'Plagiarists never do it once': Match the sleuth tracking down the poetry cheats

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'Plagiarists never do it once': Match the sleuth tracking down the poetry cheats

The poet Ira Lightman stared at his notebook screen in disbelief. Is it true? He had been sitting in Rowlands Gill, five kilometers south of Newcastle, a guy with a mess of hair. He had just made a regular trip to the Facebook group Plagiarism Alerts. There, a girl named Kathy Figueroa had submitted something outstanding: "It appears that one of Canada's former poet laureates has plagiarised a poem by Maya Angelou."



Lightman clicked the hyperlink. It directed to a Canadian authorities page where a poem was chosen to honor the memory of Pierre DesRuisseaux, Canada's fourth parliamentary poet laureate, who died in ancient 2016. The poem was interpreted from DesRuisseaux's French first. Lightman browse the opening lines: "You can wipe me from the pages of history/with your twisted falsehoods/you can drag me through the mud/but like the wind, I rise." The poem was once I Rise. Next, Lightman appeared the Maya Angelou. "You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I'll rise." The poem was known as Still I Rise.

Incredible. But could it be plagiarism? How likely was it that anything would be stolen by a poet laureate in any way, let alone a work with a legend that is contemporary? How can he think he would eliminate who? Then DesRuisseaux proved to be a French speaker, composing for a French-speaking audience. Can his readers recognise a renowned English-language poem of the century? After all, this was spotted because it was translated into English.


Lightman discovered the site of DesRuisseaux's writer and downloaded a sample of Tranches De Vie, the publication the poem had come out of. He watched the PDF for telling lines which he interpreted into English, then sailed into Google, in quote marks, along with the term "poem". It did not take long. There was In The Beginning by Dylan Thomas. There was Prayer Before Birth by Louis MacNeice. There was Cut While Shaving by Charles Bukowski. Unaccredited. Stolen.


In May this past year, Lightman contacted the writer, asking a publication that was complete be sent for additional investigation and imagining his concerns. The answer, from Éditions du Noiroît, among Canada's most prestigious publishing houses, was fast. His accusation has been "incredible". Lightman responded, "For me, it's not so incredible. I have studied numerous plagiarists." And that was true, for Ira Lightman was no poet -- that he was the poetry sleuth. And it seemed like this could be his biggest catch.


Lightman is feared, reviled and famous in the literary world. He's a vigilanteaiming his chin. He's a witch-finder having an obsession and a bully. For others he is in error; a few of his targets are not plagiarists they argue sloppy note-keepers. Additionally, Lightman makes no allowances for the custom of "intertextuality": should you choose somebody else's poem and utilize its own structure, mood or speech as a foundation for something fresh. You may use to remark on the poem, as an instance, or change it in such a manner that it moves in to your lived experience. Perchance a experiment may clarify that the Canadian laureate thieving. It may just prove to be DesRuisseaux's final chance to have his own reputation revived in the pages of background and also to rise (rise, rise) such as the dust/wind.


***

It had been an insult on Facebook that triggered Lightman's initial evaluation. It was about 8am on a January afternoon in 2013 when he stumbled upon a tense discussion about a poet called Christian Ward, who had had the Exmoor Society's Hope Bourne trophy removed for his winning entry's similarities to some other poem, Deer by Helen Mort. "There was bucketloads of speculation," Lightman says. We are in his couch, a ukulele, an dictionary the jumble of his life sprinkled about us, posters together with poetry along with his name. He crane-like and suited sits, on the couch. "Everyone was arguing about it: maybe it was an accident, maybe the judges weren't poetry people and don't understand intertextuality." Lightman was erring on the side of cock-up. Only he would come that he had no memory of writing. Maybe Ward had discovered Deer in his documents, presumed it had been his, given it a gloss and filed it. "I could just about accept that," he states. "You can be very prolific and amnesiac." He recalls joining the argument as a "peacemaker". But a commenter named Sadie Fisher said.


