- 09 Nov 18
It's no secret that the increased popularity of digital media has forced print trades to change. But before you brand written-based careers as a waste, look to Instagram poetry. Birthed by the digital era and surviving largely through social media engagement, this new form of literature provides writers of all backgrounds and techniques with the opportunity to launch best-selling careers. Take Lang Leav, whose six-book success serves as proof that words remain just as much a currency as ever before...
Whether literary academics want to admit it or not, digital poetry – particularly that which stems from Instagram or Tumblr – is playing a significant role in modern literature. Amassing large followings and selling books that land on bestseller lists, digital poets draw in readers with frank musings on love, mental health struggles, racial or gender-based oppression and sexuality. Often more simplistic or stylised than traditional poetic forms, this new wave has made poetry more accessible – in that it can be more easily understood by people without a literary degree and that it can be read straight from a handheld device. As a result, the backgrounds of modern readers are as diverse as the writers themselves.
Lang Leav is one of the most prominent voices in the digital poetic sphere. She has a combined following of around two million across all social media channels and has published six books (so far, with number seven on the way). The New Zealander began building a profile on Tumblr and was at around 11,000 followers when she decided to self-publish her first collection of poetry and prose, Love & Misadventure.
“I didn't really have any expectations," she tells Hot Press via FaceTime from her Auckland home. "I was just hoping to cover the cost of self-publishing. I had been saving up – I think it took me a year or so just to put together a book, publish it and put it out in a marketplace. I didn't know what to expect but it started making best seller lists, so that was quite a surprise. I remember the first week I thought, ‘oh that's good, I've sold about 50 books!’ and I thought that that would be it. But it was like this slow-building thing that happened. The numbers just kept going up and up every week in a sort of snowball effect.”
Now an internationally-recognised bestselling author, she publishes through Andrews McMeel, the same publishing house as renowned "instapoet" Rupi Kaur. Her story is similar to other writers who began on social media and ended up getting published – success came slowly, and then all at once. “At the time, 11,000 followers was an insane amount to me,” Lang says. “Since then, everything’s just gotten bigger and crazier.”
Lang’s success is a testament to the networking capabilities of the digital age in which we live, which has seen flocks of young writers recognise their dream of becoming published authors. But if you compare Lang’s work to many of her contemporaries, you’ll notice she writes somewhat less like them and more in line with the work of classical poets. “When my stuff was starting to get popular a lot of people were like, ‘oh my gosh - you're alive?!’” She laughs. “I remember getting tweets like that, people saying ‘I thought you were a dead poet!’ I read a lot of classical poetry, romantic poetry...I've read that since I was very young. And I suppose that's had a huge influence on my work, the likes of Emily Dickinson, that sort of genre.”
Yet even Lang’s work occasionally gets pooled into the negative connotation that digital poetry is too short or too simple. “I've only recently gotten into Instagram, and that doesn't really allow for long form like Tumblr,” she explains. “So sometimes I'll upload a snippet, or somebody else will quote a line or two from a bigger piece - like from my novel Sad Girls, for example - and people think it's a poem. It's a common misconception.”
The idea that their writing is too simplified has plagued many digital poets, most notably, Kaur, whose work even became a Twitter meme. Users would write banal sentences following the scattered form of Kaur’s poetry and attribute it with “-Rupi Kaur” or “-Milk and Honey”, referring to Kaur’s debut book. The fact that social media-originating poetry is often written for and by women and girls has allowed it to face similar criticism to young adult fiction.
I told him
let’s get this bread
was gluten free
- rupi kaur
— Svenskt invandrarbarn (@vemsawarya) October 21, 2018
“It really feeds into larger issues of denigration, of modern digital culture, and of traditional forms of gatekeeping,” says Dr. Jeneen Naji, of Maynooth University’s Department of Media Studies. “Traditional literature is often western, English, white and male. We’ve seen it ourselves in the famous poster for ‘Great Irish Writers’ – it has older white men as the official canon of Irish literature. What's great about social media poetry is that it has just bypassed traditional gatekeepers like publishing houses. It's shown what speaks to people. Note how many of these writers are women or come from multicultural, marginalised backgrounds – people traditionally left out of the literary canon.”
This is certainly the case for Lang. One of the most popular living female writers, Lang was born in a Thai refugee camp to parents fleeing the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime. The family moved to New Zealand where she grew up in a migrant town. While she has yet to write her family's story – she says she’d love to, though it would break her heart – the melancholy of her upbringing has filtered into her work. “Growing up in a migrant town, many people who lived there were from war-torn countries,” she explains. “So I suppose there were these feelings of sadness and hopelessness in the air. Writers are natural observers, before we even know that we are. So those feelings were something I always absorbed, and that definitely goes into my work.”
Like Lang’s work, ‘digital poetry’ could be written text on social media, but other forms include visuals, audio, or interactive graphics. Some poems even appear like short films, with actors playing out certain parts or acting as a visual representation of a poem’s abstract idea. Dr. Naji has recently been researching Instagram poetry and is part of a larger group of academics around the world interested in the broad scope digital literature. “There's lots of weird and wonderful stuff happening,” she says. “For example, there's drone poetry – somebody's using a drone to create poems. They're almost using it like activist intervention, to sort of draw attention to large-scale data gathering, to machine-vision, to drone surveillance – growing issues in our society.”
That might not sound like poetry, but literature, like all art, is subjective. Digital poetry therefore can’t be narrowed down to one area of study. Yet why are the departments primarily concerned with literature not showing much interest in its newer forms? “In Ireland, the electronic literature or digital poetry-type people are not in English departments,” Dr. Naji reveals. “In the US, a lot are, but that's not the case at third level over here."
"The person exploring drone poetry is in a digital media department in the UK. I’m in media studies and someone else I encountered who did a really interesting project using Google AdWords - she's actually from a geography department! It's not viewed as real literature here. Maybe as different generations filter into universities that might change...it would be good to see English departments embrace it.” If digital poetry keeps evolving at its current pace, they might just have to.
“I don't see us as ‘digital poets' – I just see us as writers," Lang says. While melancholy might see her work more closely associated with dead writers than others who create poetry through a digital medium, she by no means tries to distance herself from her contemporaries. "It's great that young people are reading poetry again, because for a long time, it was difficult, it was something forced on them. There was a consensus that poetry was dead. I remember looking up publishing houses and there was a heavy ‘no poetry submission’ connotation. But the genre has opened up again. If people read something that resonates with them, if it pulls them into poetry and it leads them to discover other poets, I think that's a wonderful thing."
Lang Leav's next book, Love Looks Pretty on You, will be released in January 2019 and is available for pre-order now.