By Faith Hill and Karen Yuan (The Atlantic)
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.
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.
It wasn’t always like this for Kaur. She started her career by posting her work to Tumblr in 2012 and then gradually switched to Instagram, but her social-media strategy wasn’t yet making her nearly enough money to live. “My mind-set was: No way can poetry pay your rent,” she told us. Then milk & honey was published in 2014 and hit the New York Times best-seller list in 2016. Kaur realized, It’s not stopping. It’s getting bigger. Maybe this can sustain me. Her success doesn’t seem to be slowing. Within the past year, she appeared on Jimmy Fallon, made the Forbes 30 under 30 list, and sold out a “World Tour de Force” across India and the U.K. This month, she finishes her sweeping American tour. Kaur now has 3 million Instagram followers.
Since the publication of milk & honey, the poetry genre has become one of the fastest-growing categories in book publishing.Kaur’s publisher, Kirsty Melville, has seen it happen firsthand: “It used to be that poetry was down in the back of the store next to the bathrooms, and now it’s out front,” she told us. “And that naturally helps sales of all poets. The classics and other contemporary poets are selling.”
In 2010, the editor of n+1 magazine, Chad Harbach, famously wrote that there were two distinct and rival literary cultures in America: the institutional, university-driven M.F.A. track and the New York–centered publishing world. But now there is a third option: the fast-paced, democratizing, hyper-connected culture of the internet. The poets of this third category often have little formal training, and their publishers are strewn across the country. Andrews McMeel, for instance, is an indie publisher in Missouri. Social media seem to have cracked the walls around a field that has long been seen as highbrow, exclusive, esoteric, and ruled by tradition, opening it up for young poets with broad appeal, many of whom are women and people of color.
Social-media poets, using Instagram as a marketing tool, are not just artists—they’re entrepreneurs. They still primarily earn money through publication and live events, but sharing their work on Instagram is now what opens up the possibility for both. Kaur, the ultimate poet-entrepreneur, said she approaches poetry like “running a business.” A day in the life can consist of all-day writing, touring, or, perhaps unprecedented for a poet, time in the office with her team to oversee operations and manage projects. Building their own mini brands, poets can harness e-commerce to supplement their income. Some sell merchandise such as mugs printed with their poetry and, in a mimicry of the aestheticized square of Instagram, “hand-typed poems of your choice” in shadow box frames. Atticus’s website features a shop called the Atticus Collective, where customers can purchase products inscribed with his words, from a massive $35 poster to a $174 “talisman.”The ever-growing popularity of these poets also makes them valuable to other brands, providing newer and bigger ways to commodify their words. Cleo Wade’s poetry has been featured in Gucci advertisements, emblazoned on Nike sneakers, and scrawled across dishes sold by boutique homeware stores.
During last February’s New York Fashion Week, the designer Tracy Reese had models strut to poetry readings on the catwalk. Even the insurance firm Nationwide is getting in on the trend; it recently released a series of commercials in which poets wax on about the miracle of a mortgage. Perhaps this was inevitable with the nature of quick consumption on Instagram, where you can come across a pithy statement, double-tap the square it’s in, and reflexively scroll past it all in a matter of seconds; the pithier the statement, the better. The limited confines of an Instagram post incentivize the bite-size lyric, the tidy aphorism, the briefly deliverable quote. Most Instagram poems advise how to live a better life—how to move on from a broken heart, how to believe in one’s self, how to pursue one’s dreams. On a platform full of idealized lifestyles in food, travel, and fashion, poetry presents yet more aspirational philosophies.
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