There’s a tattoo you can get that’ll guarantee you never work again. It’s not the classic “no ragrets” design, or Ariana Grande’s accidental Japanese rendering of “small barbecue grill,” or your ex’s big grinning face inked on the side of your own face. It’s evidence of plagiarism — the kiss of death for a writer.
As Vulture reported in late 2018, “Poetry Twitter Erupts over a Plagiarist in Their Midst,” poet Ailey O’Toole’s poem, “Gun Metal,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. O’Toole was understandably excited. But the poem in question was actually a patchwork quilt of text pieced together from the work of other poets. And only she knew it. Until she did something very ill-advised, that is.
O’Toole tattooed the plagiarized text on her arm.
To repeat, O’Toole, a writer, tattooed evidence of plagiarism on her arm. And not only that. She doubled down, snapping a photo of the indelible mark of future unemployability, proudly declared, “I DID THE THING!!!! I got my own words tattooed on me. this [sic] is a line from my poem ‘gun metal,'” and posted the photo of herself displaying the plagiarism tattoo on social media.
The tattoo reads, “Ramshackle girl spitting teeth in the sink.” But they were not her own words. They were Rachel McKibbens’ words, a fact uncovered by one of O’Toole’s social media followers. Rachel McKibbens caught wind of it and posted the photo on Twitter.
And just like that, O’Toole’s career as a poet was over.
“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,” Kat Rosenfield reported.
Wait, you might be thinking. Aren’t poems kind of interchangeable nowadays? Hasn’t every sentimental sentiment been expressed already? Aren’t we so bereft of original ideas there are online poetry generators, for god’s sake?
No, no, and yes.
In case you’re still skeptical, let’s look at McKibbens’ original poem and the plagiarized version by O’Toole, with the identical words and phrases that appear in each highlighted (I’ve altered the line breaks in both poems for clarity):
Hell-spangled girl spitting teeth into the sink,
I’d trace the broken landscape of my body
& find God within myself
Ramshackle girl spitting teeth in the sink.
I trace the foreign topography of my body,
find God in my skin.
If O’Toole wanted a tattoo, she should have used the few original words she added to the plagiarized text:
in my skin.
Hey, that’s kind of cool! Do you think she’d be okay with me plagiarizing her words and tattooing them on my arm?