Poet apologises for 'appropriations' as poems are withdrawn and book is pulped
A poet has apologised “to my readers, the poetry community and most of all to the poets whose work I have unintentionally appropriated”, over a number of uncredited borrowings from other poets in her book. Middlesbrough-based Smokestack Books has pulped remaining copies of Laventille, by Sheree Mack, but plans to reprint it next year with some poems removed. Mack said in her statement, issued to friends on Facebook: “What I have been guilty of is a slackness and carelessness in separating out writing exercises, workshops creations, prompts, lines collected in journals, words and lines and inspirations from my readings, and it is a habit, a practice I have gotten into over time but did not realise.
“Pressures of doing too much, and impatience to be published, feeding the public machine with work has made me slack, and I have made mistakes in my record keeping and attribution. I fill journal after journal with writing, personal and professional, sometimes going back years to mine or rework things. It is blindingly obvious now that I didn't take enough care to ensure what may have started off as a prompt was labelled accordingly at the outset, or that perhaps through revisiting and redrafting over time I have lost track of their inception. Never, never, have I set out to deceive, mislead, or appropriate the work of others.”
Despite her words, one online poetry magazine publisher has accused Mack of "wholesale plagiarism of other people's poetry". Judi Sutherland, of the Stare's Nest magazine, has drawn attention to Mack's poem 'The Dark Landscape Within', which it published earlier this year, and said: "Since this poem was first posted, it has come to my attention that it bears a very striking resemblance to John Glenday’s poem ‘Undark’ (which you can read here),such that it cannot be considered Ms Mack’s original work. This is one of many examples currently coming to light of this poet’s wholesale plagiarism of other people’s poetry."
And Jo Bell, organiser of the hugely-succesful 52 Project, has revealed that three examples of "borrowings" by Sheree Mack have cropped up there, too. In a Facebook post, Bell said: "Sheree Mack ... by the kindest account possible, has 'inadvertently borrowed' exact phrases, structures and in some cases whole stanzas, without crediting where they came from. This does not make her the Antichrist, and it's a damn shame that she did it, but she did it at least 20 times - and at least three times in 52, borrowing from *published* poems. I hate this feeding frenzy and I hate naming the people again. Sheree is well loved by so many and must be terribly unhappy about what's happening. We don't want to hound anyone, even if we are spitting feathers." However, Mack's poems will no longer be appearing in 52's anthology, and she has been excluded from the group.
Smokestack describes Laventille on its website as “the forgotten story of the 1970 Black Power Revolution in Trinidad and Tobago, when for forty-five days an uprising of students, trade unions and the disaffected poor threatened to overthrow the government. The book is a ‘shrine of remembrances’ for the ordinary people behind the headlines.”
In an email to Smokestack, poet and “poetry sleuth” Ira Lightman had called the publisher’s attention to what he described as “nearly a dozen wholescale uncredited borrowings from other poets”. He was unhappy with the response he received, and published details on Facebook, and a furious row erupted.
Sheree Mack was born in Bradford, and now lives in Newcastle. She works as a freelance writer and lecturer for the Open University and has recently completed a PhD in creative writing at Newcastle University. She had been due to read from her collection at Teesside University in Middlesbrough on Tuesday 19 May, but this event has been cancelled, and she will no longer be reading at Ledbury poetry festival in July.
Her statement went on to speak of her “horror and heartbreak … I am devastated not only for the impact that this has on my reputation, but also for sullying the form, and injuring the writers whose works I have publicly appropriated, however inadvertently.
“I realise that this will, for some, raise questions about the provenance of my whole body of work. I say again, I never intended to appropriate the work of others, but the end result is the same. I'll do my utmost to locate any other past instances and acknowledge them publicly. Going forward, I know that my working practices have fundamentally changed.”
Smokestack publisher Andy Croft initially told Write Out Loud: “I have now pulped all extant copies of Laventille, and I am preparing to print a new edition without ‘The Den’, ‘Mayleen’, ‘Mother to Mother’ and ‘A Different Shade of Red’ (which Ellen Phethean, Joan Johnston and Judy Jordan believe follow poems of their own too closely). The new edition will also include the following acknowledgements: ‘Men of Success Village’ after Douglas Dunn; ‘Before Dawn on Lady Young Road’ after August Kleinzahler; ‘Elise’ after Vicki Feaver; ‘Static Rain in Maraval’ after Jim Harrison; ‘The Last Lap’ after Louise Glück.” Croft added: “Of course this may change; August Kleinzahler has emailed me to say that he has contacted Faber and Faber, with the threatening implication that their lawyers will soon be contacting me.”
