The Write Out Loud interview: Ira Lightman
He has been dubbed the poetry sleuth, tracking down plagiarism online and establishing the scale of the misdeeds of serial offenders such as Christian Ward and David R Morgan. Some in the poetry world believe it’s time he backed off. But Ira Lightman tells Greg Freeman why he won’t stop now – and that he is on the trail of bigger poetry names who may have been at it, too.
As I understand it, after the first Christian Ward plagiarism was uncovered back in January - his prize-winning version of The Deer, by Helen Mort - you became involved in tracking down his subsequent transgressions. Is that how it happened? What drew you in to all this?
Social networking and coincidence. The day before the Devon local newspaper online carried the first report of Ward's first plagiarism, a Sunday, I had been checking old poems of my own to send to a poetry site that was asking for poems about clothes. I did a keyword search (using various names for items of clothing) on my own computer for files saved there. One came up from 18 months previous that I couldn't remember writing at all. Not at all. I should explain I write quickly and with a free association method using puns and other word games and word recognition software. But still it struck me. I did some checking. I'd posted my clothes poem online, on Facebook. I went back to the posting (summer 2011). There were two or three favourable comments. Now, I know that I would have replied: “Thanks but this isn't my poem” during the 24 hours from posting to receiving a comment. So I just put it down to middle age, having two kids who get me up early, and my use of random in writing experimental poems. That was why I later, initially, believed Ward could have found The Deer in his files and thought "that's good, though I don't remember writing it" because I had done the same looking for a theme poem (about clothes); I had found a clothes poem I couldn't remember writing.
Then, the next day, the Ward story broke. And I had some sympathy and fellow feeling. People were suggesting that maybe he'd had been to a workshop and brought home lots of poems and mistaken this one [The Deer] for his own. Or maybe he'd cut and pasted a poem he liked online and saved it without putting on it that it wasn't his. Then sent that out, months later, in error. So I got involved in a thread with a Sadie Fisher, with whom I had no Facebook friendship, on a mutual acquaintance's page, discussing the Christian Ward story that had just broken that morning. I was raising questions and prepared to suspend judgment. Perhaps this is all a misunderstanding, I said. Fisher took the stronger line: that we were all sheep, ignorant poets, she was a journalist, and doubted the veracity of the story. Fisher was, in my observation, just blasting everyone in the discussion.
Now I happen to come from a family of journalists. My grandfather was a sub-editor most of his life for local newspapers. I wrote sometimes for my own as a teenager. I felt provoked. So, I rang all the libraries in Exmoor for an hour and tracked down one that held the local magazine that had published the winners of the poetry competition Ward was accused over. I had in my hand Helen Mort's original. I asked the Exmoor librarian if she would dictate the Ward poem over the phone. Well, it didn't take much transcribing because it was near identical. I then posted both the Mort and the Ward as comments in the newspaper article and came back to Sadie Fisher for an apology. I got a tiny one but also wound up caricatured in her YouTube video I Am Christian Ward which featured literal cartoon caricatures of all the poets who'd been discussing Ward from their Facebook profile photos.
I was in those first few days still of the school that this was a silly one-off. Friends assured me plagiarists always repeat-offend. But the morning after I had posted the Ward and the Mort, I received a message from a friend who had been checking till the early hours and had found a second, which Ward had taken from Tim Dooley. This was early January. I had time on my hands waiting to start a new job and I felt like spending time on hunting. I meticulously hunted for online poems by Ward and then checked each one line by line. I found more, and so did my friend.
In this first week we found a handful. At the same time I contacted Ward on his Facebook mail and said I wanted to say to his face what I was saying to others, and to offer to help him face the press as I'd had some dealings with PR in promoting my public art work. But Ward was generally ignoring people on Facebook. I had friends who knew him and he was presenting feeble excuses, and that it was a one-off. I asked them to communicate to him that I knew with proof that it wasn't a one-off. His subsequent public statement seemed amended to say he was looking through his files and had found the plagiarism from Dooley. This was the one he knew we had on him. He didn't volunteer any new ones and I knew there were already a handful. I resolved not to talk about them outside of Facebook and wait for him to honour his promise to throw open his files and out himself. On Facebook I was getting some accusations that I was inhuman and this was playground bullying, especially after I'd said: “Everyone consult your magazines with him in, send me his poem; if he won't confess, I will.” I apologised for this, and didn't out him. I listened. But some simply stopped talking to me, including in public. There was a notable pattern that other poets based, like Ward, in London were quarrelling with my approach. Some, understandably, wanted me not to bring publicity on magazines who'd been duped.