Though the Mort suggestion was accessible on the internet, nobody on the Facebook group had seen Ward's, she pointed out. "Sadie Fisher was saying, 'You men are all hacks. It would be looked to by A journalist and say, 'Is this a spoof story? Have they got the facts wrong? '''

Lightman felt piqued. "I've always been interested in journalism," he says. "My grandfather was a subeditor for an Edinburgh newspaper. So I thought, I'm going to learn." He phoned Bridgwater library and asked if they had the Exmoor Society quarterly that published the winners. "They said no, but Porlock could, and they are starting in 10 minutes." An anxious 10 minutes passed. "I rang Porlock and they said, 'We've got it.' I said, 'OK', heart beating." As the librarian fetched the journal, Lightman Googled the Mort poem. When she came back to the phone, he asked her to read it out, ready to scribble it down so he could compare them. That turned out to be unnecessary. "It was completely equal, except for approximately 5 percent."


How did that feel?

"It was amazing. Just, oh, wow."

"But you are also thinking, fuck you, Sadie Fisher?"

"There was a very small bit of this."

Lightman typed up the poems and posted them both on Facebook, telling everyone they could stop speculating. But a couple of days later, a friend sent him another suspicious Ward poem. "This felt like a different ballgame," he says. For the first time, the poetry sleuth felt overcome by the distant whiff of blood. "I actually wanted to reach the base of it. And I was just thorough. I looked at all."

He developed a technique. He'd try to spot breaks in the natural pattern of Ward's poems -- jarring lines that felt, in some way, different. If Lightman has a secret superpower, it's that, beneath his own instinct for poetry, he has a mathematician's pattern-sensitive brain. "It surprises me, since people say, 'I looked through this person's work and I didn't see anything', then I find something in just two minutes. It is because I'm not studying it for impact, I'm studying it for routines." He went through all the Ward poems he could find. "I looked through 300 or 400," he said. "I discovered about 15 which were dodgy." It was this that taught him his golden rule: "Plagiarists don't get it done once."

    I have been bullied, victimised and abused by a number of 'poets' who thought it necessary to act like a lynch mob

Lightman posted the poems on Facebook. For Ward, this was a catastrophe. His cheating became national news, and was reported in the New York Times (headline: Nice Poem; I'll Take It). He gave a statement to the Western Morning News, apologising to Mort and "the poetry community" and admitting he had been "careless". Ward had already, he said, found another suspect poem of his own: "I have found a 2009 poem called The Neighbour is quite like Tim Dooley's After Neruda... I am still digging."

Ward did not respond to my requests for an interview, but someone who appears to have been him left a lengthy comment beneath the Guardian's news story in 2013. "ChristianWard99" said it was "among the very uncomfortable and painful experiences of my entire life", admitting, "I have made many stupid mistakes throughout my period as a poet and there's just no excuse for plagiarism." But he also pushed back: "I have been bullied, victimised and abused by lots of 'poets' who believed it necessary to behave as a lynch mob."

Of all the plagiarists he ended up netting, Lightman says he retains most respect for Ward. "He'd had a poem published in that the Poetry Review also it was absolutely legitimate, composed in his own voice, personal style. I believe he had been on the brink of creating something. He just awakened" He also admires the way Ward dealt with it: "He never attempted to off it."


What makes a poetry sleuth? In the case of Lightman, it seems to be an unusual combination of anger, vulnerability and an intoxicating desire to feel powerful. Born to middle-class parents in 1967, Lightman was an unusual and sometimes difficult child. When, at the age of three, he was told the family were moving from Buckinghamshire to Kent, he pulled down his trousers and refused to pull them up again until they changed their minds. ("It did not work.") At school, he wore his hair like Rowan Atkinson's character in Blackadder I. "The defining thing for me personally, as a young child, was, I wasn't so good at making friends. I had been quite good at becoming entangled, but I was great at getting any power." He won a public speaking competition and kept on winning it, year after year, revelling in the glory of witnessing everyone sing a new verse in the school hymn, which he'd composed. "I had been a walking accountability."


