[On Saturday, December 1, 2018, we were made aware that Ailey O’Toole has plagiarized work by poets including Rachel McKibbens. After internal discussion and discussion with Rachel, we have decided not to remove this interview but to leave it as a record of Ailey’s actions. The Rumpus strongly condemns plagiarism, and believes every writer has a responsibility to our larger literary community to do the same. We urge you to consider purchasing Rachel McKibbens’s excellent and important collection blud, released last year from Copper Canyon Press, and to read these poems by Rachel we were honored to publish last October. – Marisa Siegel, Editor-in-Chief]
I first met Ailey O’Toole when she submitted a handful of poems to my newly created independent literary magazine, Rhythm & Bones, this past June. The first poem I read, “Gun Metal,” spoke to me from the depths of my soul. As someone overcoming trauma and PTSD from sexual abuse myself, I could see Ailey had deep stories to tell just from reading her poems. Within a day, I accepted all five of her poems.
Nearly a month later a draft of Ailey’s forthcoming chapbook Grief, and What Comes After (December 2018) found its way into my personal inbox and the moment I read it I knew I was in love. Her poetry speaks vividly of the immense, moving tale she has to tell with very personal experiences and visceral emotions that jump off the page. In “Unlearning,” Ailey describes depression: “Winter leaves its subtle mark across / my body, love in reddish hues, and the ice / has found its way under my skin.” She recounts her dark struggles with sexual abuse in “Gun Metal,” which speaks to overcoming and recovering from her suicide attempt, learning how to allow herself to enjoy life again: “I have felt the living heat of things / most likely to kill me and decided / not to stay.” Ailey’s collection swept me under like a tidal wave and refused to release me. My heart knew I wanted to champion this work and bring it for the world to see.
Ailey, a queer poet and bartender, writes about feminism, empathy, and pain. Her work has previously appeared in or is forthcoming from Door Is a Jar, After the Pause, and Ghost City Review, among others. She is also the poetry editor at Rose Quartz Journal and Homology Lit, and is a contributing writer for Pussy Magic Press, a monthly contributor to Rhythm and Bones Lit, and a regular contributor to Vessel Press.
We spoke about her inspiration, what motivated her to compile a collection, and how she’s trying to fulfill her mission to help others who are struggling with mental illness and sexual abuse.
The Rumpus: What made you want to write this book of poems and how did you select each one? The book is divided into three sections—Annihilation, Introspection, and Reclamation. What does each represent to you, and what do you hope the reader takes away from each one?
Ailey O’Toole: I’ve been writing this book without really realizing it for the past four years. In the fall of 2014, my mental health took a serious dip that almost left me dead after an overdose attempt. A sexual assault that led to the demise of a relationship and many friendships left me feeling alone and unable to see any way out of my desolation; I found myself turning to suicide, what felt like the only solution. After a two-week hospitalization, I turned to writing as a way to process and cope with everything I was struggling through. The past year, my writing has really taken off and after a dozen or so publications, I decided to try my hand at a chapbook.
As I looked at the poems I had written, I realized a common thread among them: I had basically written a chronology of my path to healing. I felt that path could be broken down into three increments, in the same way my book is organized: the story of how I ended up so lost, the period of time where I turned to self-awareness and self-reflection to move through that pain, and the eventual redemption of my voice and my mind from that place of despair. I realized that there were a lot of people who were probably in the same place I had been in four years ago who needed to hear this story, so I set out to compile a collection that would provide solace to people who felt alone in their struggle, and would also show them a story of hope and light.
As far as the titles of each section, Annihilation represents to me the narrative of how I was hurt and how I lost myself in that pain; Introspection is indicative of trying to come to terms with what happened to me and understanding what my life would look like moving forward; and Reclamation speaks to where I’m at now, which is to say I’m a survivor who can live through anything the universe brings my way. It took me a really long time to get to that point in my healing and I want other people who are suffering to know that it is possible to get through it, because I did.
Rumpus: I can tell from reading your poetry that you draw a lot of inspiration from inner pain. How does this help you as a person attempting to overcome your past? Is it difficult to write about traumas you have endured or do you find it a form of catharsis?
