Instagram and the Commercialization of Poetry

Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on Sunday, August 25, 2019, in the Inlandia Institute’s weekly column.

Instagram poetry might be the most hotly debated topic in literature today. For the last few years, citing a boom in book sales, outlets like The Atlantic, the Guardian, and Publishers Weekly have regularly proclaimed the social media platform to be the savior of poetry. “Traditional” poets have either professed a sanguine agreement or fired back with scathing reviews and parody accounts.

Whatever the response, Instapoetry is something to be reckoned with. As I write this, 7 of the top 20 bestselling books of poetry on Amazon were written by Instagram poets, and none of the other authors—Homer, Mary Oliver, Maya Angelou—are contemporary in the literal sense.

They’re all dead.

One of the top 20, the poet and musician David Berman, died just last week, and just this week became a bestselling poet, I assume, for the first time. The message to poets seems clear. If you want to be commercially successful, there are two options: be dead or be on Instagram.

Needless to say, that isn’t a message poets want to hear.

With an open mind, though, we’ve spent the last year exploring Instapoetry for this summer’s issue of Rattle. Over a decade ago, we did the same with slam poetry while it remained controversial among publishers and found much to admire on that stage, so I thought we should try the same with Instagram.

For those unfamiliar with it, Instagram was designed as a social media app that allows people to quickly optimize and stylize smartphone photos to a quality that mimics professional photography, and then share them with friends and followers. Eventually users started sharing aspirational quotes and other text along with the photos and adding longer captions—features which lend themselves well to short-form and visual poetry.

In preparing the summer issue, we received submissions from over 1,000 self-described Instagram poets. We also allowed each of them to recommend other Instagram poets, and we scoured hashtags and media articles, trying to read as much as we could.

Having scrolled through thousands of accounts, it might be true that I’ve now read more Instapoetry than anyone in the world, and I’ve come to this conclusion: Instapoetry just isn’t poetry—at least not in the way that I’ve always conceived of poetry.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t creative or artistic, or that it’s lacking in value. That doesn’t mean there aren’t poets on Instagram or poetic elements involved. But poems and Instapoems are different objects on a fundamental and irreconcilable level. They’re different actions, in different directions, with different motivations.

Elizabeth Bishop was talking about poetry when she called art the act of “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” What she meant was that poetry is a meditative form of aimless exploration. It’s a door to the inward unknown and to the mysteries of our existence. The word “poetry” itself comes from the Greek poiesis, “a made thing.” A poem is a mantra, a “mind-tool,” that makes meaning out of the chaos of human experience. Poetry is the creation of an associative empathy machine, forged on human breath, which illuminates the limits of our awareness.

Instagram poetry is the exact opposite. It’s self-aware and entirely useful. It is designed to sell and so it sells. It’s not exploration, but expression. Rather than poiesis, it is mimos, “to mimic,” or better the Latin mirari, “to look at and admire.” Rather than a door to new meaning, it’s a mirror held up to the reader, reflecting and rendering beautifully back what the reader already knows and wanted to express.

For example, this recent post by Atticus is typical of his style:

If I conquered all my demons
there wouldn’t be much left of me.

The two line aphorism doesn’t have 40,000 “likes” in spite of it being a cliché—it has 40,000 likes because it’s a cliché. It’s the memorable re-articulation of a cliché that we can all relate to and appreciate.

There is value in that. And there is skill and craft involved in its construction. There is, sometimes, even poetry—but the poetry is tangential in the same way poetry is tangential to music. Some music includes poetry, but it doesn’t have to in order to be music. The poesis, the meaning making itself, isn’t the point.

In the same way that some great musicians are also great lyricists, there are many Instagram poets who are also “real” poets. We had no problem filling an issue with interesting Instapoems, but there was no correlation between there poetic quality and their popularity.

In the process of putting this issue together, I met and interviewed Pavana Reddy, a kind of Leonard Cohen, who does a marvelous job of successfully navigating both worlds.

Reddy has tens of thousands of followers online, but has also published two books, Rangoli and Where Do You Go Alone, that genuinely are doors to the unknown. In her candid interview, she acknowledges both the strengths and limitations of Instagram:

“For Instagram as a way to make any kind of profit, I’ve learned that you need to write for that audience, as much as you don’t want to. It’s funny, sometimes I’ll post poems to see what the reaction will be … and it could be a good poem, but people would rather hear me tell them they’re magic.”