Despite his talent for maths, Lightman pursued the arts, studying English language and literature at University College London. He'd written bits of poetry as a teenager, but embraced the form seriously as a student, and quickly began to get Larkin-like work published in titles such as the London Magazine and the New Statesman. After university, he spent time in New Zealand, returning to the UK in 1991. In 2000, he moved to County Durham, got married and had two children. Lightman's marriage formally ended last year, but had been failing for some time. What buoyed him through the breakup, he says, was the community he found online. He was liked there. And when he became known for his poetry sleuthing, he was also powerful. "I had Facebook desperately. It was a complete godsend."


In retrospect, he thinks this dependency might have interfered with his judgment during his investigation of Christian Ward. "My process has been much too participated with my own excitement around Facebook and obtaining notifications," he says. "I was submitting each and every discovering: here is number seven, here is number eight."


Did his investigations also give him status? "I believe I was mad," he says. "Not in the plagiarists. I felt as though I was drowning. And you are right, there is a component that makes you feel great."

What was he angry about?

"Just not feeling really loved."

In the spring of 2015, a friend tipped Lightman off about a potential new case. This one would become ugly and difficult in ways that none of the others had been, not least because this much-admired poet lived in Tynemouth, just a few miles down the road.


***

The first person to smell something suspicious about the popular north-east poet and tutor Dr Sheree Mack was another local poet, Ellen Phethean. She'd been to the launch of Mack's book Laventille, and had noticed work that was uncomfortably similar to her own. She contacted the publisher, Andy Croft at Smokestack Books, who contacted Mack. She told him she'd made a mistake: she had used a number of poems as scaffolding upon which to build her own work and, due to poor record-keeping, had failed to make the appropriate attribution. In her checking, she'd also discovered the initials "JJ" next to her poem A Different Shade Of Red. That, she now realised, was originally based upon A Particular Blue by another local poet, Joan Johnston.


"Andy Croft emailed me a copy of Sheree's poem and said, 'What do you think? ''' Johnston tells me when we meet, at Lightman's house. "I advised him, 'It's my poem.' Then I moved to walk the dogs quickly, very about a few fields. As soon as I got back, I emailed him and said, 'I'm absolutely furious about this. ''' She sent Croft a copy of A Particular Blue, so he could see for himself. "He returned both poems to mepersonally, having emphasized the modifications Sheree had left, saying, 'I don't think it's plagiarism. I think she's taken your poem and made something new out of it.' At this time, I went for another walk."

Were the similarities down to Mack's sloppy note-keeping? Was it intertextuality? Or a bit of both? If anyone was going to find out, it was the poetry sleuth. Lightman decided to approach this case as he had all the others, contacting the accused via email, offering support and inviting confession, while commencing an investigation. Lightman found 12 poems in Laventille he thought extremely similar to other work. Checking Mack's previous book, Family Album, he found another "six or seven" problematic poems. More seriously, he thought he'd read Mack saying that Family Album comprised the creative element of her PhD. He contacted the University of Newcastle, which had supervised it, explaining the potential issues. When there was no response, he decided to find a copy of the doctoral thesis himself, only to discover it had mysteriously disappeared from the university's catalogue. "They pulled it off for a year, so I could not look at it," he says.


When it returned, "I expected to find something which was retroactively changed, but the poems from Family Album were still there, uncredited." The body of the thesis raised further issues. "The PhD is beyond the pale," Lightman says. "There were approximately 100 items I found debatable." (A university spokesperson told the Guardian, "The thesis was first shot in your university library to be read after the allegation and has been afterwards returned. An official evaluation is still continuing.")


