by Colin Pope
It would be fashionable to write a post for a literary journal’s blog on how Instapoetry and its equally minimalist ’net confederates—Tumblr verse, Twitter poems, etc.—represent the bane and ruin of American poetry. Perhaps more than fashionable: necessary, even. Not for the journal, but for me, personally, just so my poetry friends, mentors, editors, and prospective employers know that I am, without question, not condoning it.
So this is that blog post, kind of. Yes, Instapoetry is . . . problematic. I have made efforts to peruse and ingest some of it and have yet to find an exemplar that moves beyond the level of a young reader. This is not necessarily a bad thing; certainly, the wider poetry establishment sometimes neglects the teen and younger, precocious audiences. And while it may not aspire to the level of depth of, say, a Terrance Hayes sonnet, Instapoetry appears to exist as a precursor to the diction, craft, and erudition of more traditional “adult” poetry.
What’s more, its readership seems vast and ever-expanding. Today, I logged onto Instagram to check out some recent work, and a Valentine’s poem by Rupi Kaur (whose first book, Milk and Honey, has sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.5 million copies since its publication in 2014) has been liked 178,102 times and has 1,434 comments. Like most Instapoets, Kaur’s route to fame began online, where she frequently posts three- to eight-line musings on love, inspiration, and daily life. It’s only after a period of posting such online content—a year or two, usually—that Instapoets accrue the “viral” audience necessary to attract the attention of publishing houses.
And one can’t blame publishers for leaping on a bandwagon with a few hundred-thousand inbuilt readers (I’m leaving aside the distinction between readers and fans here). It’s in this realm of marketing and sales, however, that things get really interesting for me. I don’t mean with Instapoetics, which deserve a comparative-lit essay of their own on coopting the semantics of advertising and Hallmark and contemporary country-western lyrics. Rather, it’s what these sales mean and portend for American poetry.
There really isn’t an equivalent mechanism for gaining readership in American history, inclusive of even Jewel or like Bush-era politico-humor verse or slam poetry. Because readers have instant, free access. So, okay, the question becomes: Why does such access matter? What does its medium say about this “work?” And, most importantly, what does its steadily increasing readership say about us?
I’d suggest that this audience and this level of access highlight the faults not in “more traditional” forms of American poetry, but in how these forms cluster around a specific model of publishing. To illustrate: consider the history of the chapbook. In grubby, rural 1600s England, a guy with a mule cart filled with 8- to 24-page, cheaply printed books wandered the countryside, selling everything from cookbooks to fairy tales to, yes, poetry. The “chapman” peddled entertainment and information to and for the masses. People could afford these things and pass them around or reuse them as toilet paper (seriously) in an era that predated inexpensive newspaper printing. Simply put, the chapbook was the right medium for the right people at the right time.
If you’ve been around the poetry publishing world at all, you know that the chapbook is experiencing a mid-grade renaissance. Whereas it was once a novelty, published once in a while by small presses for either well-known poets who wanted to “try something different” or to help announce local/new poets to local/new audiences, there are now semi-prestigious chapbook presses springing up by the score, producing shockingly high-quality mini-collections. But in the rejuvenation of this form one senses an odd combination of poetry professionalization (i.e. the chapbook viewed as apprenticeship for full-length book) and a hipster-like cleaving to the nostalgia it represents, put out for hipster-like audiences who might conceivably pay $10–15 for fifteen pages of poems (no judgment here; I own a number of great chapbooks and have recently been notified I’m a hipster). No major publishers produce chapbooks, to my knowledge, simply because they aren’t worth the price of production or marketing.
Photo Credit: Chap-books of the eighteenth century by John Ashton
But, duh, poetry isn’t supposed to be marketable, right? Agreed, for reasons I don’t have space to expand upon here. So what would be the equivalent of a chapbook? What medium at this time for us people would be a) inexpensive, b) available to the masses, and c) of indeterminate quality?
This isn’t as much of a stretch as you may be thinking. Why, for instance, don’t our most renowned poets post new work on social media? Why does there still exist an antipathy toward e-publishing in the purlieus of M.F.A. programs, even at the level of the lit journal?
The point is that we readily equate medium with quality, knowing that the medium can separate larger audiences from our best poetry. The elitism we fear in capital-P Poetry does, indeed, pervade our views on publishing, and perhaps Instapoetry’s popularity is merely the necessary recalibration of the medium of our art. And, if so, Instapoetry should be welcomed not as a threat to poetry at large, but as a pronouncement of Poetry’s possibly antiquated views on publishing (and who it’s for).
Still, we must acknowledge that the publishing machine monetizes such e-stuff by producing it in traditional book form. It’s only that the audience is initially gathered via a free service, rather than through the typical process of submission-acceptance-publication via subscription-oriented lit journal. Instapoetry bypasses traditional routes by infiltrating open-access internet mediums, and so I think its success points a finger at the potential pitfalls of said traditional routes (not least of which that subscriptions cost money, and the subscription process feels painstaking in comparison to tapping the Twitter or Instagram app on your phone and just reading whatever work pops up).
If, at this point, you’re wondering how we should or could better measure the quality of contemporary poetry, you’re not alone. This, friends, is the big question. If neither sales nor traditional, edited publication, then what? I don’t have the answer, but the question is worth our consideration.
Colin Pope‘s debut poetry collection, Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral, is forthcoming in May from Tolsun Books. His poetry, essays, and criticism have appeared in such journals as Slate, Rattle, Ninth Letter, The Los Angeles Review, Best New Poets, and others. He holds his M.F.A. from Texas State University and is a Ph.D. candidate at Oklahoma State University.