As a writer in college, you have more platforms to share my work than ever before. Websites like Wattpad, Tumblr, personal blogs, Prose, and Twitter are just a few of them. One of the most popular, and tempting, platforms for creative writers today is Instagram (IG) #instapoetry has 1,067,445 posts and counting. It’s been the starting ground for best selling poets like Rupi Kaur, who has 1.9 million followers and whose first book Milk and Honey has sold 1.4 million copies. Such a large community and success stories like Kaur makes me want to post my poetry on Instagram right now. But what makes a good Instapoet? What are the drawbacks? What do you need to know before you share my work with Instagram’s 800 million users?
To find out exactly what makes a poem an Instapoem, I started following the best of the best, like Rupi Kaur, Lang Leav, Nikita Gill, Tyler Knott Gregson, and many more. I also spoke with local poet and Rowan University student Matthew Vesely. Vesely tried his hand at being an Instapoet for a class project. For a third of the semester, Vesely ran a poetry IG called matthewwritesonpaper. At his most active during his project, he had gained 64 followers. After reading so much Instapoetry and speaking with Vesely, I’ve come to understand that a successful Instapoet should follow certain habits and genre conventions unique to Instapoetry.
What Makes a poet an Instapoet?
1) Write short. Most poems are single stanzas, often only a sentence or two. Speaking from his own reading preferences, Vesely explained that “No one is going to read a long post…people will be ‘whatever, next.’” In a highly saturated writing environment, writers condense their ideas as much as possible to stand out.
2) Everybody loves universal themes. Themes like love, sex, happiness, feminism, and self acceptance are popular amongst readers. Affirming or inspirational poetry is the main staple of instagram poets.
3) Keep it lyrical. Instead of prose style or high language poetry, Instagram poets often write lyric poems that are direct and emotional with the occasional creative metaphor.
4) Presentation matters. Readers will scroll past poems that are screenshoted memo apps. Popular poets develop a signature style, whether this means including photos of their work typed out on a typewriter or small drawings. Vesely takes cuts out of his lines and pastes them over photography. As he told me,“You got to think about everything, where you place words. It adds a whole another layer to poetry.”
5) First drafts are okay. Some of the biggest names, like Gregson and Leav have said they don’t edit their work before posting. Reading a poet’s IG is like reading their writers’ notebook; there are a lot of moments of inspiration and vivid stand alone lines.
6) Post everyday. Readers want consistent content and that means posting once or twice a day to keep your following. Vesely noted that “The time commitment is something most people don’t think about.”
Is Instagram for you?
Vesely would recommend the platform to fellow poets, saying, “There is such a big community. As long as your stuff looks decently cool, people are going to follow you instantly.” When I asked whether poets whose styles did not fit the popular lyrical style should join IG, he did say “Either expand your capability of form or find a different location.” Instagram is more than a writing platform. Instapoetry is its own genre. If a poet decides to post on Instagram, they should understand that readers are looking for that genre. Posts that conform to genre expectations tend to do better. For Vesely, he is very comfortable in the Instapoetry style. He likes to work punchy aphorisms into his longer work and as he explained, “I would actually go back through my old writing and take out those aphorisms. Those were probably my most successful pieces.” If a poet is dead set on trying to gather the exposure that Instagram offers, Vesely’s advice would be to “Change your work for a little bit” to fit what the audience wants to read.
There are poets who break the genre conventions by writing longer, more complex works. Some of them are the names that made instapoetry famous, like Lang Leav, but these are also poets who already have books published and loyal followings of hundreds of thousands. You can afford to break the reader’s expectations when you have the reputation to back it up.
And there are those who recognize that Instagram just isn’t their platform. I talked with professor of poetry Ron Block at Rowan University to get the perspective from a lifetime poet. Block has never posted his work on social media, but when I asked if he would, he said “Sure, I would.” But he probably won’t be posting on IG anytime soon. After discussing what makes poetry, Instapoetry, he said “I don’t feel what I have to write about would be of interest to that audience.”
Is Instapoetry really that different?
