The day began with a drive to the city to see The Embrace of the Serpent with two friends who were reviewing it for various publications. I love this part of being an arts reviewer – being friends with other arts reviewers who invite you along to see brilliant films as their plus one. The Embrace of the Serpent – four stars out of five – Heart of Darkness in the Amazonian rainforest. That must be my briefest film review to date. Anyway, I had a coffee with Annette and Alison then trundled home to find an anxiety attack waiting in my inbox.
Kent MacCarter from Cordite Poetry Review had emailed me to politely let me know that he’d received a message on the website claiming my poem “What will we inherit?” was involved in a plagiarism scandal.
As you can imagine, I went into immediate meltdown. This is despite being overwhelming confident that I had not plagiarised the poem. I remembered exactly where I wrote it – during a writing exercise in a workshop given by Jan Owen at the SA Writers’ Centre back in 2011 or 2012. I can’t remember the exact year but I can clearly remember the workshop.
I instantly wrote back to Kent, explaining my complete confidence in authorship. He sent me a link to this poem “Legacy” by Chumki Sharma, which was published on the website Poetry Breakfast on the 9th of July 2016. My poem was published on the 12th of November 2012, so the timeline is clear.
In terms of form and content, “Legacy” is clearly based on the structure of “What will we inherit?” – they are both list poems and while Sharma has added some lines and changed some words the similarities between the two are obvious.
If Sharma had acknowledged the source poem with an epigram, such as after Rachael Mead this wouldn’t be such an issue. But she didn’t, and furthermore, she replicated the best lines of my poem in her work.
A couple of weeks ago a friend had to give a talk to a congregation on reconciliation between non-indigenous and indigenous Australians and she asked to use this poem in the body of her talk. I was honoured, and rereading “What will we inherit?” felt quite proud of it, remarking to my friend that it contained some of the best lines I think I’ve ever written. It just so happened that these were the lines copied by Sharma.
The saga continued throughout the afternoon but the day was marked by the growing nausea I felt as a result of being touched by the issue of plagiarism. Even though I knew I was the innocent party, plagiarism is such an indelible stain on any writer’s career that I felt physically ill.
Back in 2013, (I think – I’m really terrible at remembering dates) a plagiarism scandal hit the poetry scene in Australia. It was an awful time. People who had no direct involvement got on the social media bandwagon and the result was an acidic mess of recriminations, insults and ruined careers. I remember watching those toxic comment threads roll out with great sadness.
To be honest, I felt a bit sorry for the plagiarists. They seemed so desperate and pathetic. T.S Eliot said “Good writers borrow, great writers steal” and in the pre-internet age it was an entirely feasible premise to plagiarise work and get away with it. But by 2013 with the internet and anti-plagiarism software, plagiarising poets were able to be exposed for practices such as copying whole poems with just a few words changed or creating new works (cento poems) from mixtures of lines and failing to acknowledge the borrowings.
As a poet who has suffered her share of writers block, I freely admit to using other people’s poems as catalysts. I’ll take a great line and write my own poem in response or use the line as a starting point. Great structure? Amazing theme? Thank you very much brilliant poet, I’ll use that and make my own poem from it. But if I do, especially post-2013, I make sure the poem is clearly mine in terms of voice and content and I strictly apply the epigram after brilliant poet whomever.
Even so, in situations where the P-word starts being bandied around I get extremely nervous. Well, I have anxiety issues so that’s nothing new. What I should say is that just reading the word plagiarism makes my anxiety crank up several notches. So you can imagine how I felt yesterday. Thank goodness Kent MacCarter from Cordite was solidly in my camp and made sure I was kept in the loop as the story unfolded. It turned out that the original commenter on the Cordite site let passion get in the way of clarity and was trying to alert the editor that my poem had been plagiarised. That person then went on facebook and outed the plagiarist on social media. My poem and the copy are both currently going viral in India.
Back here in my lounge room, I went to my friends for advice. Poets in India were starting to bay for this woman’s blood. They wanted action. I wanted to curl up in the foetal position and pretend I was dreaming the whole affair. My poet friends did an amazingly balanced job of rallying angrily to my defence while giving me sound advice.
My problem was this – having just experienced an afternoon of believing myself accused of plagiarism I was loathe to inflict that on someone else – even someone I knew had indeed stolen some of my best lines. I wanted to be sure, I wanted to be fair and I didn’t want to further enflame an already volatile situation. An accusation of plagiarism can ruin a career. In the light of the social media furore surrounding what Sharma had done, my anger, while relevant, felt unnecessary. The public shaming and consequent humiliation she must be experiencing felt to me to be punishment enough without loading the situation with my emotional response.
I went out with Jess and Steph, my wonderful non-poet friends, to see a film I didn’t have to review and tried to forget about it for several hours. Maggie’s Plan. Three stars. (Three and a half if you are a writer or an academic.)
The next morning I wrote a calm email to the publisher of the website where the poem in question had been published, including a link to my poem and asked that if after reading both poems the editors believed “Legacy” to be too close to “What will we inherit?” to be published without acknowledging the source then would they please remove “Legacy” from their site.
The editor replied swiftly, assuring me that she was taking this extremely seriously and the case was being investigated. As the day and the investigation wore on, the thoroughly anguished publisher at Poetry Breakfast let me know that five other instances of plagiarism by this poet had so far come to light, including a poem that had been copied from a website for the survivors of domestic violence and another poem for which Sharma had been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
As it stands right now, rather than delete the copied poem, the editor has requested that she publish mine alongside it so as to expose what was done rather than remove the evidence. The poet in question has denied plagiarism and apparently cannot remember reading “What will we inherit?”
It’s now 24 hours since I had the plagiarism-related anxiety meltdown and I’m still feeling shaken. All I can say is I still think my version is the better poem. And while I know a drongo is a species of bird in India, its Aussie slang meaning makes me smile when I see it added to a plagiarised version of an Australian poem.
Postscript as of 14.7.16 : when I woke up this morning the Poetry Breakfast site had posted this…
When I checked the site this evening (14.7.2016) this post had been removed. I can only assume Sharma had asked for her poem to be taken off the site.
Since news of these events broke, the editor of Poetry Breakfast and the other publications in which plagiarised work appeared have had a truly fraught time and I feel for them. Ann Kestner (and the other editors) have been pulled into this controversy and I sincerely thank Ann for all her work in support of the poets who have been affected and the poetry community in general. Below is an open letter fro Ann Kestner to the global poetry community, which was posted on the Poetry Breakfast website today (17.07.2016).