Plagiarist, Thief, Faker

by on Oct.28, 2011

A discussion on plagiarism in the context of Indian English poetry has been started by the poets Sumana Roy, Anindita Sengupta, Aruni Kashyap, Nabina Das and Nitoo Das here. I wonder how much of my resistance to their framing of the issue has been shaped by my encounters with America-land and the poems and discussions and theories it has brought me. Oh what a callow thought. All of it, of course. Where I’ve been is who I am – but I wonder if as an immigrant I’ll always retain a slight anxiety around my (inauthentic) influences? “On Stealing Beauty”, and this is the comment I left:

I am curious about the anxieties that plagiarism brings up in artists. I think collage—the handloom emporium—is great as a method for writing poems, and no less legitimate than writing “original” poems. The question is: should the method be disclosed to the reader? Under what kind of dialogic conditions should any method be disclosed to the reader? Attribution I think is just one way in which literary influence can be disclosed as an agenda or method—we as writers/artists need to think beyond its limitations.

I recently saw someone use stanza/line breaks in a way I thought I had “invented” for my book Kala Pani which is coming out next year, and excerpts from which have been published in a couple of journals. For a second I felt proprietary, then shrugged. This is how lineages/lines of flight happen in poetry. Someone “makes” something and others “copy” it. At some point, it all gets mixed up in the belly of the poetry machine (like metaphors)— (or blown up)—and it doesn’t matter too much who was “first” except to masculine ideals (and structures) of literary scholarship.

While it is unethical that certain people are lifting off phrases from other people’s poetry and passing them off as their own, and sure, a “polite silence” does not seem to be an adequate response, I’m not comfortable with the discourse of private property aka capitalism that seems to underlie language such as “stolen lines”, “real thing”, and of course the allusion to copyright laws.

Instead of thinking of it as a “suffering”, are there new ways in which we can conceive of plagiarism—even when it does hurt our sense of the integrity of something we have lovingly created/collaged? How can we, as creative artists, engage creatively with the act of copying, even unethical copying, and show—lead by example on—what it means to engage with found texts? How can we extend generosity to second-hand texts?

For instance, can the plagiarized poem become a source text for a “new” poem? Or for many, many new poems?

16 comments for this entry:
  1. Nabina

    thank you Monica… an issue worth exploring given that boundaries in the internet age have widened dramatically.

  2. Vivek N

    I like how you put it,Monica.

    (And let’s not forget the oral tradition, where it all comes from–how do you even begin lay claim to ownership of phrases and forms there?)

    Rather than feel anxious about the way the net frays the edges of authorship, why not make this tendency work for us, for poetry’s unique ability to dream utopian dreams? Frankly, if someone tried to go to court over this they would end up spending more money than their poem could earn in 2000 years.

  3. Vivek N

    And about the anxiety of (inauthentic) influence–who’s to say the proprietary approach to language doesn’t also come from the metropolitan west? Someone (can’t remember whom) had an interesting facebook comment in the middle of all of this. They were talking about how the new learner of English, not fully comfortable with expression in that language, learn by imitation and “plagiarism”, ie., for instance, it becomes more expedient for them to acquire and deploy whole phrases and idioms rather than individual words. I don’t think that’s what’s at work in this particular case (and no one has really thought enough about what actually is at work in this case) but it’s an intriguing idea nonetheless!

  4. Kent Johnson

    I know this is not exactly on the topic of this interesting post, which I wanted to comment on later, but I hope it’s OK to offer this announcement of an anthology which is just available, as we are eager to get the word out and think it will be of interest to a number of Montevidayo readers:

    Hotel Lautreamont: Contemporary Poetry from Uruguay, which I have edited with the leading Uruguayan poet and critic Roberto Echavarren. It carries an Introduction by Amir Hamed, one of Uruguay’s most important critics. Nearly all the poets are virtually unknown by the great majority of English language readers, and I think you will encounter some astonishing work should you go to the book. A brief description, with a list of poets and their translators can be found here.
    All of us involved hope very much you will check the book out. There is a link at the above URL to a small, though hardly representative, portfolio that appeared in the Harvard Review; Mandorla magazine has just come out with a much larger, print-format selection, as well.