On Tuesday there was a brief statement on Smokestack's Facebook page: "Devotees of this page will, no doubt, be please to know that Smokestack has now pulped all the unsold copies of Sheree Mack's Laventille. Sheree is currently writing a new version of the book, which Smokestack is hoping to publish in 2016."
US poet Kleinzahler’s work was one of number of instances highlighted in Lightman in his Facebook posting.
Before Dawn on Bluff Road
by August Kleinzahler
And the wind carries along as well,
from down by the river,
when the tide’s just so,
the drainage just so,
the chemical ghost of old factories,
the rotted piers and warehouses:
lye, pigfat, copra from Lever Bros.,
formaldehyde from the coffee plant,
dyes, unimaginable solvents—
a soup of polymers, oxides,
tailings fifty years old
seeping through the mud, the aroma
almost comforting by now, like food,
wafting into my childhood room
with its fevers and dreams.
My old parents asleep,
only a few yards across the hall,
door open—lest I cry?
almost nothing of my life.
Before Dawn on Lady Young Road
by Sheree Mack
And the breeze bears along as well,
from down by the port,
when the tide’s just so,
when the sewerage is just so.
The metallic residue of old refineries,
the rotting wharves and peeling lighthouse,
vicious asphalt, nutty cacao, burnt rice,
ethanol from the sugar mills.
A soup of oil, sweat and blood
trailing fifty years
seeping through the dusty red earth, the odour
almost comforting by now, like food,
wafting through Success Village.
With its fevers and dreams,
barefoot generations breathing together,
doors left open in case some soul cries.
Kleinzahler told Write Out Loud: “Displeasure, I believe, is the word I'd choose, as to how I feel. And disapproval, as to what I think about uncited appropriation of my work or that of other writers, or of artists of any sort. College students are routinely expelled for such behaviour.”
Another poem, by north-east poet Joan Johnston, published in 2011, is called ‘A Particular Blue’, and begins: “This afternoon the weather broke / and changing light / brought back morning.” Sheree Mack’s ‘A Different Shade of Red’, which has now been removed from the collection, begins: “This evening the weather broke / and threatening light / brought into the long night …” Joan Johnston’s ends: “as you flew again into cloud, / as birds stilled, / stopped singing.” Sheree Mack’s ends: “as you dived again into the long night / as birds slipped / and motioned distress.”
In an early comment on the revelations on Ira Lightman’s Facebook page, one well-known poet and writing tutor said that “writing poems 'after' others, mimicking a structure, or using a beginning line or an end line to kick-start a poem etc, is an extremely common exercise/ generative technique. It's not one I use often, but some teachers do it all the time. Obviously you should always either acknowledge it is 'after' (which to be fair she sometimes does), or you should make it 'new' enough to count as your own. Sheree's mistake here seems to be that she hasn't made those lines 'new' enough … I think this is very different from say, the poem of Helen Mort's that got stolen. It's more a matter of occasional laziness - these exercises are very dangerous if you're a fairly unoriginal poet, and so can't escape the scaffold, and come to rely on them too heavily.”
Ira Lightman said of his investigatory methods: “As is usual, I got involved because someone brought it to me. In this case the publisher wouldn't look further to find if there were more. But my experience tells me there are always more. … I immediately found more examples and proved them.” To those who claim there is something obsessive about his methods, he said: “I am slightly odd and I'm a terrier with a text.”
In a postscript to this unhappy and cautionary tale, Andy Croft added: “I cannot overstate how much this has distressed Sheree … Sheree has not been paid anything for writing Laventille except six free author copies of the book; in fact she has had to buy copies to sell at readings. After running Smokestack for over 11 years I have still never managed to find a way to pay myself anything. I run Smokestack single-handed and in my spare time. I have sold 114 copies of the book in the last two months, not enough to cover the cost of design and print. Pulping and reprinting will mean that the book will never cover its costs.”
In its comments on the case, the Stare's Nest poetry magazine said: "Our submission conditions stipulate that all poems submitted to the Stare’s Nest must be original new works. Editors take it on trust that poets have some kind of integrity but sadly it’s not always the case. Simply running the text through Google generally does not pick up fraudulent submissions. I apologise to our readers and to Mr Glenday that this has happened. I’m leaving Ms Mack’s ‘version’ here as evidence of a creative crime, and as a warning to other poets that sooner or later, your sins will find you out."
Jo Bell added, in a message to poets worried and upset about the current furore: "I hate ... to see good, amateur poets of integrity worrying themselves over nothing, putting down the pens which they already struggle to pick up, because they think there is some great mystery over what is acceptable practice and what isn't. There isn't. Keep writing as well as you can. If you quote, borrow or reply to another poem - and you should, it's part of our culture and we're entitled to it - just put some bloody quote marks round it and credit the original poet. It's not complicated."