Not enough people are trying to interview me rn so I interviewed myself

Lauren Matthews
October, 2020 – March, 2021

Oct 2020

What’s on your desk?


Do you want the cool answer, or the gross answer? I like things that are revealing and a little shocking and a little too personal so I will tell you the true gross one. My fingernails.

I rip them off during calls or when I’m thinking, and don’t always throw them away immediately, and curse myself for being so dirty and having a body and hurting the body or manipulating the body and like, what if someone knew? Now you know. My boyfriend knows, and hates it, but he’s not the boss of me! 

Do you work at your desk? Or is it too fingernail-strewn?

I do, sometimes! My boyfriend built us a joint desk that I love for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s pretty, and minimal, and handmade, and custom. Fits perfectly in our big greenhouse window, which is the reason we said yes to this apt. You feel like you are in the tree, and we have become intimate with the wildlife who live there and rain tree nuts down on us in the fall. Thunk thunk, you know? Good distraction during calls. 

The second reason I love it is because when we first moved in I had a vision of my desk being there, and Josh was like “no, no we can’t, it simply must be the tv room,” and his sister and I were like “nah, you can release that dominant narrative,” but like, ultimately I let him have his traditional living room TV set up there, bc it’s not like he was totally wrong on that impulse, he just…doesn’t have my vision. He has his vision, you see.

The third reason I love it is because it’s like … an example of a triumphant part of our relationship. As per my dharma buddhism class, you’re supposed to wish destruction on yourself and success on others, but I will just grip to this little shred of triumph, because, like, I want to. Basically, when COVID hit he told me I needed a desk. I’d been WFH for 6 months already because my job is based internationally. also it’s important to tell you that between COVID and us first moving in, he had built me a desk. It sat in our dark little den and I only used it for, like, a static altar to the concept of desking or selfhood or desire or whatever, or perhaps creative work as a totem, but I never actually sat there. Because there was no natural light. But it was a lovely desk and I love when people make me things.

So anyways, he needs a desk and he’s like “I’m thinking of having my desk by the big greenhouse window,” and I fully lost it and tantrummed, because it brought up everything annoying about everything. It reminded me of all the times as a child my sister got something and I didn’t, or someone didn’t believe me or didn’t see where I was coming from or was like “that’s dumb” and then 6 months later we’re all about it but for themselves. And that is … so frustrating! So I threw a royal fit and Josh was like “ok ok” and a few days later was like, “I have a solution. what if I build us a biiiig desk so we both get a desk there?” And I basically died of joy because it was such a sweet solve and he just offered it to me like “no problem, I got you,” and it’s so much better than my lonely desk there.

We’ll have to come back to the dharma thing, but first, where do you work if not at your desk?

Wherever the wind takes me. I like to work from bed sometimes and stew in the forbiddenness of that. You know, everyone’s like “NO SCREENS IN BED” and whatever but they’re wrong, as are most firm edicts!  I mean I get the principle, but sometimes you just need to trick yourself into working by staying in bed, or sometimes, it’s just the best place to bleed the thoughts out.

The other thing I’m really into lately is wfbath. it’s sort of the same indulgence of working from bed, like, haha I’m going to meld two parts of my life that capitalism realllllly wants me to keep separate. I like to bathe in the middle of the day so I’m in all of the hot elements (sun, water). Bath Office. It’s precarious, but really, what isn’t?

Where are you going first, or what are you doing first, when all this is over?

Morocco, India, and Turkey. Specifically: Tangier, Marrakech, Casa, Rabat, Fes, Nagaland, Assam, and the Aegean Coast. That’s where we’re based so I can justify it, but also because I’m really enmeshed in stories and craft from these places. I’m DYING to go. And I miss my coworkers! I want to hang out with them. I want to see Eri silk weaving in Assam. Oh, and North Carolina because there’s a textile mill there I gotta see. Plus this artist residency in France with one of my best friends who is a costume designer and an amazing artist and thinker.

What have you been eating lately?

Right now I’m basically drinking straight soy sauce. Kidding! Sort of! I make black beans and drink their broth and add lots of Tamari.

Do you have a mantra?

I get a new one about once a week. Something I’ve accepted or learned about myself this year is that I’m clairaudient – not, like, particularly expert at it but I hear things, people, and energies talking in my ears. This is just a very clear way I receive information. Sayings. What have you. I don’t always understand it and certainly it’s not always like…available to me. But when it comes it really comes. So often the words show up in this very emphatic way like my big self talking to my little self sort of? Like words on high.

So today during yoga almost immediately, as I was thinking about how I believe someone perceives me, I heard:

It is not my job to reveal myself to others; it is my job to reveal myself to me.

I think about the Frances the Badger book – Bedtime for Frances – often, because the dad badger is all, it is the wind’s job to blow against the window at night and make a creepy sound. And it is your job, Frances, to sleep. Which I find extremely poetic and sort of like – I think this is what my teacher, Kat, means by “obedience.” Like that quote, tulips don’t question anything – they just grow. Just do what you are to do. Don’t freak out about it.

The pandemic yoga format (o the privilege) really works for me. Because I am not fast at transitions or I’m very much on my own timeline with things, which means I’m usually late to yoga, but now I don’t even have to change out of my pjs or drive 4 minutes, I just have to roll out of bed and click a link and there you go, like, yogurt in hand, no less. Plus it means I can talk to myself, accidentally have my boobs fall out of my shirt, turn off my camera if I can’t bear it, take breaks to pee – reveal myself to myself. Because as a brilliant intuitive named Asher Hartmann put it “I have a people-pleasing gene,” which means like, try to dismantle it as I might, I will be affected by other ppl in the room, to the extent where like I won’t go pee out of fear of disruption. “It’s rude,” you know? Whatever. Denying our needs in favor of politesse. No bodies in capitalism! Etc! 

Also, I have an incredible yoga teacher thanks to my friend Sophia Moreno-Bunge who invented her for me lol. Kyle Miller is actually just…the medicine. My medicine! She is a bright light in my scared, pandemic heart, beaming into my “library” where I do yoga. Funny and weird and sunny and singing to her dog and talking to her friends and just being who she is. “I love Britney Spears because she’s just like me – an insecure white girl who just wants to be a mom,” she said today. My boyfriend always laughs at least once during her class from his perch on the couch because she’ll say something so clowny. All from the shell of this popular girl! Like, I call it popular girl yoga because she is undeniably popular and cool, in the way where you want to come along, not in the way where you hate her. Like in the way where she is def a cool kid but is also, somehow, nice to everyone. I want to write an interview with her because I think she’s fascinating and also I feel like I have a firsthand understanding now of how someone becomes a cult yoga teacher. Like, they give it their all and also have “it.” She’s just a pleasure to be around…on Zoom! Which…how many people can you say that about???