People are magic. And it’s important that we be reminded of that as often as possible.

But to remind is an act of reflection, not creation. Once we understand that distinction, the controversy about Instapoetry begins to unravel. Instapoetry sells more than traditional poetry because it isn’t poetry—it’s something different altogether, something with much more commerical appeal. And it’s no coincidence that the dominant publisher of Instapoets, Andrews McMeel, isn’t a literary publisher—it’s best known for its comics, puzzles, and gift books

Later in the interview, Reddy shares her excellent and concise definition of poetry as “making a story out of a moment.” She goes on, “You can unpack any moment so many different ways, and that’s what I like to do. It’s kind of a relaxing time; I can go to work and come back and unwind by thinking about the story.” In other words, she writes for that self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration that Elizabeth Bishop described.

That’s why Pavana Reddy is both a poet and an Instapoet.

For those interested in learning more about Instagram Poetry, Reddy is hosting a workshop on September 28th as part of this year’s Wrightwood Literary Festival.

Literature Lives in Print

Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on December 15, 2013, in the Inlandia Institute’s weekly column.

Last month San Antonio, Texas, opened Bibliotech, America’s first bookless public library, which allows patrons to borrow inexpensive e-readers and download electronic books from home. For us writers and lovers of literature, the mission before us was clear: Lament! My Facebook feed was full of posts forecasting the end of paper books: Would it be five years? Ten? “Technology doubles ever year, Moore’s Law!” the pessimists fretted. The more nostalgic among us simply shared their first encounters with books: the smell of the glue, the weight of the pages, the paper-cuts—all things our children will never have a chance to experience.

As a publisher of print literature, my career is on the line—I should be rending my garments as much as anyone. But I’m not worried. Paper books are here to stay, and every tablet and e-reader that’s sold only makes them a better home for writing that we truly value.

When I hear publishers complain about ebooks, I’m reminded of broadcasters predicting the demise of radio when television was introduced in the late 1940s. Their concerns were understandable: Why would anyone just listen to a program that they could also watch? And it is true that television brought an end to the Golden Age of Radio—but it’s also true the producers were able to adapt.

When an environment changes, creatures survive by learning to fill a new niche. There was no longer a need the serial dramas and quiz shows of the past—television could clearly do that better. But there were other formats that played to radio’s strengths. The high costs of television production meant that radio was more nimble, and it quickly became the superior format for up-to-the-minute news. This led to further development as a medium of discussion, with popular call-in shows that gave their audiences a new and broader soap box, and then the modern shock jocks and NPR story hours in counterpose.

Six decades after the introduction of television, there’s still a radio in every car—and the internet has brought it back into our homes, in a way, with the ubiquitous and often idiosyncratic “podcasts.” I don’t have access to television, but I listen to radio-like streams every day—interviews with authors and lengthy lectures on an array of topics that would have never been broadcast otherwise. What’s more, this content works better as audio, where complicated information can be presented without any excess visual distraction. The mind has room to muse. Podcasts, I think, have become the medium of the day-dreamer—and millions of listeners take advantage of that every week.

As we become increasingly plugged-in to the digital age, I’m sure paper books will find a similar fortune. Books provide something that technology tends to destroy: Let’s call it “sanctuary.” I don’t have to explain how this happens; everyone who has a smartphone knows the bitter-sweet buzz of a new message. Everyone’s read an article online and been distracted by the banner-ad at the side of the screen. This will only get worse. Google Glass. Cortical implants to project the web directly into the mind’s eye. If you think you feel distracted now, just wait ten years.

And in ten years, when you want a break from it all, you’ll pick up an old-fashioned, dog-eared, glue-smelling, paper-scraping book.

The tech companies want you to pick up an e-reader, but the problem is e-readers feel too much like what you’re longing to avoid. E-ink is nice—especially for those with vision problems who need to enlarge the text—but anything that has a screen and is the size of your phone looks like your phone. And you’ve already spent too many hours conditioning your brain to be distractible while using it. When I read an ebook, I can feel a tingling on the left side of my frontal lobe that’s telling me to toggle over to another program and check my email. It’s an itch that I’m wasting attention on by not scratching even when I don’t. My fingers are ready to X-out a pop-up ad. My auditory cortex is primed and waiting for the next beep of a tweet. Even though none of these things will be coming from my e-reader, my brain has been trained to expect them. It’s impossible to lose myself when I’m so self-aware.