  5. Monica Mody

    Vivek, thanks for reminding me of the dubiousness of doubts about (and claims to) authenticity! Note to self.

    I also really like your point that no one has thought about what is really at work in these acts of plagiarism.

    The facebook comment about new learners of English made me think of Jiyoon Lee and how in her poems and performances she is exploring being (in) a counterfeit language and a counterfeit body. (There’s a note about her here:

    I was also thinking about how I wrote my first poems in English. I had been given a small gift-book of poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley – pale blue and yellow cover, lots of pastel illustrations – and I copied the end-rhymes of Shelley’s couplets arbitrarily then, giving a ‘start’ to each plagiarized rhyme, put them together in a rather abstruse, silly poem. I was quite proud of it, really. And dad’s colleague who I showed it to was, I remember, quite awed by it.

    So anyway, what is really going on here – how can we understand it without just reacting to it defensively? It’s also interesting to think about Joyelle McSweeney’s term “plague ground of the present” which she has used for contemporary US poetry. Are the internets turning even Indian English poetry into a plague ground when it was once a fairly small, elite-like fishpond? Could that be one reason why Indian English poetry is feeling so plagued?

  6. adam strauss

    I too like this post–and especially the bit on how a line-break method you thought you developed has appeared in another author’s work; my guess is that unless you know the poems ended up being very widely read that it is a coincidence/that the method is indicative of a quasi-communal understanding of now. Of course you yourself don’t actually claim exclusive rights so please do not take me to be dissing! I do tho wonder about linking maleness to foxation on ownership: this strikes me as romanticising a woman-based ethics and to make female discursive space sealed off from the numerous currents circulating, ones which absolutely inflect “female practice”; I know there’s the notion of women make communal quilts and men celebrate the individual sublime, but I find this position to make a mess very, very tidy. And it turns E Dickinson and G Stein–for starters–into men.

    I love the Shelley anecdote! I’d love to read these poems if you havn’t lost them!

  7. adam strauss

    Warhol’s “writing” is interesting to think of in the context of this post. Has Pat Hacket (name right?) written essays reflecting on her work as being the actual writer of AW’s “texts”? I love his diaries and Popism!

    Milton, too, may fit intriguingly into this scenario; what does it mean when the words come from one’s mouth, but the text comes from someone else (or is this Paradise Lost tidbit apocryphal?)? Is PL a written text? Or is it equally or more-so orality?

  8. Nabina

    Monica, this was my response to your comment (as well as to Gina Tabasso) on our post on WORK IN PROGRESS:

    Dear Gina Tabasso and Monica Mody (this response is mostly to MM): Both of you are poets, so I will speak from a poet’s POV. Monica, if you have experienced the anxiety, however mild, once (“I recently saw someone use stanza/line breaks in a way I thought I had “invented” for my book Kala Pani which is coming out next year, and excerpts from which have been published in a couple of journals. For a second I felt proprietary…”), you should be able to understand the anxieties that plagiarism (and repeated instances) brings up in artists/writers. And as practicing artists/writers, we do know what is “found poetry”. Blatant stealing from a writer’s work where no creativity is involved, is different from how we see poetry in billboards, blurbs or even channel noise.

    Let’s for a moment think from the POV of an Adivasi/Indigenous tribe artist. Or tea garden laborers. Or rural boatmen. True, the way we know about the art coming from those peoples/sources to us in the “modern” society, is a ‘communal’ or ‘shared’ variety of art. Yet there is no denying that a jhumur song gets passed off as a “Bengali folk song”, the boatman’s “bhatiali” as a Hindi/Bollywood film song, and the Adivasi art appears as motifs on décor or other implements, soon to be available at super markets. Is there no question for anxiety here because we don’t hear the source people speak out, or even if they do, the voice is muffled out? So much must have been usurped in the name of ‘re-creation’. Still, for argument’s sake one would say, this is re-creating art. But please remember, plagiarism is not re-creation. As informed connected creative people, we can make that distinction.

