Verse goes viral: Instagram poets shake up the literary establishment

Verse goes viral: Instagram poets shake up the literary establishment
FILE - In this June 20, 2013 file photo, a journalist makes a video of the Instagram logo using the new video feature at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. The California Supreme Court will decide whether Facebook and other social media companies must turn over user content to criminal defendants. The justices are expected to rule Thursday, May 24, 2018, in a case that has pitted some of Silicon Valley's biggest companies against public defenders. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

They’re byte-sized doses of poetry  a few lines of verse in a faux-retro font, crafted to fit into your Instagram feed.

A burgeoning cohort of bards known as Instapoets are bringing a viral sensibility to the age-old literary tradition, achieving a level of popularity some observers say could displace poetry from the rarefied domain of cultural tastemakers, and push it into the mainstream.

The rise of this new digital genre has been hotly contested in poetry circles. Proponents credit the social media movement with introducing new audiences to the pleasures of poetry, while critics argue that algorithm-friendly compositions are watering down the medium.

But as three Canadian contenders vie for a $65,000 prize at the Griffin Poetry Awards in Toronto on Thursday, many Instapoets say they’re less interested in an imprimatur of prestige than winning the digital hearts of readers, and numbers suggest that strategy has paid off in print sales.

Canadian vendors sold 154 per cent more print units in the poetry category between 2016 and 2017, according to industry organization BookNet Canada, and eight of the 10 top-selling titles last year were written by poets who gained prominence by sharing their work on Instagram.

Toronto-based Instagram sensation Rupi Kaur said that before her first two poetry collections became best-selling hits, she felt like there wasn’t room for her work in Canada’s literary establishment. Kaur said Instagram allowed her to build her own readership, which currently includes roughly 2.7 million followers.

Still, Kaur said she gets asked about her lack of awards recognition, as if the millions of books she’s sold “mean nothing” without a trophy.

“We have to start questioning these institutions and really ask ourselves what matters, and what doesn’t,” she told The Canadian Press last November. “We’re pushing work out there that’s touching people, that’s what matters.”

Even for those without Instagram accounts, like poet and Brock University professor Gregory Betts, the emergence of poetic superstars on social media has been hard to ignore.

Betts, who specializes in avant-garde literature, said most students walk into his classroom with little knowledge of Canada’s poetic pantheon, but every one of them could name Kaur. For some, he said, she’s what brought them to the course.

However, he said many of his more traditional colleagues dismiss Kaur’s work for the same reasons his students embrace it _ her poems are accessible to a broad audience.

Poetry has long been thought of as language at its most refined, he said, but Kaur’s pithy verse is colloquial, invoking universal imagery like stars and flowers, and it doesn’t take too much work to decipher her meaning.

For example, a recent one-line Instapoem reads: “you break women in like shoes.” It has been liked more than 160,000 times.

“Part of the traditional complaints against her is that she’s dumbing down poetry, but that’s because we’re misreading her,” Betts said. “Her strength and her innovation is not at the level of the content. It’s at the level of the medium.”

He said Kaur falls into a great literary tradition _ extending back to Dante _ of poets who were widely criticized for using the vernacular of their time.

When the language shifts, he said, poetry shifts as well, threatening to break up the “elite fiefdom” of the literary upper crust.

“I hope that poets do learn from (Kaur) that we live in a digital world, and we have access to audiences far beyond the dreams of even the most popular poets before her.”

Perhaps counter-intuitively, Betts compared Kaur to another best-selling author based in Toronto area: controversial University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson.

He said the two writers approach their work from diametrically opposed perspectives _ Kaur’s work often deals with feminist themes, while Peterson has come under fire for reinforcing gender stereotypes _ but both provide comfort to readers who are struggling to makes sense of a chaotic world.

While Peterson appeals to young men who feel disenfranchised by social structures they believe are being upended, Kaur is speaking to young women of colour who feel disenfranchised by social structures they say have long kept them down, he said.

British-Indian Instapoet Nikita Gill, who is reading from her debut print collection “Wild Embers” at a Toronto bookstore Wednesday, said she thinks Instapoetry’s potential for political activism is part of the reason it has resonated among millennials.

“I think we are a very emotive generation,” the 30-year-old said. “The poetry makes us feel, and makes us want to take part in these movements.”

Gill, who has nearly 400,000 followers on Instagram, said the social media platform has given a megaphone to poets who are diversifying the metrical discourse by speaking directly to marginalized communities whose tastes have historically been dismissed as trivial or niche.

She thinks the literary establishment’s resistance to Instapoetry is in part borne of concerns that digital verse is changing the nature of the art form, but she sees it as more of a “poetic renaissance.”

“Poetry’s a big table,” she said. “There’s room for everyone.”

But 27-year-old Tiana Stoddart in Vancouver, who goes by the Instapoetry pen name “adrianhendryx,” doesn’t have such a rosy view of how Instagram has affected the medium.

“It’s kind of like the McDonald’s of writing,” she said. “It definitely makes people write poetry that is more digestible for the general public.”

The massage therapist said she recently came back from a roughly two-year hiatus from her Instagram writing account, which has about 9,200 followers, after having been turned off the platform because of its incentives to produce poetry that trends rather than touches.

Rather than jockeying for literary laurels, Instapoets face near-constant pressure to churn out poems that earn likes and shares, she said.

“It shows you what’s selling and what’s not selling,” she said. “Why would you post something long and complex that you worked really hard on, when you know it’s not going to get any likes?”

For better or worse, Stoddart said, Instagram has made poetry “cool” for the digital generation. She just hopes it inspires them to seek out poetry that’s more substantial, rather than scroll on past.