Only when I open a real book can I finally relax and become immersed in what I’m reading.

In the future, we will return to paper as a sanctuary, as a place for quiet contemplation and introspection. We won’t bother reading tabloid magazines or informational texts in print—ebooks are better for that; we can give up that ground. But when we want to escape our world, when we want to explore complicated ideas, when we want to feel deeper emotions and come to truer understandings and use our imaginations at full capacity—when we want to experience literature, in other words—we’ll always turn to paper books.

_______

p.s. This article was written almost five years ago. In the time since, Real Books Are Back: ebooks sales are down, print sales are up. You can also see our waning interest in ebooks by looking at the download totals of Rattle‘s ebooks, which are offered free to subscribers. Every issue sees fewer download than the last, despite the fact that print subscriptions are up 105% (more than double!) since 2013.

So You Want to Write a Political Poem?

The following article appeared in the Press-Enterprise, Sunday, April 17, 2016.

This is the year it could happen. Maybe you’re stuck in a stop-and-go rubberneck on the 91 Freeway, the radio a dull drone through your morning migraine as the partisan station of your choice recaps last night’s 184th presidential debate, a town hall-style, lightning-round game of charades, where the candidate who terrifies you the most intellectually pantomimes the dismemberment of the candidate who offers at least a squint of hope, like those glimmers that might or might not be oncoming headlights emerging from the glare of a blinding commuter’s sun. Maybe it’s already happened. Maybe you’ve already begun making a list of rhymes in your head. Dump. Slump. Jump. Maybe you’re slant-rhyming Bernie with wormy, smarmy, and germy—most poems start as limericks (it was true until the fact-checkers checked it, I swear).

Wherever it happens, you might find within yourself at some point over the next eight months the sudden urge to write a political poem. If you do, I’ve prepared this simple guide to help you handle the situation with aplomb.

First of all: Don’t panic. Pull over to the side of the road somewhere safe, or wait for the nearest exit, then find an empty parking lot or an exceptionally long drive-thru line. Poems sometimes write themselves, but they can’t write themselves while you’re driving. Only poem in park.

Don’t feel guilty. A poem is just a special way to talk about special things. Human beings come equipped with language processing lobes in their brains that demand we talk, and all humans are subject to special times like now, and special thoughts about those times like these. We all have an innate desire to say the unsayable, to articulate all that lies just beyond the reach of articulation. Poetry can happen to anyone, anywhere, so remember: It’s not your fault.

Find a recording device. Often people today carry with them smartphones, and if you yourself have one, you can record your poem as a voice memo, text it to a long-lost friend, email it to yourself, or tap it out using a standard writing application. If not, many of the world’s greatest poems have been written on ancient, crusty glovebox napkins. It’s true. If all else fails, there’s still rhythmic memorization, a pneumonic device, which historically has been the point of poetry more often than not. Whatever tool you use, just don’t lose it.

Now that you have your poem saved, the real trouble begins. Sure, you’ve written something “felt in the blood and felt along the heart,” as Wordsworth put it, but what next? Does your political poem have any cultural value? Should you share it with close friends, or perhaps even the general public?

On this question, poets themselves have long been split. In “A Defense of Poetry,” Percy Shelley famously wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and others have been trying to pat themselves on the back equally firmly ever since. William Carlos Williams says, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Your political poem could be a matter of life and death! More recently, Meena Alexander writes that, “We have poetry/ So we do not die of history,” a statement I particularly love.

Not everyone agrees, though. In a 1965 lecture to students at Berkeley, Jack Spicer said, “I don’t know of any political poems which have worked,” and suggested instead of writing poems that they write letters to their congressmen. Both would be equally effective, he reasoned. I once asked National Book Critic’s Circle Award winner Troy Jollimore why he finds political poems difficult to write, and he worried about preaching to the converted: “The people who know those are good values are already on my side; the people that don’t think they’re good values aren’t going to be convinced by my siding up with good values.” He has a point, too. A poem isn’t an argument. A poem’s purpose isn’t to persuade—persuasion is for op-eds and campaign ads. Poetry doesn’t argue; it argonauts.