    Monica’s anxiety perhaps would have been greater if it was not just to do with mere “stanza/line breaks in a way I thought I had “invented” for my book Kala Pani”, but further appropriation. Say, something like this (and let’s assume one of us “copied” your work to “re-create”):

    He rode by, rode on the pillion, a helicopter in his hands.
    He whirred a song in his throat.

    They stopped at a yellow traffic light, where he, whirring a polite cough, stepped into my parlor.

    Not much has been changed here. This was “found” on the web and all we did is change the enjambment and the stanza order. Is it okay to do this? Don’t think so! Therefore, we are not randomly talking about how it happens “mixed up in the belly of the poetry machine”, but about writing that is NOT creative at all.

    Our post has already made it clear; we aren’t talking about a “Lysol-scrubbed originality or purity” or art/writing. And Monica, you yourself agree that “it is unethical that certain people are lifting off phrases from other people’s poetry and passing them off as their own”. So, as you correctly surmised, we’ve now reacted beyond a “polite silence” that nowhere, in its tone or premise, presents the whiff of a “discourse of private property aka capitalism”. Your discomfort with language such as “stolen lines”, “real thing” is not discounted. But these terms do not allude to any notion of private property or purity of ideas.

    Having written Dadaist poetry myself with newspaper headlines, thematic words randomly uttered or phrases picked from the pages of a book, and the like, a Duchampesque exercise has only given me greater and better ideas to execute art that can be called “found”. In Sarai-CSDS in the summer of 2010, several of my quatrains were subjected to an interesting “found” poetry experiment. After I wrote the poems, participants (not word-thieves) re-printed the verses in amazingly large font sizes, cut them up thereby separating the words and phrases, and literally strung them up thereafter. Words found new words to jostle with and lines became other lines. This link by my Swedish artist-writer friend Irmeline will show a glimpse of what happened:

    What happened is not copying or lifting, but a creative exercise with my ‘original’ writing and I being backgrounded. The second hand texts generated were not a source of “suffering” for anyone. This example of so-called appropriation is certainly not what we have referred to in our main post.

    Think of it, even a Bhakti poet as old as Lalon sang:

    Siraj sai koy Lalon re tore
    Shodai moner bhrom jay naa

    Roughly translated. – “It is Siraj my master who taunts me all the time/oh when would you learn to dispense of your notions, Lalon!

    Thereby, Lalon would acknowledge his mentor Siraj’s lines/verses/teachings. Acknowledgement. That’s it. Or a nod somewhere. — NABINA DAS
    You can read it on the site…

  9. Jared

    Very interesting post and something I’m grappling with right now in my own way. My interest is not to preserve myself as Author but to disseminate and allow for the breaking down of the dead body of my own words. How can “publication” be made to serve this move away from the authorial? How can the idea of publication thus be “occupied” in a new way? Is the way forward really to secure the place of the author-work and its “profitability” (which is at the heart of the idea of copyright) or is it to bring the rest of the world of production into the reality of the poet who does not get “compensated” for their work but rather forages for their subsistence “on the side”? In other words, by disconnecting one’s work from one’s pay/”livelihood,” might we open up spaces for new and interesting things to happen? Might we begin to privilege creative activity/obsession over stale contented/contentious-ness?

  10. Monica Mody

    Hi Adam, I was using the word “masculine” as a relative, archetypal quality rather than in an essentialist/reifying/hierarchical way. In any case, to me the opposite of ‘masculine’ is not ‘feminine’ but ‘androgynous’. Were (are) Stein and Dickinson androgynes? Absolutely. So am I (and Montevidayo). I’d posted about androgynes a long time ago here:

    Hi Nabina, unless I am misunderstanding your comment, you seem to be drawing a parallel between tribal/folk artists and yourself. That seems to me presumptuous – to equate your privileged position with the non-privileged one of the former; to equate those copying your work with hegemonic institutions such as Bollywood – and plain problematic at so many levels.

    The first Dadaists were seen as brazen criminals/troublemakers. Their aesthetics may have found acceptance in the avant-gardish poetry circles today, and maybe the learning from the Dada lineage is not just [strike “just”] to practice the usual Dada tactics, but to keep troubling aesthetic ideas that we find have become incorporated into our poet’s toolkit.