I receive important information when I move my body. When I run or dance I usually have an inspiration, thought, or answer to a question. When I do yoga, because the point is to move, I save up these thoughts to record later, obsessively repeating them to myself. I’d like to try to use this tool to that end: moving not to move, but to receive. 

Dec 5, 2020

Are you synesthetic? A synesthete?

Ummm no? like. no. But I do think it’s really extremely important to catalog the things that feel the same to you. Sarah Faith Gottesdiener calls these correspondences and I think of them as corresponDANCES because these are things dancing together in relations. So like, the Bernadette Mayer poem where she’s like 8 = yellow. or whatever, but then also, cocoa always makes me think of the word COAX so its like cocoa-x which makes me feel so cozy, or um, how a lowercase g in serif font looks like its giggling, like how the word giggle looks like the sound or concept giggle. My sister gets it with tastes so she’ll be like “sometimes peanuts taste like skunks to me,” or other wild links. And I think the more you can classify the things which feel the same to you the more you can … enjoy the energies of this world.  

Mar 9, 2021

What is your favorite feeling?

Once I read an interview with a respectable lady who said her favorite thing was the monthly pluck of her one wiry gray hair on her chin. She had a name for it – him – like Spike, or something, and joked about it with her husband. Whoever you are, thank you, you changed my life.

I think about this a lot because I have a very wiry hair that grows out of a sweet little mole near my chin, and it’s just such a sturdy, toothsome, grippable hair, and it is probably gray too – looks translucent to me – and I also have to remove it about monthly or maybe every 6 weeks at most, and I have to say – this feeling is almost better than orgasm. Sometimes I replay it in my mind to soothe myself as I fall asleep. I mean, I also love orgasms, those are extremely important and another favorite feeling, but removing my personal Spike is a close second. After it’s gone I touch the spot where it was for like an hour, caressing this phantom limb, remembering what it was like when it was there. Psychological! Far out!

Mar 13, 2021 (new moon in Pisces)

How do you keep your house?

I like to leave my clothes in piles all over. Like a spatial arrangement of them lingering together, on a chair or railing or bench or my bed or in a basket. This is how I find new outfits because I see stuff together that I wouldn’t have thought to combine without first seeing their correspondence or alikeness. This definitely first started because my room would periodically as a teenager / young adult become a tornado of mess, just literally covered in stuff, and I’d always find inspiration there. I feel like this was something I also read in an interview maybe, like this is a tried-and-true tactic of letting things get cluttered together so you can eventually clean them up, parse them apart, and find new expressions in their midst. This is maybe also why I like leaving some things on the floor, like using the floor for storage. “A minefield” as my dad would call it, but I like witnessing the effects of use on a space, like, for a lot of feb and march I had on the floor of my room 3 tulle ribbons, 1-2 other various ribbons, all my potions next to my bed, you know like just smearing your desires and beings and STUFFS all over. This comes from an abundance and carefree mentality I’ve always wanted to cultivate and aspire to. It’s also the root of a term coined by my friend Annie and her sister Lucy which is “toyboxy”. It describes your friend who is so rich and her parents are so la-di-da that she never has to put her things away, no toybox constricting her, it’s always empty and the toys are always strewn all over the room. Also, I like sitting on a nice cozy rug and making stuff. Groundedness. I always have. Feels right.

Lauren is a writer and creative director in Los Angeles. You can read her work here.

You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Book Review: Shouting at Crows by Sadie Maskery

Poetry Collection

Halina Stone

December 7th, 2022

When the average person thinks of poetry, they start having war flashbacks to their high school English class. They imagine being forced to read the works of long-dead stuffy old men who wrote in a version of English so antiquated that it might as well have been written in another language. What they do not imagine is the variety of exciting, gripping poetry being written by poets today, like Sadie Maskery and her new poetry collection, Shouting at Crows. The collection is masterful in technique, rich in meaning, and an engaging read that explores how the loss of or search for something impacts, reveals, and changes us. 

The first poem of the collection, aptly named “Beginnings”, sets up these themes. It is a poem about potential, beginnings, and the search for connection. Maskery explores this by presenting us with a speaker experiencing “attraction at first sight”. The speaker is drawn toward a stranger and time freezes, a potential partner and companion are identified:

a pause in the celestial clock;
a tick of time suspended,
potentiality acknowledged.

There is an element of destiny in the poem, integrated by the use of words like “celestial” and the lines “we are magnets, an exquisite tug / dilating pupils, veins, souls,”. The implication of “soulmates”, of the inevitability of this meeting and this potential connection, is further emphasized by the lines “the universe played this moment / to infinity before we were born” and again by the repetition at the end of the poem where the speaker says 

[…] no I don’t think we’ve
actually been introduced, although
we’ve met. We’ve met. We’ve met.

Many of Maskery’s poems cover similar topics, but each poem presents a new facet or unravels a different experience of seeking or losing. For example, the poem “Eternal” is about the loss of memory. Though short, it is a sharp little poem that reminds us of one of the great failings of our species: we forget. Maskery sums up the sad reality of our unreliable and limited memories in a few lines: “I don’t really remember what to regret / or who I said I would never forget.” Another poem about loss is “Retirement” which, unlike “Eternal”, explores how the loss of intimacy can change how people in a relationship interact. The title implies that the speaker and their partner have “retired” from the relationship. They’re no longer “working” to improve or maintain it but remain in the relationship anyways. Maskery uses food imagery to characterize the speaker’s feelings about it. She describes the life of the couple as “[…] unappetizing, / […] a reheated / yellow sticker ready meal.” It is not bad, just disappointing. There is some subversion of expectations, however. When we think of the loss of intimacy, we imagine people either trying to rekindle it or accepting the loss and leaving. Neither the speaker nor their partner has left the relationship, and there is this plea towards the middle of the poem:

please, sit here on the sofa.
I promise to shift so the warmth
of our bodies cannot be shared.

The use of “promise” implies a concerted effort to not try and is quietly heartbreaking, but begs the question of why even bother to pantomime intimacy when there is no desire to engage in it? We are left to question ourselves and the speaker on this point. “Eternal” is an honest depiction of our unfortunate ability to forget, even the things we want or swore to remember. “Retirement” is a touching and honest depiction of what it might feel and look like when intimacy just isn’t there anymore. Both explore loss and its many facets and impacts in a sincere way.

Maskery’s poetry is honest even when steeped in metaphor, powerful without becoming melodramatic, and sensitive without pulling its punches. These qualities are clearest in her poems about loss and death. My favorite example is the poem “there is a beach”, which uses the imagery of shells to explore the grief of losing a child. It begins with an observation of crabs on a beach and the “infant faces etched into their backs”. There is a pause halfway through the poem, a “…” as if the speaker needs to catch their breath before continuing, the emotional weight requiring the speaker to steel themselves to continue talking. Then the connection between an infant to shells is repeated again at the end of the poem, 

in our yearning as we recognize
the features of our dead child
in the swirls of a discarded shell,
hear waves through its emptiness.

