BY LISA MARIE BASILE
It was 2000. We were very, very poor, living in Elizabeth, NJ, and life was very much by-the-paycheck. Bear with me here; we're going to talk sob-story and then move onto the bigger picture.
My father wasn't in the picture, and my mother was struggling. I was the sort of teenager who, despite my bravado, mostly stayed out of trouble. I was lively, energetic, and creative—but I did spend most of my time dissolving into a sea of music or writing hundreds of bad poems (which I'd then proudly tape to my bedroom wall).
Some of my friends did school plays or enrolled in music classes or were on the dance team. We couldn't afford after-school programs, and I had to babysit my brother after school while my mother worked. So all of my creative energy was kept largely to myself. I had no idea what it meant to be a writer. I didn’t even think I’d get into college, let alone become someone who’d have something published. The odds were stacked against me. It's important to recognize this.
One of my faintest (and only literary) memories: As a child, my father would read to me from a huge, leather-bound book of Poe’s stories and poems. We’d crawl into bed, and he’d turn down the lights and read by flashlight. (Clearly, I’d learned early on—maybe too early—the values of the macabre). But by the time I was old enough to write and read for pleasure, my father wasn't in the picture.
One Christmas, though, I received a book. Wait for it... Jewel's A Night Without Armor. I read it with fervor, not knowing of the Sextons or Plaths or Angelous. I only knew that there was this woman who I’d been exposed to through music who also wrote poetry. I had no idea if it was good or not, either. I was still young, still impressionable, and still very much rooted in a world where familial worries came before artistic exploration. I had nothing to compare it to.
That book meant the world to me. And its triteness, its clichés, its often limp language escaped me. Because the book was mine, and it was expressing something, and I could tap into that. Do I wish I had a wise old aunt or uncle who’d pour through the library with me, illuminating me to Anaïs Nin or the French surrealists? Of course I do.
But I didn’t, so my life as a writer unfolded slowly, and by the path of most resistance. I had to teach myself, even if that meant starting with Jewel. The point here? For some people, poetry that isn't found in the canon is the first touchpoint of exposure, even if it's often lame. That means, for many people, poetry on Instagram.
We should be careful of how we talk about poetry and who gets to write it and why we read it. Because we don't know who has been exposed to what, or what they even need or want as a reader, and if maybe different kinds of poetry have appeal for various reasons. Gasp, right? Gatekeeping is gross.
Back to the point.
Right off the bat, I’d like to say that I dislike most—if not all— well known "Instagram poetry." For the sake of this article, I'll use the term "Instagram poetry," which is likely reductive but also the term most people use. Popular Instagram poets usually have tens or hundreds of thousands of followers and write short poems. Sometimes there are accompanying visuals.
Many poets I've spoken to believe that many of these poets are recklessly hackneyed and trite, their work reminiscent of a Hallmark card. This, from what I gather, is why many writers take such issue with these poetry accounts (especially the popular ones). Some believe they sully the name of poetry. Others think poetry on Instagram doesn't 'count' as poetry.
While some others liken them to bite-sized doses of wisdom and idea.
As poet Yi Wu puts it, "A mere collection of motivational quotes does not fuse into a good poem, and some of the poems read very contrived. There are, of course, exceptions and high-quality work, but these gems must be discovered with effort." I can't say I disagree.
Here are a few Instagram poems:
A week ago, Electric Literature published an article about "bro poet" Collin Yost. And whether intentional or not, it was kind of a few notches short of bullying. It was definitely funny, and I liked that it brought up this poetry sharing approach, but it was also tone-deaf.
It started off with the subhead, "It’s a master class in who gets to be mediocre, and honestly sometimes we need that."
Yep, fair enough. Can't hurt.
But then it got into this territory:
"Why yes, Broyce Kilmer, we are actually poetry experts! And we say bless you. Bless you for the reminder that poetry is not some rarefied pantheon that only the anointed can enter. It’s just writing, and writing some more, and maybe posting what you write on Instagram next to a cigarette and getting shirty when someone doesn’t like it. Go forth, poets, and when you doubt yourself, look upon Collin Yost, and shine."
A few points:
- Referencing one's own expertise is incredibly icky. I can think of very few situations where that feels good.
- It’s true that poetry ought not be a rarified pantheon, but maybe there’s room here to explore that without the passive-aggressive implication of low-brow art, even if you think it's low-brow art. What makes a poem good? Let's start there.
- It’s very "you can’t sit with us." Which is funny, except that it’s true, and that’s also super shitty. Does poetry need to be exclusive as fuck to retain glory?
- Can language and expression evolve in different directions, to different audiences, and still survive? (I think yes.)
- I just counted five active poetry-bros who are publishing 'traditionally' and whose work is mediocre and problematic. I just also counted a few other bro-editors who make the publishing climate uncool for women and other marginalized folks. I would suggest we focus on eradicating that garbage inside our communities before casting our judgment toward people who probably—lets be honest—give zero fucks about our "not-Instagram" poetry.
There are probably tons of constructive ways to look at Instagram poetry—and it’s worth it to do so, if only to offer readers new ways to think about how poetry works, and what other poetry is out there. I asked my network what they thought and I got tons of responses, which helped me sift through my ideas. A conversation is helpful, for starters.
One poet, Thom Young, tried to engage with the idea of "Instagram" versus "other" poetry when he created a fake "Instagram poetry" account in the vein of what he'd seen become popular—and he saw the followers roll in.
In a PBS piece, Thom Young, "noticed something strange: While most serious, award-winning poets — those who did thoughtful work — got hardly any attention, people who wrote short, trite poetry got tons of likes and followers. Some of these 'pop poets,' as he calls them, had become social media celebrities overnight."
