This Period of Necessary Creative Plagiarism

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 intertextuality 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 intertexuality. In part two of the roundtable discussion, participants spoke about how they teach their students about plagiarism and intertextuality, and the role of intertextuality in their own writing.

Erika Luckert: It seems that as artists, we have a different standard for what theft is versus adaptation, and that we have many ways of making the credit more visible or less visible depending on our intent. I wonder, though, because everyone in this room is also a teacher, how you would frame some of these things to your students. Especially knowing that some people in this room teach composition or other modes of writing where plagiarism is different.

Amina Henry: I think it’s challenging because plagiarism is not as cut and dried as we would like, particularly if you’re talking to students who are not from the United States. Their standard of what is appropriate and inappropriate is different. I do try to say, think of your essay as a conversation with other people, and you need to let us know who the other people are in the conversation. That seems helpful, that you need to include these names because they’re all a part of this conversation that you are having about this particular topic.

Nicole Callihan: I’ve been thinking about this more since I’ve had school-aged children. For years I taught for Teachers & Writers, and the model then was you take in a poem and students model their work after it. It was usually very successful. “This Is Just to Say” is the very simplest, but they would do “For My Cat Jeffrey,” or write a long list poem where they are able to inhabit it and start to understand more about themselves because they’re inhabiting that form. But then, with [my own] children who are writing, I wonder more about it. How useful is that for them, really? I go back and forth. In a way, I think they should be expressing themselves, but do they even know what that means? You’re nine years old. Giving them a form feels important, but then how much of that form informs the content? How restricting is it and how freeing is it? 

AH: I think every kid, and possibly every adult, goes through a period in their growth as a writer that’s a period of very intense plagiarism. You’re like, oh, I love this writer and I want to write like this particular writer. You sort of model whatever it is you’re doing on this writer, until you’ve read enough things and you’ve filtered enough, and have enough voices and enough training wheels that you start to be like, oh, I can actually have my own way of doing this, based on all the input that I’ve received. I think it’s actually unavoidable.

Giving them a form feels important, but then how much of that form
informs the content? How restricting is it and how freeing is it?

Nicole Callihan

EL: So as teachers of creative writing, do we want to then encourage this process of development through plagiarism as we’re defining it? [laughter] The idea of this period of necessary creative plagiarism is a really interesting way to look at it. As teachers of creative writing do we want to foster that? Or do we want to keep our students far away from plagiarism?

AH: I just don’t know how helpful it is to encourage this idea for ten-year-olds, let’s say. You need to cite all these writers in this poem. I think it adds a level of them feeling like it’s not their own that is not helpful.

NC: But is it their own?

AH: I think it is. I’m reminded of this incident that happened when I was only eight. I was really obsessed with Anne of Green Gables back in the day, and I was also obsessed with this movie called something like Fire with Fire. It was some love story. And so, I decided to write a novel when I was eight. I would work on it in a composition book and bring in pages for my friends at school to read every day. It was heavily modeled on Anne of Green Gables and this movie. [laughter] But I had different names for the characters! And then my teacher got hold of it and went around the school saying, oh my god, she wrote this amazing thing. And now I think, how could she not know that it was Anne of Green Gables? I don’t know that it would have been helpful at that point in my life for someone to say, “You need to credit Anne of Green Gables and this movie, and this is how you do it.” It didn’t mean anything to me in that moment.

NC: You think about how much you internalize things, too. I still have my stolen copy of Anne Sexton from the library on my bookshelf. When I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, I read her and read her and read her and read her, and then I was like, no more Anne Sexton when I got to college. Who knows why. So then, twenty-five years later, I was going to teach a class on Anne Sexton. I went back to read her poems. Lots of them. And I was like, oh my gosh! I’ve been, apparently, trying to rip off Anne Sexton for the past… [laughter] And so much of it was internalized rhythms. 

You have to give them a tool kit before you give them the prompt.