Maskery takes an image we associate with life, joy, and childhood, listening to seashells to hear the ocean, and subverts it. She repurposes it to characterize grief: how it ebbs and flows but is always there, how it comes in waves. The grief and feeling of loss being a constant part of life is an idea explored in other poems about death within the collection, such as “Not Fade Away” and “Pass On”.

Throughout Shouting at Crows, Maskery shows off her ability to manipulate structure and language to maximize the impact of each poem. I particularly enjoyed her manipulation of line structure in “Zoom”. In it, the loss of connection on a Zoom call parallels the loss of connection between two people. Maskery’s clever use of structure allows her to give us a visual representation of that conversation while maintaining the specific effects of awkward, broken off and overlapping speech present in calls with unstable connection. The lines are made of incomplete phrases scattered across the page and the words are repeated, have inconsistent spacing, or are fused together. The lines “h a v eyoutried no it’s / B R E A K I N G (up)” and “what did you / you / it’s too / late / no it’stoo llllate” are great examples of this. Maskery utilizes similar manipulations of line structure in other poems, such as “holy”, “Fallen”, and “end scene”.

It would be remiss of me not to discuss the titular poem, “Shouting at Crows”. The title is interesting considering how soft much of the language in the poem is. Maskery uses words like “muffling”, “heartbeat soft”, and “velvet” which are at odds with strong language like “shouting”. They add a gentleness to the sound of the poem, and the use of alliteration and rhyme further heightens the softness and rhythm of the poem. This softness is juxtaposed with ideas of transitions and endings, of death. The poem begins with

Surrender your dead memories.
Brush away the film of flesh,
your hair, eyes, lips, to mist.
Peace. Be still now.
What you were will yet exist

Maskery goes on to integrate nature imagery into the presented idea that the dead never really leave; they are still present because death is part of the cycle of things. The poem is full of references to moments of transition in nature: “leaves falling” refers to the changing of the seasons and the coming of autumn and death, and “owls calling” and “the setting sun” refer to the change of day into night and the shift from light to dark. Death is just another transition. It is fitting for a collection of poetry broadly connected by transitions, by beginnings and endings, to have the poem it is named for be filled with transitional moments and cycles of change.

Shouting at Crows is a poetry collection that demands your attention and sticks with you days after reading it. Sadie Maskery’s writing will enchant and haunt you as she reveals the many ways in which we search for and lose people, relationships, and a multitude of other things. Her mastery of language and imagery, her subversion of expectations, and the calculated way in which she manipulates line structure truly sets her work apart, Shouting at Crows has definitely earned a spot on every reader’s bookshelf.

You can buy Sadie’s book, published by Alien Buddha Press, on Amazon:



Halina Stone (they/them)
is a fiction writer, poet, and fantasy lover hailing from New Jersey. They studied Creative Writing in undergrad at Fairleigh Dickinson University and are pursuing a second Master’s Degree. When not writing, they can be found taking care of their army of succulents or sampling wares at various local cafes.

Let’s Talk: Publishing Master’s Degrees with Tommy Blake

Interviewer: Melissa Ashley Hernandez
April 26th, 2022

Tommy Blake​ (they/them) is the Editor-in-Chief & Founder of the winnow, poetry editor of Dollar Store Magazine, a poetry reader for Persephone’s Daughters, and a poetry reader for Variant Literature. They have a BA in English Literature from Waynesburg University and an MS in Publishing from New York University: School of Professional Studies. They superimposed music and motels onto their poetry chapbooks MIXTAPES and swerve, respectively. Also, they wrote about the Internet in Trick Mirror or Your Computer Screen, and then their cat in Peanut [the cat] auditions as Courage […from Courage the Cowardly Dog]. Tommy is currently contemplating compulsory cishet and ambiguous trauma through horror titles.

Tommy offers their unique perspective on their Publishing Master’s journey and how it has helped them in the indie lit mag community!

Interview Questions:

The Minison Project: How has having a master’s degree in publishing impacted your relationship with the lit community?

Tommy Blake: In the first marketing course I took at NYUSPS, I made every effort in my final assignment to increase the number of the winnow Twitter followers and social media engagement. The lessons from that class coupled with the ~10x increased activity ended up paying off. At that time, which was the fall of 2019, the winnow had approximately 400 followers. By the end of the next term, the winnow had approximately 1000 followers. The major reason for the increase, besides activity/engagement, was potentially due to the first event the brand ever held: a writing workshop. We haven’t hosted once since 2020, but we plan to host another workshop in the future. 

TMP: How has the MS degree helped you as a writer?

TB: I learned how to write ad copy as well as long-form and short-form content. Essentially, it helped me become a better business-oriented writer, which has, in turn, helped with social media posts. As for creative writing, I wouldn’t say this program necessarily helped me, as I did not take a single creative writing course at NYUSPS, but the focus on magazine media did inspire the last packet of poems I wrote.

TMP: How has the degree helped you as EIC of the winnow?

TB: Besides giving me the push to plan for social media, my coursework has inspired me to look into different business opportunities for the magazine. Unfortunately, however, since the teachings are on such a macroscale–meaning that they are designed to aid you if you work at a big company–not everything was translatable. All in all, this has taught me how to be craftier in my research, and that connections are incredibly important across the board.

TMP: What do you think can only be learned by serving as an EIC vs. through courses in publishing?

TB: Let me first say that if you plan to attend an institution to better a nonprofit literary magazine or a micro-magazine/press, that may not be worth it as the cost of the education will forever exceed the “monetary earnings” (re: there aren’t any). I did not attend NYUSPS for that reason — I attended because I want to work in publishing beyond literary magazines for a full-time job. However, since the courses are designed for the latter, a lot of concepts need to be re-learned through the lens of indie publishing. The biggest ticket item is funding. I’m still working this one out, to be honest, as my coursework did not really dive into this for big companies since the money is already there for them. There was a course for start-up companies, which would have been very helpful, but it always conflicted with required courses for me. 

TMP: Do you think a master’s degree (fine arts or not) is necessary?

TB: The short answer: no, but it can be helpful. 

The long answer is that it depends on what you are hoping to gain from the degree. I sought out an MS to further my experience/understanding of business models in the publishing industry and to make long-lasting connections. However, I have not sought out an MFA because, for creative concepts, I work and learn best from hands-on experience. On the other hand, an MFA would grant me more connections and more opportunities, potentially, for that hands-on experience. Career-wise, I do not see an MFA assisting me with that aspect of my life at this time; however, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t help someone else. All in all, I strongly suggest conducting research on any master’s program you plan to apply to and asking yourself why specifically that program and why you want it.

TMP: What makes this degree worthwhile and how has it helped you in the indie lit community? 

TB: This degree taught me how to put together a multifaceted business plan that would have the potential to succeed in the scope of the publishing industry. I will always be grateful for the business experience and skills it has gifted me. I can’t wait to translate those skills and experience into a career in publishing, whether it be in Books or Digital Media.

