Poetry and the boundaries of plagiarism

I’m fascinated by this recent story. Christian Ward, a 32-year old poet from London with whom I’ve communicated occasionally on social networking, has been found to have plagiarised a poem by Helen Mort (whom I also know – in the real world). Christian’s poem, ‘The Deer’, won a local poetry competition in Devon, where the story was broken on 5th January. Save a few words, it’s identical to Helen’s poem of the same title.

Today a statement, by way of apology, has appeared from Ward. It’s not exactly unequivocal though, and that’s what interests me.

I was working on a poem about my childhood experiences in Exmoor and was careless. I used Helen Mort’s poem as a model for my own but rushed and ended up submitting a draft that wasn’t entirely my own work.

I had no intention of deliberately plagiarising her work. That is the truth.

It’s that phrase ‘I used Helen Mort’s poem as a model for my own’ which I find so intriguing. He seems to think that’s a fair explanation, that this mode of working is acceptable. But for me, this raises two questions. Firstly, what does using a poem as a model really mean in practice? Do you start with a source text and then start make edits to it? Do you just copy the theme, or the movement of ideas, or the formal techniques? Secondly, at what point in this process does the text become your own?

Perhaps we’ll never know with this work, because Ward claims he ‘rushed and ended up submitting a draft’. Is there another draft, where we might discover how he has transformed Helen’s text into something original of his own? I’d be fascinated to read it!

The wider debate that this minor scandal might provoke is where artistic inspiration and/or appropriation becomes plagiarism. Which in turn asks us to consider what can and cannot be owned by an individual author or creative artist.

Of course this debate is as old as writing itself. TS Eliot had something to say about it:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

In the past, perhaps poets were less desperate for the original, the authentically inspired, and more content to situate their work in a dynamic with the past. Only two of Shakespeare‘s 37 plays have original plots. At the end of Troilus & Criseyde, Chaucer commends his work to ‘subgit be to alle poesye; / And kis the steppes, wher-as thou seest pace / Virgile, Ovyde, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.’

David Shields, in his provocative book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, argues for a mash-up culture where everything is remixed, appropriated, open source. This is a somewhat radical position, but also one which has its roots in the Dadaist practice of collage.

Only recently, I published an anthology of poems that included a collage piece by Jon Stone. Jon had collaged reviews by the sci-fi critic David Langford, which caused some embarassment when David came to review the book for The Telegraph. In this instance, the problem – in my opinion (I have no idea about the legal status) – was not one of plagiarism, because the collage process had created a text that was utterly different in its appearance and effects, but of etiquette: Jon had simply forgotten to credit his source.

So perhaps we might say there is: deliberate plagiarism, accidental plagiarism (e.g. Ward, if we believe him – he has also confessed to plagiarising a Tim Dooley poem), deliberate appropriation (e.g. Stone), and finally accidental appropriation.

However we define it, I can’t help feel that Christian Ward’s misdemeanour is a symptom of a wider problem in British poetry: the dominance of creative writing courses, competitions, workshops, and their cumulative dissemination of a derivative and usually conservative poetic. Editors like me often complain of reading lots of poems that sound the same, that share a similar form, tone, turn of phrase, even subject matter. But isn’t cliche just a collectively agreed definition of plagiarism? Ward’s mistake wasn’t sending the wrong draft of his poem – it was thinking that ‘working from a model’ was a process that would lead to anything worth reading in the first place.

An artist’s depiction of the poet


Random Acts

Tonight – Tuesday 2 October – my poetry made its TV debut on Channel 4’s  Random Acts. My poem ‘The Event’ has been turned into an animated short film by the horrendously talented New York-based artist Julia Pott. Here it is above, on Vimeo. I think she’s done a great job of bringing the poem, with its apocalpytic romance and hints of climate catastrophe and banking crisis, to life. Thank you, Julia. And thank you also to the producer, Carrie Thomas.

If you’ve arrived on this blog after watching the film, thank you for your curiosity. You might like to get hold of my first book How to Build a City (Salt, 2009), my pamphlet The Terrors (Nine Arches, 2009), or find out more about the project I’m currently doing about climate change and the city. Cheers.

And here’s the poem, in full. (Please don’t reproduce without permission.)


For sale: two meticulously hand-inscribed hardback copies of How To Build a City

I’ve spent the morning inscribing two copies of my first book How To Build a City with detailed notes about the poems.

These notes range from clarifications of references and obscure allusions (many to London history) to thoughts about the contexts of the poems. I have also provided some very candid insights  about the more personal poems in the collection, ie. the ones about my late mother. Most of this information is not, and will not, be available anywhere else.

