F for Fake: Poetry and Plagiarism

Nicole (Audrey Hepburn) and her forger father Charles Bonnet (Hugh Griffith) in the 1966 movie How to Steal a Million. It is unlikely that the current Australian Poetry plagiarism ‘scandal’ will have a happy ending.

A few weeks back I rewatched the 1966 movie How to Steal a Million.  I first saw this movie when I was a kid, probably soon after it was released. In it Audrey Hepburn plays the daughter of an art forger (Hugh Griffith) who makes his money producing copies of old masters and selling them to underground art dealers. But when a forgery of a small sculpture is put on display by a Paris art gallery his daughter realises that the insurance company will probably discover the forgery when it is assessed. She decides to ‘steal’ the art work back before it can be discovered and teams up with the Peter O’Toole character (who is an ‘art detective’ who is hot on the heels of her father) to steal it back. Of course the two fall in love and eventually everyone lives happily ever after.

Unfortunately life rarely emulates art (even if it sometimes does copy itself) and it has been said that poetry only makes the news when there is a death or a scandal. Well Seamus Heaney died and grabbed a few column centimetres –  and then along came a small to middling sized poetry scandal which ensured that poetry and the arts in general were caught fully in the headlights as the new conservative government started sharpening their knives. Only this time there was no Audrey Hepburn or Peter O’Toole to relieve the tension, add a touch of glamour and to provide a few laughs.

First off the rank was Newcastle based poet Andrew Slattery. Slattery has won or been commended in a number of awards over the past few years, among them 2nd prize International Awards in the Bridport Prize 2011,  Shortlisted for The Newcastle Poetry Prize 2010, and the Winner of The Arts Queensland Val Vallis Award for Unpublished Poetry. He also reeceived Literature Board Grants — Grants for Emerging Writers in 2008 and 2010. His downfall was, in fact, another award  the Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize which he won earlier this year for his long poem Ransom. According to media reports one of the judges, Anthony Lawrence, became suspicious and, with the help of another judge (M T C Cronin) started googling lines from Slattery’s poem. They discovered that about four-fifths of the lines appeared to be the work of other poets.

Further investigations suggested that this was not an isolated incident and so in June when Slattery won the Cardiff International Poetry Prize his winning poem was closely analysed. It also turned out to contain many lines borrowed from other poets including the singer songwriter Tom Waits. Slattery was again stripped of his award.

Slattery’s original defence appears that he was simply using cut up, sampling or Cento (works composed of pieces taken from other works and reformatted), however it does appear that he has accepted that he made a major mistake by not acknowledging the source of his borrowings and has accepted that his actions have hurt other poets. My understanding is that he has also withdrawn from writing poetry.

Within days of the storm breaking over Slattery another poet was named as a serial plagiarist. Graham Nunn, a respected Brisbane poet and past organiser of the Brisbane Poetry Festival was originally ‘caught’ when it was revealed that his poem, ‘Fortune’ from his 2010 book Open Hearted, appeared to mirror and contain direct quotes from Canadian Don Mckay’s poem ‘Philosopher’s Stone’. While Nunn, at the time described this as “extremely careless” and apologised, he seemed to try and adopt the Audrey Hepburn/Peter O’Toole defence when confronted with further evidence.  English poet and ‘plagiarist sleuth’ Ira Lightman apparently tweeted Graham Nunn some questions about a number of other poems he was suspicious about – it appears that Nunn then started pulling down a large number of poems from his blog Another Lost Shark (http://anotherlostshark.com/ – Note it apppears Nunn has now completely deleted his blog and this link is not active.) and pulled his books from sale. Unfortunately for him many of them had already beedn archived online.

For most poets I know the initial reaction was one of shock. Nunn was a well-regarded figure in the Queensland Poetry community, he published a number of books (both by himself and other poets) and many spoke of the role he had played as a mentor to them. But as the evidence emerged it became more and more difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt. (for those wanting to make up their own mind a record of Ira Lightman’s Twitter posts relating to Nunn can be found at http://storify.com/iralightman/graham-nunn-poems-and-their-often-close-resemblanc). Adding to this was the fact that Nunn had removed much of his work from easy public scrutiny.

Nunn has posted a response on his blog:

In response to a number of statements made online and in the media about my poetry, I’d like to tell you about my creative process. I was not given the opportunity to respond to some of the claims before they were made, so I am doing so here, and I am doing so now.

