Standing on a Persian carpet before a crowd in Bankstown in Sydney’s west, swaying to the rhythm of her own words, Canadian performance poet Rupi Kaur recited Broken English. It’s a poem about the shame she once felt over her Sikh mother’s inability to speak the language. The 300 mainly immigrant Australian women at this, the Bankstown Poetry Slam, were mesmerised. Borrowing from the 1950s beatnik poetry tradition, the audience snapped their fingers in appreciation, then hollered and cheered as Kaur’s performance came to a close. “You can go on forever,” someone from the floor proclaimed, transfixed as much by the cadence of Kaur’s voice as by her verse.
It was May 2017, and the then 25-year-old Canadian dubbed the “queen of the Instapoets” and the “Oprah of her generation” was in town as a keynote speaker at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Accompanying her on the visit was her publisher Kirsty Melville, whose American company is credited with a global revival of interest in poetry through the publication of books by young women like Kaur, now 27, who have both a way with words and a big social media presence. In Kaur’s case that means 3.8 million Instagram followers, who feast on a feed that alternates between selfies and sparse but digestible poetry.
Yeats, Keats, Donne and Poe might not have known popular success in their lifetimes, but today’s top Instapoets regularly secure six-figure book advances on the back of their (rarely rhyming) prose, typically presented in typewriter fonts and without capital letters.
“I was amazed by the rock-star welcome Rupi got in the room in Bankstown,” says Melbourne-raised Melville, the 62-year-old president of Andrews McMeel Publishing, an independent family-owned business based in Kansas City, Missouri. “Young Muslim women wearing head scarves, young Asians, young Indian women … They saw someone like them, a young Millennial woman able to give voice to her emotions and the experience of her generation.”
Born in 1992, Rupi Kaur moved with her parents to Canada at the age of three. Shy, struggling with English and bullied at school, she retreated to her room, where she drew in charcoal and wrote poems. She continued to write and draw throughout school in the outer suburbs of Toronto and into her university years, covering raw subjects such as sexual abuse, racial vilification and menstruation as well as stock teen and 20-something issues around relationships and feelings. At 22, having published her poems anonymously online, she completed a degree in rhetoric studies and dropped plans to become a lawyer to focus on her writing, under her own name first on Tumblr then Instagram. In 2014, she self-published her first book of poems and illustrations, milk and honey.
Melville noticed Kaur after a social media kerfuffle in which Kaur posted a picture of herself menstruating, which Instagram deleted twice. After Kaur challenged the internet giant’s decision, it apologised and reinstated the post, which then went viral. Intrigued, Melville gave Kaur’s book to her daughter to taste-test. “If I had a broken heart, this would be a really good book,” was the 14-year-old’s response. That was enough for Melville to sign up Kaur.
A couple of years later, interest moved up a notch after Nepalese-American fashion designer Prabal Gurung emblazoned Kaur’s brief poem, women of colour – “Our backs tell stories no books have the spine to carry” – onto a piece in his 2016 collection. Kaur was invited to the 2017 New York Fashion Week, where she sat in the front row next to feminist icon Gloria Steinem (see this week’s Dicey Topics). Later that year, Melville published a second collection of Kaur’s work, The Sun and Her Flowers.
In the years since, Kaur’s two slim volumes have been translated into 40 languages and sold more than seven million copies worldwide, spending more than a year each on the New York Times bestseller lists. In Australia alone, milk and honey is the country’s bestselling poetry book and was also the bestselling title at the 2017 Sydney Writers’ Festival, where the likes of Susan Faludi, George Saunders and Roxane Gay were guests. Kaur’s first two titles have sold close to 200,000 copies in Australia, nearly 10 times as many as the next most popular poet, Homer, whose ancient Greek epics The Iliad and The Odyssey date from the eighth century BC.
Kaur has graced the cover of Rolling Stone, as well as Vogue in the US, UK and India, and in 2018 was invited to read a poem on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, who declared poetry “the new pop”.
That same year, she made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list of young media entrepreneurs to watch. Needless to say, she writes and performs full-time these days, touring everywhere from New York to New Delhi. She will begin another sold-out tour of the US next month, ahead of the upcoming publication of her third book.
In a telling measure of her status, she uses the same stylist for her Instagram feed as Hollywood actor Selena Gomez, the second-most popular woman on the network after pop singer Ariana Grande. As to who Kaur herself follows on Instagram? Nobody.