    Again, instead of feeling victimized by the non-creative practice of copying or lifting, how else can we view it? This article made me wonder if the term “docupoetry” could be useful in understanding such poetry: Could the plagiarized poems be seen as “documenting the … experience of collectivities” that comprise contemporary Indian English poetry? Somewhere between a collective narrative and an archive? I feel archives are so necessary. Like rituals.

    Also – here are some additional questions: 1. How do we, as maturing artists, deal with our anxieties? 2. How do we respond to the offending other with generosity or non-judgment and love?

    Hi Jared – I love your questions! Thank you for posting them! Especially, “How can the idea of publication thus be “occupied” in a new way?”

  11. adam strauss

    I find this counter-intuitive and wonderfully interesting!:

    “In any case, to me the opposite of ‘masculine’ is not ‘feminine’ but ‘androgynous’.”

    I hope all’s well!

    And I love this:

    “How do we respond to the offending other with generosity or non-judgment and love?” My immediate response is: many won’t figure out a way, nor even want to; but that is not meant to dismiss the question, which is crucial and beautiful.

  12. Anindita

    Let’s, for a moment, bring the discussion down to a very practical level. For all our reservations, we all participate in power-based, hierarchy-reinforcing structures like universities and awards. How does one handle the issue in that context–what if someone used Monica Mody’s lines or even poems for their MFA application or award / scholarship submission? Would that be okay? I’m just curious to know what you think because I’m genuinely concerned about this issue of intertextuality and plagiarism–where one ends and the other begins. As far as dealing with the plagiarist with generosity–I would think that an indication that one is aware with no threats, action or official complaint is a rather generous response. That’s exactly what the blog post was.

    Incidentally, one of the plagiarists has posted a published poem of mine as one of hers on another forum. I happen to not post my poems on my blog so in this case, it has been ‘published’ elsewhere and therefore may be attributed to me. What if I did, however, post poems on my own blog? (In the larger spirit of democracy and non-capitalism, that would actually be a nicer thing to do.) Then the attribution could go either way. Frankly, I’d rather not have people think I was posting someone else’s poem as my own. How does one handle a very practical problem like that? As a writer and editor of Ultra Violet, a feminist site which also publishes poetry, I’m curious to know how you would advise approaching these admittedly mundane issues. — Warmly, Anindita Sengupta

  13. Nabina

    Hi Monica, let’s call the spade a spade. Are the copiers we discuss in our joint post — blatantly copying, while hiding their faces, and on realizing they’re being caught, also hiding their copy ‘art’ — creating “docupoetry”? The examples cited on our joint blogpost, do THOSE ones look like docupoetry (give it any name) to you and us?

    Most of us who signed that post, have taught young men and women in classrooms and workshops, and are aware how creative influences work for them, how they want to ‘belong’, and become better writers. Also, being in MFA workshops, quite a few of us have had the experience of creating work that is ‘shared’ in theme, topic, keywords, first line, etc. No one can accuse anyone there of copying. We all learn in those workshops to create our own work despite so many common tools being available to a group. And that’s how the outside world works too in a poet’s private world. With all the influences and deep impacts of this real world, a poet, who is *creative*, is capable of making her own mark. Certainly, not the one who, let’s say, decides to copy your or my poetry and sends it out nonchalantly as her own ‘creation’.

    Imagine if an MFA application package were to arrive with Monica Mody’s poems copied down till the last line as an example of someone’s own work or ‘docupoetry’!

    And that reminds me, you haven’t told me if what I did with your poetry (in my earlier comment) stands to be condoned by you.

    As regards love and generosity for the ‘copiers’, I guess none of us signatories have less of it. The proof is we share on blogs, FB and other virtual fora. Several new poets tag me on FB (as I write this) to read their work and I send them my poetry in return. All in “good faith”, as they say. And there poets who are working really hard to become better and not looking for a shortcut to fame.

