Laurie Duggan: Cover Me [borrowed title]

28 April 2003

As a writer who has earned very little from royalties and nothing whatsoever from PLR and ELR I was bemused some years back by the figure of Frank Moorhouse – a libertarian – coming down strongly against photocopying. Frankly I'm delighted if anyone is interested enough in a poem of mine to want to photocopy it.

I'd love to sell hundreds of copies of my books but, for the most part, I know this isn't going to happen. I was born with some gene that ensures for my writing a relatively small, though (happily) widespread, audience. On top of this I'm a lousy self-publicist. And when I sleep I do not dream of becoming Les Murray or Dorothy Porter.

Of course everything now in a market capitalist society has become property, whether physical or 'intellectual'. I think that this has led to some unfortunate results. Sure I object to outright plagiarism, the passing off of large chunks of writing (or of entire books) by other authors as one's own. But this doesn't happen all that often mainly because the stakes are so low it just isn't worth the trouble. The quote, the sample, and the 'cover' are a different matter.

It's in the nature of poetry that sampling, covering, or borrowing, conscious or unconscious happens all the time. We all try to write like people we admire. In the case of satire we may try to write like people we don't like at all. In language there are only so many riffs there for the taking and what makes a poem interesting is the manner in which it performs its little (or big) thefts.

It would be particularly hypocritical for me to object to the uses made of my work when my own book The Ash Range (1987) consisted of around 90% quotation. Like Michael Farrell I did refer to my sources, though funny things have happened when portions of the book have been printed in anthologies.

A piece in the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, 'The ninety-mile . . .', is entirely composed of the words of a mid-nineteenth century author, abridged and broken into lines by me, but in this anthology only my name appears on it, a fact that worries me a little.

(Before I wrote The Ash Range I'd long wanted to write a book in which none of the words would be my own. I didn't end up doing this then and probably won't try now because I've come to realise that no writing can be unproblematically owned by an individual. And the idea I had was borrowed anyway: I got it from Walter Benjamin.)

I suppose the only reservation I have about sampling is the slightly worrying possibility that it might 'lock out' future borrowers and stealers unless it manages to 'naturalise' itself to such a degree that it no longer feels like what we think it is now. But then it would also lose the 'frisson' of a taboo-breaking process and have to stand alongside the work it borrows from as some kind of 'corrupt text'.

Or perhaps the cover's 'original' sources will be lost and then we'll have to come at the whole thing with endless footnotes that imply 'hey, this guy didn't just write this . . . he/she made it'.

Issue #11 of Cordite contained a cover version (by Michael Farrell) of Laurie Duggan's “Blue Hills”. We asked Laurie to comment on the poem in the context of the issue's theme – copyleft. Laurie Duggan's latest collection of poems – “Mangroves” – is available through UQP.

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