Sunday, 6 July 2008

Plagiarism begins at home

Plagiarism is the bane of any school or university faculty's life, with special officers often assigned to weed out the copy'n'paste brigade and shoot on sight. One lecturer, in fact, told us straight up in week one not to bother because this was her job and she was very, very good at it. So it was with some trepidation, two years ago, that I suggested to my dissertation supervisor I might want to plagiarise for my poetry project.

The idea for Covering Tracks came from an excellent poetry class taught by Daniel Kane, in which Ted Berrigan and his Final Sonnet reared their cheeky heads. In case you're not familiar, Berrigan rounds off his collection of sonnets by lifting and appropriating chunks of another text, dropping them into his poem without a hint of acknowledgement. Not just any old obscure text either. What's one of the most famous fictional closings you can think of? Try Prospero's final speech from The Tempest.

A Final Sonnet
For Chris

How strange to be gone in a minute! A man
Signs a shovel and so he digs Everything
Turns into writing a name for a day
is having a birthday and someone is getting
married and someone is telling a joke my dream
a white tree I dream of the code of the west
But this rough magic I here abjure and
When I have required some heavenly music which even now
I do to work mine end upon their senses
That this aery charm is for I'll break
My staff bury it certain fathoms in the earth
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
It is 5:15 a.m. Dear Chris, hello.

My favourite part is that the content reflects the means. Prospero is surrendering his staff and magical powers, giving up ownership of the island he had appropriated himself only a few years previously. The text in turn is given up to the winds. Yes, granted, Berrigan had little cause to fear Shakespeare's lawyers in the 1960s, but still, a bold move, considering how canonised Shakey is in literature.

Like Berrigan, I wanted to take phrases I liked straight out of other texts and mutate them to my own ends. I decided to use each as the title of a poem and start from there (now you're seeing where FuseLit's spurword schtick originated - I get ridiculous writer's block). Luckily my supervisor was sympathetic and I lived to graduate.

In the age where you can download movies which haven't yet waved a hanky to the cinema (sure, it's illegal but with broadband and a market nothing can stop it), or spoof mercilessly on YouTube, theft of material and plagiarism is all around. Sometimes this is detrimental to the original ,but a lot of the time, it's also very fertile and the 'cutting' taken from the original can become a distinct piece on its own. There's something reassuringly familiar in spotting the reference, but which allows for alienation, comedy, shock or intrigue when the differences begin to manifest themselves. Sometimes it has the effect of an in-joke we're actually in on, sometimes, as in Freud's notion of the uncanny, it's the unfamilar in the familiar that can spook us.

It's also, of course, always satisfying to see the stale notion of The Author get unseated from its plinth. I'm not talking about simply copying the text verbatim and cashing in, but instead about cutting and rearranging, discarding bits, refreshing the material, sampling, trimming, inserting, juxtaposing and collaging. The Lars Ulrichs of this world, precious about their material to the point of Scroogedom, should probably realise that it has to leave the nest to get noticed, and that somewhere along the way, someone else might have a use for it that you didn't intend, but which could prove awesome.


As a sidenote, but not completely unrelated, The Forest just closed submissions for their Stolen Stories project. Hopefully they'll be running another soon. We'll keep you posted.

1 comment:

brooklyn said...

This doesn't have a lot to do with plagiarism, other than I want to plagiarize your design for our chapbook series, but I just got my copy of Fox, and I'm SO impressed. Thank you for including me, and thank you for doing such a lovely job. You three rock. XO