2013: The Year of the Plagiarist

Ruth Graham is a plagiarist in New Hampshire.

Ruth Graham is a plagiarist in New Hampshire.

Paisley Rekdal got two Facebook messages last January from fellow poets who had some disturbing news: a poet in England by the name of Christian Ward had taken an old poem of hers and published it, barely altered, as his own. Her first reaction was to wonder if it was some kind of experiment. Perhaps by changing the gender of the author of a poem about infidelity and infertility, he was teasing out new meanings?

Then she saw the “new” poem, with its new line breaks and minor but grating word changes. It was obviously a work of deception, not conceptual play. “That’s the thing that enraged me,” she said recently. “If he had just plagiarized the poem and published under his name, I would have been less annoyed. When I saw he wanted to take part in something I had done myself and claim it as his own, I felt kind of violated.”

Rekdal, who responded to Ward with a righteously angry blog post (and later a more melancholy one), is not the only one feeling violated these days. The poetry world experienced something of a plagiarism epidemic last year. CJ Allen withdrew from the shortlist of England’s Forward Prize in September when it was revealed that he had plagiarized some of his past work. Australian poet Andrew Slattery was stripped of three prizes when it turned out he had cribbed from Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, among others. When caught, he claimed the poems were written in the cento form, in which each line is pulled from another source; he also called his work “a cynical experiment.”

The list goes on: British poet David R. Morgan admitted last spring that many of his poems, stretching back to at least the 1980s, had been plagiarized. Rekdal’s perpetrator turned out to have stolen from several other poets, including Helen Mort and Sandra Beasley. Graham Nunn, longtime organizer of a major Australian poetry festival, was accused last September of at least eight instances of plagiarism, which he defended in part as “sampling”; on his blog, he wrote that “[r]eading and listening to music are a vital part of my process” and that “parts of the original text are creatively appropriated in the formation of a new work.” These are all published, and often prize-winning, poets—they are not students or amateurs. Why did 2013 become the year of the plagiarists?

Writing is a dance that involves imitation, inspiration, and originality. But all things considered, writerly disapproval of plagiarism has remained remarkably consistent over the centuries—really, even over millennia. The Roman poet Martial accused his rival Fidentinus, whom he called a “miscreant magpie”: “My books need no one to accuse or judge you: the page which is yours stands up against you and says, ‘You are a thief.’” Martial was particularly galled that Fidentinus had mixed in his own inferior work with Martial’s original material. Yes, approaches to borrowing and attribution have shifted over time, but wholesale copying has never been kosher.

T.S. Eliot, who relied on other sources for much of “The Waste Land” (plagiarism or allusion?), famously wrote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Less often quoted is the next line, “Bad poets deface what they take.” This is what seems to gall many victims of plagiarists: to see their poems reprinted in weaker versions than the original.

Ruth Ellen Kocher, a Colorado-based poet and professor, recently learned that her 2004 poem “Issues Involving Interpretation” had been plagiarized online by an Australian named Vuong Pham. Pham kept her line breaks intact but changed a few words and added some new lines. “When he stole my work, he didn’t make it better,” Kocher said. “If my work was going to be taken and pilfered in that way, I would have loved to see it undergo a transformation and evolution.” Instead, she said, it reminded her of a “reverse revision”: his small changes actually made the poem worse.

Since the 19th century, when the Romantics embraced what Marilyn Randall, a professor of French studies at the University of Western Ontario and the author of a 2001 book on literary plagiarism, calls the “authentic poetic soul,” borrowing has become even more cemented as a literary crime. (Rekdal refers to her plagiarist as a Romantic, because “he was trying to tie his own imagination to the poem and claim it.”) Even in our age of collage and appropriation and “intertextuality,” it’s only at the extreme edges of such experimentation that you’ll find even mild defenses of outright plagiarism.

Despite the fact that plagiarism has always been taboo, readers are often more forgiving of historical offenses. As Thomas Mallon puts it in his insightful 1989 book on plagiarism, “Stolen Words,” “Everyone enjoys a good scandal in the present…. What we seem far less able to endure is that plaster cast falling from the library shelf: Its shattering somehow bothers us more than the live body going off the cliff.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, was an inveterate thief, but he remains firmly in the canon. Hart Crane borrowed heavily from a lesser-known poet named Samuel Greenberg, most notably in his early poem “Emblems of Conduct.” (“No doubt he meant to acknowledge his debt,” James Laughlin wrote in 1939. “It simply slipped his mind.”)