So keeping that in mind, re-read your political poem. Is it cheer-leading, or is it trail-blazing? Is it just a bullhorn for someone else’s bullshit, or does it reach deeper into that abyss to haul up some new creature?

Last month, an Orange County poet named David Miller wrote in a political poem, an elegy for the personified American Dream: “I ran when I heard you crying/ like a phone, no one told me how alone you are.” Now that’s what Shelley meant when he said that poetry “purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”

Be honest, does your political poem really purge the film of familiarity, or is it just more mosquito guts on the windshield? If it’s the former, then by all means share it widely!

This is the year for purging.

Blink of an eye / ideas and people connect / in haiku

The following article appeared in the Press-Enterprise, Sunday, December 6, 2015.

When my grandmother’s hearing had grown too poor for the telephone, we started exchanging letters. Once a month—on the same day as the Edison bill—I’d receive a handwritten letter, pressed firmly with a retired schoolteacher’s perfect cursive, yellowed paper cut neatly from the same ancient notebook. Family gossip, news of my father, the weather back east, details of her various ailments.

She’d close every letter with a haiku. It was both a hobby of hers, and a nod to my odd profession. Her last was probably her best:

snow-covered sundial
waiting
to tell time again

I imagined her as the sundial, snowed in by age, her bed long-since moved to the living room so she wouldn’t have to negotiate the stairs, waiting patiently for whatever spring might come in whatever existence might come next.

When I had a moment, I’d tap out a hasty reply, glancing out at the palm trees on Ventura Boulevard from my office window, and close with a responding haiku.

it’s December too
in California
the crickets shout!

There was a joy to the haiku that I’ve only recently come to understand. Easy to write but impossible to master, they never grow old. You can write them in the car stuck in traffic, or plop them easily at the end of a newspaper article. Haiku are so simple they can be simultaneously silly and profound, and that contrast has kept them fresh for centuries.

Most often my grandmother’s haiku would offer a shift in mood, adding levity or perspective or clarity to the information that the letter had shared.

lost my other shoe—
now even the right
isn’t left

Almost a decade later, I still remember many of them fondly, and they always embody my grandmother’s quietly sarcastic personality.

More recently, I interviewed Richard Gilbert, a haiku scholar at Kumamoto University in Japan. He described with great enthusiasm the beloved space haiku holds within Japanese culture. With a total population of 130 million, it’s estimated that 12 million attend a regular haiku group. Witty celebrities compose haiku-like senryu live on TV.

Haiku itself descends from a party game, so it should be no surprise that they’re fun to write. At the kukai, as it was called, friends would gather around a bottle of saké, taking turns composing lines on a chosen topic. Class boundaries and social conventions dissolved as participants adopted pen names, many of them humorous. Bashō was named after the banana tree outside of his hut.

Listening to Gilbert tell it, haiku as a social act sounds like so much fun that I can’t help wishing we made it a part of our culture in the West. An outlet for playfulness and creativity and face-to-face interaction, haiku embody much of what we seem to be lacking in the age of smartphones and Facebook.

So let’s start now. Why not cap off your annual holiday letter with a summary haiku? Turn a family dinner into your own kukai, composing short poems about the season.

Before you start, it’s important to know what haiku are and what they aren’t. No other form of poetry is so misunderstood. Haiku are not three-line poems of five, then seven, then five syllables. Counting syllables doesn’t make any sense in Japanese, which is divided into units of time and not sound. You can think of traditional haiku as three lines that are short, then long, then short in duration, but even that generality isn’t an important rule in modern haiku.

The heart of a haiku is really the kireji, the cutting word, which is almost a form of punctuation that divides the poem in two. In English we might use a dash or colon—this division separates the first image from the last, creating a comparison that can be evocative or uncanny. The best example is Bashō’s famous frog:

old pond—
frog jumps in
the sound of water

That dash is the kireji, and it signifies a complete cut in time and space. The haiku presents one image, an old pond, and then another isolated image, the frog jumping into the sound of water. How the two images relate to each other is left up to the reader—and it’s that interactive, connective leap that stirs our thoughts and emotions. This is one of the many things Bashō meant when he said, haiku jiyu, or “Haiku is for freedom.”

