Ailey O’Toole’s tattoo.
Photo: ms_ocoole via Rachel McKibbens/Twitter
In late September, the young poet Ailey O’Toole told the Rumpus that her Pushcart Prize–nominated poem, “Gun Metal,” was “a great representation of how I started from a place of mental and physical destruction, but eventually collected the pieces of myself and reassembled them into someone new.”
That interview reads now like a confession of guilt, as it turns out that “Gun Metal” is very much a collection of reassembled pieces: pieces of other poets. O’Toole’s bizarrely brazen act of plagiarism — stealing lines, phrases, and structural elements from the work of at least three other writers — was uncovered last Friday, unraveling her career at the speed of Twitter, the medium by which her fledgling reputation lived and died. Within 24 hours, the literary press Rhythm & Bones had canceled her forthcoming book of poems, and the insular world of poetry Twitter had already gone through a cycle of blame, bafflement, and measured defense.
At the center of the controversy is a void: O’Toole herself, and her unexplained motivations. Poetry is as intimate as it is non-remunerative, a tiny part of the small word of books where writers lay themselves bare and mine the darkest corners of their lives for art. To steal the words of another poet isn’t just theft, but violation. Yet what O’Toole did wasn’t just outrageous; it’s also deeply weird, from her self-incriminating emails and interviews to the Scooby Doo-esque denouement: She would have gotten away with it — maybe — if not for her own seemingly compulsive need to advertise what she’d done.
“I DID THE THING! I got my own words tattooed on me,” O’Toole proclaimed last week in a now-deleted post, smiling and showing off a new forearm tattoo. The words “ramshackle girl” are clearly visible on top, with “spitting teeth in the sink” inked in smaller type beneath. It’s a line from “Gun Metal.” When she posted the photograph on Instagram, a former coworker named Kristina Conrad was sure she’d seen it somewhere before.
“I thought it was a Richard Siken poem,” says Conrad. “Turns out I was wrong.”
Conrad had become friendly with O’Toole a few years back, when they worked together at a Barnes & Noble in Greensboro, North Carolina. “We sort of got along as two girls with an interest in feminism and stuff of a literary nature,” she explains. “She told me she was a poet.” O’Toole was no longer employed at B&N, but Conrad was still following her on social media. When she Googled the tattooed phrase she got two noteworthy results. One was a poetry collection called blud, by Rachel McKibbens, with some unmistakable language.
spitting teeth into the sink,
I’d trace the broken
landscape of my body
& find God
The other was O’Toole’s Rumpus interview, citing her version of those lines as representative of not just her body of work, but her path through trauma to survival.
girl spitting teeth
in the sink. I trace the
foreign topography of
my body, find God
in my skin.
Conrad was appalled: “[To say] that it was part of a trauma for her when it was clearly somebody else’s trauma, that’s what I found really egregious.” Knowing that O’Toole was on the verge of releasing a poetry collection through a small literary press called Rhythm & Bones, Conrad sent an email to the publisher on November 29. “To whom it may concern,” she wrote, “I wanted to inform you that poet Ailey O’Toole has plagiarized her poem ‘gun metal.’”
On Friday, after investigating the tip from Conrad, Rhythm & Bones canceled O’Toole’s book. O’Toole, evidently scrambling to get ahead of the damage, emailed McKibbens a note of apology — of sorts.
“She thought that teeth were a metaphor,” McKibbens tells me over the phone. She sounds incredulous, and for good reason: The phrase tattooed on O’Toole’s arm isn’t a metaphor but a memory — real teeth falling into a real sink, casualties of an abusive childhood that left McKibbens with a mouthful of orthodontia before she was even in second grade.
McKibbens wrote the Twitter thread that turned this incident from a private problem into a public scandal, but she’s quick to point out that she never would have said anything if not for O’Toole’s email, which attempted to spin the lifted phrases as a simple error:
“I hope you can understand it was not my intention to pass your work off as my own and I am deeply ashamed of this mistake: In paraphrasing you, I had hoped to put our poems into conversation with each other and go on to explore new terrain opened up for me by your work. I am deeply ashamed of the mistake I made and hope you can accept my sincerest apologies.”
On Twitter, McKibbens’s response was succinct: “Bitch, I DON’T.” But when I reach her by phone, she has much more to say. She rides a ferocious rollercoaster of a monologue — angry, amused, acerbic, generous. But she also becomes briefly anguished when she tries to articulate the violation of seeing her very personal work mined by a stranger who clearly didn’t understand its significance.