    Last but not the least, you react quite predictably when it comes to “Let’s for a moment think from the POV of an Adivasi/Indigenous tribe artist…”. I wonder why is it that the English-speaking/writing elite of India (elsewhere too?) nod their heads in unison to terms like ‘marginalized/subaltern/working class/have-nots’ and cringe the moment ‘Adivasis/Indigenous Peoples’ is uttered? And I do not usually attribute personal epithets in my discussions, so I won’t take the same word — presumptuous — to describe your reading that I “equate” my position with that of Adivasis/Tribals. Surely, there’s a difference between equating and saying “Let’s for a moment think from the POV of an Adivasi/Indigenous tribe artist…” (phatic communication can’t overshadow plain syntax)? English-speaking/writing elites cannot strip themselves of this responsibility, wouldn’t you say? Hegemonic institutions don’t drop on our laps out of the blue, they receive social sanction gradually to become the behemoth they are. BTW, do you like music? Listen to Indian Ocean? They sing in several languages and “re-create” well known Folk, Revolutionary, Baul, Blues, even Sanskrit hymns… etc. Good “docu-historicity”, if I may coin my term for them. Not copy-cat artwork.

    I emphasize again: our post was about those that disrespect the notion of ‘creativity’ by hiding behind falsity and lies; NOT about those that seek out newer ways to examine art, by combining, collating, expanding. And let’s not drown the central issue in theory and jargon.

    Posting SNAAN post again here for the interested —

  14. Monica Mody

    Hi Nabina,

    Thank you for the spades. Lots of things to think about. I’m going to bow out of the blog for a while to think and to focus on my paper on transpersonal psychology and Jung and pychosynthesis and there are three other topics.


  15. Monica Mody

    (Couldn’t stay away, so am jumping in for a quick minute.)

    Anindita, this whole discussion is actually a little disingenuous. Do you really believe an MFA applicant would try to pass off someone else’s work as their own – or even someone submitting to a literary journal (unless that was their aesthetic intent)? (Esp in this day and age where everything can be googled!) How old was the girl whose name you guys *did not* whiten out until your post about plagiarism had been up for a few days? What is her place/position in the smallish camp that comprises the Indian English poets? Is she a “serious writer” or someone trying to persuade the world she is a “serious writer”? Why did she copy/use these lines/poems? What are the forums where these copied poems are being published – Google buzz? What is really hurting you?

    Please feel free to use my poems to create new work, y’all. I am not asserting Author’s Rights over them and won’t sue you.

    Nabina: I don’t trust the expression “the poet’s private world” – for starters, because the poet’s world is not so private to begin with. Yes I would like to try to theorize plagiarism as art – or how it is art – there’s an “art”ness all texts have, after all, and as artists this is a quality we need to keep our eyes open to. As human beings, we need to let our ideals shape our lived reality: this is why I love theories.

    Also, I would have had a problem with the words ‘marginalized/subaltern/working class/have-nots’ as well – I am surprised you think they are more acceptable in this context? The epithet “presumptuous” was qualifying the language you used which it appears to me invisibilizes the distinctions of power and privilege and oppressions and draws an equivalence between two quite disparate groups.

    Yours, and onward with Jungian-Senoi dreamwork,

  16. Shruti Sareen

    Finally reading all this only now. It makes an interesting read. I really like Nabina’s distinction between found text, influence, and plagiarism. But yes, it is a subtle difference which we’ll have to maintain.
    It is interesting reading Monica’s and Vivek’s comments, but somehow I don’t really feel you are talking of plagiarism per se, that is, lifting entire lines, and putting them in a poem, otherwise mediocre, just to adorn it and collect accolades for youself. no, sorry. that feels very dishonest to me. but I feel you are talking more about influence, found texts and so on, widening the debate and the genre of poetry, but again, there is a difference between influence and found text… and plagiarism. As Anindita says, ground level practicality in this case might require something different.
    And Monica, it does happen. Not revealing names, I know somebody who just copy-pasted stuff from wikipedia and it was published in a very reputed online mag. Yes, they could have googled, but probably they were too busy and did not bother. now this person sees himself as a would be poet. serious poet. so I’m sure we can find lots of examples like these. I don’t know if copying from wikipedia can be seen as “found text”. I would agree with Nabina, copying is copying, engaging with it creatively in a new way is something different.
    And I’m sorry if I sound too big for my boots!