Also, the degree has helped me with personal ventures, especially putting together a marketing plan for a self-published or micro-press book on a shoestring (or $0) budget. It’s helped me with understanding brand recognition, transparency, and ethos which would’ve taken me much longer to learn/understand without the degree. It’s also given me the confidence to properly conduct additional research, which may involve the knowledge of my peers or colleagues at times. And, of course, it’s helped me a great deal with business ad copy and graphics.

You can find Tommy on Twitter @tommyblakepoet, tweeting about their cat, Peanut.

You can keep up with the winnow here:

Issue 13

Minimal Sonnets
September 14, 2021

Note from the EIC: It is with great love that I publish this Issue, as it pays homage to Tom Snarsky and Jo Ianni’s first iteration of the zine, a site on Neutral Spaces (hosted so graciously by Giacomo Pope) that showcased hundreds of minimal sonnets from all over the world. Although this one is much smaller, I hope you can enjoy this recall to our humble beginnings.

the miniaturistTom Snarsky
half-worms, aliveJack Hartley
brutes be betterAnkur Jyoti Saikia
i forgot my namesCharlie D’Aniello
Clawed storming.Rhianna Levi
Of numbered daysOormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad
without my doubtAleah Dye
ducks duck or dipAnkur Jyoti Saikia
a bee on my fingerShine Ballard
my mind an apiarySanjana Ramanathan
tenderly mendedAmy Theobald Ross
Full in fourteenPramod Subbaraman
(No more dreaming)Sadie Maskery
bench press tuneAlan Bern
Twist mortal lawOormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad
i can’t refuse youShine Ballard
Two hands to hellAndrea Schrosk
Oyster Time, Karin Hedetniemi
Such little liesSadie Maskery
soak’d w/ bled neonJack Hartley
unhaply unmasktAlan Bern
my funeral todayAlana Greene
hypotheticals?Charlie D’Aniello
my useless brainShine Ballard
Ἀχιλλεύς healedSanjana Ramanathan
and now I am yoursAlana Greene
Syrup sun kisses.Rhianna Levi
cat chase SundayAleah Dye
anomalous gloomCharlie D’Aniello
shatter closetsAnkur Jyoti Saikia
Minimalism winsPramod Subbaraman
winging your wayAmy Theobald Ross
Lotus seed houseAndrea Schrosk
Apex, God complexOormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad
Erotic? Oh. Why not?Sadie Maskery
Tattoo Parlor, Karin Hedetniemi
You Are Here, Karin Hedetniemi
Cosmic currencyAndrea Schrosk
Life lures limbo.Rhianna Levi
Jacuzzi fuzzboxClem Flowers
peachmango girlJack Hartley
deluge of desireAnkur Jyoti Saikia
the boy resoluteAmy Theobald Ross
creativity in 14Pramod Subbaraman
hands are stickyJack Hartley
moonbled nightsSanjana Ramanathan
glass heart, mindAleah Dye
death doesn’t dieAnkur Jyoti Saikia
be contrariwiseShine Ballard
add drunk kissesAlan Bern
red-tinted livesCharlie D’Aniello
as ginseng singsSanjana Ramanathan
Cold to the lightOormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad
sowbug paintingJack Hartley
Minison Parking Only, Karin Hedetniemi
Callous calling.Rhianna Levi
love’s retreatsAlan Bern
eyelashes a giftAleah Dye
snowglobe stormAlana Greene
flyweight boxerAmy Theobald Ross
good constraintPramod Subbaraman
Jaded by time, rotOormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad
I hate you, my love.Sadie Maskery
me, a sullen ghostCharlie D’Aniello
Silly wild child…Sadie Maskery
nosinim minisonAlan Bern
abacus chitchatSanjana Ramanathan
bang AND whimperAlana Greene
thunder unrollsShine Ballard
#14 is fantasticPramod Subbaraman
step bold as blueAmy Theobald Ross
a small thank youAleah Dye

Let’s Talk: MFA’s with Jared Beloff

Welcome to the first video podcast of the Let’s Talk Series! This Let’s Talk, we have a discussion with published poet (and repeat contributor) Jared Beloff about his thoughts on whether or not a writer needs an MFA to be successful.

You can follow Jared on Twitter: @Read_Instead

Let’s Talk: How Instapoetry Functions

Ada Wofford, Senior Editor
April 30th, 2021

Part Five

            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:

(Noel, 541)

            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.

Let’s Talk: Criticisms of Instapoetry

Ada Wofford, Senior Editor
April 22nd, 2021

Part Four

            In this installment, I look at some of the criticisms of Instapoetry, including my own. I also pull from establish critics and academics, such as James Longenbach, because I want to illustrate the broader conversation on poetry that I am participating in when I write about Instapoetry— these are books I read and things I learned as both a student and a writer and I point them out, not to disrespect them or denounce them in anyway, but to highlight my thought process and to specify what ideas I’m attempting to push up against in my own work. The work of critics like Longenbach and Rebecca Watts is an invaluable contribution to the larger conversation surrounding poetry and literature and I see my writing as building off of their work, not as an attempt to blanketly refute it.

            Rebecca Watts’ article, “The Cult of the Noble Amateur” is a scathing tirade against contemporary popular poetry, including, but not limited to, Instapoetry. Watt’s opening paragraph really sets the scene:

Why is the poetry world pretending that poetry is not an art form? I refer to the rise of a cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’—buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft that characterises [sic] their work. (13)

            There are lots of things to take issue with here. What exactly is the poetic establishment, and is it something we should even care about? Then there’s the question about the definition of intellectual engagement: What is it and why is it so necessary in order for a work to be deemed worthwhile? And whose intellectual engagement are we talking about? As Milton writes in Aeropagitica, “[. . .] a wise man like a good refiner can gather gold out of the drossiest volume, and that a fool will be a fool with the best book.” If Watts cannot find something to appreciate in this new form of poetry, is it fair to ask if it’s her own fault? But to Watts’ credit, however good a refiner you might be, Instapoetry doesn’t give you much material to refine. Watts quotes Kaur’s publisher, Kirsty Melville: “[. . .] the medium of poetry reflects our age, where short-form communication is something people find easier to digest or connect with” (13). This makes sense, but does it make good poetry?