You can buy one of these very, very limited editions for £25.

They’re signed of course, too. UK orders only please. You can pay via Paypal or credit card.

If you’re based overseas, or have any questions, drop me an email on info (at) pennedinthemargins.co.uk


How To Build a City came out in 2009 from Salt Publishing. Here are some plugs and review quotes:

‘A steely vision of London past and present that is contemporary, inventive and substantial.’ – David Caddy

‘This is an ambitious and brave collection from a poet with a distinctive voice, one which will deepen our understanding of the city that lives in us.’ – Anthony Joseph

‘Chivers’s writing feels refreshing and necessary, a genuine, lyrical appraisal of contemporary life.’ – Luke Kennard, Poetry London

‘The poems in this collection are perfect little machines of their time, which will grow all the more beautiful when they begin to rust.’ – Phil Brown, Stride Magazine (read review)

How to Build a City … is characterised by linguistic inventiveness, the exploration of a wide range of subject matter and an authoritative approach.’ – Kayo Chingonyi, Eyewear (read review)

Go for Gold – A Poem for the Olympics

Oh, wow, look –

glossy sponsors’ logos glow from forty foot gobos

from Romford to Croydon to Pontoon Dock.



No go for dogs or cowboys.



So fond of sports: to trot, to shoot, hop-scotch, golf.

Who to root for: GB bods or jocks from Togo, Oslo, Congo?


No odd jobs for Bow-born gyro boys.

No, LOCOG only kowtows to posh knobs –

tycoons who syphon stocks from boomtowns.


O proctors of gloom

known for PR boobs!


O floppy clowns

too good to spoof!


LOCOG control food.

No cod, no pork.

Only blotchy lollypops or – John Dory.


On London rooftops

spooks prowl for throngs of rowdy schoolboys,

troops bombproof blocks of condos, look for ghosts;

PC Plod from Norfolk growls.



Mostly so-so.

Shoddy logo.


Lofty LOCOG do polls, do vox pop,

knock on doors of common London folk –

“Rococo morons!” mocks Jo.

“Bossy Cyborg dolts!” scoffs Bob.

“Gosh – who?”


LOCOG borrows dosh, croons soppy songs

to dodgy corps who do no good, only wrong –

“Sponsor John, sponsor hotshot Johnny, sponsor doorknobs.

Sponsor pylons, pythons, schoolbooks, thongs.

Sponsor Morocco, body odor, hymnbooks, sponsor two o’clock.”


LOCOG’s torch wows crowds from Oxford to Bolton.

Convoy of sponsors’ motors follows: Lloyds, Dow, Mondo.


Only fools cross LOCOG.

LOCOG chloroforms Goths, hobos, cocky non-conforms.

LOCOG co-opts groovy folk for costly lowbrow jolly.

LOCOG concocts horror show cons. O London’s folly.


No gold, no oomph to shop.

No bloody trophy.

The Failure of Digital – Mix Conference in Untweeted Tweets

I’ve just returned from two days at Mix – a conference exploring transmedia writing and digital creativity organised by Bath Spa University. Predictably the conference venue, the beautiful Jacobean mansion Corsham Court, had no public Wifi and even 3G coverage was incredibly patchy (although the cakes were plentiful). Not one to be deterred from emitting hot air via the Twittersphere, I reached for my trusty A4 notebook and started Tweeting, by hand.

Old trusty

I propose, then, the following – an accummulative, one-sided, unnetworked, uni-authored, anti-interactive, solipsistic, hyperunlinked, retrograde, pre-digital, nostalgic, parodic, carboniferous, vernacular, non-academic, sardonic, anti-spontaneous commentary on two days listening, talking and thinking about future literatures.

Day One

Mark Amerika kicks off with Beckett on failure, storytelling, remixology, Debord & the digital derive #MixDigital

I find Amerika’s claiming of transmedia by what he calls, paradoxically, ‘the historical avant-garde’, problematic #MixDigital

Amerika setting up opposition b/wn avant-garde/arthouse vs commercial/Hollywood entertainment industry #MixDigital

Surely most digital developments are implicated in commercial interests & powered by creative entrepreneurs #MixDigital

Amerika’s Immobilite looks interesting – voice distortions & haunting drones #MixDigital

Amerika now talking about his Museum of Glitch Aesthetics #MixDigital #MOGA

The Artist 2.0 – nice pun from Amerika #MixDigital #MOGA

Awesome glitch video of some fucked up landscapes (I dream like this) #MixDigital #MOGA

Pixelated waterfalls. Cut-up cliffs. #MixDigital #MOGA @nathmercy @rossgsutherland @borispasterlike wd love