I was certainly sympathetic that Ward was himself finding it utterly miserable. And I was trying to look at the matter pragmatically. If nobody was ever going to publish him again, well, why keep investigating? One answer is because I'm thorough. Another is that, from the initial encounter with Sadie Fisher onwards, I wanted facts, not speculation. And Ward himself could write. I have read pretty much everything by him. The plagiarism was a sideline, two dozen or so, among a few hundred poems. He wrote daily, which I admire, and which improves the technique. It annoyed me that people would say that they'd bet every Christian Ward poem was a plagiarism. It's not true. He never gathered a plagiarism into a collection published in his name. They were all in magazines and competitions.
But there were still prizes won by his plagiarisms. One took weeks to prove, ringing organisers because the committee for the festival that organised it had disbanded. I also let every poet whom Ward plagiarised know. Some wrote articles about it. They were all found by me.
How did you subsequently become involved with unmasking David R Morgan? Has an online detective system come into being, which is alerted when someone rings an alarm bell?
Patty Paine at Diode journal found the first Morgan plagiarism, I later discovered. She contacted some websites in England. One of them contacted me. I asked on Facebook for magazine poems by him, as I had for Ward. In an hour I found 10 more plagiarisms by him, including in poems others had checked [without spotting them]. There isn't an online detection system. I have to play Google quite assiduously to find plagiarism. And that's only looking for plagiarism of online stuff.
There seems to be a section of the poetry world that clearly feels such dirty linen should not be washed in public, or, if it has to be, with the minimum of fuss. What is your view?
I'm happy to be diplomatic and pragmatic. However, I'm glad that some knew to bring the Morgan case to me. I cracked it quickly and through friends presented him with what we knew. It helped him to confess and get it all over with. I have been given leads on bigger names who do it. I will happily expose them when I have proof. Big names doing it is an outrage. It breeds cynicism. One perpetrator is almost single-handedly the reason that people are objecting to my investigation. It is like a family secret. And the poetry world can be like one big unhappy family, with unpleasant matriarchs and patriarchs. Yes, there is the feeling that the only poetry news is a plagiarism story. But I'm not stopping. More is coming out. It takes someone who will stand up as a spokesperson for stopping poetry plagiarism for more witnesses to come forward.
How do you feel about the plagiarists themselves? What do you think their motivation is for such blatant theft?
I find them interesting. I like postmodernism. I like found poetry. They just have to document their sources. Morgan is undoubtedly a far worse offender than Ward. I am reading and checking his book Destinations. Fifty poems in, I have found maybe three that aren't checking out as other poets' poems or stories. The three are still held under suspicion. And are weak. It's interesting to see what the poet is expressing with their, um, plagiarism collages. It's often dark, angry, about violence and death and despair and sex. It shows what they want to master as a subject. In others' work, it finds expression in a readable poem, and in their own it's too self-pitying and blunt.
Is it possible to estimate how many poems Christian Ward plagiarised? Or David R Morgan? Were there differences in the way they operated?
With Ward, at least a dozen, approaching 20, that are 90% a single poem by someone else, with new line breaks, changing locations, and gender of the characters. And about a dozen more that absorb 50% from someone else. With Morgan same method, but it's nearly every poem. I'm checking the prose next. Morgan puts the plagiarisms in his own books. Ward doesn't.
Do you suspect - or indeed, know - that there are more plagiarists out there, waiting to be unmasked? Do you hope this outcry will deter others thinking of doing the same thing?
Yes, there are more. I think the outcry makes them apologise quicker. But Morgan has seen the Ward story run for all of 2013 and confessed nothing till caught in mid- May. I hope for a more open conversation. Postmodernism allowed. Everybody honest. And full documentation.
You may not want to give away too many trade secrets. But can you tell us a bit about your general technique in tracking down potential plagiarists? How much of your time does it take up? Has your own work suffered?
I don't let it stop the lecturing work I've been doing. I do it usually at weekends and before 9 and after 5. I seem to be knocking out poems with the usual regularity, and beginning life as a creative writing lecturer has probably made me lose impetus for writing much more.
Have you ever suspected that one of your own works has been plagiarised?
No. I've never been convinced that people read it for memorable phrasing. People usually respond to my work for the game it plays, the formal experiment, or if it's funny.
On your website you describe yourself as a “poet, mathematician, artist and ukulele player”. When all this has died down, are you looking forward to spending more time on developing your own work as a conceptual poet, working with communities in devising visual poetry forms?
Sure. Nothing stops me writing poetry. Which is a waiting game, anyway. I've no doubt that inspiration will strike with its usual habits: here and there, and unexpectedly.
Ira Lightman is a conceptual poet who is interested in making public art. In Spennymoor, he devised the Spennymoor Letters, letter-shaped sculptures spelling the town's name like the Hollywood sign. He has published several chapbooks, and a full-length e-book. He is a regular on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb, and teaches creative writing at Northumbria University.