Earlier this week, Twitter was full of up-and-coming writers celebrating their Pushcart Prize nominations. The Pushcart, which honors works published by small presses, is a coveted award, especially for new writers looking to sell their first books. But one of those nominees has come under fire for lifting words and images from multiple peers.
After the nominees were announced, poet Rachel McKibbens tweeted that two of poet Ailey O’Toole’s recently published poems plagiarize her own work, including the Pushcart-nominated poem, “Gun Metal,” which relies on images from McKibbens’ poem, “three strikes.”
McKibbens’s poetry collection, blud, is an autobiographical look at the poet’s life and uses vivid imagery to recount a painful childhood. O’Toole lifted one of those images, that of spitting teeth into the sink, in her own poem without crediting McKibbens.
McKibbens’s lines read: “Hell-spangled girl / spitting teeth into the sink, / I’d trace the broken / landscape of my body / & find God / within myself.”
Here is O’Toole’s version: “Ramshackle / girl spitting teeth / in the sink. I trace the / foreign topography of / my body, find God / in my skin.”
According to McKibbens’s tweets, it was O’Toole that brought the plagiarism to her attention. In an e-mail to the author, O’Toole apparently wrote, “while not copied word for word, I did lift that image from you and paraphrased too closely for comfort. 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. blud as an entirety really spoke to me.” She also claimed that she’d hoped the juxtapositions would put the poems “In conversation with one another.”
However, in a September interview with The Rumpus, O’Toole references the poem, and the plagiarized line specifically, without ever crediting McKibbens. In the interview, she calls the work “the best representation of my collection as a whole.”
After McKibbens’s tweets, O’Toole’s upcoming collection was cancelled, and Rhythm and Bones Lit, the press that was set to publish the book, issued an apology. Other publications have pulled O’Toole’s work as well.
Shortly after McKibbens came forward, two other poets, Hieu Minh Nguyen and Wanda Deglane, revealed that O’Toole had also plagiarized from their work. Deglane says O’Toole copied from a manuscript Deglane had given her to read. After Deglane confronted her, O’Toole sent a “huge ass paragraph about intimate details of her trauma/mental illness.” Deglane decided to “give Ailey the benefit of the doubt,” and let the incident go until she was contacted by Rhythm and Bones earlier this week.
O’Toole’s situation is an extreme example of a recurring problem in the literary world. In 2017, poet and W. W. Norton editor Jill Bialosky was accused by poet and critic William Logan of plagiarizing source materials and language. Rupi Kaur, the Instagram-famous poet whose book milk and honey was a New York Times best seller, has also been accused of plagiarizing less well-known poets.
Another troubling aspect of O’Toole plagiarism is the act of passing off another’s trauma as one’s own. In her interview with The Rumpus, O’Toole talks about her struggles with PTSD before quoting McKibbens’s lived experience as the best representation of those struggles. Earlier this week, O’Toole even tweeted a picture of herself with a new tattoo that reads “Ramshackle girl/Spitting teeth in the sink.”
Update (4:21 p.m.): Poet Brenna Twohy has informed Jezebel that 13 lines from “Gun Metal” were taken directly from her book, Forgive Me My Salt.