More recently, the British conceptual poet Ira Lightman, who was behind many of last year’s revelations, got involved simply because he didn’t see anyone else doing it. “The poetry world is genteel,” he said. “People don’t like to make any kind of stir.” Lightman has taken it upon himself to comb through suspect work, alert the victims, and publicize his findings.

But even Lightman, who spent untold hours last year ferreting out violators, doesn’t want to banish them indefinitely. “I don’t see them all as these sinister, plotting, Machiavellian characters,” he said. “I see it as a corruption. And we’re all vulnerable to corruption.” He suggests that transgressors retreat to self-publishing for a few years, prove themselves honest, and then return to the fold.

If plagiarists are not sinister and Machiavellian, then why do they do it? This question gets asked every time there’s a fresh revelation of plagiarism, whether it’s in the literary world, journalism, or academia. There’s never a satisfying answer, but there are at least lots of guesses, often somewhat at odds with each other: laziness or panic, narcissism or low self-esteem, ambition or deliberate self-sabotage.

In poetry, at least, everyone agrees it’s not about the money. “One of the hardest things is that the stakes in poetry are not very high,” Kocher said. “I’m not a rocket scientist. I’m not going to cure cancer with one of my poems. I don’t get paid an extraordinary amount of money, and I don’t have any great notoriety outside of the writing community. So to take something that most people engage in as an act of joy and sully it this way—it just seems one of the most egregious offenses.”

But does anyone write just for the money? Laurence Sterne, the plagiarist author of Tristram Shandy, said he wrote “not to be fed but to be famous.” Now, of course, he is. It worked.

The Internet has made both plagiarism itself and its detection much easier for everyone. But the major cases that came up in 2013 have all concerned British and Australian poets, often, but not always, cribbing from American ones. Despite some speculation that our national character makes us less likely to plagiarize—Americans are obsessively respectful of private property! American egos are too big to rely on other people’s work!—there’s also the possibility that Americans have simply been lucky enough to not be caught in the current dragnet.

For one, the primary detective is British, more familiar with the Commonwealth scene than the American one. And it’s not as if Americans haven’t been caught in the past. An Iowa poet named Neal Bowers, a former editor of Poet and Critic magazine, wrote a 1997 book about tracking down the Illinois elementary school teacher who published work copied from Bowers in 13 journals over the course of a few years. “It’s a very uneasy feeling,” Bowers told the New York Times at the time, “a bit like having a stalker.”

The gut reactions of the plagiarized are hard to predict. The poet and essayist H.L. Hix, for example, found out in October that his work had been lifted by Graham Nunn in an Australian anthology of love poems. He said his first reaction to getting the news from Lightman was sheer surprise: “As a poet one gets used to being completely ignored.”

Some victims feel moved to reach out the perpetrators. Kocher sent a note to Pham through Facebook after he posted a brief apology, which has since been removed, on his blog. She hasn’t heard back. (Pham has defended himself by saying he was simply naive and not taught about proper attribution; he also recently wrote that he has become a victim of cyberbullying.)

After Paisley Rekdal posted her open letter to Christian Ward on her blog, she also asked online for an apology from him. She got one: a one-sentence email that she recalls as something to the effect of “I’m sorry, I’m not this kind of person.” It’s the kind of open, vacuous statement that could make you hate someone, or feel sorry for them, or both at once. “He gave me what I asked for,” she said, “but he gave me no more than what I asked for.”

Is there such a thing as a resolution to a plagiarism story? Plagiarism isn’t a crime, there’s no universally accepted punishment for it, and the perfect expression of contrition may never come. Hix, for his part, says he has no plans to get in touch with Graham Nunn. “These were love poems that are being stolen,” he said. “I don’t have any more interest in speaking with Mr. Nunn than I would with the person who had broken into my house and stolen my property.”

Originally Published: January 6, 2014

Janey Smith is a writer in San Francisco.


Random / 33 Comments
January 13th, 2014 / 2:52 pm







Do you ever think that universally all we have in common is our interest in food and sex?

