Supreme Court lifts injunction on Autobiography

Legal matters normally fall outside the scope of this blog, except for a brief guide to copyright, however, this particular case is of interest to writers, particularly those who base their poems on personal experience, autobiography or memoir.

In the case [2015] UKSC 32 concerning James Rhodes v OPO and another, the Supreme Court had to consider an appeal against an injunction which prevented the publication of an autobiography in the form it had been written. The full judgement and press summary are here.

A father had written his autobiography which graphically detailed extensive abuse (including rape) he’d been subjected to as a child. Knowledge of this abuse was already in the public domain because the father, a concert pianist, author and film maker, had referred to it in interviews which were widely available and could be easily found through internet searches. The autobiography was dedicated to his son and would be available as an ebook and printed book in the father’s resident country. The son lived with his mother in a different country and the father didn’t intend the son to read it until he was old enough to understand it. The son has diagnosed disabilities in processing information and a consultant child psychologist concluded he would suffer psychological harm and emotional distress if he saw the content of the book. An interim injunction was granted so that the claim that publication of the book in its current form would intentionally cause harm to the son.

The Supreme Court allowed the injunction to be lifted. The essential grounds for this were that the father had the right to tell his story in his own words so publication of the book was justified providing it complied with laws concerning for example confidentiality. However, there was no law preventing the publication of factual material, even if it was graphic and distressing. The book was intended for a general audience, not just the son. Consideration was also given to the wording of the injunction which was found not to be specific enough. It is worth reading the judgement for the full conclusion. I’ve only mentioned the aspects that are of wider interest.

This is a welcome judgement. It acknowledges that where a writer seeks to publish a poem, story or memoir based on autobiographical facts, the writer is free to do so providing laws on confidentiality and non-provocation of hatred are respected. Another party will not succeed in obtaining an injunction to prevent publication on the basis that someone who is not the intended audience could suffer psychological harm or severe emotional distress (here that means a recognised psychological illness resulting from emotional distress; not just a one-off emotive reaction).

How do you write a poem? Giving credit where it’s due

Perhaps you decide on a theme, perhaps a image springs to mind, perhaps you are reminded of an incident that happened to you in the past or a first memory, perhaps you had an abortive attempt to get some words down on the page and decided more research was needed, perhaps you came across a poem and wanted to write a response to it, perhaps you were flipping through your notebook and came across an interesting idea, perhaps you saw a poem with a format that seemed appropriate for you theme and you decided to write your poem in that format.

It’s very rare a poet sits down in front of a blank screen or blank page and writes a poem without any preparative thought process.

It’s equally rare for a reader to read a poem with a completely blank mind. Readers bring their own experience, memories and baggage to a poem. One reader may hate ballads because she remembers being humiliated after being expected to learn one by heart and messing up one of the lines when asked to recite it in front of the class. Another reader may love the ghazal and be pre-disposed to look favourably on any she reads. Another reader may find that your poem about a tragedy triggers memories of involvement in a similar tragedy and her response to your poem will be informed by her memories.

Many readers are also poets who commit take a phrase, image or poem to memory or a notebook to refer to again later. These notes may then become sources for new poems. The new poem may take the form of a call and response with the original poem as a call and a new poem emerging from the lines written in response. A new poem may arise from taking an image, brainstorming and creating a poem from the brainstormed ideas. A poet might start with a line from another’s poem and write a new poem based on that line. Found poems, including erasure poems, use an original text and reformat it into a poem but generally the original sources were not poems and the found or erased poem offers a new slant or focus on the original and can be read independently of it. Cut-up poetry takes a source or sources and cuts out lines or phrases to make a new poem. All of these are legitimate sources for new poems, providing the originals are credited where the new poem uses lines from the original(s).

How much of the original source do you have to include in your new poem before you need to include a credit from the original?

If you have no intention of publishing the poem written in response to other or using cut-up, erasure or found techniques or by ghosting (basing a new poem on the structure or imagery of another), no problem arises. The new poem stays in a notebook or file never to see to the light of day; like a workshop exercise to try out an unfamiliar form or experimenting with an image. The problems arise when poets seek to publish a poem that was based on another source.

