Why are some people so mean to Instapoets? Related: Should we stop using that term?
TO BE CLEAR, RUPI KAUR DOES NOT
need our help. The 25-year-old Canadian has sold over 2.5 million books, is about to embark on the second leg of a sold-out author tour—where she can easily fill a 1,000-person venue—and her second volume of poetry, The Sun and Her Flowers, is at the top of bestseller lists at the time of the writing of this article. Not a bad result for a creative outlet that began as an initially anonymous blog, grew into a self-published volume of her signature direct, emotionally intense and always lower-case verse, called Milk and Honey, and then blossomed into a full-on phenom when it was picked up by a mainstream publishing house. It was eventually translated into more than 30 languages and spent 52 weeks at number one. Oh, and she has 1.6 million Instagram followers. Suffice it to say that she’s doing fine. But the dismissive, patronizing attitude that she and other “Instapoets” are met with? Yeah, we need to work on that.
You see, all the hype surrounding Kaur and her fellow Internet bards (a loose grouping of mostly female scribes who have gained huge followings for their writing via Tumblr and Instagram) is often salted with a touch of a sneer. Kaur, for instance, has had her work described by The Cut as the “human experience, tidily aestheticized and monetized...written in the second-person voice of a pop song.” Lang Leav, who was among the vanguard and published her first bestselling volume, Love & Misadventure, in 2013, inspires these sorts of comments among Goodreads reviewers: “painfully silly,” reminiscent of “greeting cards” and only enjoyable to “13-year-old girls who are all starry-eyed over some boy.” And whether it’s from a professional critic or an Amazon commenter, there’s very often an undertone of “Well, if it’s popular on Instagram, it certainly can’t have the depth of real poetry.” Or, more to the point, “If it’s beloved on a medium frequented by young women, Instapoetry is a novelty, a curiosity, but certainly not legitimate ‘art.’” Especially not if celebrities like Chrissy Teigen and Khloé Kardashian are re-gramming it, right?
“There are folks who use it as a way to demean you,” responds Kaur when we ask her about being labelled. “Rather than calling me an author, it’s like ‘We’ll call you an “Instapoet” and feel better about ourselves.’ That makes me sad, because it’s so insulting to the readers.”
Kaur doesn’t read the comments (more on why later), but she has been on tour, which means she has had a lot of face-to-face time with that audience. She says they constantly share stories of how her poems—most just a line or two of very spare language—have helped them through things like chemo or healing after sexual violence. “To say that this is not real poetry or holds less power— that’s really hurtful to this entire community who is looking for support in this, who uses this as a way to deal with sorrow and suffering,” she says. “I think that’s a little unfair.”
It’s this community aspect that almost makes any value judgment of whether the work of this group is “good” or not irrelevant. Yes, it’s a genre that easily lends itself to satire ( deeply sincere things are generally low-hanging targets) and, depending on your mood, can either hit you with what Kaur calls her intended “kick in the stomach” or leave you wondering whether you’ve just spent five minutes pondering the literary equivalent of that pineapple left in an art gallery as a prank that everyone thought was part of the exhibit. But when the meaning that others find in those same lines saves lives? Who cares?
“I can’t keep on top of all the DMs I get, but I try to answer at least 10 a day,” says Nikita Gill, another poet who got her start on the Internet and just published a collection, Wild Embers, with Hachette. “I prioritize according to how people are feeling. If someone is going through something really hard, like anxiety, depression or PTSD, then I’ll 100 percent respond to them.”
Gill actually worked for several years with children with severe disabilities; she would often carry the weight of her work—and her desire to do more to help them—home with her. She eventually learned “how to empathize without totally burdening [my] heart”—a skill she says prepared her for the “therapist” part of her life as a poet with 269,000 Instagram followers. “If I want to give them insight,” the Brit says of the readers who message her, “I need to have all my senses about me; otherwise I won’t be useful to them because I’d be as lost in their problems as they are.” Gill says she receives feedback on the daily that ranges from “I had the courage to take my rapist to court because of this poem” to “that metaphor was a bit trite” to unprintable abuse. It’s a level of interaction that non-online publishing poets simply don’t have to deal with (slam hecklers aside, of course). “I try to look at those sorts of comments as ‘This is how these people choose to let this poem touch them, and I shouldn’t let it shape the way I think as a human being because that makes me easily malleable to other people’s thoughts.’” (That same fear is the reason Kaur doesn’t interact with her comments section, saying she decided to “protect [herself] as an artist and creator first.”) Gill, interestingly enough, actually struggles with labelling herself a proper writer just as much as some critics do. “I feel like I haven’t earned being called a poet yet,” she confesses. “I feel like there’s a certain amount of work you need to put into your craft before h