Ada Wofford, Senior Editor
April 30th, 2021
In our last installment we look at how exactly Instapoetry functions, what new trails are being blazed, and wrap up with a final conclusion. I hope you enjoyed this series and that you found some of the information presented here useful. A full bibliography can be acquired by request.
How Instapoetry Functions
As discussed above, hashtags are an integral aspect of Instapoetry. One can think of an Instapoem existing/functioning as such:
The poem functions via a complex interplay between the text, the image, and the hashtag(s). This situates Instapoetry as a truly unique genre of poetry and it is why a book by an Instapoet will not give the reader the true experience of Instapoetry, which exists solely on Instagram. It’s not about individual poets and their work, it’s about the poet’s entire online presence. Pâquet expands on this:
Indeed, ignoring the page as a whole and only considering the poetry replicates criticisms of researchers in ekphrastics, who “construct text–image relations variably, not without implications for the power relations between media …. Traditionally, critics envisage ekphrasis as writing on art, a top-down suggestion that implies that the battle for mastery is already won (by the writer)” (Harrow 259). While many of these poets are following in Rupi Kaur’s footsteps and publishing book collections, it is their curating of an online human brand that has allowed them to gain the momentum to bypass the traditional publishing industry and communicate directly to their readers. (311)
The thing not mentioned on my triangle chart is the reader or community. Through the use of hashtags, individuals interested in poetry or in specific poets can find one another to discuss and share ideas. Instapoetry is not just about poetry, it’s about community. This is highlighted in Kaur’s emphasis on selflove and feminist empowerment. Kaur’s poetry may say things in simple or practical language, but it also says things that many individuals cannot. Not only has her poetry help launch and cultivate an online space where women can share their stories, Kaur has also popularized (if not invented and provided) a style of poetry that enables such stories to be articulated and expressed. Pâquet writes of the audience of Instapoetry:
[. . .] the audience targeted seems to be almost exclusively young women. The poems are often about women, whether a third- person “her” or about women’s experiences from a personal standpoint. Rupi Kaur, for example, writes poems about rape, about her mother, and about global women’s issues. (305)
The importance of this is highlighted in the article, “Hair, Blood and the Nipple Instagram Censorship and the Female Body” by Gretchen Faust. Referencing Rebecca Ruiz, Faust writes: “Digital connectivity provides women with a very public way to assert their identities, build a supportive private or public community, and in some ways liberate their bodies from injustice or oppressive societal norms (168). This is why Instapoetry is valuable; not for the complexity of its language but for how it functions as both a space and a language where individuals (particularly women) can articulate and express that which they are unable to articulate and express elsewhere.
There is very little academic attention paid to Instapoetry and virtually none paid to the now defunct genre of alt-lit. Pâquet articulates why this is such an issue:
To argue that as academics such a popular form of poetry is too lowbrow to be considered serious sets up damaging binaries that ignore the importance of the poems as popular cultural products. The poets create valuable cultural products and are therefore important cultural artists. (302)
It was my goal with this essay to demonstrate just how true that statement is: Instapoetry, whether we like it or not, is a valuable cultural product. Regardless of its use of branding and marketing, regardless of its simplistic or practical language, and regardless of its lack of traditional form, Instapoetry contains its own complexities and functions in a manner traditional poetry cannot. It reaches people who might not otherwise read poetry, it creates spaces and means of expression that empowers individuals to express what they cannot express elsewhere, and it inspires people to pick up their pen (or phone) and write their own poems.
Critics like Watts and Adorno are repulsed by the idea that “anyone can do it,” when it comes to matters of art. But it’s this very idea that gave us bands like The Ramones. When it comes to art, anyone can do it, and everyone should do it. To insist on formalized rules or standards is to put yourself in a box. Studying what came before you is good. Understanding your craft, the theory behind it—all that stuff is fine and if you’re dedicated, it will heighten the relationship you have with your own art. But as any artist knows, when it comes time to create, all of that stuff disappears because creativity demands freedom.
Bakhtin asserted that all utterances are a response to prior utterances and a poem is no exception. When you write, whether you’re aware of it or not, you are in dialog with other poems—You’re responding to something. Instapoetry is now its own genre, its own utterance, and already we have poets responding. The article, “The Queer Migrant Poemics of #Latinx Instagram” by Urayoán Noel explores poets utilizing Instapoetry in new and different ways. As Noel puts it:
[. . .] I seek to expand the formal and political analysis of Instagram poetics by highlighting the Instagram work of queer migrant poets who self-identify as “Latinx.” I explore how this seemingly extraliterary work (memes, hashtags, etc.) encodes a poetics of performative polemic (what I call poemics) that self-reflexively challenges both the technocratic politics of social media and the assimilationist politics of normative. (531)
The poets explored in this article are not poets who made it big on Instagram, instead they are poets who use Instagram as an alternative means of expressing themselves. The work featured in this article is much more political than Kaur’s style of Instapoetry. Noel’s article showcases work that points to a new kind of Instapoetry, one that is more politically overt in its message; such as this example by Alán Pelaez Lopez:
The piece functions as a graphic as much as it does a poem, yet it also functions as a sign; almost like a warning. Noel writes of Pelaez Lopez’s style, “The memes’ nondescript white lettering over a blood-red background elegantly hints at Latindad’s historical and ongoing enmeshment with whiteness and settler-colonial violence, as well as its fetishization of slight cultural commonalities” (540). This is work that is engaging with particular ideas within particular communities in a powerful and meaningful way. Despite this, I’m sure there are people who would say that what’s shown above is not a poem, but they would be as unfounded in their claims as those who claim Kaur’s work is not poetry. If the avant-garde experiments of Gertrude Stein can make it into an anthology of modern poetry, why can’t the piece above? Or a piece by Kaur?
I’m aware at the myriad objections one can make against the claims I’ve put forward in this essay; I made many of them myself when I published my essay on Kaur and my essay on alt-lit in 2019 and early 2020. But we must question where our opposition to this new form of poetry comes from; what was is in our education that makes us insist that Instapoetry is not “proper poetry?” When someone with no artistic education says that a Jackson Pollok is not art, those in the academy are quick to say, “Well, it’s because you don’t understand what Pollok was doing. You don’t understand what came before. You don’t understand how the piece functions within the history of art.” But when a person with no literary education admires one of Kaur’s poems, the academy says, “You don’t understand what Kaur isn’t doing. You don’t understand what came before. You don’t understand how the piece functions within the history of poetry.” It’s time for us to reflect on our use of such analytic tools and determine whether they inform us or hold us back.
You can follow Ada Wofford on their Twitter: @AdaWofford.