THE BUSINESS OF HEARTBREAK
Poet Lang Leav and her legion of fans
In 2014, haunted by her break-up either with Lamar Odom or French Montana, Khloe Kardashian reposted Lang Leav’s poem Closure to her 14 million Instagram followers: Like time suspended, a wound unmended – you and I. We had no ending, no said goodbye. For all my life, I’ll wonder why.
Leav is a New Zealander who’s published six books – four are on Amazon’s Top 100 list of bestselling books of Love Poems – and sold close to a million.
She’s been touted by Vogue and Teen Vogue (who included her work in a list of poems “guaranteed to give you major feels”), and reposted by Kardashian and Drew Barrymore. In some parts of Asia, she says, she needs to travel with a guard, and in the Philippines last year, more than a thousand people attended her poetry reading, with some queuing overnight.
When I was asked to write about her, I’d never heard of her. And when I contacted the editor of Poetry New Zealand, a journal which has been publishing New Zealand poetry since the 1950s, to ask about Leav, he hadn’t heard of her either.
Although he suggested I not read anything into this, I can’t help but see it as emblematic of a schism between old and new, between traditional poetry, published in academic presses and read by a select few brainiacs, and a new wave of poetry, published on social media and read by millions of fiercely admiring fans.
Leav has nearly half a million Instagram followers and is often credited (she says incorrectly) with sparking a trend for a very Instagrammy style of poetry which some think is saving poetry and some think is ruining it. She’s routinely lumped in with a bunch of other poets, such as Rupi Kaur and Nayyirah Waheed, who have large social media followings, book sales to rival that of airport novels, and whose readings are as hyped as pop concerts.
Although these poets each differ, there are similarities. Their poems are short and confessional. Their meaning is never opaque, and there’s almost no playing around with language’s sonorous possibilities, other than the odd end rhyme.
Because it’s so simple, it’s been dismissed as “fidgetspinner poetry” – a kind of mindless diversion you engage with briefly, while thumbing through your phone. (A satirical account of deliberately “short, trite” poetry created as an experiment by poet Thom Young, posing as a bearded hipster called Tyler, also went viral, attracting 46,000 followers in less than a year.)
At first, I was taken aback by how basic Leav’s work is. At 42,000 likes, one of the most popular poems on her Instagram is Over: It’s over, she said. It was many years later when the quiet realization dawned on her. It’s over, her heart whispered.
I don’t really connect with this. In fact, I read a volume of Leav’s poetry and afterwards, I couldn’t recall a single line. But at a more vulnerable point in my life, I might have cherished her depictions of love, heartbreak and loneliness, and been consoled by her messages of female empowerment. On World Poetry Day last month, a fan retweeted Leav’s poem Letting Him Go, saying: “I’m sharing the poem that helped me get out of an abusive relationship. If you haven’t read @langleav, get to it.”
Whether you think Leav’s poetry is good or bad, it has clearly found its audience, who respond in the
comments threads with coloured hearts and weeping emoji and murmurs of “Beautiful”.
In between posting her poems, which are Photoshopped to look like they’ve been typed onto grainy, tea-coloured paper, Lang habitually re-posts images shared by fans luxuriating with her books, often in beds artfully strewn with flowers or cups of tea. Others use her handsomely designed books to shield their faces, or hold them up solemnly, like a protest sign. Which suggests to me that her fans either experience Leav’s poetry as a luxury to be enjoyed alone in bed – like chocolate or self-pity – or cherish it as a badge of something hard fought. These poems represent me better than my own face, they seem to be saying.
I was curious to meet Leav, to see where all this intensity came from, but she was an enigmatic presence. I invited myself into her home on Auckland’s North Shore. It was spotless, with jawdropping harbour views and each of her books artfully arranged on a hallway table. It was a rainy Friday night, but Leav was dressed immaculately, in an elegant all-black outfit including high heeled ankle boots. There was no trace of her partner, also a poet, who she said was staying out of view because he had an eye infection. Later, I read that he is never seen or pictured, and has even been suspected of being Leav’s nom de plume. (Over the phone, sounding like he doesn’t much appreciate the suggestion, he points out that you have to have governmentissued ID to get verified on social media, as he is). She had ordered pizza and as we began to eat and chat idly, I felt the ice start to thaw, but when we turned back to the topic of poetry, she grew crisply businesslike again.
