Matthew Welton is the author of two acclaimed Carcanet collections: The Book of Matthew (2003) and We Needed Coffee But... (2009).
I became aware that C.J. Allen had plagiarised my poems in May 2012, a few days after seeing him give a reading in Nottingham. There were two poets on the bill, and at the end of the evening I bought books from both of them, as I generally do at readings. It was that weekend, as I paged through Allen’s At the Oblivion Tea Rooms, which had recently come out with the small Birmingham poetry publisher Nine Arches, that I noticed that a number of the poems were in fact versions of my own poems with a few changes made. 

Here is the poem ‘London sundays’ from my collection The Book of Matthew:

Snatches of summer in afternoon parks
are probably now as good as it gets.
Meeting beneath the clock that never works
then sloping off homewards as the sun sets
behind the bandstand must be the closest 
anyone can come to finding again
that good, good feeling that will last and last
like a child’s holidays. Dusk comes. Then rain.

And love never really feels like some craze
that hits like gin, buzzes like benzedrine,
and smells as good as coffee. In some ways
all it has to be is something between
a half-funny joke and some old rumour 
from somewhere around, that arrives unrushed
like boredom, wears on like a bad winter,
and which spreads through rooms like sunlight and dust.

and here is Allen’s ‘The Memory of Rain’:

The memory of rain on public parks
and tennis courts. The acres of regrets.
Sunset on the disused painting works,
as good as gold, as good as sunset gets.
The railings with their eczema of rust
you stood in front of once when you were nine
and watched the sky turn colourless and vast.
Dusk like old grey blankets. Then more rain.

And love was once the very latest craze,
like alcohol, or sex, or Benzedrine,
and kicked-in like all three. On quiet days
you’d watch the old men on the bowling green
and listen to their antiquated banter,
and go for walks and feel a bit nonplussed,
and head for home and think about the winter
in rooms filled up with sunlight and dust.

His approach is methodical, if not very imaginative. Many of the phrases that I would think of as characterising my poem are repeated in Allen’s: ‘as good as it gets’; ‘Dusk comes. Then rain.’; ‘like sunlight and dust’. The sentence that begins the second stanza is copied directly although, in removing the ‘never’, he alters what my poem is saying while using the same words and retaining the syntax and the list of images. The three similes there are repeated with some of the detail removed. Often he takes the words or phrases in my poem and simply swaps them for something closely related: ‘snatches of summer’ becomes ‘rain’; ‘gin’ becomes ‘alcohol’; ‘rumour’ becomes ‘banter’. And, of course, he keeps the entire structure and the rhyme sounds, and usually the actual rhyming words too. 

For a lot of the writers I know, the idea of writing is very closely related to the idea of belonging to a community of writers.

I contacted Michael Schmidt, my editor at Carcanet, and sent him copies of four of Allen’s poems along with the four of my own they plagiarised. Michael got in touch with Simon Thirsk of Bloodaxe Books, who had been acting as a mentor to Jane Commane, the editor at Nine Arches, under a scheme operated by the Arts Council. The three of them dealt with the matter with impressive speed and professionalism, and Nine Arches withdrew Allen’s book from print shortly afterwards. In the weeks that followed I discovered a further plagiarised poem in Allen’s pamphlet, Violets, published by Templar, and found that one of his plagiarised poems from the Nine Arches book had been commended in the 2011 East Riding Poetry Competition.

I was contacted by the poet Éireann Lorsung, who edits the journal 1110, to say that she had received a submission from C.J. Allen that plagiarised another poem of mine. And the poet John McAuliffe, editor of The Manchester Review, took down one of the plagiarised Allen poems that they had previously published on their site. It had been a pretty demoralising experience to discover my work had been plagiarised, and that Allen had tried to dupe editors into publishing writing that was substantially my intellectual property, but there was something reassuring in seeing how the publishers involved dealt with the situation. It made me feel positive about belonging to a poetry community where publishers and poets support each other in protecting one another’s rights.

There is something quite villagey about the way that many writers will also be publishers, teachers, reviewers, critics, event organisers, arts administrators, and so on.