If you’ve written an ekphrastic poem inspired by a piece of art, which could be a painting, a sculpture or even a piece of prose? The usual way of crediting the original is to add a note “after” with the name of the artist. The understanding here is that the poet has tried to capture a feel, atmosphere or sense of the original piece of art in their poem in a response to the original art. I’ve written a poem, “Good Morning Midnight” (included in “Yellow Torchlight and the Blues”) after Jean Rhys: the poem tries to capture the atmosphere and feel of Jean Rhys’s prose but does not quote from it.

If you use cut-up, found or erasure techniques, you should credit the original text(s).

If your poem B is based on a line by poet A in their poem A, a credit should be included.

Parodies are not plagiarism, neither is rewriting a story from the viewpoint of a different character providing you have invented the different character’s voice and not simply rearranged the original story (although in both cases it helps to credit the original in case your readers, who may have a different cultural background, are unfamiliar with it).

But what if you’ve used a call and response or ghosting techniques to write your poem? Here the line between plagiarism (the wrongful appropriation, close imitation or purloining of other writer’s work) and a new poem becomes more difficult to define. When scaffolding is used, the idea is that the scaffolding is removed and a new building stands, independent of that scaffolding.

The ‘fair use’ argument (usually used where works are quoted from in a piece of criticism or review or in students’ work) may not be enough either. A poet may only have used 23 words of another’s poem, which might be justifiable if the original was a thousand line epic, but if the original was only 30 words, then 77% of the original poem has been used. It’s difficult to argue a poem that is 23% the poet’s own work is a new poem and doesn’t need to credit anyone else. It’s not possible to reduce an argument to simple mathematics either, if those 23 words were the essence or structure of the original, the second poet absolutely should credit the original poet.

It is possible to publish poems based on other’s work with or without credits being given. Editors, publishers and competition judges have not read every single published poem and, even if they had, would not necessarily recognise that the poem they are reading is based on another poet’s poem. Poetry works on trust. Most competitions include in their rules that entries must be the original, unpublished work of the entrant and trust entries comply because they don’t have time to check. Most publishers and editors ask for original work and trust that poets know the law around copyright and are aware of plagiarism so don’t submit work that breaches either or both. In turn, reviewers trust that books or pamphlets sent for review are of unplagiarised work. Where proper credits have been given, there shouldn’t be a problem. Where credits have not been given, trust is broken.

I’ve discussed here ways in which a plagiarist may redeem themselves and re-build broken trust.

The biggest mistrust will come from poets whose work has been appropriated. A poet who has spent time and effort in drafting, editing and re-drafting a poem, particularly one based on a personal experience, will not want their work plagiarised. It is not flattery, it is theft.

Using another poet’s poem as the basis for your own is fine, but if you wish to publish the resulting poem, make sure it can stand alone without any trace of scaffolding and be prepared to give proper credit.

Is there a Poem in it? Telling a Personal Story

We learn far more from stories than instructions, whether from the Bible, fables or the latest celebrity interview. Instructions are very much a one-off template to get a job done, whereas a story gives readers characters, a narrative arc and sub plots to think about and the best stories offer credible characters who solve their own problems and allow to reader to think about what they would have done in that situation or what their reaction would have been if the same thing had happened to them.

We’re quick to share stories too: the toddler telling their parents about their day (regardless of whether the parent was there or not), strangers finding themselves next to each other on a train, in a waiting room, telling friends or family about an event, updating our status on social media or retweeting an article we came across. Reading books may be falling in popularity but we still watch films, TV dramas, follow a narrative in a computer game, listen to chat shows. The popularity of the ‘triumph over adversity’ story is undiminishable and who doesn’t enjoy gloating when hearing about someone who’s behaved badly getting a just punishment?

This desire to share stories is one of the main motivations for writers to write. But writing personal or “confessional” poems comes with pitfalls which are not just about writing technique. Writing about a personal experience isn’t just about deciding on the best approach and whittling out the irrelevant details to get to the heart of the story. There’s a difference between writing about something in a personal journal or sharing it with a friend, and putting that poem out in the public domain by seeking to get it published or performing it.

  • Is it worth sharing?
  • Have you got to the true heart of your story or are you too focused on making it true to life?
  • Can you be objective?
  • Are you ready for unscripted reactions?