            In my essay on Kaur, I critiqued this untitled poem from milk & honey (there is a visual component to this poem that I am not concerned with but will describe here for the reader: underneath the text is a line illustration of two hands reaching up):

how can i write

if he took my hands

with him (121)

            I used this poem to point out Kaur’s lack of rhythm and meaningful line breaks. My analysis of this poem was principally informed by James Longenbach’s book, The Art of The Poetic Line, in which he writes: “More than meter, more than rhyme, more than images or alliteration or figurative language, line is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry, rather than some other kind of writing” (xi). I took this sentiment to heart and walked my readers through my own rewrite of Kaur’s poem; one that paid attention to stresses, scansion, and above all, the use of line-endings (line-endings is Longenbach’s preferred term). Although somewhat lengthy, I am going to reproduce this aspect of my essay here because it perfectly illustrates what I now believe is an artistic crime (on my part only. Longenbach is not guilty of this. I applied what I learned in his book in a manner I now disagree with). I will bold the phrases I now find particularly problematic as they should prove useful in our discussion going forward:

            In his discussion of line-endings, Longenbach writes, “But even the arbitrary must be driven by necessity, and necessity can be judged only on a poem-by-poem basis: what does the language of this particular poem require at this particular juncture?” (63). If we look at the use of syllables in the above poem we get, 4, 5, 2. There’s nothing to suggest this was done purposefully or out of necessity. An examination of the use of stresses tells the same story—Nothing appears deliberate or driven by necessity. The only remaining conclusion is that the line-endings are done purely as a visual component. This is reinforced by Kaur’s deliberate choice to eschew punctuation and capitalization with no apparent meaning behind this choice, save for the previously mentioned visual component.

            To gain a better understanding of Kaur’s poetry, it’s worthwhile to explore what this poem would look like if we attempted to inject some poetic elements into it, such as attention to syllables and stress. By introducing syllabic-verse the line-endings will become more meaningful.

How can I write

If when he left

My hands he took

            It’s still sloppy but at least it has rhythm, purposeful use of syllables, and it no longer has that clunky enjambment at the end. The reason this is better than the alternative, “If when he left/he took my hands” is that now “he” is the second to last syllable in the last two lines. But we can still improve it:

How can I write

If when he left

My hands he kept

            Now there is more information in the poem and “left” pairs nicely with “kept,” both having the same vowel sound. All three lines function as pairs of iambs now as well. As for context, it is now made clear that the narrator had given her hands at some point in the past. In the context of the entire book we can infer that she at some point gave her hands to a lover, but in the context of the original poem we are not given enough information.

            The big issue with this poem, really with most of Kaur’s poems, is that it goes nowhere. It makes a singular statement, “He took my hands and now I can’t write.” And when I rearrange this to introduce rhythm into the writing it’s like hearing a melody that never resolves itself. Just as the rhythm gets established, the poem is over. It becomes obvious from this exercise that a poem this short actually suffers from the inclusion of classic poetic elements. Now, instead of having a short poem with no rhythm, we have a rhythmic poem that feels incomplete. (“Understanding”)

            I refer to this as an artistic crime because there’s absolutely no need for it. I’m not writing a poem inspired by Kaur’s poem, which is something many poets do—No, I’m tearing it to shreds in the name of “proper” poetry. I claimed that my modified version is “better” and that I can “improve” it further as if an objective good existed in poetry. In his introduction to Russian Formalist Criticism, Gary Saul Morson writes: ”Jakobson wrote that ‘poetic form is the organized coercion of language’ (quoted in Eichenbaum, 127), that is, it is ‘practical’ language deformed into poetic language” (Lemon, loc-189). This is exactly what I was attempting to do with Kaur’s poem: deform her practical and ordinary language into a “poetic language.” And while the Russian Formalists, Harold Bloom, and others all believe there to be a strict distinction between poetic language and ordinary language, no one can agree on a single definition.

            Despite the ambiguity of the term poetic language, it’s a widely held belief that poetry needs to be informed by academia. In preparation for writing this essay, I posted a question on all of my social media accounts: “For a research project: Do you enjoy Rupi Kaur and the genre of Instapoetry? If so, why? What do you get out of it? Why is it valuable?” Granted, I’m involved in the literary community and know many editors, poets, and writers but not everyone who replied exists in these circles. I did not get a response from anyone who really enjoyed Kaur or Instapoetry, but some were appreciative of the fact that it’s getting people into poetry. One poetry editor and teacher commented, “[. . .] While I rather loathe it myself, I’ve met too many students who love it and came to poetry through that doorway to dismiss it entirely.” Two poets I know, both pursuing their MFA, commented their disdain for Kaur, saying her poetry lacks depth and that, “Reading her is like nails on a fucking chalkboard.” One commenter, who works in computers (i.e. not involved with the literary community or with the academy), referred to Instapoetry as an inevitable evolution of poetry due to the way we now consume information. While they do not personally see the appeal of this genre, they thoughtfully added, “If it makes people feel something and they connect with it in a way they find meaningful isn’t that valid?” This sentiment contrasts nicely with a comment from an MFA student who admitted that Kaur is highly successful but added, “[. . .] it’s not like she’s going to win some kind of major book award.” This brings us back to the academy and Watts’ “poetic establishment.”

Who Gets to Write Poetry?

            This is the essential question at the heart of this debate. One of Watts’ issues with contemporary popular poetry is that anyone can do it (15). But why is this a problem? Furthermore, why is there such an emphasis on complexity or difficulty? The most troubling thing I said in my critique of Kaur was that “It becomes obvious from this exercise that a poem this short actually suffers from the inclusion of classic poetic elements” (“Understanding”). When I wrote that, I knew it wasn’t true and why I didn’t take the time to qualify that statement I’ll never know. What I should have said, is that a very short poem can suffer from the particular poetic elements I was working with (stress, scansion, line-endings). William Carlos Williams’ poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow” is the perfect example of a poem being short and simple yet critically acclaimed:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
chickens. (56)

            I made a point to format Williams’ poem exactly how it is in the book because formatting is an essential part of all visual poetry All written poetry is visual poetry, but some poems utilize this element more so than others. Reading this poem, it seems to me that Williams’ line-endings are primarily motivated by this visual element. The poem looks very balanced and clean. The line-endings can be said to convey meaning by emphasizing certain words, but they do not function rhythmically as emphases, at least not to my ear. This poem is a single sentence divided into four stanzas or sections consisting of varying syllables (6,5,5,6), which create a certain symmetry but not necessarily one you can hear. The poem certainly has a rhythm to it but nothing formal or precise. In other words, this reads as “practical language” but it is not framed or presented as practical language. The poem’s minimalism emphasizes the minimalism of the scene itself and highlights the importance that everyday objects can have to us. But why is this poem so widely celebrated in the academy while Instapoetry is shunned? Compare it to this untitled poem by Kaur:

for you to see beauty here
does not mean
there is beauty in me
it means there is beauty rooted
so deep within you
you can’t help but
see it everywhere (192)

            Right away, we can see that there is not as much attention to formatting or to the visual balance of the piece, though Kaur does create a nice symmetry in the structure of the lines (3,1,3). The number of syllables appears arbitrary (7,3,6,8,5,4,5) and the line-endings don’t emphasize a particular rhythm, though there is the symmetry of “beauty here” and “beauty rooted.” The first three lines set up the issue or concern and the last three provide the explanation. This pair of three-line sections pivots on the center line that connects the issue and explanation. The rhythm might not be as smooth as Williams’ but there is still some rhythm to it. The two most important similarities between these two poems is the use of minimalist technique and ordinary or practical language.

