In conversation with Ira Lightman

-In conversation with Claire Trévien-

Ira Lightman makes public art around the UK, regularly appears on BBC Radio 3’s The Verbs, writes and performs, and spent a lot of 2013 tracking poetry plagiarism.

Claire Trévien: It’s been a busy year for you – it began with the Christian Ward scandal – you quickly became known as the ‘poetry sleuth’ for your work in identifying further poems plagiarised by Ward and others. It must be uncomfortable on some level getting attention from something like this, do you feel it’s overshadowed your own poetry or been beneficial in some way?

Ira Lightman: I could probably have been a lot more busy. I still have two or three big leads to follow up but, as you indicate, it can be dispiriting work, for several reasons. I won’t complain about flak because there’s been little. I won’t complain about being overlooked by editors with my own work, because the same editors who were interested are still interested and I’ve always been someone who exists for people more as a performer than a poet, so there was hardly any overshadowing to be done of the massive crowd of people who were poring over my books, because it never existed. I will admit I’ve been a bit reluctant to go out and perform since becoming identified with plagiarism, but then it would have been hard to travel to do so anyway. I have young kids who rely on me heavily to be at home a lot, and I’m not getting the work I used to do, travelling, so I can’t get out and do free gigs as an offshoot of that any more.

I quite like chatting with people about my plagiarism work, socially, at general poetry events or just parties, and perhaps it’s the gossip in me that does. I don’t think I particularly would want to chat like that at any gig – you know, one always hopes someone might say “I was listening to that 3rd poem you did, and this was what I thought”. I don’t really want to discuss that thing they’ve always wanted to ask me about plagiarism, I’d rather they emailed me with it some other time. Martin Figura introduced me at a Norwich gig as “Dr Who lookalike and scourge of plagiarists” and that was ok, and nobody asked me about plagiarism that night. My shtick is to be off the wall and enigmatic, anyway, so it’s working if nobody’s asking me a mundane question about plagiarists straight after.

If I’m honest, if it’s been beneficial, it’s as part of the general thing, with social media, which I do a lot of (especially Facebook), of trying to post interesting things, and generally taking some role that, since poetry friends seem to check my Facebook page, making a good and socially beneficial use of it. I’ve often wanted to be on Facebook to put a friendly face to the sometimes rebarbative and inaccessible writing I like to write and to read (and I like trying to be funny, and Facebook has been great for me trying out jokes). So I enjoy the thought that maybe I could post a video of someone reading a poem that people were ignoring on the page, and then they’re starting to take the work more seriously. Similarly, I think the plagiarism scandal could have turned into postmodernism-bashing very easily, and I felt able to put a different slant on that. People have objected that plagiarists act in a detached magpie way because they have no soul to write original work from, or that one can be prolific and not realize one has nicked something. I would myself freely admit that I can look back on work I made a year ago and not recognize it as mine. But I also know it’s second nature to me not to take credit for work that isn’t mine. So I won’t just say “I can’t understand this, it’s a foreign mentality to me” because that’s untrue. I did once copy a paragraph from someone else’s critical work for a school essay (and my teacher said to me, very wryly, “this paragraph here is unusually well written for you”, and I blushed, vowed never to do it again, and also made a note to learn to write better). I don’t understand being nearly caught, and then taking the risk again (this seems impersonal to me) but I do understand the impulse to copy and paste and try it on. I also have been very moved by seeing how plagiarists do often grow in confidence in their own style by the very act of getting away with it, of having someone else’s work mistaken for their own.

Christian Ward, in particular, was starting to write work “in the style of”, but his own, just before he was caught. One craves attention so as to get through, or not give up. I can understand why anyone would play this risque game because they felt too lonely, not brave enough to try emulating another in a merely playful or apprentice like way. And I deeply understand the desire to collage and manipulate surface, in making poetry.