Sharing a Story in a Poem

A story doesn’t have to be hugely dramatic to share, but it needs to be communicable. If your story needs a long preamble to explain the situation or the characters, it’s probably best to keep it to share with people who know the people involved. Telling a reader “you had to be there,” is insulting and unhelpful.

Can you show the reader why you or your narrating character took the course of action they did? If you need to dictate your conclusion to the reader rather than allowing them to take their own view, it’s probably not a shareable story.

Telling the Truth

The truth isn’t necessarily what happened. It’s about illustrating the heart of your story. A good writer strips out extraneous detail, no matter how interesting, and beings the story into sharp focus. It can be hard to separate detail from story when you have a strong emotional involvement, so it may be better to wait until you have that emotional distance before deciding to try and get your poem published.

It may be necessary to alter the telling of what happened to make a better poem. We do this a lot in real life, little embellishments or omissions, the little white lies to make something sound better. In a poem, you might want to make a ten minute wait a half-hour one or skip parts of the story to keep the momentum going and keep the reader engaged.

There’s a reason that workshop tutors’ hearts sink whenever a participant says “that’s how it happened.” Real life is messy, inconvenient and boring. There isn’t space for that in a poem.

Can you be Objective?

Can you read back your draft and edit it as if you are reading it for the first time? Can you let go of that stanza focused on the description something that isn’t key to the story and ought to be cut? It may be you have the draft of what could be a brilliant poem, but if you can’t read it with an editor’s eyes, keep it in the notebook to come back to later.

Are you ready for unscripted reactions?

It’s your story: you know how you reacted. But could you cope with someone else playing devil’s advocate and taking an opposing view? Could you bear someone laughing at your tragedy? Could you bear your joke falling flat? Could you cope with an editor suggesting you need to swap stanzas four and five and lose two lines from stanza six?

If your answer is “no,” you’re not yet ready to publish. This isn’t a reflection on the standard of your poem. You can guess how a reasonable person would react, but not everyone is reasonable. Once you decide to submit your poem for publication, you can’t rely on readers taking into consideration it’s personal when they comment on it. If you are going to read your poem to an audience, it’s not fair to ask them to excuse you for getting tearful at the end of the first stanza. The audience wants to hear the poem, not your personal reaction to it.

The Perils of Poetry Reviewing

There shouldn’t be any. You receive a poetry book or pamphlet for review, you read it and write your opinion which is backed up with quotes and examples and the review reader is given enough information as to whether they’d like to buy the book or not. The poet, whose book is being reviewed, understands the reviewer is simply expressing their opinion and, especially if the reviewer is not part of the target market, a negative opinion is not necessarily a negative reflection on the book.

When New Walk magazine asked several reviewers to comment on the perils of reviewing, several common themes emerged:

Misunderstanding of what a Review is

  • A review is not an in-depth critical essay.
  • A review is not unconditional praise.
  • A review is not an essay summarising the poet’s ‘career’ to date and placing the latest book in context.
  • A reviewer has an opinion: it may or may not concur with the poet’s opinion.
  • A review is not an important factor in a reader’s buying decisions.
  • Most reviews have to be written to s specified word limit.
  • Most reviews have to be written to a deadline
  • Reviewers cannot be told what to write or which poems to write about.

Reacting to a Review

  • If the poet comments on review before the reviewer knows the review has been published, how thoroughly and carefully has the poet read the review?
  • If the reviewer didn’t comment on the poems or poem that the poet particularly wanted the reviewer to comment on then the poet needs to be reminded they are not writing the review.
  • If the poet complains the reviewer didn’t comment on every poem in the collection, that’s not the reviewer’s job.
  • If a reviewer has not interpreted the poet’s work the way the poet intended it to be interpreted, that’s the poet’s problem: they failed to communicate.
  • Do not expect a reviewer to respond to comments on their review.
  • Do not expect a reviewer to apologise for their review.