Whip-smart, blonde and petite, Kirsty Melville has been working in US publishing for a quarter of a century. Following her time at Simon & Schuster in Sydney, where she published The Bathers’ Pavilion Cookbook, she was offered a job at California’s Ten Speed Press, where she recast classic cookbooks as beautifully designed tomes. After a brief stint with a company that designed online games, she was poached to Andrews McMeel, the US publisher best known for comics, puzzles, games and gift books. These include Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip, Gary Larson’s The Far Side and Australian-born photographer Anne Geddes’ baby photo books and calendars.
That this Midwest company has leapfrogged more traditional New York publishers in poetry sales has raised eyebrows in literary circles. But Melville has long had a knack for picking the next big publishing trend. She was partly responsible for the adult colouring books craze that swept the globe a few years ago, after seeing it in France and taking the idea home with her to the US.
She believes the attraction of Instapoets is their “outsider” status, whether they be immigrant, gay, of colour or any other minority. The writing is fresh, predominantly female and almost innocent – “truth bombs”, as they’re referred to. “It’s not an old white man writing modern poems,” Melville says. “It’s often a young woman of colour who is sick of being patronised and they’re now kicking down the doors of traditional publishing.”
They certainly are. From 2013 to 2018, sales of poetry in the US grew by 152 per cent, driven primarily by Melville’s author slate. Andrews McMeel has seen sales of its poetry books skyrocket from 3000 copies in 2013 to more than two million last year, when poetry had come to represent 30 per cent of all the books it published. In Australia, the poetry category has doubled since 2015 in terms of sales (to about 150,000 copies) and volume (to more than $3.5 million).
Melville believes the attraction of Instapoets is their ‘outsider’ status, whether they be immigrant, gay, of colour or any other minority.
Some dismiss this brand of poetry as more solipsism than sonnet, more mantra than metre. Australian publishing stalwart Richard Walsh, who for 14 years ran Angus & Robertson and is now consultant publisher at Allen & Unwin, says Instapoets should not be compared to their traditional counterparts. “True poets would describe what Rupi Kaur writes as ‘inspirational verse’,” says Walsh. “Unlike Bob Dylan, she’s unlikely to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.”
Walsh points out that Australian bush poets such as Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson and C.J. Dennis sold very well during his time at A&R. But they were studied in primary schools during the 1970s, when Australia was shrugging off its cultural cringe and regaining confidence around its own creatives. Films such as The Man From Snowy River and musicals like The Sentimental Bloke also helped, he says. Judith Wright has been popular, too, her poems studied in secondary schools and universities, as has the much-loved Les Murray.
“The Instapoet sales should not be compared with the poetry of the Australian masters, or Philip Larkin or T.S. Eliot,” says Walsh, “but with the sales of greeting cards and inspirational books like [Kahlil Gibran’s] The Prophet.” Which is a coincidental reference, given Penguin commissioned Kaur to write an introduction for this year’s US edition of The Prophet.
Kaur has heard this criticism from conventional publishers the world over. She doesn’t want her poems compared to the classics, nor does she want readers to agonise over every word like she was made to do when studying poetry at school. “I would have to pull out the list of literary devices my teacher gave me and my 10 colourful pens,” she told Rolling Stone in 2017. “It was like doing surgery on the damn thing.” She’s not fussed by the “popular” tag, either. “Art should be accessible to the masses and when we start to tailor it in a way that keeps people out, then there’s an issue with that.”
She and some peers don’t even care for the term “Instapoet” itself, preferring to be characterised as “modern poets” and their work “pop poetry”. Social media is a canvas for their art, not a way to define it, they say, just as books and live performances are further avenues to get their work out. Many sell their art and poems on canvas, too; British pop singer Sam Smith even has one of Kaur’s artworks tattooed on his arm.
I’m sure the great poets like Emily Dickinson, even Banjo Paterson, would have used Instagram had it existed in their era.
Melville readily accepts that many in mainstream publishing don’t view her authors as traditional poets. “There’s an elitism around poetry – and social media is a disruptor to traditional publishing methods,” she says. “It’s a confusing medium but I’m sure the great poets like Emily Dickinson, even Banjo Paterson, would have used Instagram had it existed in their era. What social media has done is provide a place for people to read poetry other than in literary journals – because no one was reading it there anyway.”
To mock this new brand of poet diminishes their communication skills, she says – not just with words but the way they market their message. “What a poet does is provide a voice that people can relate to that is personal, yet universal. It’s Rupi today, it was [13th-century Persian] Rumi in the past – it’s a timeless voice and the messages resonate.”