Matthew Thompson

Matthew Thompson: When you’re reading, you’re looking for those styles to write whatever you’re trying to write. So if structure and mood become ways we’re judging when it’s plagiarism…. It’s hard when you put a text in someone’s hand and say, “This is how this person wrote this. Try to also write about love using these same mechanisms and these same tools within the craft.” And if that’s plagiarism, how else do you teach? You have to give them a tool kit before you give them the prompt.

AH: I think when you’re teaching expository writing to college students, a lot of it, at least for me, is about getting them to express their own ideas, which I think is actually hard. Based on what all these other people are saying, I’m formulating my own thought about this topic, and here’s my thought I’m trying to communicate to you on a piece of paper. That feels different to me. I don’t necessarily care, if I’m reading a poem, where they got this phrase or this image from. Or it doesn’t occur to me because I don’t enter a poem from that kind of critical space.

NC: But then, what is the purpose of poetry?

Jenessa Abrams: I think that’s the big distinction. It’s about feeling or emotion. Maybe I don’t know what the purpose of art is, but I know that it’s different from the expository essay. For me, they’re two different things, and so plagiarism maybe for me needs to have a firm line in the expository area, and less so in creative writing, like poetry.

AH: I think it says something about you anyway, that you chose this particular poem to represent you. “Oh, I wrote this.” There’s something in the poem that is you if you’re going to represent yourself to the world using these particular words.

EL: Because we’re all teachers in this room, I wonder what you would do if a student came to you with a question like this, wanting to know if they were plagiarizing or if they could do this piece as an homage to someone else. How would you speak to a student about this?

AH: I would be so impressed that they were even asking, frankly. [laughter] I would probably say, if you are concerned that you are plagiarizing, then that is your answer. You should probably cite whoever it is that you think you’re plagiarizing. Because this is in you. This is an awareness that you have.

NC: I’ve been trying to open up the plagiarism conversation a lot more. Not just saying, we don’t plagiarize. Plagiarizing leads to punishment. I teach an international class where all my students are from other countries, and so to hear how it works in China versus Portugal versus Ethiopia—it’s very different. And so, opening up the conversation to talk about intertextuality and plagiarism. Not to be just like, I want you to paraphrase and quote and summarize, but what does it mean? How do our structures and forms inform us?

EL: It sounds like as artists, we’re maybe more concerned about the actual theft and the actual intellectual property, but as teachers, we’re more concerned about the experience of the student and their capacity to have original ideas, instead of the person who they might be stealing from.

AH: I think as a teacher, I’m usually not concerned with the end result. I’m more concerned with what am I learning about what this person is thinking, about these ideas. The papers are usually quite imperfect. If someone hands you something that’s plagiarized, you can’t help them. It’s hard to know what their ideas are because none of the ideas are theirs. You’re trying to get a sense of how their mind works and how they logically move from point A to point B. Whereas when I’m reading a poem, I’m not looking at it like that. I’m not looking at it like, oh, it’s a process. I’m not correcting grammar and all that stuff. I’m trying to get a holistic sense of what is this person offering to me right now. I’m thinking about the poem. I’m not thinking about the process so much.

If someone hands you something that’s plagiarized, you can’t help them.

Amina Henry

NC: You are thinking about the poet, though.

AH: I am thinking about the poet, but I’m not going to get into the nuts and bolts and mechanics of their actual writing necessarily in a poem, in the way I will with an essay, where it’s like, I don’t know about this paragraph. Or what do you mean here? In a poem I might ask, what do you mean? But when I ask that, I mean something different by the question. It’s is this what you mean to say? Which is sort of different. I feel like I’m almost being a plagiarist apologist, which I don’t think is a good thing. But for poetry, it’s just so much grayer than for an academic paper. And I feel like the agenda for those two things are different.

NC: I’m going to write a poem called “The Plagiarist Apologist.” [laughter] And not credit you! [laughter]

AH: I’m going to Google that phrase in about a week. [laughter]

EL: I wonder if we might wrap up by talking just a little bit about how intertextuality, or plagiarism if you want to think about it that way, figures in your own process as writers.