At the time I felt that I wanted to write something about the experience, but didn’t feel any hurry to get it done. My job teaching creative writing at the University of Nottingham is a busy one, and during term-time I don’t get much writing time, either for poems or other pieces. And I wanted to take the opportunity to re-evaluate my own ideas about the colleagueship that I believe exists between writers, and I thought if I chewed things over until this summer I might have found a way to make something positive come out of this. I couldn’t have imagined that, between then and now, there would be the scandals around the plagiarised poems by Christian Ward and David R. Morgan. Or that a poem by C.J. Allen would be on the shortlist for this year’s Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. A friend drew this to my attention, and asked whether Allen’s poem, ‘Explaining the Plot of Blade Runner to my Mother who has Alzheimer’s’, was plagiarised from any of my writing. It isn’t, though for all I know it might be plagiarised from someone else’s. In eventually putting something down about this, there is a lot more to consider than there was a year ago.

Much of the thinking I have done about this has focused on the values we attach to reading and writing, and the ways in which literary values might correspond to social values. For a lot of the writers I know, the idea of writing is very closely related to the idea of belonging to a community of writers. As in other fields, there is something about the degree of enthusiasm and commitment involved in putting in the work that serious writing requires that means that the friendship and understanding offered by other people who are involved in the same thing is uniquely valuable. This sense of community can be both virtual and local. There is something quite villagey about the way that many writers will also be publishers, teachers, reviewers, critics, event organisers, arts administrators, and so on. Four years ago, I began my job at the University of Nottingham and, having spent all of my adult life until then in Manchester, moved back to the city I grew up in. The writing community here is incredibly strong, and the development work done by organisations like the Nottingham Writers’ Studio, Writing East Midlands and the East Midlands office of the Arts Council is very effective. The Nottingham writing community includes writers who’ve been short- and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize along with many writers whose engagement is at a more grassroots level, such as studying on the creative writing courses popular at both the city’s universities. All the writers I know here are people who very willingly make time for other writers. People take pride in one another’s achievements.

His attitude to writing is very different from that of any of the writers I know, published or not.

I can’t pretend that I am not aware that there is another way of looking at the social role of the writer. There are writers who feel that being published sets them above other writers. And there are writers who, though not yet published, might imagine that when it does happen for them their lives will change dramatically. It is a paradigm characterised by the idea that there is only a limited amount of publication or royalties or acclaim available, and that writers are in fact in competition with each other. I can understand that, while book sales are generally modest and most writers earn relatively little from publication, there may be kudos in having books published, and that some writers will have a set of values in which belonging to a community does not feature. It isn’t a view with which I have any sympathy, though.

My discomfort with what C.J. Allen did with my poems is made worse by knowing he also lives in Nottingham. After his book was withdrawn he contacted me at the university and tried to justify his plagiarism. He claimed to hold my work ‘in high regard’ and said his use of use of my poems had been ‘as a framework against which to build my own poem’. I don’t see any point in speculating as to why he should think it was okay to take six of my poems, make minor alterations, and then try to pass them off as his own work. His attitude to writing is very different from that of any of the writers I know, published or not. 

In using this article to make these events public, I am aware that this will become the third case of poetry plagiarism to have come to light within a year. I hope there are no more similar cases still to be discovered. Acts of this kind tarnish both the poems they plagiarise and the idea of a community of writers.

Matthew Welton was born in Nottingham in 1969. He received the Jerwood-Aldeburgh First Collection Prize for The Book of Matthew (Carcanet, 2003), which was a Guardian Book of the Year, and of his 2009 book We Needed Coffee But..., Ambit said 'You're unlikely to read anything like it...' He was a Hawthornden Fellow in 2004. Matthew collaborates regularly with the composer Larry Goves, with whom he was awarded a Jerwood Opera Writing Fellowship in 2008. He is a Lecturer in Writing and Creativity at the University of Nottingham. 

Matthew will appear on BBC Radio 3's The Verb on Friday 13th of September to discuss his work. Click here to find out more about the episode, and about The Verb, presented by Ian McMillan.

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