Audience member questioning Amerika on convergence #MixDigital

Amerika promoting resistance to convergence & ‘false consciousness of commercial production’ hmmm this is so passé #MixDigital

Amerika on defamiliarising voice & sound #MixDigital

I asked Amerika how we comes to terms with using commercial tools eg Google Maps, Nokia #MixDigital

His answer was intoxicating if evasive. For him transmedia about creative sabotage of commercial software #MixDigital

2nd keynote coming up. Maria Mencia. Strange hieroglyph grid projecting behind her. Introducer promising translations from/into birdsong #MixDigital

Sense/nonsense, legible/illegible. The language edge of media. Texture, sound, phonetic landscapes #MixDigital

Mencia showing us Steve McCaffrey poem from 1974. Her deconstruction of it reminds me why I dislike most concrete poetry #MixDigital

Breaking grammatical/ syntactical rules is so radical, man. Smash the system! #MixDigital

Sorry, but I’m really not getting much out of Mencia’s keynote or the tedious conceptual language art she’s showing #MixDigital

‘Textual surfaces as transparent & opaque’ – reading as visual/image-based process #MixDigital

Mencia using ‘Java-made-simple’ programming to make artwork #MixDigital #CodeisPoetry

‘Avant-garde’ academics are often so bad at talking about work. I want a way in, not more theory #MixDigital

Howard Carter on discovering Tutunkhamun’s tomb: “Wow, check out those hieroglyphs, they really speak to notions of the materiality of textual surfaces” #MixDigital

At the back of my #MixDigital delegate pack is a wodge of A4 lined paper. OLD SCHOOL.

Mencia’s last poem is an interactive code-based rendition of a C16th Spanish poem w/ use of webcam. Quite interesting #MixDigital

A thought: code requires perfect syntax, poetry celebrates imperfection & breakdown of linguistic rules #MixDigital

.@hollypest on Caroline Bergvall’s Meddle English & @christianbok’s Xenotext now! #MixDigital

.@hollypest ‘languaging’ / foreignness / fluency #MixDigital

Funny how everyone’s terminology differs: transmedia, multimedia, intermedial, interdisciplinary etc #MixDigital

.@hollypest introducing Bergvall’s Chaucerian mash-ups – intriguing the medievalist in me #MixDigital

.@hollypest struggling to pronounce the bacterium onto which @christianbok is inscribing a poem LOL #MixDigital

Bergvall & Bok setting up laboratories, collaborating, ‘meddling’ with process @hollypest #MixDigital

In media res translates as *into* the middle of things, ie. dynamic middle … interesting @hollypest #MixDigital

Bergvall – wire sculpture as language, ‘a tissue of lines’ @hollypest #MixDigital

Bergvall on lines echoed in Capability Brown’s landscaping of Corsham Court, w/ sightlines across meadows to distant A Road @hollypest #MixDigital

‘The site of language spawning & deforming’ @hollypest #MixDigital

‘soupy mix of corrupted Chaucerian language’ @hollypest on Bergvall #MixDigital

History is a complex layering of time like a baker’s dough (Stephen Connor via @hollypest) #MixDigital

‘Bergvall is feeding from Chaucer and feeding the text that is spawned by it’ @hollypest #MixDigital

Now @hollypest turns to @christianbok – removing the human from the poetic process #MixDigital

.@christianbok’s poem is a split masculine/feminine text about creation/destructing, according to @hollypest #MixDigital

.@christianbok’s Xenotext proj is being developed in a lab, but out of hours – interesting ‘oscillation’ there @hollypest #MixDigital

And now, a move to the barn for the wondrously named Dick Swart on digital narration #MixDigital

Swart on new reading strategies, eg. WWILFING & narrativity in gaming #MixDigital

Funny how reading online is becoming more fractured, more incoherent, whilst gaming is becoming more narrative-based. What are we losing #MixDigital

Swart imagining literature that is responsive to the reader, eg. Minimise/expand bits of the text to suit your taste #MixDigital

It’s a fascinating idea but works against the wonder of surprise & serendipity #MixDigital

Some of Swart’s ideas about personalisation & adaptive literature worry me cos they reduce role of imagination #MixDigital

The Ambient Novel. The Puffpastry Novel. The Spaghetti Novel. (Dick Swart) #MixDigital

Swart’s transmedial novel ‘Tiret’ has a spooky animated cover. Cool! #MixDigital

‘Tiret’ also has minimisable text, animations, translation, commenting via social nets. Incredible #MixDigital

It has embedded audio and illustration too #MixDigital

Massively Multiplayer Online Networking Story Books, cf. Balzac’s Comedia Humaine (Dick Swart is ace) #MixDigital

Swart: Star Trek was the first multi-writer network story environment #MixDigital

Swart on the Spaghetti Novel with multiple routes thru narrative. @npenlington is taking notes #MixDigital

‘Let’s make some money and write the MMONSB’ Dick Swart #MixDigital

After good sandwiches and light ale at Methuen Arms I’m back at #MixDigital for roundtable discussion. Feeling sleepy.

