In the early days of Instagram, the app functioned primarily as a photo-sharing platform. The idea was that you could take snapshots of daily life, directly from your phone camera, and then upload them using Instagram’s unique square template. Since then it has developed into one of the biggest social media platforms in the world, allowing people to share photos, video, text and music, as well as using AR capabilities and a direct messaging service. It’s become the go-to place to discover new talent in every discipline and an essential medium through which up and coming artists can interact with their audience.
Outside of Instagram, almost everything to do with entertainment, culture and art now has an online presence. From virtual tours of the National Gallery in London, to traditional table games at PokerStars Casino, and to the British Library’s digitised collections, there is an online portal for every interest imaginable. In a world where the internet is such an integrated part of modern culture, authors, writers and poets need to maintain a presence in order to stay relevant.
The so-called ‘Instagram poet’ is the perfect example of a new type of discourse that has hatched between poet and reader. The poetry of such writers is often only a few lines long, sticking to the instant snapshot nature of the platform, and yet it receives hundreds of thousands of interactions. These short poems have struck a chord with the Instagram generation and introduced many more people to poetry who may not have otherwise found it.
Let’s take a look at some of the most successful Instagram poets so far.
The one name that most people immediately associate with this emerging genre of writing is that of Rupi Kaur. Kaur was born in India but grew up in Canada and has enjoyed incredible success as a poet and an artist since she first started publishing work under her own name in 2013. Instagram was the vehicle that brought her work to a global audience, and in 2014 she self-published her first volume of poetry. Since then, this volume has been picked up by a publisher and gone on to sell over 2.5 million copies.
Kaur’s second volume of poetry was published in 2017 and, again, the poet enjoyed overwhelming success. Kaur is influenced by her Punjabi heritage, Sikh scriptures and the experience of living as a woman straddling different cultures. Her poems are, for the most part, only several lines long and she uses only lower case letters and one type of punctuation – the full stop.
Another name often associated with the term ‘Instagram poet’ is Nayyirah Waheed. Although she is an elusive individual, she has enjoyed much success as a poet, publishing two collections of poetry thus far and even having her work taught in some schools. Waheed uses a very particular style, often writing poems that are only two or three lines in length and, like Kaur, use only full stops and lower case lettering. There has been some plagiarism controversy between the two poets but, so far, nothing has come of the accusations levelled by Waheed towards Kaur surrounding similarities in their work.
Waheed can perhaps thank Instagram for her initial success but her fame as a poet has continued to grow as her work endures past the initial shares and likes on social media. A rerelease of both her volumes of poetry has proven popular, particularly amongst a youthful readership including a high proportion of young women. The greatest appeal of Waheed’s work is in how familiar it feels to the reader, and how the themes that she uses resonate universally.
British author, poet, model and actor Yrsa Daley-Ward is another example of somebody who has utilised Instagram as a successful tool to engage with her audience and promote her work. The poet was raised by her grandparents in Lancashire in the north of England. Her mother and father were Jamaican and Nigerian, respectively, and her grandparents were Seventh-Day Adventists. Despite now having three published books, the PEN/Ackerley Prize and several TV acting credits to her name, she still finds time to regularly communicate with her audience on Instagram.
Whilst Daley-Ward’s poetry is not always as short as some other writers in this list, she does often share works in progress, writing prompts and extracts of her own work on her Instagram account. There is a sense that, for Daley-Ward, writing can be something of a collaborative process and the app is a great opportunity to share experiences, ideas and support with other creatives.
This is an examination of only three poets who have found their fame through Instagram. They have inspired a wave of new writers who feel comfortable self-publishing their work through Instagram and other platforms, rather than waiting for a publisher to pick them up. If this continues, then the future of poetry looks like a very exciting place to be.