you get caught, then you know. [laughter] Ideas and creativity in art are just sort of in the world, particularly on the Internet. I actually think that she might have an argument, except for the fact that she was caught.

EL: Around the table I’m hearing a lot of tolerance for that ambiguity and the gray area, and a lot of good grace that okay, as artists we can deal with this kind of murkiness. The only two ways of defining plagiarism that I’ve heard so far are either intent or when you get caught. I’m really curious about this, that there’s almost no line, but actually it seems like we each do have some threshold somewhere.

AH: I don’t think you can prove intent. And I feel like an intelligent person can always come up with a rebuttal. It’s actually this, and let me tell you why I did it this way. You might sort of go for it. Like okay, I see what you’re doing. You’re commenting on it. It’s sort of an Andy Warhol-esque whatever it is that you’re doing. I think that you just have to be prepared to defend your work if someone’s going to try to check you on what it is you’re doing.

NC: It’s one thing, though, if you’re doing it conceptually and you defend it conceptually. I guess if it’s Sheree Mack, who says it’s just sloppy note-taking…. That feels like a different sort of conceit than I’m the Andy Warhol of poetry.

AH: I think it’s interesting, and sort of exciting, to think there are poems that are so singular that you could actually attribute it to this one particular author. This is this person’s work because it’s so unique that nobody else could have written that.

I can’t even imagine being on the other end of it. Oh, I wrote that, but this person is saying it’s their work, where it’s so clearly something that I wrote. Not something that I felt or a mood I created. But this is all me in a very particular, unique way. Nobody could have written this except for me, and to know that in your craw.

JA: It makes me think of privilege. I don’t know enough about the artist example, but those Japanese artists. Do they have any notoriety in Japan? Are they being paid for their art? Or is she consuming somebody else’s stuff and then making a profit off of it?

AH: So maybe there’s an element when money becomes involved, and the market. And the original is not being credited. For example, in the music industry, it actually involves money. I need credit because every time the song plays, I receive a financial gain. But poets don’t really make money.

EL: I confess that that was one of my early thoughts when I saw this. Why would you plagiarize a poem? There’s no money in poetry. But I also think that as teachers, to a certain extent, even if we don’t get paid for our poems, or if the amount is so negligible, does not the success of our work contribute to our ability to make money in other areas?

AH: What would you do if you saw one of your poems somewhere with someone else’s name attached? Maybe they changed a semi-colon to a comma or something like that; they changed something miniscule.

NC: This might be the thing of privilege…. If it were someone from my writing group, I would be absolutely furious, and very confused, and very baffled. If it were someone who was a famous poet, maybe I would feel slightly flattered, and then kind of angry. If it were a student writer, I would be like….

AH: This is a teaching moment. [laughter] I guess in terms of understandable fury or confusion or anger, what do you do? In the world of poetry, if someone plagiarizes, can you sue them? What is actually the end result? If you sue them, it’s not like they have any money, probably. Maybe they didn’t make any money off your poem and if they did, maybe it doesn’t really matter.

In part two of the roundtable discussion, participants focused on their teaching lives and how they teach their students about plagiarism and intertextuality. 

About the Participants: 

Jenessa Abrams is a Norman Mailer Fiction Fellow and has been awarded fellowships and grants from the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center and Columbia University. Her writing has been published in Tin House Online, Joyland, Guernica, Washington Square, BOMB Magazine, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. In 2016, she was named a finalist for Narrative Magazine‘s 30 Below Contest. She has an MFA in fiction and literary translation from Columbia University. She is currently pursuing a masters degree in narrative medicine at Columbia University.  

Nicole Callihan’s books include SuperLoop (2014), and the chapbooks: A Study in Spring (2015), The Deeply Flawed Human (2016), and Downtown (2017). Her poems have appeared in PEN-America, The American Poetry Review, and as a Poem-a-Day selection from the Academy of American Poets. Her next project, Translucence, a dual-language, cross-culture collaboration with Arabic-language poet Samar Abdel Jaber, will be published by Indolent Books in 2018. A teaching artist for Teachers & Writers Collaborative for over a decade, Nicole now serves as a senior lecturer at New York University where she is the assistant director in the Expository Writing Program at Tandon School of Engineering.

Amina Henry is a playwright and educator. She has been a teaching artist with Teachers & Writers since 2014. As a playwright, her work has been developed, presented, and/or produced at The New Group, Clubbed Thumb, The Flea, National Black Theater, Theater @ Dixon Place, HERE Arts Center, The Cell, Theater for the New City, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Kitchen Dog Theater, Texas State University, and Brooklyn College. In 2015, her play BULLY was placed on the Kilroy List, a survey list of the top seven percent of recommended new American plays by female and trans authors. Amina is a graduate of Yale University, NYU’s Performance Studies MA program, and the MFA Playwriting program at Brooklyn College. As a writer-in-the-schools, Amina teaches creative nonfiction, poetry and, whenever possible, playwriting. Additionally, she is a teaching artist with the Shakespeare Society and an adjunct lecturer in English at Brooklyn College.  

Erika Luckert is a writer from Edmonton, Alberta. She was a nominee for the Canadian National Magazine Award in Poetry, and a winner of the 92Y/Boston Review Discovery Prize. Erika has taught poetry and creative writing to a wide range of students, from patients in hospital wards, to adult community members, to school-aged children of all grade levels in both the United States and Canada. Erika spent two years as the writer-in-residence at Westglen School, where she worked with students and staff to research and write the story of its 75-year history. She is currently a teaching artist with Teachers & Writers Collaborative and also teaches writing and literature at Hunter College. Erika holds a BA with honors in English and creative writing from the University of Alberta, and an MFA in poetry from Columbia University. She writes poetry, nonfiction, plays, and also translates from the French. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, The Indiana Review, CALYX, Room Magazine, Measure, Atticus Review, The Boston Review, and others. 

Matthew Thompson is a second-year MFA creative writing student at The New School and a Teachers & Writers Magazine editorial associate. He attended undergraduate school at Kent State University and has been heavily involved in student engagement and community development work since those days. Matthew is a poet and a burgeoning tea connoisseur.

Teachers & Writers Magazine is published by Teachers & Writers Collaborative as a resource for teaching the art of writing to people of all ages. The online magazine presents a wide range of ideas and approaches, as well as lively explorations of T&W’s mission to celebrate the imagination and create greater equity in and through the literary arts.