Prof Martin Riesner on augmented & hybrid realities #MixDigital

Riesner – city moving away from a series of fixed nodes into a fluid, amorphous, staccastic space #MixDigital

Mapping is an important trope in augmented reality #MixDigital

Aboriginal songlines – summoning the ancestors thru walking a landscape. Embodiment in the landscape #MixDigital

Mobile tech bringing back embodiment in landscape #MixDigital

Magic moments where hybrid reality converges #MixDigital

Locative media, lost histories of the word #MixDigital

Claire Reddington brings energetic patter to #MixDigital & played a clip from Minority Report

V interesting discussion ranging from optics, locative media, experimental theatre & Victorian magic tricks #MixDigital

Day Two

Mornin’ #MixDigital. @katepullinger kicks things off w/ clear & engaging talk on disinformation & publishing

Oops – meant to say DISINTERMEDIATION #MixDigital #FreudianSlip

If yr work doesn’t circulate freely it has no currency – Pullinger #MixDigital

Digital Rights Management stops circulation dead – Pullinger #MixDigital

Inanimate Alice uses multimedia to tells stories – didn’t realise it wd become pedagogical phenomenon – Pullinger #MixDigital

Inanimate Alice distributed free but has generated income in other ways. Where are the new business models? – Pullinger #MixDigital

A Million Penguins – can a community write a novel? Wiki-fiction – Pullinger #MixDigital

80k views, 1500 contributors, lots of vandalism, eg. Fuck Penguin – Pullinger #MixDigital

Answer to her question: no! But a fascinating process which has generated further research projects – Pullinger #MixDigital

.@jsamlarose has just made a face #MixDigital

Can books be spreadable media? – Pullinger #MixDigital

Ref Cory Doctorow giving away ebooks free to fuel print sales (IMO outliers do not create workable business models) #MixDigital

Hey let’s talk about to enable change in publishing but save the really good bits #MixDigital

Writer as artisan, w/out need for publishing industry – attractive idea but remember artisans formed guilds #MixDigital

Guilds to develop communities, skills, audiences & protect interests #MixDigital

Giving stuff away for free has always been for privileged/lucky/famous few – it’s not a sufficient business model in C21st IMO #MixDigital

What do we give away – what do we decide to retain for sale #MixDigital

I am so digital I’ve just drawn a cartoon of a C14th bible leaf #MixDigital

Video poetry next with Tom Konyves #MixDigital

We are watching black & white silent film of Robert Browning poem from 1909 – the first ever video poem #MixDigital

Jean Epstein predicting videopoetry in 1923 #MixDigital

I don’t get what #videopoetry actually is – if it contains no text/speech/language can it be a poem? #MixDigital

Konyves just showed a witty 1982 videopoem w/ one word per shot. Great rhythm like a good spoken poem or a joke #MixDigital

Konyves showing some v interestin videopoems – wd like to get a complete list so I can watch them again online #MixDigital

‘The poetry in videopoetry is the result of the judicious juxtaposition of text w/ image & sound’ Konyves Manifesto #MixDigital

Tom Phillips Humument getting a check now re appropriation of existing material. Wicked #MixDigital

Watched the brilliant & famous Bob Dylan music video of Subterranean Homesick Blues as a ‘videopoem’ #MixDigital

I think all of Konyves examples of videopoetry have been by men #MixDigital

Next up: Phd student Andy Atherton on archaeology of digital writing. We are sitting in a converted stable block #MixDigital

From TS Eliot to Kenneth Goldsmith thru the prism of hypertext – Atherton #MixDigital

Print vs digital as Wiley Coyote spluttering in the wake of Roadrunner – Atherton #MixDigital

The reader of The Waste Land becomes a user (Eliot’s endnotes as hypertext) – Atherton #MixDigital

‘Multi-user dungeons’ – Atherton #MixDigital

I find Atherton’s notion of a ‘successful reader’ problematic #MixDigital

Bohdan Piasecki talking on mixed media, translation & performance poetry #MixDigital

One of unique qualities of performance poetry is the strong link b/wn the poem & its author #MixDigital

German poet Bas Bottcher has created custom-made software to generate translations for his performances #MixDigital