So, in short, I do think my work on plagiarism has been beneficial in that it’s brought through a moment of understanding the real work of making poems that aren’t distillations of experience and effusions of self. It’s helped bring that poetics forward. For me, personally, it’s been beneficial to read so much work by the people who were plagiarized. I read it with greatly more sympathy because it’s been the victim of a crime. I note where it’s better in the original by comparing it closely to the plagiarism, which has been a bit vandalized to cover the plagiarist’s tracks. I’ve written more “mainstream lyric” work since reading all these victims. And poetry people know my name, and would perhaps click on a link of my work because they know my name. One would have to offset these against people who really dislike me for doing the plagiarism work, of course. But I do have mixed feelings. I don’t know that I want to pursue the links to new cases that I’ve been given. I don’t know that I want to write a critical book or essays about poetry plagiarism. That would feel a little smug, and a little exploitative. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I began my plagiarism work the week I started my first ever university lectureship, this January. It felt academically serious work, and also my own academic specialism (because one needs to have critical work to write up and publish about, in modern academia, everything written up, everything made into output). If I get another lectureship, I probably would try to write a book about plagiarism. But since my (temporary) lectureship finished, I haven’t really had the stomach for the plagiarism work. I’ve been trying to find my creative side again, and also figure out employment possibilities.

CT: Several things interest me in your answer which I’ll try to articulate into a question or two… First the concept that in borrowing from other poets the plagiarists improved, and secondly that you imbibing so much ‘mainstream’ poetry has had an effect on your poetic practice. Obviously there is a big difference between the two, on the one hand publishing virtually unchanged poems, on the other reading, and yet do you think the effects are similar? My related question is, now that you’ve become less involved in the plagiarism, do you still feel a ‘mainstream’ hangover on your writing?

IL: Well, several things there.

1) On a simple practical level, I would say Christian Ward took the style of Kathryn Simmonds’ wacky zebra poem and (while plagiarizing it and placing it under his name as a horse poem, which was wrong of him) came up with, afterwards, the horse poem he placed in Poetry Review which is his own piece. Moreover, interestingly, Simmonds herself never collected her zebra poem, and thought of it as a little wacky and untypical of her work. It was fascinating to watch this process, which I guess only a scholar looking at papers would have seen, if Ward had never published his plagiarism. My heart went out to him a bit, because Simmonds wasn’t massively bothered, it wasn’t a cathartic poem for her as Helen Mort’s deer poem was to Helen, and some good would have come out of it. I’ve been looking at Alan M Kent, who was caught in the Times in the mid-90s, poetry-plagiarizing, but I can find no plagiarism in his work since (I don’t like it much, it has some of the boring tin-ear prolixity of Ward’s early non-plagiarized work, which is why one can spot lines of Ward’s that are too smooth, but Kent’s later work is not plagiarism, I think). So, yes, I think that some of the plagiarists were doing a kind of workshop work, in overwriting, but for whatever reason decided to publish it as their own. For some of us (you and me?) the temporary hit in the workshop, or to ourselves, of reading out an apparently cathartic or passionate poem derived by a kind of mucking-about… well, it is a boost, and one does perhaps take the music away or the quirk of phrasing. The trouble with plagiarism is that it resembles this but it’s done to get more attention and it’s a short term reckless move – like any kind of faking it. Nevertheless, the person can calm down and has learned something. Plagiarism is a little bit wild child, a little bit growing up in public. I personally would have no qualms whatsoever about seeing what poem the plagiarist attempts next. I don’t want people caught as plagiarists to stop writing. And, again, in Ward’s case, I think there was fear of postmodernism in him. He wrote a very nice visual poetry/concrete chapbook that was quite good. I think a lot of plagiarists fear to go into postmodernism, fear to learn proper citation and so on, and so get themselves in this silly mess.

