Just a few weeks ago, Ailey O’Toole seemed like a poet ready to become a breakout star. Her publisher had nominated her poem Gun Metal for a Pushcart Prize and her first collection had been successfully Kickstarted with 73 backers kicking in $1,628 to get Grief and What Comes After into print. 

She had even taken her excitement about her work to an unusual level. Having tattooed two lines from Gun Metal into her arm.

Poetry Plagiarism in the Age of Twitter Image
Image originally from O’Toole’s Twitter

However, unlike the tattoo, O’Toole’s success wasn’t meant to last. 

On November 30 another poet, Rachel McKibbens, took to Twitter to vent her frustration at O’Toole.

According to McKibbens, O’Toole contacted her to say that she had “paraphrased” some of McKibbens work (specifically a work from McKibbens’ collection entitled Blud) “too closely for comfort” and wanted to apologize to McKibbens for it. It was an apology that McKibbens flatly refused to accept.

Rachel McKibbensAshley O’Toole
Hell-spangled girl
spitting teeth into the sink,
I’d trace the broken
landscape of my body
& find God
within myself.
girl spitting teeth
in the sink. I trace the
foreign topography of
my body, find God
in my skin

The similarities, despite not being word-for-word, were too close for many other people’s comfort as well. It was clear that, even in just six lines, O’Toole had copied images and metaphors and idea. These were (and still are) elements very personal to McKibbens, who described it as “How I language my fucking survival.”

As such, McKibbens took an especially strong issue with O’Toole’s representation of the poem in an interview with The Rumpus.

I think “Gun Metal” is probably the best representation of my collection as a whole; it is the second-to-last poem of Introspection and it’s a really great bridge between Annihilation and Reclamation because it kind of exists in both of those realities. It starts with the image of “Ramshackle / girl spitting teeth / in the sink”

Ailey O’Toole in an interview with The Rumpus

In the interview, nor anywhere else public, does O’Toole make an attempt to attribute or acknowledge McKibbens as the source or even the inspiration for those lines.

While having the opening lines of your best-known and most-loved poem called out for plagiarism is bad enough, it wouldn’t stop there for O’Toole. Other poets began to come forward as well with Wanda Deglane accusing her of “borrowing” work fork from a manuscript she let her read.

Brenna Twohy had a similar story, but one involving verbatim plagiarism of her work. 

McKibbens has been keeping a running total of people that O’Toole (identified as AO) has stolen from. At last count, she was up to 11

As for O’Toole, she has largely disappeared. Her upcoming collection cancelled, she has shut down both her web and social media presences. She has not issued a public apology. Though McKibbens has stated she doesn’t want this to be career-ending for O’Toole, it likely is. 

Even if she does reemerge to write poetry again, it’s unlikely a publisher will take a chance on her. Though publishers say they take a hard line on plagiarism, they’ve given passes to many famous and lucrative authors. However, as someone who was awaiting their first publication, O’Toole likely doesn’t have the cache to get a second chance.

One Tale, Many Stories

O’Toole’s plagiarism touches on a wide variety of subjects and issues including personal nature of poetry, race and the impact of technology on such issues.

On the most basic level, the story highlights how personal poetry is as a medium and how that impacts allegations of plagiarism.

The allegations against O’Toole weren’t just about her use of words or images from other artists, but about coopting their experiences. Poetry is an inherently personal medium where the author is trying to lay bare their most intimate thoughts, feelings and experiences while the audience connects with it on an equally personal level.

This makes what O’Toole did especially egregious. It wasn’t just about stealing words or work, but about stealing experiences and identity. This is both true from the authors she plagiarized from but also her readers, who were connecting with a falsehood.

This theft of identity gets all the more problematic when poets are using the medium to express issues of race, mental illness and personal trauma, as McKibbens, who is Chicana, is doing with her work. This led to allegations that O’Tool, who is white, wasn’t just ethically wrong, but racist and symptomatic of a racist publishing industry

But, for all of the fire and rage, it was a story that played in out in near-real-time over Twitter. Poets and readers alike collaborated to find other examples of plagiarism, alert victims that might be unaware and, in general, understand the full extent of O’Toole’s literary crimes.

While such online collaborations aren’t uncommon, which some even creating wikis for handling such investigations, it’s still rare to see such a large, complicated investigation unfold in an open, public forum.

However, that forum is largely why the situation was resolved as quickly as it was. With only a few days of searching, the people on the Twitter thread were able to accumulate enough evidence definitely doom O’Toole. With a lone investigator or even a small team, it likely would have taken weeks or months, as it did in the case of Pierre DesRuisseaux

The combination of anger and social media was potent and effective, bringing a swift conclusion to a matter that many felt left a stain on the poetry community.

Bottom Line

O’Toole’s story is a cautionary tale. Though plagiarism is always wrong, plagiarizing poetry (or any other similarly personal art form) is going to get an even more strong reaction as you aren’t just copying someone’s work, but their core identity.

As someone who got started in plagiarism because he was a (mediocre) poet facing widespread plagiarism, I remember well the feeling of having my identity stolen and feeling crushingly alone and hopeless in the face of the problem.

The story struck a lot of familiar chords from my past but had a radically different ending. Rather than a takedown notice or a cease and desist letter, O’Toole was brought down by the weight of the evidence, evidence gathered by her peers.

While it’s horrifying to me that people like O’Toole still exist 18 years after my first run in with poetry plagiarism, the resolution gives me hope that, at least in some cases, it’s gotten better about handling them.

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