Young said, "I decided that a parody or satire was needed to demonstrate how easy it was to get popular on social media, particularly on Instagram, writing this short, trite poetry," he said. "And right away I started getting followers and likes like crazy"—going from 9,000 to 46,000 followers on Instagram in less than a year, he said.
He says he doesn't think his experiment was condescending in any way—although it certainly could be construed that way. (I love it).
In the end, he believes that people want quick poetry while mindlessly scrolling or taking a break from work. By creating his "pop poetry" account, he says, he was able to get readers to read his "real" poetry. An interesting—and loaded—idea. (And one that tugs at the egos of writers who relentlessly work on their craft only to garner very few moments of real-life and Internet acknowledgment; it can get lonely.)
Whether you think Young is clever to have pedaled work that mimicked other Instagram poems—only to see it become successful, thus proving his point—or wrong to have written inauthentic "pop poetry," it's a conversation we should be having.
Kia Alice Groom thinks it's less about the work itself and more about the end-goal: "I've always been kinda of the fence about [Instagram poetry], but recently I think I actually prefer it. I think poetry is kind of crawling up its own ass a bit, being so shackled to academics. How many people read journals (even prestigious ones?) I see poets on Tumblr getting hundreds of thousands of reblogs, so if nothing else they're at least making a connection. You kind of have to admire that."
Groom also went on to say, "Also isn't it maybe possibly a tiny bit classist to put 'instagram poets' or 'social media poets' into a different category... If you're writing poetry, you're a poet, surely?"
Which circles back to Electric Literature's quippy post—some more maybes: Maybe there's a better way to deconstruct the various types of poetry without having to rely on some assumed baseline (which might or might not include having an MFA, being published in certain magazines, or being contracted with certain presses)?
A few ideas: Maybe accessibility does pervert a poem (I personally believe we ought to fight for the strangeness of poetry, as Johannes Göransson puts it). Maybe a bad poem is just a bad poem, despite its medium. Maybe there are thousands of 'Instagram poems' that really, really work. Which, I think, might just require a larger, more constructive conversation that encounters society and non-poet readers' needs, rather than just what some poets thinks (like me! Like maybe you!).
I'm not sure. Hopefully we can talk about this together.
When I was a young girl, if I had Instagram—and if I had those same dreams of becoming a poet—I’d likely stumble onto some of these accounts and find them inspiring, too. Maybe I’d feel less alone.
Hopefully, over time, I’d learn more about what I liked and didn’t like about these poems—and maybe I’d discover other poets that would help me differentiate between many of those Instagram-friendly poems and other sorts of poems, and perhaps I’d find things I liked about both. I don't know. Perhaps I'd find that Instagram is a new way of publishing, not the automatic mark of a bad poem.
Luckily, as I got older, I was exposed to all sorts of writing, which helped me draw my own conclusions about Jewel’s book. It wasn’t good, I realized, eventually. Largely because it relied on overused ideas and lazy language.
But you know what? It was, for a short time, what I needed. I think that could be said of someone, somewhere, who reads an Instagram poets’ work. They might just say, "yes, that's what I needed to hear." Who are we to take that away? Why do we get to say what another person should like or need or feel?
On one hand, I *personally* don’t think it’s excusable to pump that sort of drivel onto the Internet—especially because of the fact that those Instagram poets, whose work is heavily tied to the Internet, likely have access to other poets’ work on that same Internet. By reading anything published in a literary journal or a release from a small press (which I think is partly a duty of being a poet) or even work by another poet that isn't published, they must have some semblance of knowledge around what constitutes original writing that doesn’t rely on gimmick or cliché.
But if these poets want to write what they write—and if their readers are getting some sort of emotional response out of it—is that not what matters?
I'll admit it: When I read that Electric Literature’s piece, I loved it at first. I admit that. The references to bro-poets made me laugh, and it felt good to have my opinions validated.
But before I finished the article, I checked myself. Here I was—an MFA-educated poet who’d had a generous scholarship with which to study—judging someone who was simply posting a few lines of poetry on the damned Internet. Do we see what's wrong here? Do I have some bigger, better opinion? (If you answer "yes," then consider the very many successful poets who do not have an MFA or who don't take the traditional route or who don't give a shit about getting into the Paris Review).
In the end, for some people, it might be easier for someone to digest a three-line poem with 102,000 votes of approval than it is to get to a library and rent Ugly Duckling Press’s new book, and I get that.
It's not a happy thought for me, but I didn't grow up with a silver spoon and I know that most of the people I love and who love me would probably read an Instagram poem before renting a book.
In the end, name-calling and pedestal-judging poets—even if they are lazy bros—doesn’t magically a) get us new readers, b) change the poetry landscape all that much or c) make us look like anything but stuck-up assholes—an uncool stereotype about writers that unfortunately just got validated.
Lisa Marie Basile is an editor, writer and poet living in NYC. She is the founding editor-in-chief of Luna Luna Magazine and the author of APOCRYPHAL (Noctuary Press, 2014), as well as a few chapbooks: Andalucia (Poetry Society of New York), War/Lock (Hyacinth Girl Press), and Triste (Dancing Girl Press). Her book NYMPHOLEPSY (co-authored with poet Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein), was a finalist in the 2017 Tarpaulin Sky Book Awards. She is working on her first poetic fiction novella, to be released by Clash Books/Clash Media. Her poetry and other work can be or will be seen in PANK, Spork, The Atlas Review, Tarpaulin Sky, the Tin House blog, The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, Rogue Agent, Moonsick Magazine, Best American Poetry, Spoon River Poetry Review, PEN American Center and the Ampersand Review, among others.