2) For me, I started out, in the late 80s, writing Larkinesque work and being much more interested in what poetry there was in big circulation magazines like the New Statesman or the London Magazine or the TLS – the poetry clips in the Guardian and so on would have been thrilling to me, then. It was weird reading Alan M Kent, who’s the same age as me, because his early work is so like mine of the late 80s and early 90s – we were clearly both influenced by this period of the waning influence of Larkin. But then I went to New Zealand, in 1990, and all my assumptions fell away. My British jokes didn’t work. My whole tactic of being an alienated bookish Brit who’d watched lots of Woody Allen, being a scatching young fogey (which is what Larkin liberated in we young blokes of the time often), just didn’t work. All my lugubrious speech inflections and studied deflations didn’t work. And the city of Wellington was so beautiful, and spacious, and slightly hippy. The men weren’t routinely butch (for all the cliche of the sheep shagger etc, NZ had no cult of army macho etc) and the women were quite forward and colourful (for my experience). And the bookshops weren’t full of Brit poetry as the norm. And I was the other side of the world! So I started reading Modernism, especially Pound, because it’s the key first movement of poets travelling and seeing the whole world , and it allows in non-correct non-standard English. And I was off! But the experience also made me prickly about my old interests in Larkin and so on.

I hope I wasn’t merely prolix and incompetent, as most of the plagiarists were (so you can spot the plagiarism a mile off). Certainly, I liked the Cantos (and John Cage) because it allowed in the prosaic. But, as a former Larkinite, I was also looking out for quirks of phrase or organisation of the whole poem; or, if not that, then some passion. What gets me about the passion shown in Ward’s early work, or throughout David R Morgan’s, is that it assumes that it’s passionate to talk about death, murder, and sex. Whereas to me those subjects, as introduced by them, are the male equivalent of the adolescent rubbish that certain commentators used to snark drew very adolescent women poets to Plath. In male poets, the figure of fun beat poet in Peggy Sue Got Married shouting snot and piss and fuck in his poem is kind of the standard I mean. Whereas, for me, Pound and Cage and others were geeking out, introducing lots of esoterica in a stamp-collecting way sometimes. Geek passion.

So, for me, I’m not imbibing the victim poets I’m reading as a way to at least write well for a moment, to be outrageous or daring in a phrase. I’m learning again some of the chutzpah of being a mainstream poet. People think that doing “out there” wacky poetry takes chutzpah. But it can be water off a duck’s back. I see chutzpah exactly in this cutting away of anything wacky, in this occupying of a style, and we all do it. But I’ve enjoyed the thought of revisiting the ritual anyway. Most plagiarists are incompetent writers. Ward was just starting to become competent. Most of the others would never have got there. And Ward, too, read widely in mainstream lyric. Much wider than I do, and many do (which is why people didn’t spot his plagiarisms). The same is true of Graham Nunn in Australia. Wide reader. Good eye for a poem I’d probably have missed. There are anthologists, maybe, but I probably wouldn’t have looked at the poems in an anthology either. It’s the transgression that deepens my reading experience, the sense of a victim being there, maybe. And the fact I’m good at finding them. If one plagiarism comes up, I can find more in the plagiarist’s whole body of work than most others can (though on Facebook some have helped me with Andrew Slattery, who does “cento” plagiarism). That’s what draws me to the work. Sometimes I’m bored by all the work involved. But I have had these little hits of “mainstream style”, as transgressive because of the attractiveness to plagiarists I’m adding to my own work maybe?

I think I’m left with a new sense of audience, which is nice. I always had the sense of a large audience when I write songs (where I’ll sometimes rewrite a poem to make it a more “large audience” song). I don’t think of mainstream lyric as a large audience. It’s just an audience, and a corner of the market, and a chance to speak another language (and behave respectfully).

CT: One often hears of the London-centricity of poetry and how its ‘scene’ can seem insular, is this true of your experience? How does it compare to other ‘scenes’ you’ve experienced? 

IL: Well, I started out in London, being at UCL 1986-1989, and having tea with Hugo Williams, and meeting Ian Hamilton, and magazines based in London taking my work. I couldn’t really stay healthy in London (not for any drink or drugs, just got rundown easily) and got funding to study in New Zealand, where I got really well and cheerful.  After that, I couldn’t really cope with anywhere that didn’t have a hippy quality and big skies, which Norfolk and Northumberland have, although I tried London again for six months in 1995, got insomniac quickly, and left again.

