Accidental Acquisition

If there’s one thing that keeps me awake at night, it’s subconscious plagiarism. It was reported this week that Ed Sheeran is being sued by two songwriters as he allegedly copied their work, and it’s always in the back of my mind that however original I think I am, there’s a chance I’ve accidentally remembered words from elsewhere.

At its most extreme, it can leave a person’s reputation damaged. In 2015, poet Sheree Mack was accused by some of ‘wholesale plagiarism’ of other poets’ work, although she denied it was deliberate.

But if you like another poet’s work, there are legitimate ways to reference them.

Writing After, then naming the poet

It’s a convention in poetry that you can credit someone else using this format. Let’s say I wanted to credit a certain political poet from the 1980s, I might write:

Nigel at B&Q
After Attila the Stockbroker

Nigel wants to go to B&Q,
but there’s Isis fighters all round the bathroom department.
Nigel doesn’t like Isis fighters.

Bear in mind this is not a licence to copy that poet word for word; you should be responding to their work, updating it, making your own interpretation, &c.

English: Attila the Stockbroker, taken in the ...
English: Attila the Stockbroker, taken in the Cabaret Tent at the 2010 Glastonbury Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Using a title

In the majority of cases, it’s all right to use a title, particularly if the word can be found in a dictionary. A quick look at Wikipedia offers a whole list of instances of the title Life.

However, be wary if the title is very distinctive, as it can seem as though you’re capitalising on the other person’s success. If you used the title Evidently Chickentown but your work was completely different, a lot of John Cooper Clarke fans would be unhappy.

Imitating a structure

Unless a structure is so closely associated with one particular poet, it’s fair game to emulate a structure as long as you’re saying your own thing. When I wrote Purple, I was going through a Luke Wright phase, so I borrowed the structure of Bloody Hell, It’s Barbara for the last section:

Excerpt from Purple

You’re always dressed in gingham checks
and Oakley specs, and round your neck
those headphones: Oh, I do love Beck.
Large as life, it’s you.

Here, the words are totally different from Wright’s, but would fit a similar metrical pattern.

General themes and ideas

Many people are familiar with the Allen Ginsberg poem Howl and the Gil Scott Heron track The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The two works touch upon the same themes: disaffected youth, race relations, rebellion, &c. Both also make heavy use of repetition.

It is possible that Scott Heron was influenced by Ginsberg, as his work was written 15 years later, but despite the described similarities, there is no way that one could be accused of copying the other.

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Plagiarism

Hot on the heels of my copyright post the other week, a case of poetic plagiarism was brought to my attention. Remaining copies of Laventille have been pulped after Sheree Mack admitted to including others’ work in her own inadvertently, although fellow poets have accused her of stealing work deliberately.

In this instance, it’s not only the original poets who have been hurt by her actions, but the pulping will wipe out the profit margin that Smokestack Books would otherwise have made.

The one positive aspect we can salvage from this mess is that this type of plagiarism is relatively rare. If it happened every day, this story wouldn’t have been reported and nobody would have kicked up such a stink.

Postgraduates

I’m a firm believer that every writer ought to learn the skill of public performance. More on that story later. But last Wednesday marked the first time I would be performing to an audience of academics, rather than the general public or other writers.

The University of Dundee has run a Postgraduate Conference for the last four years where students set the agenda by presenting papers. Students were also free to respond creatively to this year’s theme, Lost in Translation. When I saw the final running order, I appeared to be the only person giving a creative response, and I seriously considered withdrawing as I didn’t feel it would fit in with the other presentations.

The upshot is that I did go ahead with it, although I was moved to a different slot with theatre students and a novelist. I felt it flowed more smoothly, and I received an excellent response, both verbally and on the anonymous feedback slips. My tutor was also sure to stop by and ask a couple of tough questions.

Performance

Shortly after the Postgraduate Conference, I went along to a workshop… on performance; unfortunately, it had to be in that order. Jenny Lindsay, one half of poetry duo Rally & Broad, was hosting, and they’re one of my favourite contemporary acts. She asked each of us why we were there. I told her I was quite comfortable with public speaking, but I felt there was always more to learn.

Blockbusters (UK game show)
Blockbusters (UK game show) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She took us through the process of preparing for an event, including how we might introduce ourselves, putting together a set list, and we even took turns at walking out in front of an audience. The organiser is hoping to put on another event in the near future but using an actual stage.

If you have the chance to hone this skill where you live, I recommend signing up. What many writers don’t realise is that if you’re snapped up by a publisher, you’ll be expected to read excerpts to a live audience. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy to stand up and entertain people, but the only way to make it easier is to keep practising, and prepare your materials thoroughly in advance. Remember, most audiences aren’t sitting waiting for you to slip up – they’re willing you on.

Promotion

Although National Novel Writing Month and its offshoot Camp NaNoWriMo are over, an enthusiastic band of us have continued to meet each week. The most recent meeting was yesterday, but we left after an hour to visit Waterstones where Kirsty Logan was promoting her novel The Gracekeepers.

I’d seen the posters across town, but I hadn’t heard much else about it until that evening. By the time I’d listened to the excerpt, learnt about the background of the world in which it’s set, and was told were some characters written as gender-neutral, I decided I wanted it. The issue of gender is something I become interested in since my feminist friends talk about from time to time.

And our group each spoke to Kirsty Logan for a couple of minutes each as she signed our books. I wish I’d thought to take a photo, as her dress contained pictures drawn in the same style as the book jacket. If I ever have a novel published, that’s a touch I’ll think about adopting, although I might settle for a shirt rather than a dress.