The collection “blud is such an intimate depiction of what it’s like to have a schizophrenic firstborn son, what it’s like to have a schizophrenic mother, what it’s like to constantly be pushed into a corner by the legacy of that and all the sorrow that rides with it,” she says. “I didn’t really understand at first how much she had truly climbed into my story and worn my skin.”
Despite now being internet-infamous for crimes against literature, O’Toole remains a bit of a cipher. She was a staff writer for The Carolinian, the student newspaper of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. One article described an extended but productive stay in a psychiatric ward. Two years later, she told Rumpus about ongoing mental health issues, hospitalization, and a suicide attempt that led to her dropping out of college. But by this point she was a poet, successfully published in small but well-regarded literary journals, nominated for a prestigious prize.
A month after that triumphant interview, Wanda Deglane, another young poet who considered O’Toole a friend, had an unsettling experience that would turn out to be a warning sign of the trouble to come. O’Toole had offered to edit one of her manuscripts — and then published a poem that was virtually identical to one of Deglane’s, with just a few words transposed. In a Twitter DM, Deglane described confronting O’Toole only to be told she was overreacting: “She said her poem was nothing like mine because hers included doll imagery, and mine was longer.” Confused and doubting herself, Deglane wanted to believe that it was all a misunderstanding. But in light of the past week, she’s sorry she didn’t push harder. “I felt really stupid, like I should have spoken out about it in October and all of this could have been discovered much sooner.”
While it’s impossible to know O’Toole’s real motivations, it’s nearly as impossible to argue that she didn’t know what she was doing with “Gun Metal.” In addition to the tooth-in-sink imagery and other elements borrowed from blud, the poem also includes language lifted, in some cases verbatim, from poems by Brenna Twohy and Hieu Minh Nguyen. (Via Twitter DM, Nguyen writes: “At first, I just kind of dismissed it as a coincidence, but then the little familiar phrases started to accumulate, and then there was a whole ass stanza.”)
Once the plagiarism news broke, the community began digging into her other poems for evidence of more artistic theft — a task complicated by the fact that editors were yanking her work offline as fast as humanly possible. By Sunday, even The Carolinian had discovered some of O’Toole’s student pieces were “not of her own work,” and removed them. McKibbens, meanwhile has devoted herself to combing through the manuscript for O’Toole’s now-canceled book, Grief and What Comes After, for other plagiarized passages. She says she’s identified pieces from at least 14 other poets and is reaching to them for confirmation.
What would compel someone — even a young, naïve, evidently troubled poet — not just to commit a blatant act of plagiarism, but to tattoo someone else’s poetry on her skin and try to pass it off as her own, on the internet of all places, rendering her humiliating exposure and downfall all but inevitable? Did she secretly yearn to be caught? Did she genuinely believe nobody would notice?
Initially, O’Toole had promised to talk. But on Monday she instead sent a statement through a publicist:
“As a writer myself, I understand the importance of the written word, and the creativity and ownership that goes into both poetry and prose. That is why I sent an apology note to Rachel McKibbens, to let her know how truly sorry I am for having borrowed her lines. It was a mistake, and I have learned a lot from having made it.”
O’Toole also sent Conrad a single Facebook message of a very different kind. Threatening a lawsuit, she demanded that Conrad “cease and desist” and “send retractions to everyone you’ve contacted.”
Meanwhile, the internet does what it does: It takes sides. The disgraced poet’s defenders cite her youth and history of mental illness, pleading for leniency; her critics insist that she’s evil, entitled, maybe even racist. (“White poets are feeling like there’s not enough of a captivating narrative for them to be listened to, so they’re creating false ones,” McKibbens, who is Chicana, mused at one point during our conversation.)
Beneath the outrage, though, there is also magnanimity from a group that still on some level recognizes a young and hungry striver as one of their own. “Within the poetry community, an honest and sincere apology goes a really long way,” says Brenna Twohy, who was tipped off by a friend about her own work being plagiarized in “Gun Metal.” “We definitely haven’t seen that so far from Ailey O’Toole. I hope that happens.”
Even McKibbens has some sympathy for O’Toole — and doesn’t believe she’s a lost cause. “What bothers me is how many people consider this a career ending, life-ending thing and it’s not at all,” she says. “I’m like, it’s not to end you — it’s to end that bullshit you’re on. If I come hard at you it’s because I understand you’re reachable.”
Where McKibbens draws the line, though, is the tattoo, which she considers unforgivable on an aesthetic level if not a moral one. “This Trapper Keeper, hollow bubble font,” she says. “You took the music out of my words, you pulled the teeth out of it, you lessened the work when you rewrote it, and then you went and put it in a really shoddy font. That hurts.”