I do travel around, and have performed a fair bit in Manchester, in Yorkshire, and in Birmingham and the Black Country. The scenes strike me the same each place: there are usually a few slightly seethingly intense intelligent poets around, and the good and the bad sides of camaraderie. Mostly the scenes are very fond of their own local heroes, including those who wouldn’t travel so well and would shrivel up in a more anonymous event away from home. The seething intense ones aren’t always the same as the local hero ones, and the former act a bit like they’re bored and also feeling a bit out of shape and flabby. The local hero poets are partly clung onto as the region’s ambassador, but also with a hint of angry resentment that the same poem the hero has just performed would bomb in another region; because it’s working with the language and streets all around one, and because performance nights need to have a slightly hyped “whoop whoop” feeling when the hero mounts the stage of “ooh, this’ll be good, makes the night worthwhile”. Local scenes all sort of work towards that effect, because they’re not just (or at all) about visiting poets – in the North East, these come to the Durham Book Festival, and the events can be really arid and stuffy.

London seems to me to have the effect of a warm group who know each other, a greater habituation to just anyone dropping by (none of the scenes are hostile, so I’ve found, because any new audience member is a boon), but sometimes doesn’t know it’s just as parochial. I often wonder whether a London poetry reading would feel happier if it could make local references in just the same way as a Newcastle one would to Newcastle. Instead, perhaps, there is some deference and obligation (and condescension if they don’t get it) to London references which you wouldn’t have to live there to get. There seem far fewer out of shape seething characters in the London scenes I’ve seen. I’d say the main culture clash is that London poets feel the burden of being both London and national, and sometimes seem prickly towards poets from elsewhere who don’t seem burdened by having to be national. It certainly seems to me to be like the too-edited too-workshopped poem. One can read, say, W S Graham, in his Collected Poems, and locate him, imagine the physical landscape he was writing in, once one has sat down and really lived with the book. That takes time, and maybe it wouldn’t come across so redolent in a workshop or in a performance. It seems to me that a lot of editing is there to take away that possibility of meh. The possibility of the work which feels so good when you can feel its soul just falling flat. The other local scenes I’ve taken part in… they don’t have that feeling of rush, and wearing your armour.

I’ve taken part in other scenes. I was far less successful than I’d like to have been in the Cambridge experimental scene, though I certainly hung around like a bad smell. The London experimental scene of the 90s was very welcoming. But everywhere’s more welcome nowadays, albeit with a slight group therapy politeness.  I don’t know that I would have taken the work I do in Birmingham or Newcastle in 2013 to less obviously experimental places in the 90s. I don’t know that I would have attempted a poem of the lyric I in the experimental London scene of the 90s. Interestingly, I’ve found there is more likely to be somebody nowadays in a London performance who’ll fold their arms and glare at me when I do wacky shouty arm wavy experimental stuff. It certainly isn’t the case that the London scene is uptight or too cool for school (as Brian Stefans once said of the New York scene). I’ve had plenty of really warm responses in London. But I have definitely had more incidents of someone looking fed up and hating it. I don’t think someone would go to an event in the regions if they were likely to hate it?

It’s true that the part of the country that most snarked at my plagiarism research was London. Plenty of voices there telling me that I was too harsh, or some kind of vigilante, or the “poetry police”. The only comparable reaction was from the Brisbane scene, when I took on Graham Nunn for plagiarizing there, and that was because they said I was unhip and too academic. I was somehow gross, inhuman and feral for the London complainers.

I don’t sense in London quite the same whoop effect of heroes taking the stage, in a local London poetry reading. And I sense there’s much more catty takedowns of bad lines and bad poems done behind people’s backs. Maybe they protect their own from others if others do the takedown, and plagiarism accusation feels like a takedown? I don’t know. I know that in the experimental scenes, people very quickly close down against someone attacking one of the poets.

CT: If you could recommend just one book/show/album/person/object to a poet starting out, what would it be? 

IL: Your last question is really tough. The Cantos is my favourite book of poetry, from which I continually learn. The anthology In The American Tree, probably.