Disclaimer: Examples used in this essay are simply to buttress a point and not out of malice, kindly forgive any perceived offence.
In 2016, a young Kenyan poet was gaining popularity in Africa, particularly in the east and west. He was brilliant and churning out poetry that was so beautiful, he was published by The Missing Slate, Brittle Paper and several other platforms.
His name? Redscar McOdindo K'Oyuga.
In the same year, he won the Okot p’Bitek Prize for Poetry in Translation, the Nyanza Literature Festival poetry prize and was a second runner up in the Babishai Prize for poetry. He also became poetry editor for a new literary magazine back then – The Enkare Review.
Then the hammer fell in October 2016. On October 8, 2016, The Missing Slate published the following statement:
“Following the publication of ‘a dua for the masses’ as our Poem of the Week on September 28th, we received several allegations of plagiarism against the apparent author, Redscar McOdindo K’Oyuga.
“It was immediately clear that ‘a dua for the masses’ reproduced phrases and ideas from an untitled poem by Zanzooba Magdoos published in The Feminist Wire (and also circulated widely by, for example, in progress, Patheos, Badass Muslimahs, and the Islamic Alliance for Justice). Given the seriousness of the allegations, we wanted to give Redscar McOdindo K’Oyuga a chance to present his case before withdrawing the poem in question or issuing a public statement.
“Unfortunately, subsequent investigations by our editors have left us with little doubt that Redscar McOdindo K’Oyuga is a serial plagiarist. In the last month alone, Redscar’s blog has published at least three poems plagiarised (typically with only minor alterations) from the work of other poets. In each case, the original poem belonged to a female writer of colour…..” You can read the complete statement here.
The accusations poured in. Below is one example of a poem he was said to have plagiarised:
Redscar went off Facebook, deleted the poems from his blog and has not being heard from since then.
In January 2016, former Canadian poet laureate Pierre DesRuisseaux died at the age of 70. More than a year later, in September 2017, it was discovered by a UK-based poetry sleuth Ira Lightman, that he had lifted works from various authors, including Maya Angelou, Dylan Thomas, Louis MacNiece and even late rap artist Tupac Shakur in his poems.
Below is an example of one case:
In 2016, I began work on my poetry collection, when it is finished it will be a collection of poems about Lagos. I have been working on it for over a year, and I am always getting into conversations with people about how, it should be out already and questions like: ‘Why is it taking so long?’ The first answer is that I work full-time and so it is difficult to get the necessary time to get the work done. The second answer is that I want everything in there to be an original thought.
It is easy to plagiarize in poetry, the feelings we are trying to convey are universal, what you want to say has been said by some other poet, far more succinctly, way more clearly. To write good poetry, you have to among other things read a lot of awesome poetry, and while you are doing that some lines stick to you, for days, months, for weeks and sometimes forever.
These lines and phrases influence your work subconsciously. One day a spark of inspiration comes and you are there writing furiously away, then it strikes you that you have heard something similar to what you are writing somewhere before. You pause and look it up, then you realize that it is dangerously close to a work you have read or listened to in the past.
What do you do? Wipe it off. Start again. Because it is dangerous to ignore such feelings. I have a friend who says she puts the phrase on Google to see if something similar has been written by someone else. Because it is important to be authentic. Humans have been experimenting with poetry since the beginning of language, yet every day we coin new sentences and new poems.
To stay authentic, you do not have to stay away from influences, for that would be impossible. What it means is you have to be a sum of all your influences let every voice you have ever heard or loved forge your own voice. Work at your craft, tell your story.