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Thursday, April 9, 2020

The “Insta-Activist”: Revolutions in Poetry

Could Instapoetry create a more socially conscious and equitable world?  ♦ 
In recent years, “Instapoetry” has revolutionized the ways in which individuals interact with and think about poetry. These short, sharable poems are designed to circulate widely across social media platforms like Instagram (hence the name “Instapoetry”) and have achieved a massive following. “Instapoets” like Rupi Kaur, Atticus, and Nikita Gill boast millions of followers on their social media accounts. Many of these writers have even signed to Big-Five publishers and had their work transformed into full-length collections.

While Instapoetry has captivated the public, it remains hugely controversial among more “traditional” poets. Some, like Texan poet Thom Young, decry Instapoetry as “fake” poetry and cite its simplistic, direct language as being void of artistry. Others, however, praise Instapoetry as a useful gateway into the often intimidating and unpopular genre.

However, these raging debates largely ignore a crucial aspect of Instapoetry: its work to inspire social activism and call attention to injustices. Scroll through @rupikaur_’s Instagram account (or flip through her bestseller, milk and honey) and you’ll discover dozens of poems that register Kaur’s experiences as a person of color, a daughter of immigrants, and a survivor of sexual violence. Still other Instapoets, particularly Morgan Harper Nichols, advocate for mental health awareness and better self-care practices. While these activist-minded poems appear intermixed with works about romance and heartbreak, they constitute a significant and growing part of the Instapoet culture online.

Many of the so-called weaknesses of Instapoems make them well-suited for the social justice work they engage in — particularly their “simplistic” and straightforward language. Take the following two phrases as an example: “if you have never/stood with the oppressed/there is still time” and “stand up for all/stop the/separation.” These two messages share a great deal in common: they have brief word counts, encourage activism on behalf of oppressed peoples, employ direct language, and are similarly organized with enjambed line breaks. However, they come from two wildly different sources: the latter appeared on a protest sign at a 2018 march against President Trump’s immigration policy, while the former is an Instapoem taken from Kaur’s Instagram account. Though the parallels between these genres may be coincidental, their underlying strategies are very intentional. The “Instapoem style” is designed to be accessible; the poems’ brevity entices readers with a low-commitment experience, and their pithy, direct language communicates their message clearly. Readers aren’t asked to think critically about the heavy metaphor or image to identify a poem’s message. Instead, they’re asked to criticize the real-world structures and society that oppress certain groups of people.

Many Instapoets also combine their text with images, further emulating the messaging strategies that protest signs use. The type and arrangement of image vary from poet to poet: Kaur supplements nearly every one of her poems with a minimalist line drawing, while Atticus often experiments with photography and typeface. Nonetheless, this attention to the visual both reinforces the message that the text conveys and encourages readers to pause when they encounter the poem. In yet another of her pieces, Kaur does just this, combining a drawing of a woman’s dripping breasts and genitals with the text, “you want to keep/the blood and the milk hidden/as if the womb and breast/never fed you.” The startling image does a great deal of work for the poem: it both hooks the reader and illustrates the oppression (and suppression) that women’s bodies often face. Ultimately, it’s not difficult to imagine this piece as a highly effective protest sign at the annual Women’s March.

Another commonly criticized aspect of Instapoetry is the home it finds on social media. At best, critics argue that this platform imbues the poems with superficiality; at worst, they conflate its popularity and high visibility with capitalist greed and egocentrism. It’s true that Instapoets write like they’re running a business, churning out poems at a rapid pace to keep their social media feeds fresh and engaging. They even supplement their poems with gimmicks: Atticus keeps his true identity a secret, teasing his followers with photos of himself wearing a mask, while Kaur intermixes her poems with dramatic, model-esque photos of herself in couture dresses. As influencers with a wide following (Kaur nears four million followers on Instagram), Instapoets have a responsibility to use their platforms for good — to speak out against injustice. However, they simultaneously owe themselves the freedom to write and express themselves creatively. This tension is unlikely to disappear, but is perhaps less problematic than it first seems. For example, Kaur’s photos could be seen as empowering images, particularly for women of color.

The goal of any social justice movement is not only to change the laws and policies that perpetuate oppression but to change the culture that accepts them. As far-reaching cultural hubs, social media platforms are particularly suited to host poems about social justice movements. Not only do they reach an expansive and diverse audience, but they also submerge the poems alongside users’ news feeds and their friends’ posts. They directly remind social media users to acknowledge their own inherent biases and provide a counter-narrative to the “trolling” and bias interwoven into these platforms.

Personally, I believe the first true “Insta-Activist”— the first poet to take full advantage of the Instapoem style and the affordances of social media — is yet to be seen. While poets like Kaur have made great strides in opening conversations about race and gender inequality, the majority of their work still centers on other themes. As of now, Instapoety has done the most good for the secluded (and often antiquated) poetry sections in bookstores; now, living poets’ works occupy a place in the storefront, alongside bestselling fiction and celebrity memoirs. Nonetheless, the potential to use Instapoetry for social activism remains powerful and instills the work with an immediacy and visibility that more traditional poets aren’t always afforded. When the revolution finally comes, you can rest assured that it will be posted to Instagram.

  • About the Author
    Elizabeth Brueggemann is a Professional Writing and Creative Writing double major at Miami University. In her free time, she enjoys writing her own poetry and creative non-fiction, creating playlists for her friends, and skydiving.

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