Poet Lang Leav and her le­gion of fans

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - FRONT PAGE -

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 writ­ers­fes­ti­ 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.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.