Well in Japan they are over the sex, so check your hypothesis:

What I actually mean though is: can you think about materiality today? But in a good way: like touch, not like technology. I will!

Behind the Scenes & Craft Notes / 4 Comments
January 9th, 2014 / 12:32 pm

I Am Prepared to Read Many More Novels About People Fucking

I haven’t read Sheila Heti or Ben Lerner’s recent novels, the impetuses for Blake Butler’s recent, anti-realism-themed Vice article, but I’d like to respond to Blake’s finely-written itemized essay, because I, personally, continue to desire novels written by humans, which relate, slipperily or not, to human realitysubjective, strange and ephemeral as it is–novels which deal with such humdrums as sex, boredom, relationships, Gchat, longing, and, beneath all, death. I want a morbid realism.

I agree with Blake that a reality show like The Hills and social media such as Facebook create stories by virtue of humans doing simply anything. The documenting, sharing, and promoting of mundane everyday human life is more prevalent and relentless than ever before. In this environment, literature (and movies) about humans (most controversially, about privileged, white, hetero humans) that presents everyday drank-beers-at-my-friend’s-apartment life, wallows in self-pitying romantic angst, and doggy paddles po-faced through mighty rivers of deeply profound ennui can potentially seem annoying, or boring, or shittastical.


Craft Notes & I Like __ A Lot & Massive People & Random / 43 Comments
October 12th, 2012 / 12:49 am

Hanging Out vs. Being Hanged: An Interview with Jarett Kobek

Jarett Kobek is the author of ATTA, from Semiotext(e), and the forthcoming If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write? on Penny-Ante Editions.

If You Won’t Read…, often referred to by Kobek as “The Sex Tapes Book,” is a collection of the coincidental dialog from celebrity sex tapes (and some other hyper-media-based ‘tapes’) transcribed and presented as a text. Included alongside these transcriptions is the criminal records of the celebrity whose dialog is on display. Riding a fine line between conceptual writing, humor, gossip, and ‘alt-lit,’ the book ends up being hilariously funny while resonating with an intense cultural relevance.

I sat down with Jarett one afternoon at a café in San Francisco’s Mission District to talk about his new book. The hour-long conversation, covering everything from Normal Mailer to Jennifer Lopez to Miley Cyrus’s shamanic trip, is available to listen to below:

Interview with Jarett Kobek, Part 1

Interview with Jarett Kobek, Part 2

Pre-order If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write? at Penny-Ante Editions.

Author Spotlight / 4 Comments
August 27th, 2012 / 6:41 pm

Kama Sutra, Baby

Penguin Classics is releasing a new translation of the Kama Sutra, the ancient spiritual sex manual (yes, it’s much more than that, I know) that  people pretend to know all about when they want to impress a date. Or, maybe I saw that in a movie once. This new version, translated by A.N.D. Haksar,  has been adapted to modern lives. It’s the Kama Sutra, for the people, now featuring wit and charm.

Penguin has offered to give a copy to a lucky reader, so I’m having a contest! To enter, invent a new sexual position that belongs in the Kama Sutra. Leave your entries in the comment field. The best one wins and you have until Wednesday, the 25th. This will be fun, I hope. I’ll also throw in Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron, The Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein, and also some galleys TBD.

Contests / 27 Comments
January 21st, 2012 / 7:06 pm

Midtown Skin Essay Series Part 3 of 5: Lunch Hour

3. Lunch Hour

Can we stop all this? Can we just stop for an hour?

The Indian buffet on 39th Street simmers as fat men in blue suits break their day into two unequal pieces. Neither piece seems palatable, at this juncture. The morning was dull and the afternoon will be a replete – so the whole day is a tangled mess, layers of nothing upon layers of too much. Clients have weighed in, money is on the line, and all of the executives are out of office (OOO) selecting window dressings for their new condos in MiMa.



Behind the Scenes / 11 Comments
December 11th, 2011 / 4:02 pm

Nick Antosca on reading Lolita at 12. What was the first book that you felt dirty reading? I’d say mine was either A Confederacy of Dunces around the same age, or maybe The Godfather. Hard question for me because I was watching stuff like Terminator & Skinemax from about 5 on. You?

Sex and Brevity, Fracture and Complexity

Photo by Gary Glass.