            Despite these striking similarities, one is considered a classic of American poetry and the other is considered mediocre pop culture. Even I admit, something about the Williams’ piece moves me in a way the Kaur piece does not. I personally prefer writing that looks outward at the world and interrogates the quotidian (such as focusing on a wheelbarrow), but many others who do not share my preferences also despise Kaur’s work yet appreciate Williams. I do not think it is the subject matter of Kaur’s poetry that elicits such negative responses as so much of contemporary poetry is focused on the self, the body, identity, trauma, and growth; and all of these themes are front and center in Kaur’s work. But I don’t think it is Kaur’s lack of “poetic language” being used that upsets people either. I think most people (myself included, at least before my recent conversion) share in Watts’ disdain at the idea that poetry is something that “anyone can do” (15).

            Gatekeeping like this is similar to what Theodor W. Adorno discusses in regard to musicians in his article, “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” Not only does Adorno lament the supposed death of the listener as Watts laments the death of the reader, he criticizes the idea of people attempting to learn to play music for fun as opposed to devoting their entire lives to the study of music:

In the piano scores of hit songs, there are strange diagrams. They relate to guitar, ukulele and banjo, as well as the accordion—infantile instruments in comparison with the piano—and are intended for players who cannot read the notes. They depict graphically the fingering for the chords of the plucking instruments. (290)

            Adorno is eviscerating the way I and millions of other people began playing their instruments. While Adorno had his Marxist motivations to fuel his fear of the “dumbing down” of the masses, this passage paints Adorno as nothing more than an uptight snob who is frustrated by the fact that not everyone is as smart as him. Kurt Cobain learned to play guitar by reading the strange diagrams Adorno speaks of and went on to change the history of rock music. Granted, Adorno would consider rock music “light music” (that which is inferior to “serious music,” which basically means classical music, though he loathes that term). But whether or not some snob in the academy appreciates Cobain’s music, it will never change the fact that his music and his lyrics have touched millions of individuals and positively impacted their lives.

            If Shakespeare is to poetry what Mozart is to music—Or, more simply, if what the academy considers “proper poetry” or canon poetry is the equivalent to what Adorno considers, “serious music,” then Instapoetry is what Adorno would call, “light music.” Interestingly, the popularity of this “light music” owes itself in part to the rise of the radio—Just as this new form of poetry owes its popularity to the rise of Instagram and social media sites as a whole. Adorno loathed “light music” and the rise of jazz just as critics like Watts loath Rupi Kaur and the rise of Instapoetry. Of course, jazz and rock are now part of the academy. There’s even an academic journal called Rock Music Studies that features articles analyzing rock albums the same way any literary journal features articles analyzing novels and poems. I believe the most valuable thing we can do as academics is to stop being snobs and focus our attention on how Instapoetry functions and what readers are getting out of it.

            In our last installment, we will dig into just how Instapoetry functions and wrap up the series by looking at the future of Instapoetry.

You can follow Ada Wofford on their Twitter: @AdaWofford.

Let’s Talk: Rupi Kaur and Instapoetry

Ada Wofford, Senior Editor
April 16th, 2021

Part Three

            Rupi Kaur is easily the most famous Instapoet in the world. A 2018 article in The Atlantic titled, “How Instagram Saved Poetry,” explores Rupi Kaur’s immense success and the new direction of poetry:

Rupi Kaur is a case study in how dramatically the world of poetry has changed [. . .] The 25-year-old Canadian poet outsold Homer two years ago: Her first collection, milk & honey, has been translated into 40 languages and has sold 3.5 million copies, stealing the position of best-selling poetry book from The Odyssey. (Yuan and Hill)

            The publication and success of milk & honey was a catalyst that turned poetry, for perhaps the first time, into a highly profitable industry:

According to one market-research group, 12 of the top 20 best-selling poets last year were Insta-poets, who combined their written work with shareable posts for social media; nearly half of poetry books sold in the United States last year were written by these poets. This year, according to a survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Census Bureau, 28 million Americans are reading poetry—the highest percentage of poetry readership in almost two decades. (Yuan and Hall).

            Kaur first gained notoriety in 2015 when she uploaded a photograph of herself with a menstruation stain on her pants and bedsheets on Instagram and it was removed for violating Instagram’s standards. The photo was part of a series on menstruation Kaur was working on as part of a college project on visual rhetoric.


            As you can see, there is nothing pornographic about this image and yet, it was removed twice from Instagram for going against their standards. Kaur was attempting to position this in contrast to popular porn Instagram accounts that sexualize women but go uncensored. The censorship of this work is what first put Kaur in the spotlight and led to her eventual fame. Lili Pâquet writes: “The attempted censorship of her work positioned Kaur as a cultural producer who appeals to women (particularly women of color) who are suppressed, shamed, and silenced” (298). Kaur’s personal experiences inform much of her poetry. Kaur’s poetry is unique in the way it is presented, not just because it is often designed with Instagram in mind, but in how it is presented on the page as well.

            Kaur’s poetry is sometimes referred to as a kind of ekphrasis, but Kaur considers her work to be “design poetry” (Kruger). Here is an example from milk & honey

(Kaur 111)

            In my essay on Kaur, I argued that this poem does not count as ekphrasis because, “[. . .] it is not Kaur’s words that amplify and expand the meaning of her illustrations but the other way around—It is her illustrations that attempt to amplify and expand the meaning of her words” (“Understanding”). Now I believe I was too strictly adhering to the particular definition of ekphrasis I had found and so, I don’t see why this poem cannot be considered as such. What’s important to recognize though is that metaphor only exists in this poem via the interplay between text and illustration. Furthermore, the title essentially functions as the ending of the poem. So, while this might be considered ekphrasis, Kaur’s insistence that it’s “design poetry” is a better fit considering how Kaur manipulates the different elements of the poem. I point this out because design poetry is not a widely recognized genre of poetry (if it’s recognized as a genre at all), unlike ekphrasis, which is a very old form of poetry that is widely recognized and studied by scholars. This is one of many instances in which one can place Instapoetry outside of the realm of what might be considered “traditional poetry.”

            Here is a more recent poem that was published to Kaur’s Instagram account December 15, 2020:

            In this example, the illustration does not engage with the text as in the previous example. Some of Kaur’s pieces have no illustrations such as this untitled poem from milk & honey: “my tongue is sour/from the hunger of/missing you (116). And some pieces are written in prose. So, while some of Kaur’s work might necessitate the need for a new term such as, “design poetry,” much of her work functions within the more traditional spaces found within prose and written poetry.