I’ve received more thank yous than negative comments. I’ve had far more positive comments about my reviews than negative comments. Every single negative comment has shown the poet failed to understand the purpose of the review and reinforced the opinion I’d expressed in my review. The negatives include:

  • The poet who thought irony was a good idea: Many thanks for your thoughts on the three poems you mention[ed in your review]. I’m sorry you found the collection as a whole under-edited, but shall live in hope that there was at least one image amongst the other thirty-nine poems you were able to enjoy. If I had found one poem amongst the other thirty-nine I enjoyed, I’d have mentioned it. It’s highly unlikely I’d only find one poem in a collection that I enjoyed (there might be one that I enjoyed more than the others, but I’ve yet to read a collection where I only enjoyed one poem.)
  • The poet who told me I should not have commented on her usage of a particular word because, although it was spelt the English way, I should have known she’d meant it in the way that the French use the word even though she had not used the French spelling.
  • The poet who sent me a copy of a 2500 word critical essay as an example of the approach I should have taken in reviewing his collection. I had a limit of 50 words and so only had space to give an impression of what the collection was like, not provide an in-depth critique.
  • The poet who complained he didn’t recognise his poems from the quotes I’d used. The quotes came directly from the poems, included all the line breaks, punctuation and layout of the originals; how familiar was the poet with his own work?
  • The poet who commented on social media (he may have believed the comment was on a private thread, unaware that I could see it) that I must be a right-wing city dweller who didn’t understand country ways. As soon as you comment on the reviewer rather than the review, you’ve lost the argument and if you’re going to suggest that the reviewer holds certain views and lives in a city, you might want to do your research first.
  • The poet who complained and threatened to sue me for libel because my review wasn’t unconditional praise. I found the self-published collection (none of the poems within had been previously published in magazines and none had been placed in any poetry competitions) clichéd and sentimental: there is nothing libellous about having an opinion.
  • The poet who told me that because her pamphlet had been placed in a competition and praised by judges, I should not have written a negative opinion of it.

None of these have or will stop me writing reviews. The most memorable response to one of my reviews was from the late poet Anne Born. She commented that the opening sequence in a pamphlet I’d reviewed was one she’d kept coming back to over a period of twenty years before seeking to publish it so was very grateful for the “considerate, close and careful reading” I’d given it in my review. None of the negative comments I had can touch that.

 

 

 

“The Misplaced House” Josephine Corcoran (tall-lighthouse) – poetry review

The Misplaced House Josephine Corcoran

Josephine Corcoran varies her subject matter from personal memories to political concerns and her poems resemble houses: each poem connects ideas or themes with a linking structure reminding readers that there is a common connection between the personal and general. These 22 poems touch on remembered houses from childhood, drones, and war, the last through cribbed notes in a school exam room. Everyone understands grief even if they have not lost a child. This is best illustrated in the opening poem “Stephen Lawrence isn’t on the National Curriculum” where the poem’s narrator is tucking her child into bed and thinking about two parents whose child was stabbed in a fatal act of racist violence,

 

.                  There’ll be Rosa Parks
and Martin Luther King for homework,
and someone saying it’s good
we teach them that,
but no-one has a map of South-East London,
and today your teacher didn’t say his name.
I teach you this: He spelled it with a ‘PH’
not a ‘V’. In 1993
he was eighteen.
He wanted to be an architect.
He was waiting for a bus.”

The key lesson is that racism isn’t just distanced by geography and history but still contemporary, still happening on the doorstep. The poem’s success lies in its lack of sentiment and control. The tragedy isn’t detailed but is clearly the poem’s main focus. It’s not all doom and gloom though. “The Housebuilders” shows humour:

“We adore the shells and seaweed ribbons
you’ve pressed into our walls.

But why are you buckling your jelly sandals
and cheering at that chiming van?

Climb down off your father’s shoulders!
He’s stashed your tools in a carrier bag!

We need a plasterer! Why is your mother
showering us with breadcrumbs?

Come back! We need a plumber!
Dead crabs are coming in through our windows!”

A new look at sandcastles and a different way of recording childhood memories. The poet and one of her sisters visit their former childhood home on discovering it’s up for sale. The current owner is a widow. On TV is a video of the SAS raid on the Iranian embassy in London thirty years previously and the images become jumbled with the tour of house in “In Town for a Funeral, We Drive Past Our Old House and See it is For Sale”

.                                                You feel a kind of love
for someone if you’ve shared a house. When the
hostages saw them, sat on the ground with their hands

on their heads, their weapons thrown down,
saw them shot anyway, they stood between the SAS
and the remaining terrorist.