Much more goes into classical haiku, but this is all you need to know to write decent modern haiku in English. Don’t count syllables, just count images or ideas: There should be two.

watching football
my keyboard
almost silent

To learn more about the history of haiku, you can find my interview with Richard Gilbert in issue #47 of Rattle, or read his translations of contemporary Japanese haiku poets at his website.

Poe and Poetic Discovery

Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on February 1, 2015, in the Inlandia Institute‘s weekly column.

If you spend enough time around poets, you’re bound to hear grandiose claims about self-discovery and poetic epiphany. And it’s true, our favorite poems tend to be surprising, even to ourselves. There are prosaic explanations for this: The best poems give voice to the unvoiced; they provide words for thoughts and feelings that we hadn’t before been able to describe. Saul Bellow famously said, when asked how it felt winning the Nobel Prize, “I don’t know. I haven’t written about it yet.” There is certainly a way in which words build a framework for understanding.

The movie What the Bleep Do We Know? relates an anecdote that, when Columbus first came to America, the natives literally couldn’t see his ships, because they had no mental concept of a ship that large. As sure as I am that the story is apocryphal, the poet in me wants to believe it—I’ve felt it myself: Every poem I’ve written that feels successful has taught me something about the world that I didn’t quite grasp when I started writing it. What if there were some truth to this notion of poetic epiphany?

Everyone is familiar with Edgar Allan Poe. But what you might not know Poe’s last work—which he considered to be his greatest—Eureka: A Prose Poem, not only presaged the Big Bang Theory by 80 years, but also provided the first recorded solution to Olbers’ Paradox.

Also called the Dark Sky Night Paradox, Heinrich Olbers described the problem of the relatively low brightness of the night sky in 1823. If the universe were infinite and eternal, as was commonly held at the time, then any line of sight would eventually hit the surface of a star—in other words, there would be so many stars in the sky that every point in the sky would be bright. In Eureka (1849), Poe explains it like this:

Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present us a uniform luminosity, like that displayed by the Galaxy—since there could be absolutely no point, in all that background, at which would not exist a star. The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing the distance of the invisible background so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all.

Poe is describing the concept of a bounded observable universe—light has a finite speed, and perhaps the universe just isn’t old enough for all of it to have reached us yet. He goes on to explain how the universe sprung from a “primordial particle”:

… one particle—a particle of one kind—of one character—of one nature—of one size—of one form—a particle, therefore, “without form and void”—a particle positively a particle at all points—a particle absolutely unique, individual, undivided …

The particle then expands outward by “divine volition,” a repulsive force that’s opposed to gravity. Once matter is expelled outward it begins to clump together due to gravity, forming the stars and galaxies we see today. Eventually, gravity draws all matter together to once again reform the primordial particle, resulting in an infinite series of big bangs, and a continuously expanding and collapsing universe. He even acknowledges our impossibly small place within it: “Our Galaxy is but one, and perhaps one of the most inconsiderable, of the clusters which go to the constitution of this ultimate …”

Keep in mind that Poe died 60 years before Edwin Hubble discovered that there were other galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Poe didn’t know about Einstein’s cosmological constant, or dark energy, or cosmic microwave background radiation; there was no WMAP of galactic clusters. But he was able to intuit one of the most fascinating theories of the century to follow him, using only a term he himself coined: “ratiocination.”

For Poe, ratiocination—an idea introduced in his detective stories—was a kind of imaginative reasoning, the ability of intuition to make sweeping connections between seemingly small and disparate details, a leap from all the might-have-beens to what probably is. It’s a counterfactual logic that’s able to reveal deeper truth.

For those bounded by logic, ratiocination is only accessible in dreams: the sewing machine, the structure of Benzene, DNA’s double helix were all discoveries said to have first appeared in sleep. But poets practice ratiocination every time we sit down in front of a blank page, often with only the faintest glimmerings of what we actually want to write about. Imaginative intuition is a daily practice.

So next time a poet tells you about some grand epiphany, consider (maybe) listening.