MT: In poems I’m looking for places to pull from, so that I know, or at least I feel that, I’m still writing into certain kinds of traditions. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, for example, is my favorite work that you have the protagonist having a particular kind of desire. But instead of us feeling, “What are your issues, Pecola?” we get the environment that created the insecurity and trauma within Pecola. So I think about writing stories in that way. Or I even write stories in that way, where it’s not coming straight from the protagonist, but we see the kind of environment that that creates. So using Toni Morrison’s style in that way. I hope that’s intertextual, and not plagiarizing.

JA: That sounds intertextual to me. There was a while when I was in undergraduate where I was writing in a way that my professors were not liking, and some in graduate school as well, because I’m pretty experimental. So I was taught for a while that a story needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. I was told, look at these stories and write stories like this. I almost stopped writing because of it. And then, I took an experimental fiction course at the end of my undergraduate years, and it broke open everything. Calvino and all these amazing female writers, like Lydia Davis, who writes completely differently. I had a moment, a coming to be a writer moment, where I’m going to mimic all these stories, and play with structural experimentation, and then jump. Put the books away and play with these elements in my own mind. It’s not plagiarizing, I hope, of Lydia Davis or Amy Hempel. But it’s certainly inspired by them in some ways, in the ways they’re playing with language and making stories that look different from other stories. 

AH: At the moment, I feel like my work is quite intertextual. I think I write in a kind of sculptural way. I have to get the shape of the thing in my mind before I can start. So for example, there are two projects I’m working on right now, one of which is kind of a slave revolt narrative. Very recently, I found the right sort of armature for what it is I want to write. So now, it’s actually a sort of reimagining of Hamlet and sort of the revenge tragedy tropes that I’m playing with. It has been so helpful to me at least to have a place from which to hang this thing. And I’m actually stealing some things from Hamlet, even though I’m not stealing the language. I would say that’s intertextual. This other project that I just started working on is a reconstitution of one of Oscar Micheaux’s lost films. All I have are these photo stills and I’m writing a play based on the pictures. I have no idea what the actual film was, but in a way, it’s stealing. I’m stealing these images, I’m stealing these ideas, but I’m creating a new thing from it.

NC: I do a lot of collaborations. I write a line and someone writes back or I write a poem and someone writes back. And then, the project that is coming out in the spring, I worked with an Arabic-language poet. We have fake translations of each other. So on the page, it looks like a translation. The first section, they’re all thirteen lines. We were both writing off the same image, some image we stole off Instagram and didn’t even write down. So we would send each other an image and then we would both write a poem that looked like a translation but isn’t. I would take a line of hers, so it would feel consistent throughout, so the project as a whole would feel more satisfying. And she would take a line from me. So it was very specific to the project, but very intertextual and very sort of expected. It felt specific to collaborations that I’m working on. But then also I feel like it’s always taking a line, italicizing it, moving on. [laughter]

EL: I was upstate last week and one day working on my manuscript I went back through and tried to remember what the impetus of each of the poems was so I could determine which I wanted to write end notes about in the manuscript. And it was really hard to go back and remember where I might have borrowed language from, or where I might have been writing in relation to a painting. Even just sitting here talking to you guys I had this moment where, oh, yeah, there’s another one I should add a note about.

AH: I think it’s hard to be that organized in your mind as a creative person sometimes. As you say, where did I get this from? Or oh, right, that was from that painting that I saw, and that was from the conversation that I had with this one person, and that’s that song lyric from wherever. I think it can be actually overwhelming and challenging because I feel like so much of one’s creative process is an act of synthesis anyway. How do you recall all of the little things that went into the thing that you’re making? Unless it truly is just one thing. It’s truly just this one text that you’re working from.

EL: Thank you, all. It was so interesting to hear all the different ways that you’re coming at this constellation of questions.

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 the 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. 

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.