Plagiarism scandals seem to be popping up more frequently in poetry than in any other genre. Every week there is incontrovertible proof that some poet has passed off an award-winning page or two as her own, and an avalanche of Twitter outrage and insult follows.
This week’s shocker comes from the United States, where a young woman called Ailey O’Toole was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize – a prize dedicated to those publishing with small presses. After her nominated poem Gun Metal was published, a poet named Rachel McKibbens took to Twitter to point out that the work bears a close resemblance to her own poem three strikes, published in the collection blud. McKibbens’s poem is based in her own childhood experiences of neglect. One of its lines describes spitting her teeth into a sink: “Hell-spangled girl / spitting teeth into the sink, / I’d trace the broken / landscape of my body / & find God / within myself.” O’Toole’s poem includes the lines: “Ramshackle / girl spitting teeth / in the sink. I trace the / foreign topography of / my body, find God / in my skin.”
It didn’t take long for others to start combing through all of O’Toole’s oeuvre and, sure enough, they found multiple examples of plagiarism from a variety of sources. So far, at least 11 poets have pointed out borrowings of their words in O’Toole’s published work. Plans for the publication of O’Toole’s book appear to have been cancelled. Internet justice has been swift and total.
This is strangely common in the world of poetry. A recent Canadian example involved Pierre DesRuisseaux, a Quebec poet who died in 2016. It was revealed in 2017 that many of his late works were not his at all – they were translations of hugely famous English-language poets, including Maya Angelou, Louis MacNeice and Dylan Thomas. The theft was so obvious it was concluded that it must have been the action of someone who wasn’t quite well.
The same can be said for the odd behaviour of O’Toole. One particularly puzzling thing she did, before she was exposed, was to tattoo the line “Ramshackle girl/Spitting teeth in the sink” on her arm and show it off on Twitter. To imagine that she would never get exposed after doing this is simply delusional.
The criticisms of O’Toole have a particularly contemporary twist to them. She is not just accused of stealing the lines, but of stealing their underlying trauma. She is claiming someone else’s trauma – the personal inspiration for the original poem – as her own. McKibbens wrote, enraged, on Twitter, that plagiarism is worse when it is about stealing how she “languages her survival.”
Does this sound familiar? These are phrases we hear a lot in the cultural appropriation debates. These are not your mother’s plagiarism accusations: They are intersectionalist plagiarism accusations.
The “appropriation” of suffering is a crime that has been imputed even to the nicest poet in the world, Rupi Kaur. In a long piece in Buzzfeed last year, a PhD student named Chiara Giovanni wrote that the celebrity Instagram poet was “blurring individual and collective trauma” – meaning she was trying, as a South Asian woman, to represent all South Asian women. Kaur has no right to do so, because she is in fact a “privileged young woman from the West who unproblematically claims the experience of the colonized subject as her own.” In other words, Kaur is not South Asian enough. This kind of pose “can easily lead to the exploitation and commodification of those who experience said trauma.”
Giovanni here represents a whole generation of young academics who have been trained to evaluate literature solely on the basis of the identity and perceived privilege of its author.
The word trauma recurs 13 times in Giovanni’s essay. The repetition of this word in every conceivable conversation is also a generational tic. Sometimes it seems inclusion of the word is mandatory in any tweet about literature.
Note that all the poetry in the most recent plagiarism controversy is about suffering endured in childhood or adolescence, and it is personal and confessional. Much of the conversation about it, particularly by the writers themselves, stresses its therapeutic value. The plagiarist, O’Toole, once gave an interview to The Rumpus in which she talked about her struggles with “trauma” (the word occurs six times in the interview) and attempted suicide. The stealing of sad stories reminds me not a little of those particularly hip fraudsters who claim to be suffering from cancer and launch crowdfunding campaigns to help pay for their treatment. Their real disorder is a pathological need for sympathy.
Why is poetry more vulnerable to these hoaxes than fiction or playwrighting are? Because poetry, being shorter, is Instagrammable. It has become a means of communication for a social-media generation, something not unlike blogging, that is expected to provoke instant and measurable reaction.
I hope that O’Toole gets help with her problems. But I also hope that the American poetry world begins to expand, once again, its definition of what poetry can be. Poetry can certainly be a therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, but surely it could be more than that as well? Perhaps we might avoid these rash thefts – the compulsive acts of people yearning for love – if the goal of poetry was something other than that of a healing circle for fashionable complaints only?