Savannah Scholl Gruz questions if the elements of fiction are obsolete in a really interesting post on her blog. She asks, “But why, too, are stories so often about empty sex and blow jobs? Why are so many of them full of violence and figurative blind corners.” Her discussion expresses a real concern over the highly sexualized, fragmented short story and she also notes that, “Maybe we are the decade of fractured, sexual narratives in the same way that we have, in many ways, become a fractured and highly sexualized culture.”

As a writer who often writes sexual narratives, sometimes fractured in nature, but often times, linear and complex, I’m pretty intrigued by her commentary.  Savannah asks if the proliferation of highly sexualized work is a deeper commentary on our culture, a reflection of this moment in time but I would say that literature has always been highly sexualized. It’s only the nature of highly sexualized work that continues to evolve. Similar concerns as the ones Savannah shares in her post were raised at the end of the 19th century, for example. Elaine Showalter’s Sexual Anarchy is a great book that looks at the evolving sexual culture of the fin de siecle and how those cultural changes manifested themselves in literature and popular culture.


Craft Notes / 73 Comments
May 4th, 2010 / 1:15 pm


I really don’t understand the hard sell approach used by certain authors/vendors in aggressively trying to push their goods. Though you may be able to cajole me into forking over $$ for your book at the bookfair (I am a pushover, often), you sweating and awkwarding me into doing so will only guarantee that though I have your book inside my house now, I will never read it, and will likely think of you only often thereafter in a gross light, thus netting you perhaps one book sold but a whole trajectory made mushy. Come on. Relax. Be cool. Things go around. Invest in yourself. Not all sales happen at the point of purchase, and better things are friends.

On a side note, in one instance this past weekend at the Denver book fair when I was shown a book and didn’t buy it, the presenter told his friend passive-aggressively toward me, “Oh, check out HTMLGIANT… it’s a great site, if you like sex and hyperbole and death.” I think he thought it was an insult. I got it tattooed on my thigh.

This one never gets old:

Behind the Scenes / 37 Comments
April 13th, 2010 / 3:04 pm

Sunday Service

Noah Cicero Form Letter

Valentine’s Day is coming again, so i’m going to write a love letter. Anyone can use this love letter for their lover.

Dear Lover,

There are a lot of butterflies on the planet. But none in the winter. You are my winter butterfly.

I want to lick the inside of your belly button. I want to lick the lint out of it and then kiss you. Then you have the lint in your mouth. We are naked and you laugh.

[If you are a straight man or lesbian] I want to grab your pussy. I want to cup your naked pussy in my hand. Your pussy is like a leaf with dew on it on a July Morning. That means I like when your pussy is wet. I like your pussy more when it is wet than when it is dry.

[If you a woman or a gay man] I want to hold your soft penis in my hand. Then I want to caress it until it becomes hard and then I’ll call it a cock. I want you to do things with your cock that will make me moan and make strange sounds.

I want to eat candy with you and check our facebooks sitting close.

We need each other like poor people need food and politicians need votes.

We need each other like cell phones need signals and books need readers.

Right now I’m yearning for your genitals to be near by, for your laugh, for your arms, and your legs to wrap around me and pull me deeper.

I can never get deep enough into you.

I want you have my babies. I want our babies to look like us.

We will raise our children to be nervous and strange and to love music like we do.

I keep seeing your belly in my mind, your belly flat, I rest my head on your belly, your belly is soft and we watch a movie. A movie staring Will Ferrell. Everything is right with the world. We have good credit and our grades are good.

I want to fuck until both of our genitals are chafed and sore.

There are a lot of butterflies on the planet. But none in the winter. You are my winter butterfly.

Your Lover

(Originally posted here.)

Noah Cicero has several books published on several small presses, The Human War, The Condemned, Treatise, Burning Babies and in a short while The Insurgent will be released. Noah Cicero is currently spending his days snowblowing his driveway. Noah Cicero stands in the snow, in the freezing cold weather, looking around, he likes at night in the winter, when it is quiet. There are no birds, sometimes the wind brushes over the snow, making that sweet sound that politely touches the soul of the kindest and even the meanest of souls. If you ever meet Noah Cicero you should first fist bump him, then give him a hug, he likes fist bumps and hugs. Noah Cicero voted for Barack Obama because he smokes.