Before I begin, I want to make it clear that I am not trying to make any claim as to what is "real" poetry and what it is not. I believe definitions for such things can be fluid. I mean, I used to think It G Ma (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPC9erC5WqU) was garbage, now I think that shit bangs. Orca ninjas, do indeed, go rambo. (Give it about thirty listens before you judge me, it starts to grow on you. Though if you can’t get past the first few seconds…I can understand that too.)
Two years ago, I had no idea people were sharing poetry on Instagram. It never even crossed my mind until I heard of Rupi Kaur. After browsing the various poetry related hashtags, I decided it could be a great way to get exposure as well as get comfortable sharing my poetry. To be completely honest here, I read a lot of what was being posted and thought I could easily get the 10k+ followings that some of the other people were enjoying. I was so cute, and by cute I mean, naive.
I joined and became what some people call an “instapoet.” At its core, this word just describes someone that shares poetry on Instagram. However, it is not without negative connotations. There is a pervading thought that they are unskilled and primarily write only for ‘likes’. They do not submit to literary journals or seek any form of constructive criticism. Of course, these are generalizations and do not apply to everyone, but enough people fit this mold that many writers with aspirations outside of the social media platform do not care for the label—myself included.
By far the biggest gripe against instapoets is the poetry itself. Many are simple one-liners and contrived stanzas, something that you may think is genius when under the influence of drugs, or a vague remembrance of a love interest that you have lost. The “she poems" (not my term) that propelled many to ‘instant fame’ fall under this category.
“She is the night sky and also the morning sun.”
“She is fire and whiskey.”
“She is the receding tide, but also the sand.”
These are lines I cooked up right now, with little thought to diction or theme, yet this is what floods Instagram. I want to be clear that the issue here is not the length of the poems, but the lack of creativity and refinement. If you think about how the typical person uses Instagram, it’s a noncommittal experience. Users scroll through and double tap photos during their commute or in between other tasks, spending a few seconds at most on each post. Short, easily digestible poetry fits seamlessly into this user experience. Poems that are longer or require the reader to sit with it for a while do not. If popularity or an increased following is your aim, a short simple poem will serve you much better than prosaic or literary poetry. That’s just the status quo. People have just adapted to the media platform.
While the widespread popularity of very simple poetry is concerning to some, personally my biggest concern with this community on Instagram is the bubble. A space where anyone with a smartphone can get comfortable and have their egos inflated, with very little encouragement to push their boundaries and improve as writers. This is most telling when writers publish a book and get offended by anything that is not a glowing review. If you are looking to become the best writer possible, shouldn’t you be thankful for criticism? I just don’t understand. The publishing aspect is also treated very casually. There is always a fear of a vanity publisher on the prowl, eager to take your money with lackluster results. Many accomplished poets go years before publishing their debut book. Some people on Instagram crank them out faster than Dyson vacuums (and the both suck).
But it’s not all bad. There are some great things happening. For starters, it’s an easy way to meet other poets and share your work. Just a simple comment or DM on another writer’s post can be the beginning of something magical. Okay, maybe not that serious, but it’s a great way to network with like-minded individuals. I’ve met some amazing writers on Instagram and watching them do their thing encourages me to keep trekking along when I’m feeling unmotivated. Most importantly, they help keep me accountable for my own goals. For example, as delayed as my forthcoming chapbook is, I don’t think it would be as far along if it weren’t for these friends asking me how it is progressing or telling me they’re looking forward to reading it.
Some of these friends may have never touched poetry if it weren’t for Instagram, which leads me to my second point. Instagram has made poetry so much more accessible to people that may not have sought it out otherwise. If nothing else, this platform has increased our audience and encouraged people to try writing poetry themselves. Sure, not all of it is amazing, but I have never seen such energy around poetry before and it’s been great seeing all these newer writers give it a shot. When I started writing poetry about 14 years ago, I used to be the weird one huddled in a corner while blasting Linkin Park. Now I have a community of people to be weird with me.
But in the end, it doesn’t even matter. Sorry I couldn’t resist. (If you don’t get the reference, reevaluate your life.) In the end, Instagram is a great place for poetry if you keep a couple things in mind:
1. Don’t let it get to your head. Your follower count, likes, etc. is not a good metric for how skilled of a writer you are.
2. Constructive criticism and people willing to give it are hard to find on Instagram. Value these people. Seriously. Hug their knees and never let go.
3. Don’t feel like you must change what you post in order to become more popular, but understand that the platform does lend itself better to posts that can be digested in a few seconds tops. (I’m still posting full poems regardless.)
4. Don’t worry about what others are doing, just do you. Who cares if someone has 40k followers while you have 50. Getting bitter about it is wasted energy. Focus on your craft instead. Who knows, you may already be the more skilled writer.
Until next time, this is me, backing away slowly to Kendrick Lamar’s HUMBLE. Sit down. Be Humble.
Daniel “dchang” Chang is a San Francisco based poet, set to make his move to New York City mid-June. When he is not writing, he is wandering the city with his camera or eating aesthetically pleasing food (it doesn’t have to taste good, just should look good for the camera.) His debut chapbook “No Safety” will be published this year. You can find him on social media through the handles below.