Meanwhile, news of Mack's difficulties spread. A debate raged in blogs and specialist poetry publications and, of course, on Facebook. "I was very surprised by the vitriol directed at Ira," Johnston tells me. "And also the vitriol towards some of those who had been saying, 'This is wrong', like we were the issue."


Lightman felt there was a level of hypocrisy in all this, with friends and associates making allowances for Mack that they wouldn't make for strangers. "All of the buggers who had called Christian Ward that a scumbag and stated, 'There's no excuse for this' were saying, 'I'm sure Sheree has a reason.' It was galling."


Perhaps inevitably, one of Lightman's fiercest critics was Mack's publisher, Andy Croft. On 7 May 2015, he emailed Lightman: "Although I do not understand you or your job, it's been clarified to me that you're presently hoping to make a profession as a witch-finder general in the realm of poetry. However, this seems less like a witch-hunt compared to a mob. As I am certain that you're aware, your offenses have generated Sheree considerable distress." Croft explained that he planned to pulp the remaining copies of Laventille and reprint a corrected version. "I do not feel that your accusations of plagiarism seeing Laventille are warranted. But I am not ready to have this amazing and important publication dirtied from the grubby little fingers of Pooterish readers." Croft then posted his email as an open letter on Facebook.


Mack herself posted a semi-apology on Facebook, admitting to "slackness and carelessness", while insisting: "Never, never, have I put out to deceive, mislead, or appropriate that the work of others." She refused media requests (and declined to speak to me for this story).


However, in 2016, Mack published a memoir, Rubedo, that recounted what she described as "a public lynching of me the author, poet and individual". She put the problems down to a "shortage of mandatory diligence" in keeping track of her sources, and her practice of intertextuality. "Where I have completed out this, I have produced a completely different bit of writing which feeds out of my own experiences, interests and legacy." She denied any wilful sin. Although she didn't mention Lightman by name, she didn't have to. The moment "a particular poet" posted his allegations on Facebook, she wrote, "he sealed my destiny... He had been two-faced and backstabbing." When she discovered her employment as a lecturer at the Open University had been terminated, she writes, she considered jumping off a bridge.

This made me wonder if Lightman had ever considered the question of balance. Mack's poems weren't all questionable; everyone agrees she was an inspiring teacher; her book Laventille had sold only 114 copies. His investigation left her suffering something approaching an annihilation of the self. Did he wrestle with that?
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"Yes," Lightman says, "but you can not undo what you've done."

He doesn't think he went too far?

"No, I really don't."

I wonder what he and Johnston ultimately wanted. What would leave them satisfied?

"I really don't need a public flogging or something," Johnston says, "but when softly her doctorate was removed, that could be fair."


A few weeks later, I meet Andy Croft at an anarchist book fair at Goldsmiths, University of London. In black jeans and a white T-shirt, his spectacles hooked over the neck and his grey hair brushed back, he is behind a stall, selling copies of Smokestack's books. Laventille is not among them.

I ask what he thinks motivates Lightman. "I frankly do not understand," he says. "My only contact with his profession is with somebody who lacks ratio and lacks humility and lacks generosity." He characterises the fuss as nothing more than "a run of low-level petty jealousies". Mack, who is of Trinidadian/Ghanaian/Bajan ancestry, "is among the greatest, most most sensational girls you have ever come across", Croft says. "A great deal of the first animosity was from white women poets in Newcastle. I do not even need to understand how to unpick that. To start with, it felt just like some women in a catfight, choosing on the hottest and also the very beautiful woman, since they're much less glamorous and lovely." I put this accusation to Johnston, but she declined to comment.


Mack was, Croft insists, mostly guilty of sloppiness. She'd been practising intertextuality and had forgotten to add the appropriate attributions. Mack, of course, claimed she always "created a completely different bit of writing", but a comparison between her A Different Shade Of Red and Johnston's A Particular Blue, for example, strains that argument. Johnston's begins: "This day the weather broke/and shifting light/brought back morning." Mack's: "This day the weather broke/and threatening light/brought to the long night."