Reading and listening to music are a vital part of my process. And there are times when I’m reading a poem or listening to a song that a door opens and my mind flashes with images from my personal history. It may be a phrase, a line, a metaphor that triggers this, but when it occurs, I give myself over to the images and ensure I capture them. In doing this, the framework of the poem is used to tell my own story and parts of the original text are creatively appropriated in the formation of a new work.

Have I credited the original work the way academia would have? No. Does poetry and music have a long history of sampling, of re-purposing, of homage? Yes. Will I continue to seek inspiration and motivation and keys to my memories and experience from outside of my own head? Yes. It’s impossible to do otherwise. But let me be clear, my motivation has always been to charm the moment that has found me into a poem and only that, not to steal and never to cause harm.

For many in the poetry community this still leaves many questions unanswered. I, for one would like to see Nunn refer to specific examples and explain how his process resulted in what appears to be in some cases very close resemblances between his poem and the work of other poets. Rochford Street Review has also emailed Graham to ask why he has removed so much of his work from his blog. We have yet to receive an answer.

While always wanting to maintain the presumption of innocence it is difficult in this situation when Nunn has effectively gone to ground. Among with others in the Australian poetry community we are concerned that there maybe others poets in similar positions who have yet to be identified.

The bottom line is that sampling, Cento, paste-ups etc are all valid art forms, but they are only valid if the original source is acknowledged. It would appear, that at the very least, a number of poets seem to have been very loose with their definition of the form – at worst they have just been copying.

– Mark Roberts

F for Fake was the last major film completed by Orson Welles (released 1974).

Some media links

Poet uses defence of ‘collage poetry’ after recycling Plath lines Stephen Romei From: The Australian September 13, 2013 http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/books/poet-uses-defence-of-collage-poetry-after-recycling-plath-lines/story-e6frg8nf-1226718041674

‘Plagiarism the word that can’t be uttered’ Susan Wyndham SMH 13/9/2013 http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/plagiarism-the-word-that-cant-be-uttered-20130913-2tpha.html

Newcastle poet under siege over ‘patchwork’ poetry 14/9/2013 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-09-14/newcastle-poet-under-siege-over-27patchwork27-poetry/4957998

‘“Of borrow’d plumes I take the sin”’: plagiarism and poetry’ By Justin Clemens  Overland 16/9/2013  http://overland.org.au/2013/09/of-borrowd-plumes-i-take-the-sin/comment-page-1/

Mr Poetry” Graham Nunn is facing fresh allegations of plagiarism Daryl Passmore The Courier-Mail September 17, 2013 http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/national/mr-poetry82178217-graham-nunn-is-facing-fresh-allegations-of-plagiarism/story-fnii5v71-1226720499267

Brisbane poet Graham Nunn denies accusations of plagiarism Robb Kidd   The Courier-Mail  16/9/2013  http://www.news.com.au/national-news/queensland/brisbane-poet-graham-nunn-denies-accusations-of-plagiarism/story-fnii5v6w-1226719604925

Award-winning young poet caught plagiarising By Kathy Marks The New Zealand Herald 19 September 2013 http://www.nzherald.co.nz/lifestyle/news/article.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=11126726

Plagiarism scandal has revealed an ugly side of Australian poetry Toby Finch The Guardian Monday 23 September 2013 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/23/australian-poetry-plagiarism?CMP=twt_fbo

Michelle Cahill on ‘The Prize Addiction’ http://michellecahill.com/2013/09/19/the-prize-addiction/

Graham Nunn’s reponse to allegations of plagiarism  http://anotherlostshark.com/


  1. Mark, I fear you’re right about all this. It’s typical that poetry only makes headlines when something like this occurs and it always results in a moral panic. I find the two poets’ defences not very credible. I have often used the work of others myself (some 90 percent of The Ash Range consists of other voices), but in every case I’ve made that apparent (The Ash Range even has a bibliography. A more recent book Crab & Winkle italicises quotes). I’ve enjoyed other people’s mash-ups of my own work too but these have been clearly presented as such. I just hope all this doesn’t feed the Abbott government’s resentment of the arts.

  2. Australia has a long and undistinguished history of controversies like this, most notably the Ern Malley Affair of 1944 ( loads about it on google) … for a relatively small population, we seem to have generated a disproportionate number of juicy literary controversies.

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