That said, he doesn’t have any problem with those who do post on Instagram or use social media for their process. Instapoetry has received harsh backlash for not being sophisticated or polished as more literary poetry. Actually, the revision process, or lack thereof, of young poets today isn’t that different from Block’s own process early in his career. At the age of 21, a poem of Block’s was published in Prairie schooner after only two drafts. When asked what he thought of some Instapoet’s self publishing process he answered, “Does it really matter?” A poet’s process is their own and there is no one formula is correct. As Block pointed out “Allen Ginsberg said, famously, that he followed the Buddhist practice of ‘first thought, best thought.’”
As I spoke to Block about how he first started sharing and publishing his poetry, I realized the story wasn’t that different from young Instapoets like Matthew Vesely. Block wrote poetry before there was any social media to broadcast his work. When he was in college, he shared his work amongst graduate student friends that had formed an informal writing group. They shared pieces and gave each other feedback. Block even said that sometimes he might have shared poems “too soon.” Eventually, Block started a self-published literary magazine printed with a mimeograph while he was still in college.
The technology and scale are different, but the stories are similar. Poets self publish when they post on Instagram and when popular Instapoets make the leap from their IG account to print books, they often self-publish. Remember those 1.4 million copies sold of Milk and Honey? Kaur self-published the book’s first printing before the poetry collection was picked up by a publishing house. In her FAQ, Kaur explains she turned to self-publishing because she had been repeated told “there was no market for [her] poetry” and that “it gave [her] full creative control.” Those same frustrations with the markets and publishers fuelled a self-publishing movement in the 60s and 70s. Poets fed up with publishers would make their own literary magazines with low cost printing of mimeographs, like Block did, during what’s called the “Mimeo Revolution.”
Today writers will use local printing companies, like Rowan’s Avant Magazine, or online services like Amazon’s CreateSpace. Though some of those routes require more of a monetary investment. The writer handles all of their own layout, graphic design, and marketing as well. The digital age has made it possible to create books and magazines with any layout of visuals imaginable, but professional level graphic design often requires specialized software like Photoshop and InDesign. The barriers to learning graphic design are lower now with the help of online tutorials.
However, Instagram as a means of self-publishing is extremely accessible. You only need an email to make a free account. Instapoets do handle their own graphic design. As mentioned, presentation is an essential part of Instapoetry. There are man free resources for poets to use if they don’t have Photoshop or Indesign. Vesely uses the free photoshop app for his backgrounds and the app Phonto that allows users to add text to photos. For the desktop or laptop, Canva offers a basic graphic design program for free. IG also allows writers to publish instantaneously, instead of waiting on physical print copies.
Online communities can be similar to the writing group Block. Vesely said, besides getting followed, Instagram is “great for networking.” A central, virtual community allows for writers to connect with each other. A poet would have to reach out and engage with the community, like how they would have engage with their classmates in college, but a poet can find like minded writers and create their own writing groups.
The key difference is the public nature of the internet. While Block’s early experiences with sharing and publishing poetry was kept within a network of friends and classmates, an aspiring poet today is doing so within a network of millions or billions of people. So what starts as sharing a few poems on Instagram can turn into best selling books if the right people out of millions happen to see or share a poet’s work, like when Khloe Kardashian posted Lang Leav’s “Closure” for her 70-plus million followers. And all of the writers on Instagram are reading each other’s writing, especially those poets who are widely successful, and learning from each other. The sheer size of the community leads to the development of a common style because writers and readers that have common writing preferences come together.
Despite all of the hype and disdain surrounding Instagram, it is another tool at a writer’s disposal if they choose to use it. Like any publishing platform, IG comes with its own expectations, benefits, and communities. It isn’t the platform for everyone, but it isn’t necessarily changing the underlying writing process. It certainly has popularized a specific genre of poetry. I suppose that the value of Instagram as a platform depends on what a writer wants to get out of social media. Do you want to get your name to as many people as possible and get the most likes? Do you want to write in a lyrical style? Do you want to connect with other writers? Maybe you just want the challenge of trying to being an Instapoet.