            But Kaur’s not the only one creating such work. Kaur’s influence on Instapoetry is undeniable. Search for #poetry and you’ll find a number of imitators, some almost as successful as Kaur. Here is an example from a popular Instapoet who goes by Atticus:

            Atticus often makes posts with no visual element, but the writing is similar to this one. Notice the use of hashtags in the description. Hashtags are an integral part of Instapoetry, functioning as simple metadata tags users can search for, but sometimes hashtags are used to add context to the post itself or even subvert certain conventions or expectations. In the article, “Selfie-Help: The Multimodal Appeal of Instagram Poetry,” Lili Pâquet argues that the use of hashtags actually qualifies as a form of ekphrasis:

While poetry makes use of ekphrasis in order to verbally describe visual settings, scenes, and items, Instagram poets often also use hashtags in a kind of modern ekphrasis, making their visuals (whether selfies, illustrations, or typewritten poems) available by describing them in search terms [. . .] The use of ekphrastic effects in hashtags and poems is supported by the images in the selfies to create an overall effect; that is, the human brand of the Instagram poet. (300)

            The way these hashtags are used varies from poet to poet. The December 15th post by Rupi Kaur, shown above, only uses a single hashtag: #homebody (Homebody is the title of her new book). In the Atticus post, he uses only three hashtags. But a beginner Instapoet trying to get recognized will use a slew of different hashtags:

            The use of hashtags helps poets get discovered, it helps readers discover new poets, and it places pieces in conversation with one another by unifying them all under specific labels. This aspect of community, of an online community, is as essential aspect of Instapoetry and a big reason why it’s so successful. In our next installment we will dig into the criticisms of Instapoetry.

You can follow Ada Wofford on their Twitter: @AdaWofford.

Let’s Talk: Alt-Lit

Ada Wofford, Senior Editor
April 7th, 2021

Part Two

            Alt-Lit was born out of blog and Tumblr culture in the late ’00s. Although this culture began online and had an international reach, it’s primary physical location would have to be New York. The genre references internet culture heavily, often eschewing capitalization and punctuation; the way one might write online. In my essay on alt-lit I cover the two key figures of the movement, Tao Lin and Steve Roggenbuck.

            Tao Lin is easily the most famous of the movement and has somehow emerged from the fall of alt-lit successfully, despite having a relationship with an underage girl and being accused of abusive behavior. His novels Taipai (2013) and Trip (2018) have received modest but nonetheless mainstream success. The fact that Lin could write in a manner that would find him success outside of the genre of alt-lit makes sense. Alt-lit was primarily concerned with poetry, and at the time poetry did not sell the way it does today. Lin’s focus on prose was unique within the movement but he dabbled in poetry as well; and when he did, he stood out as unique among the other poets of the genre. While his early prose certainly contains a number of the alt-lit tropes I documented after surveying the canon, his poetry is much quirkier and idiosyncratic. Take this example titled, “hamsters are heads with little characteristics on the head, part one”:

in florida a giant hamster lays in bed worrying about its future

the hamster has bad eyesight

and many other problems

later that night the hamster drives its car around

listening to sad music; the master lightly drums its paws on the

steering wheel the hamster is alone

but not for long: at home three waffle friends wait

cooling inside a countertop oven in the kitchen (Lin)

            It certainly plays with some of the tropes that are characteristic of the movement, but even when it does, the poem is abstract and impersonal in a way most alt-lit is not. There is also a very purposeful use of punctuation used in this poem and this is not at all indicative of alt-lit. To put this into context, here is a list of the tropes I discovered during my research:

1) Weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird.

2) Purposeful eschewing of punctuation and proper capitalization.

3) All-caps for emphasis.

4) References to social media.

5) Purposeful misspellings.

6) The naming of a commercial brand or entity.

7) The slightly more complex, “I want to…” trope. (“Alt-Lit”)

            For something more indicative of the movement, we turn to the other big name in alt-lit, Steve Roggenbuck. Roggenbuck did not get his start by writing poems and publishing them online, but by making videos of his poetry and uploading them to YouTube. His most viewed video is titled, make something beautiful before you are dead and currently has 226,680 views (Click here to watch). The video consists of several clips of Roggenbuck in his house, walking in the woods, or walking in a field, all while filming himself and saying things like, “Two words, jackass: Dog the Bounty Hunter! Two words, jackass: YOLO!” A few moments later, apropos of nothing, Roggenbuck shouts, “As the Marxists say, ‘Superstructure reinforces the fricking base.'” It’s like Roggenbuck wants us to know he’s somewhat educated and perhaps he even wants us to take him seriously, but it’s obvious he doesn’t want us to take him too seriously. He doesn’t want to be seen as a normal or traditional poet.

            Throughout the video there’s some peaceful, twinkling music meandering in the background and sometimes audio clips are added. One of these clips is from the film, Dead Poets Society, which makes perfect sense because the best way to describe Roggenbuck is as a manic perversion of Robin Williams’ character from Dead Poets Society. Walt Whitman is a huge influence for Roggenbuck and he takes Whitman’s positive view on life and turns it up to eleven via a mishmash of random phrases, thoughts, and ideas. Roggenbuck’s positivity is the only thing that really sets him apart from the rest of alt-lit; otherwise, he’s perhaps the most indicative of the genre and this becomes abundantly clear when we look at his book IF U DON’T LOVE THE MOON YOU’RE AN ASS HOLE [sic].

            The book identifies itself as a product of the internet immediately. The epigraph is shown below:


            I include it as a screenshot because the way Roggenbuck presents this is an important part of both his personal style and the genre of alt-lit. There is something undeniably formal in the presentation and citation of this quote, but at the same time, it’s purposefully silly. Alt-lit writers were interested in turning concepts and expectations in on themselves to create something that simultaneously took itself seriously while not taking itself seriously at all. You even see this in the title of the book: The contractions, “DON’T” and “YOU’RE” are punctuated and spelled correctly but “you” is spelled “U.”