O’Toole: I definitely use writing as a way to process my trauma and to self-reflect about how trauma is manifesting in my life. I don’t think I would’ve reached the point in my recovery that I have without the catharsis and self-investigation that occurs in my writing. However, I do find that sometimes I’m not ready to write about certain things; sometimes it feels too fresh to try to delve into. I’m not ready to face how painful it is. In those moments, I try to be gentle with myself and turn to self-care.
Through my journey, I’ve learned how important it is to take care of myself, even on a basic level of making sure my body is okay. The decline of my mental health was so consuming that I find I have to check in with myself about whether I’ve eaten, if I’m hydrated, if I’m well-rested. I got to such a dark place that I was ignoring my body and its needs. This was behavior I had to consciously change in my recovery. But in those moments when the pain feels too intense to face, I try not to push myself and trust that the writing will manifest itself when I’m ready.
Rumpus: So, being careful with yourself and acknowledging how you’re feeling as you write is an essential part of creating for you. If I may ask, what has been the most influential experience that has gone into your motivation for creating this chapbook? If you had to pick out one poem from this collection to define the overall tone and theme of this book, which one would you pick and why?
O’Toole: There was a moment in a therapy session a few months ago, around the time I started compiling this collection, where I told my therapist how good it felt to know that I could carry myself through anything. I was looking back at everything I’ve survived and overcome in the past few years and was amazed at my own resiliency and ability to move past even the darkest moments in my life. Juxtaposing that moment with where I was when I tried to overdose was truly eye-opening, to see how far I’d come, and that really pushed me to want to memorialize these experiences in a collection.
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” but closes with “I gather my teeth from the sink and / wonder who I will be on the other side.”
To me, “Gun Metal” is 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—someone who is still Ailey, but changed. For a long time, I thought overcoming trauma meant somehow returning to who I was before the assault and before the suicide attempt. However, I learned that those experiences are now sewn into the fabric of who I am and I have to learn to coexist with them. So much of my path to recovery was self-acceptance and self-compassion, and I think that’s echoed in “Gun Metal.”
Rumpus: Four years ago you were in a very dark place and I think a lot of the first section speaks to this. In the third section, it really seems like you are pulling yourself out of that. Of course the darkness still lingers, but do you see your poetry evolving with your emotional state or do you think you will always write around themes similar to those in Grief, and What Comes After?
O’Toole: I’ve definitely seen my writing morph into something new as I’ve become more emotionally healthy. I find myself writing about a more diverse array of topics, like feminism and gun control and coming out, which is enjoyable. I often tell people that every moment is a poem—I’ve even seen poems in my toothpaste. I think a big goal in some of my newer writing is capturing the beauty in everyday moments that we might generally overlook. As much as I am in a healthy mental place right now, I don’t expect to be here forever. I know my battle with mental health will be a lifelong one, as I’ve been dealing with it since I was twelve years old. And so, I think my writing will continue to vacillate as I do; during the good periods, I will probably write poems that are not about my struggles with mental health. But should I experience another decline, I’m sure that will fuel my writing as well. I try to remain open to whatever poems come my way.
Rumpus: How was the experience of putting together a collection of your poems different than writing individual poems? Did you struggle at all when placing them together and seeking ones that would fit, or was it easy? And, along those lines, what was it like to see these poems together, to watch them play off each other? Could you give us an example of a few poems you think work especially well together?
O’Toole: This is a difficult question for me to answer. Two years after my overdose attempt, I still wasn’t recovering very well and it was affecting my academic studies, so I decided to take some time off from school. I’m currently getting ready to go back to school, but not having a degree has always felt like a huge deterrent in my career as a writer. I know there are people who don’t take me seriously as a writer without an MFA and that affects my self-confidence. My talent is less influenced from traditional education and more informed by reading, both poetry and craft essays (I really love The Flexible Lyric by Ellen Bryant Voigt). But because of this, I often feel excluded from conversations about craft because I don’t necessarily have the vernacular to participate in those conversations.
