Poetry In An Insta(nt)
New-generation poetry designed for Instagram is making the literary genre cool again
Since its launch in 2010, Instagram has earned a reputation for being a platform for the vapid and the self-promotional, a gathering place for those hungry to be anointed with the cool (or cringe-worthy, depending on who you ask) title of “influencer”.
Which is why one of the latest products to emerge from it is so surprising: Good ol’ fashioned poetry. Well, in a sense. Insta-poetry artfully combines typography, shareability and the selfie age’s love for inspirational quotes into short poems, sometimes illustrated, that play out on the social media stage.
So effective has this formula been that more than a few Instagram poets have garnered influencer-level followings for their work. Some have even found traditional publishing success: Poet and photographer Tyler Knott Gregson gained fame (and a 323,000 following) on Instagram for his verses that were typed out on scraps of paper, then photographed and ’grammed. In 2014, Perigee, a division of Penguin Random House, came knocking. What followed was a book called Chasers of the Light that now has 120,000 copies in print—compare that with the 20,000 of Louise Gluck’s Faithful and Virtuous Night, which won a National Book Award for poetry last year.
Perhaps one of the most popular Instagram poets of all, Rupi Kaur, is known for her simple but powerful prose on love, heartbreak and abuse, and her accompanying illustrations. A recent post—“if you are not enough for yourself, you will never be enough for someone else”—got 161,901 likes.
Her Instagram popularity (1.4 million fans despite the fact that she follows a total of zero accounts) ensured that her self-published milk and honey sold over 15,000 copies when she released it in 2014. It was later picked up by publishing house Andrews McMeel.
Their creative harnessing of the platform aside, Instagram poets are also taking advantage of the boundaries-free nature of the digital space by using it to gain access to markets that might otherwise not be open to them. Case in point: New Zealand-based Lang Leav, whose global reach on social media led to four poetry books that topped sales in the United States. This May, she published her debut novel Sad Girl, also with Andrews McMeel.
But not everyone is celebrating. Unsurprisingly, the Instagram pop poetry movement has upset a few ‘bona fide’ poets and literary purists. Poetry magazine editor Don Share notes that “poets are no longer dependent on the gatekeepers” as a result of self-publicity platforms like Instagram.
Pushcart Prize-nominated poet Thom Young even set up an Instagram account to demonstrate how easy it was to gain fans by writing “short, trite poetry”. “Right away I started getting followers and likes like crazy,” he said in a recent PBS interview, noting that his following grew from 9,000 to 46,000 followers in less than a year.
Yet poet Zoe Dickinson, writing in a literary blog, notes that if Insta-poets had tried to follow the usual route—publishing their poetry in traditional literary journals—they might never have been read and noticed. Most literary magazines still require that all submissions be previously unpublished, social media included, which forces writers to choose between instant readership and the pie-in-the-sky idea of literary success.
These days though, that may no longer be the smartest thing to do. After all, don’t poets—like any other writer—just want to be read? If that’s true, in this age of Instagram, the choice becomes clear.
By Cheah Ui-Hoon