            The book primarily eschews the use of line breaks and instead, presents the poems as blocks of text. Selfies are interspersed throughout the book as well. It’s as if Roggenbuck is attempting to create a physical copy of an online space. Here is an example of one of Roggenbuck’s written poems:

in spain they love football so much they even call soccer football. im becoming aware of the fact that boredom and laziness are social norms, that ive felt pressured to supress my excitement and set lazier goals. I TRAINED MY SON TO EAT OUT OF MY HAND SINCE HE WAS A TODDLER. IT’S RLY STARTING TO FUCK WITH HIM NOW HE’S 15. if i dont get verified soon on twiter im gona have an identity crisis about whether or not i am actually me. i’ll sleep when im IRL. is “charlie” short for charizard, or charmander? i am falling asleep to emo songs on a litle sofa in montreal. i dont feel proud of myself in terms of talent or even hard work but i am proud that i havent given up. i want youre life to be better because im in it (9)

            As you can see, this piece possesses all of the alt-lit tropes listed on page 4. Though it does not explicitly utilize the “I want to…” trope, we can see it in the line, “I am falling asleep to emo songs…” A more explicit example can certainly be found in another poem from IF U DON’T LOVE THE MOON: “I WANT TO PEE FOR AN HOUR AND A HALF AND THEN DIE” (Roggenbuck 18). And for good measure, here is another example from Megan Boyle’s book, selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee: “i want to own a warehouse that stores all the empty dolphin tanks and cigarette butts of the world” (Boyle 83). These are two of the five I identify in my previously published essay on alt-lit, but there are several more examples to be found throughout the genre. It’s the most interesting trope of the genre because of how odd it is; I attempted to explain it as such:

This trope might be the most important aspect of alt-lit in regards to the genre functioning as the “voice” of a particular generation. These absurd longings, when taken alongside the mundanity of these authors’ lives and coupled with the fixation on consumption, can be argued to illustrate the complete lack of meaning these authors, and perhaps by extension their entire generation, possess. (“Alt-Lit”)

            The other writers I explored in my essay used all of the tropes listed above but were much more restrained than Roggenbuck. Roggenbuck is a good example of what alt-lit is because of the extreme nature of his work. Other big alt-lit names are Mira Gonzalez, Gabby Bess, and Megan Boyle. Megan Boyle wrote one of the most famous pieces of alt-lit titled, “everyone i’ve had sex with.” This piece is important because it embodies the current trend in Instapoetry of placing honesty and sincerity above all else. The piece is essentially a list describing every sexual partner they have had and what their experience was like. The writing is plain and ordinary; it reads like a diary entry:

anthony: i visited my former college to go to homecoming with my old friends and met anthony while dancing. he was a freshman and it was his first time. he was a really good kisser. i bought him and his friends a handle of gin (they paid me back) and we played card games in my old dorm. it was nice. i wanted him to be sure he wanted his first time to be with a stranger. he said he did. i left right after it happened. we used a condom (Boyle, loc-150)

            Notice the lack of punctuation and the absence of a period at the end. Being open and honest is another trope of alt-lit and one I believe influenced Instapoetry. Alt-lit’s persistence on honesty results in works that often feel voyeuristic. Not only are there explicit mentions of sex, but descriptions of everyday personal moments; as in the poem, “today my alarm went off at 12:30 pm” by Mira Gonzalez:

                        I stayed in bed for over an hour

                        looked at things on my phone

                        I felt slightly anxious about nothing particular

                        I walked downstairs and poured coffee into a jar

                        I asked a person on the internet if I should take drugs

                        I took drugs before the person had time to respond (45)

            After reading several collections of alt-lit, I felt like I knew the authors behind the works because through their writing I’ve witnessed so many quotidian yet intimate moments of their lives. This idea of a reader feeling like they personally know the author is also an essential aspect to the genre of Instapoetry.

            The alt-lit community imploded in the early ’10s when several women came forward and reported prominent male authors and editors in the community for rape and sexual harassment. While the women of alt-lit did not go on to become Instapoets, there’s no denying alt-lit’s influence on the genre of Instapoetry. Both stemmed from social media platforms, and the tropes of Instapoetry are in direct contrast with the tropes of alt-lit. While alt-lit engaged with meaningless sex, drugs, alcohol, and misogyny, Instapoetry promotes wellbeing, self-care, romantic love, and feminism. The positivity and romanticism found in Instapoetry can help us understand its broad appeal, which we will begin to explore in the next part of this series.

You can follow Ada Wofford on their Twitter: @AdaWofford.

Let’s Talk: Rupi Kaur, Instapoetry, and The Academy

Ada Wofford, Senior Editor
April 7th, 2021

Part One: Introduction

            Last year I published two articles in a lit mag called The Blue Nib about contemporary poetry. The first centered around Rupi Kaur and the genre of Instapoetry (poetry published via the social media platform of Instagram). The article is essentially a close reading of Kaur’s best-selling book, milk & honey. I worked off several sources to analyze and critique Kaur’s poetry in an attempt to understand and explain why so many poets and academics (myself included) disliked Kaur’s poetry. One of my sources was a divisive article by Rebecca Watts, published in 2018 in the PN Review titled, “The Cult of the Noble Amateur.” In the article, Watts criticizes the rise of contemporary poets, Kaur included, profiting off of their “artless poetry.” At the time, I agreed with Watts and drawing from writers such as James Longenbach, Harold Bloom, and James Geary, I picked apart Kaur’s writings and came to the conclusion that Kaur’s writing is not poetry but merely several poor attempts at aphorisms (“poor” of course, being my informed but ultimately subjective opinion). Parts of the article work through specific poems of Kaur’s and highlight the arbitrary use of stresses and line breaks to further critique the work as “bad poetry” or not even poetry.

            The second article centered around the now defunct genre/movement of alt-lit (alternative literature) that popped up in the late ’00s and was born out of Internet culture (Tumblr mostly). Alt-lit had a somewhat significant impact (these writers were published) but disintegrated in the early ’10s when many of the leading male figures of the movement were outed for sexual harassment and even rape. The article took a survey of the genre, pulled from several texts by the more prominent members, with a focus on women writers in the genre, and illustrated how the genre of Instapoetry grew out of alt-lit in terms of style, but also in response to the sexism and misogyny found within the movement. 

            I do not personally enjoy Instapoetry or alt-lit but I am fascinated by my disdain for these genres. I think I’ve fallen into the same trap as Watts did—I have the misconception that poetry should meet a certain standard of form and use of language; and while these two articles were my attempt to better understand just what that standard is, I ultimately failed. I failed because this standard doesn’t exist; there is no “proper” poetry. Even though Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line really makes one think there is a “right” way to write poetry, I no longer believe there is.

            In this series I would like to revisit these genres and explore them from a new perspective. Engaging with the ideas of Wittgenstein, Derrida, Felski, Bahktin, Tomashevsky, and my professor, David Bleich, has made me rethink the claims I made in my two essays, “Understanding Rupi Kaur’s Milk & Honey” and “An Exploration of the Rise and Fall of Alt-Lit.” I plan to give a brief overview of the genre of alt-lit and how it set the stage for Instapoetry. Then I will give an overview of Kaur’s work, how she rose to fame, and how her work functions as the quintessential Instapoetry by comparing it to other popular Instapoets. This will be followed by the criticism I’ve found on Instapoetry, as well as the criticism I’ve written on Instapoetry and alt-lit (it should be noted that there is virtually no criticism to be found on alt-lit). This will bring us to the question of: Who gets to write poetry? Where I’ll explore the gatekeeping surrounding poetry. The series will conclude with a look at how Instapoetry functions as a uniquely online medium and I will consider some criticism that engages with Instapoetry in a positive manner, exploring how the genre promotes ideas of selfcare, feminism, and more.

You can follow Ada Wofford on their Twitter: @AdaWofford.