Our mother died here, I’d like to say, in our dreams
she’s trapped here still. But I say nothing.
We form a quiet procession down the stairs,

following behind her, mourners in reverse,
gathering the strange logic of dreams,
strewn along the route to our front door.”

These poems are clear-sighted and memorable and weave the wider world into personal recollection which makes them engaging and memorable. “The Misplaced House” is available from tall-lighthouse.

NaPoWriMo 2015 and Poem Titles

Progress so far: 15 draft poems in 15 days:

1 April – Between Dances
2 April – An alleged Gas Bill for the Nettle Emporium
3 April – A Dance in a White Dress
4 April – The Typist on the Thames
5 April – A Day to Breathe
6 April – This funeral won’t be televised
7 April – It’s not just the dead who haunt the living
8 April – An Abandoned Football
9 April – Before our meal
10 April – Sequins and Bubbles
11 April – Karaoke
12 April – Reluctant Perennials
13 April – The Library’s Blue Curtains
14 April – The Unused Prop
15 April – Over a Far City, a Rainbow

Any of these titles grab you?

With poems, the title is of utmost importance. Not only can it make an editor snowed under with submissions stop and read your poem but it can draw a reader in. Most poems are published in an anthology format: either in a magazine or book or listed on a search engine results page if someone is searching for  poems on X. Someone scanning down a list of titles or skimming through a pile of poems isn’t going to stop and read “untitled”. After all if you can’t be bothered to title your poem, why would anyone read it?

 

 

 

Reviewing what gets Reviewed: why it matters

Recently someone asked me why a poet who’d published most of her poetry collections during the 1930s had been largely forgotten. I reflexively gave the answer: despite her poems being widely published and anthologised, despite her collections being published by a reputable publisher, she was not widely reviewed or studied so dropped off the literary radar. I thought this was obvious, but the questioner did not. Getting published is a foot in the door, if writers want to keep that door open, they need to be reviewed.

 

This is why the VIDA count is so important. It reports on the number of reviews by male reviewers and female reviewers and the number of reviews of books by female writers and books by male writers and the most recent count audits reviews by and of books by women of colour. In a world where more women buy and read books than men, statistically it would seem logical that more books by women get reviewed and more women write those reviews. Actually, in most cases, the opposite is true: there are more male reviewers and books written by men get more reviews. This means that the writers who don’t drop off the literary radar are more likely to be male.

 

Progress is being made, generally in newer magazines who don’t have a history of using male reviewers to review books by men to overcome. But there’s still work to be done. I’m not arguing that books for review should be selected by who wrote them rather than the merit of the writing or that reviewers should be selected on who they are rather than how well they review, but that editors should be aware of lingering bias and accept the challenge of finding new reviewers rather than relying on a stable of existing reviewers.

 

Previous counts have shocked editors, who were working on the assumption of gender-neutrality, into realising that there was a bias. Some editors have found that publishers and agents tend to send more books by men for review and have countered this by asking publishers for lists of forthcoming publications and requesting specific books for review rather than relying on unsolicited submissions. Similarly, some editors have found that men tend to volunteer to review and put forward ideas more than women so they’ve relied less on unsolicited submissions and approached reviewers (and potential reviewers) directly. Some editors found that if they return an idea with a note “This idea isn’t quite right, please try us again,” male writers would try again but female writers were less likely to try again. It’s easy to say women should volunteer more but when you see a magazine full of male names, you get the impression it’s not open to you. You decide to try anyway and your first submission comes back with a “not quite right for us”, it tends to reinforce the impression the magazine doesn’t want you so you’re less likely to try again: it becomes a vicious circle. The door looks closed when it’s actually ajar, although doorbell’s broken and the ‘welcome’ mat appears to be missing.

 

Writers can only get so far by making review copies available and contacting reviewers and/or editors to get their book reviewed. Readers can assist by writing and posting their own reviews or suggesting books they’d like to see reviewed. If you want to keep your favourite poet in print, post your recommendations and reviews, nominate and vote in the Saboteur Awards.

 

One commenter on VIDA’s statistics argued that there was no bias towards male writers in the literary establishment because publishers employed more women than men. The commenter thought that VIDA’s count was too narrow and seemed to be looking at the reviews rather than books published. The commenter spectacularly misses the point: VIDA’s remit is purely about reviews because what gets reviewed matters.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 204 other followers