Oh god Bohdan’s 1st questioner is incredibly patronising – accuses him of sexism & racism by only showing egs of white male poets #MixDigital

Switching back to Stable for Richard Stamp’s Philosopher of a Gadgeteer #MixDigital

John Whitney, Hitchcock, Buckminster-Fuller, Foucault’s Pendulum & military surplus, so far from Stamp #MixDigital

.@npenlington @hollypest & I skived off #MixDigital to go book-hunting in Corsham

Extraordinary peacocks! #MixDigital

Final presentation of day is Lance Dann on radio, broadcasting & sound #MixDigital

Dann’s work explores edges of radio with ARG, socialnetworking & viral #MixDigital

Augmented narratives. Layered experience #MixDigital

New media needs old media to validate it – Dann #MixDigital

Interaction (eg. Commenting & phone ins) – 1 in 1,000 rule #MixDigital

An introduction to my work by Theodoros Chiotis

‘The construction, or if we want to be more accurate, the excavation of the multitude of realities lurking underneath the practice of everyday life has come to be seen as a basic writing tool of writers and poets dealing with urban life. The mechanical nature of urban time and usability as urban life’s ultimate precondition change drastically the imagination of the urban dweller. The ability to read maps and construct alternate routes to navigate oneself within the city; the ability to collect and catalogue information regarding the cultural, fiscal and real estate value of the urban space – all of these are but a brief selection from the basic survival tool kit for the urban dweller. The urban dweller has access to a nexus of mulitple realities and it is this nexus that allows for an ambulatory, phantasmagorical reading of urban space.

Tom Chivers in his poetry does not simply map the experience of urban life. The poem ‘How to Build a City’ is not simply an alternate geography or a psychogeographical impression of London; it is an occluded autobio(geo)graphy of the city as impressed upon a native of the city. Antigone Vlavianou, when writing about another writer dealing with urban space, Yorgos Ioannou, notes that the ‘alternation of narrative masks culminates in a functional intertwining of all pronouns; said alternation is made manifest in a sprawling narrative identifying the body of the city with the narrator’s body. The narrator’s body bearing the marks of the city on it goes on an act of auto-bio-geography’.

Chivers as a poet writing about the city and the marks it leaves on the poet’s very body approaches city life in a markedly different manner; the body of the city and the narrator’s body do not come to be identified in Chivers’ poetry. In Chivers’ work, the narrative feeds in the way a parasite does on the fauna of fantasies that make up the body of the city. The narrator in these poems is a paradoxical, malleable entity: the narrator transforms ceaselessly in his wanderings with no hope of ever escaping the city. The narrator of ‘How To Build A City’ (and The Terrors, to a lesser extent) is folded inside the very body of the city; a body made up of badly lit alleyways,  exposed brick walls, an ever changing skyline, electrical wiring and ruins. The terrae incognitae of the flaneurs become the hipsters’ terrae nullorum in Chivers’ poems: spaces without any permanent identity (and affiliation) despite the attempts to map them thoroughly. The minute details as inscribed in these poems construct the portrait of a city made up of disparate elements; this particular city portrait is structured more like the factory that is the unconscious rather than a ‘real’ city (whatever that might mean).

If one wanted to, one could make a pretty accurate map of (East) London based on Chivers’ poems but in reality this particular map would only make even more apparent the reality of an urban space consisting of sedimentary accumulations: sounds, images, ideas and temporalities. The city one would construct based on Chivers’ poetry would be the city in which decay and ultimately catastrophe reveal the vertiginous collapse of inner into outer, past into future, urban space into whatever might potentially exist outside its boundaries.’

Theodoros Chiotis

First published in Greek in Poiitiki

Light-filled Visions from a Dark Past

The latest issue of Poetry London is out now, with the now-customary spray of brilliant poems and reviews.

I’m glad to have been asked to contribute a piece on two new translations, Simon Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur (Faber) and Jane Draycott’s Pearl (Carcanet).


On Pearl:

Draycott opts for a flowing, contemporary free verse, alliterating where the force of the original language pushes through, but open to new effects not available to her predecessor: in particular, subtle half-rhymes, and judicious use of line-breaks and run-on sentences to drive the rhythm – and the eye – forward. She  is also adept at finding moments of silence, pauses for thought in what can be an overwhelming text.

On King Arthur:

Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur shows us the other side of medieval literary expression […] this is a gory, macho fight-fest – like a Tarantino film with less irony and more chainmail.

I recommend both of these books very highly, perhaps especially the Draycott, because Pearl is one of the most outstanding poetic achievements of the medieval period and should be more widely read.