How close would two poems have to be for it to be plagiarism, I ask Croft.

"Um," he says, "it would only appear when I noticed. I am very broadly read, but the odds are I'd miss it."

Would it have to be a facsimile?

"I guess if somebody clicked up a poem because it had been initially and only put their name in the base, I'd say, why do you do this?"

And would it be plagiarism?

"It could be..." He thinks for a moment. "Pointless. It is like me saying that my name is Will Storr. No, it is not! You would say that was dumb. You would not say I was plagiarising you."


The second time I visit Ira Lightman, I press him on his claim to have wrestled with the question of moral balance between Mack's crime and punishment. Since his last communication with the University of Newcastle, he has halted his attempt at getting her doctorate removed, partly because he is worried about damage to his own reputation. But he says he might begin again if he finds she's using her doctorate to gain employment. He tells me he has read Rubedo, with its account of Mack's lowest moments. Did it change anything?


"I can totally imagine that has been a dreadful time for her," he says. "But I do not believe I'd act in another manner."


Meanwhile, what of the Canadian mystery? Could former laureate DesRuisseaux really have blatantly plagiarised all those canonical poets? It seemed too mad to be true. When Lightman got hold of DesRuisseaux's book Tranches De Vie, he found even more apparent thefts. Two days of sleuthing found 30 out of 47 poems that were heavily based on the work of others. There were two more by Angelou, an Anna Akhmatova, a Federico García Lorca, a Ted Kooser. There was even a Tupac Shakur. When Lightman told me he'd failed to find any problems in other DesRuisseaux books he'd got hold of, I recalled his "golden rule", that plagiarists never do it only once. It seemed to me that Tranches De Vie must have been an attempt to honour the greats by producing intertextual reinterpretations of their finest moments.


Until, that is, Lightman shows me the original source of DesRuisseaux's Curieux. "It's based on a poem by Nicole Renwick," Lightman tells me. "I'd never heard of her, but it does occur."

He taps her name into his search engine. We're sitting next to each other and I lean over, squinting at the screen. Some examples of Renwick's work appear on a site called allpoetry.com. There is the original poem, Funny... But Not. DesRuisseaux had cut it down from 13 lines to nine, and added his own closer. And then there's Nicole Renwick herself. She looks barely out of her teens. Her bio reads: "Hey everybody, I'm hoping to be a writer one day, so I'd love every comment I get thanks."


Lightman scrolls down. The poem that follows the one DesRuisseaux had taken is called My Xbox. I read its opening stanza: "Xbox, Xbox/You're the one for me/I also adore my 3DS/And my Nintendo Wii."


"We're not speaking Seamus Heaney," Lightman says.


I stare at the screen in mute astonishment.

"What exactly was he doing?" He shakes his head. "What exactly was he doing?"

Later, I contact Professor Thierry Bissonnette of Laurentian University's department of French studies in Ontario, who had not only read DesRuisseaux widely but knew him late in life. When he tells me he enjoyed Tranches De Vie -- "That's a great one" -- I share Lightman's accusations.

"Oh, wow," he says.

"Are you comfortable with intertextuality?" I ask

"Yeah."

"Is there an opportunity he had been doing so in Tranches De Vie?"

"No," he says. "Not at all."


Lightman completed his investigation into Tranches De Vie in May 2016, but speaking to me is the first time he has gone public. He emailed his findings to Éditions du Noiroît, who appeared to accept his verdict; in emails Lightman showed me, DesRuisseaux's editor wrote that it was his first experience of plagiarism, and expressed regret at having to tell the poet's family that he would have to remove the title from circulation.


Tranches De Vie is no longer on sale. Lightman advised the editor to make a public statement, but at the time of writing, nearly 18 months later, none has been made. I email the poetry sleuth to ask if this surprises him. His reply comes as one word: "Nope."


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