A lot of the decisions I make about my writing, and in my work as an editor, come from a place of gut feeling, and that’s how “Grief” came to be. The decisions I made about form and placement came from a place of what felt right. It was easy to decide which poems would go into which sections, but as far as ordering the poems within the sections, I just went with what felt right to me. One of the biggest questions I had when asking for feedback on the manuscript was the order of the poems because I worried maybe I hadn’t made the right decisions. In some places, the poems are ordered chronologically. In others, the poems are grouped by theme (ones that are mental health centric versus about abuse versus laden with feminism, et cetera et cetera).
However, the majority of the feedback I got regarding the flow of the poems was that it was working very well. Somehow my sense of creativity knew how to place the poems. I do really like the poems that are at the end of each section and feed into the next one—Annihilation ends with “Mazes” and wraps up with the lines, “Don’t worry, circus girl. this is / only the beginning,” which I think is a good hook into the second section. Introspection lands on, “Flight / Fight / Freeze,” and concludes with, “I am / letting the grass untame itself, / only me and the wildflowers, / both so full of grace and becoming.” I think this is a really great glimpse into the healing that takes place throughout the book and the triumph of the third section. The final poem of the collection is “A Field Guide to Loving Yourself,” which is basically a summary of everything I learned on this four-year journey. It’s honest about how crappy things can be but still optimistic: “Don’t forget, you are only an ocean away / from everything you’ve been chasing and / yes, I said an ocean, but boats are so fast / these days.”
Rumpus: I think it’s admirable that you work through feeling, and I think you’ve shown that it’s not necessary to have the formal education in order to be able to create something meaningful and moving, such as Grief. What has been the most beneficial experience of writing and subsequently having this book published? I know you were very involved on the cover design and layout of the book. Does it feel more satisfactory knowing that you have had such a hand in its creation?
O’Toole: It was a huge goal for me in seeing this book published that it be shared with people who needed to hear my story—people in a similar place to where I was four years ago that need to know there is always hope. We gave the book out to a few people for reviews and I have already had people reach out to me, telling me how much solace they’ve found in my writing and in my story. And I can’t even begin to tell you how rewarding that is. I know how much it would’ve helped me to read this book when I was in a really dark place, and it means so much to me to know that my writing is reaching people.
Even as I was answering your questions, someone reached out to me about how a poem from the collection had empowered them to feel comfortable writing about their own experience with suicide. As far as the design, I got really lucky that you, Tianna, as my editor, have given me so much decision-making power in the creation process. It’s been enlightening and informative to learn more about the publishing process, and it’s also such an honor that the Rhythm & Bones team is working so effortlessly to make sure this whole process is exactly the way I dreamed it would be. I’ve heard horror stories from poets about editors and publishing companies who didn’t let the writer have any power in design decisions and the book ended up not being what the writer wanted it to be. I feel so blessed and humbled to be working with such an amazing team that makes my desires and my dreams a priority. I truly feel their first priority is seeing me succeed and that is such a blessing.
Rumpus: Do you have plans for future work, maybe a full-length collection? What’s next for Ailey O’Toole?
O’Toole: This is a crazy question for me to even be considering because I was still pretty suicidal as recently as a year ago. I never thought I would get this far, and so for the past few years, I haven’t been long-term planning. Now that I’m able to think about my life in big-picture terms, I definitely want to go back to school and get my MFA and be a professor. I’ve been pretty seriously considering starting my own zine. I’ve got a couple of poems drafted for a full-length collection about childhood trauma and how those experiences manifest across a lifetime. I’m giving a lot of time to my contributing writer positions with Vessel Press and Pussy Magic Press; for Vessel Press, I’m writing a column called “The Lens,” which features opinion pieces from a woman’s perspective, and for Pussy Magic, I’m continuing to write about mental health. I definitely plan to continue with my writing career, though if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my struggles, it’s that life often doesn’t work out the way you planned no matter how well you planned it. I’m trying to be open to whatever comes my way, the way I write my poems. For now, I’m focused on this collection and sharing it with the world. Definitely keep an eye out, though—I’m ready to tackle the world.