Leav probably has good reason to be wary of silly journalists. She’s tired of being dismissed as an “Insta-poet” – she first found fame on Tumblr, not Instagram, and says the Beat poets were similarly scorned when they took the pulse of a generation. She’s turning more towards writing novels, anyway. (Her first, a coming-of-age story called Sad Girls, was published last year, and she has a book deal for her next.)
She freely admits that, for all the emotion conjured in her poetry, it “comes from a fictional space”. And despite her writing’s confessional tone, she’s actually a very private person, something all the more noticeable when you consider how much of her life, although dramatic, hasn’t gone into her poetry. The third child of Cambodian parents who fled the Khmer Rouge, she was born in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1980. A year later, her family settled in Cabramatta, an impoverished Sydney suburb with a high immigrant population often subjected to racism and economic exploitation. Despite these experiences, politics and race aren’t really explored in her work, although she says some day she she’d d like to write about her mother’s gruelling flight from Cambodia, dodging bullets in the jungle while pregnant w with Leav and lying down so e exhausted she didn’t notice sh she was sleeping with her head on a cow pat. Her parents speak a little li English but Leav com communicates with them in Teoc Teochew, a southeastern Chinese diale dialect. “I suppose the reason I write simplistically is because my first job was as a translator for my parents, so I had to distil the language in a way that they could understand. It saddens me that I can only communicate with my parents to a certain extent. I can’t go into the deeper stuff, which I wish I could do.” She began writing poetry as a kid and read whatever she could. Emily Dickinson, Sara Teasdale and Robert Frost w were influential. Studying S Shakespeare at high school p provoked Leav into writing fan fi fiction, including an alternative en ending to Romeo and Juliet, w where “they don’t do the suicide, he gets bored of her”. A After studying design at the University of NSW, she briefly worked in packaging design and went on to launch a fashion label, Akina, making goth Lolita clothes and jewellery, as well as elaborately handcrafted fairytale storybooks. Seven years ago, she moved to New Zealand to join her Australian partner, Michael Faudet, who has a New Zealand son. They met online after he bought one of her artworks. Both have now taken New Zealand citizenship, though they retain Australian accents. Leav says she never expected her poetry to blow up, but after a poem called Sea of Strangers (also the title of her fifth book) went viral on Tumblr, pretty much all the others did, too. Next, she was approached by several literary agents and signed with Writers House, which also represents Neil Gaiman and Stephenie Meyer. Within days, she had a publishing deal with Andrews McMeel, which also publishes Kaur.
As well as her own design and business background, Leav has probably also benefited from the wisdom of Faudet, a former DDB creative director who resigned from advertising, according to a Campaign Brief story, “to focus on building a literary brand with his partner, Lang Leav”.
“I’ve always loved Lang’s writing and she is as passionate as I am about books,” he told the ad industry site in 2014. “So we did our research, put together a strategy and executed the creative. Most importantly, we focused on building a strong following across our social media platforms and insisted we maintain creative control of the book design and marketing. It’s early days but I’m naturally thrilled with how the latest book is tracking.”
This stopped me in my tracks. Executed the creative? Was Leav’s seemingly haphazard success actually as deliberate and centrally planned as one of those quaint little neighbourhood bars that’s actually owned by a big brewery and designed by an ad agency?
But then I thought, so what if it was? So they’re clever about promotion. Good on them. There’s no law that says poets have to be helplessly naive about marketing, and die poor and hungry. I was similarly shocked to hear that Leav’s work is fictional – the yearning in a love poem might be inspired by missing her mum – and then annoyed at my own naivety.
When I ask Leav about who her fans are, she uses an advertising term. “It’s more of a psychographic than a demographic,” she explains. “It’s people going through a break-up or a tough time. Poetry is like a mirror: people read into it what is personal to them. They become the protagonist in the poetry. That’s the magic of poetry. Sometimes, I’ll post something sad and I’ll get a tweet saying, ‘Are you OK?’ And I’m like, ‘Hey. It’s fiction. It’s fine’. A lot of people think that it’s real, maybe because it’s real to them.”
At signings, fans often grow tearful, confessing things to an author they may see as a kindred spirit and fellow broken heart. A lot of hugs go down. But Leav also has handlers who can move people on when the time is right. “They manage it all, so for me, it’s just about trying to connect as much as I can with each person.” Lang Leav will appear at next month’s Auckland Writers Festival. See writersfestival.co.nz for details.
“I suppose I write simplistically because my first job was as a translator for my parents, so I had to distil the language.”