A decade ago, Courtney Peppernell was a customer-service consultant in Sydney. T.S. Eliot composed verse while working as a clerk at Lloyds Bank in London; she wrote poems between taking calls. She never thought she’d make a living from it, let alone her current handsome income.
Growing up next door to novelist Markus Zusak in southern Sydney, Peppernell had always wanted to write. As a student, she studied extension two English for her HSC and wrote short stories on the side. She studied communications at Wollongong University, but still wrote creatively; first a blog, then a book. Unclear how to proceed, she asked a manager she met on her first day at the call centre to help her get published.
He did, and in 2015, at 23, she self-published her first novel, Chasing Paper Cranes, a coming-of-age tale which sold 1000 copies through Amazon. In late 2016, she self-published a second book, Pillow Thoughts 1, a collection of poetry about heartbreak, love and loss. In the same year she posted a poem, Looking for Ice Cream, on Twitter. It was picked up by US music duo the Chainsmokers and went viral. Sales of Pillow Thoughts grew rapidly and within months, Melville asked Peppernell for the rights.
Andrews McMeel re-released Pillow Thoughts 1 in August 2017, coupling it with a US book tour. The collection has now sold more than 219,000 copies in the US, and 12,000 in Australia. Two more volumes of Pillow Thoughts followed, with a fourth due next year.
Peppernell writes about mental illness, and the heartbreak of estrangement from parents (though she’s close to her own), and her poetry is popular at same-sex marriage services. In August, she had her own when she married her lawyer partner Rhian, with whom she lives on the outskirts of Sydney at Minto, where she writes and shares poetry daily with her 97,500 Instagram followers.
One reason why poems are so popular on Instagram is they are things you can read quickly, and they either resonate or they don’t.
At 29, Peppernell is on the top-10 poetry sales list in Australia, and that call centre manager is now her agent.
“People have such busy lives now thanks to technology that their attention spans are not that great,” she says. “One reason why poems are so popular on Instagram is they are things you can read quickly, and they either resonate or they don’t. A poem is short, sparse and you can pick it up and put it down and it helps you to feel like you’ve read something.”
She sees her work as “gateway literature” that helps turn social media consumers into book-buyers. And she’s thrilled about the resurrection of her art form. “Until the recent success of Instapoets like Rupi Kaur, literary agents would tell you ‘poetry is dead’. But if you think that now, you’re not reading the sales reports. It’s absolutely not dead – there’s an audience, especially of young people, who see something on social media and want to read it in the physical form of a book they can read and put by their pillow at night.”
The immigrant daughter of a Cambodian seamstress and an acupuncturist, Lang Leav was born in a Thai refugee camp and came to Australia with her family in the 1990s. They settled in Cabramatta in Sydney’s west, and after graduating from the local high school, Leav went to Sydney’s College of Fine Arts to study textiles and design. It was during this time that she started a “gothic Lolita” clothing line called Akina.
In 2005, her design flair was rewarded with a Qantas Spirit of Youth Award and in 2007, she received a Churchill Fellowship to study Japanese subcultures. She was just about to launch her second collection of clothing when she realised a career in fashion wasn’t for her. “I took six months off and moved home to my parents to write poetry,” says the now 38-year-old. “At the time everyone thought I was crazy, especially my hardworking immigrant parents’ friends.”
I took six months off and moved home to my parents to write poetry. At the time everyone thought I was crazy.
With the same drive she had brought to the fashion world, she self-published a book of poems, Love & Misadventure, in late 2012. This first book plots her personal journey from love to heartbreak to finding love again, interspersed with distinctive illustrations.
She used the email list she’d amassed in her fashion work to market the book, as well as using social media, first Tumblr, then Twitter. Within three months, she sold 10,000 copies.
When she was signed by the same US agent as Australian writer Bradley Trevor Greive, author of The Blue Day Book, he took her work straight to Andrews McMeel, which made its first foray into Instapoetry by republishing Love & Misadventure in 2013.
“What was really appealing about Lang was how she presented her work,” says Andrews McMeel’s Kirsty Melville. “She has a great eye, and thanks to her fashion line, there was a visual component and already a cult following.”
The book quickly sold more than 150,000 copies. “We thought, ‘There’s something going on here, a trend,’ ” says Melville. “For a poetry book – a love poetry book – to sell 150,000 copies was notable.”
Today, Leav has nearly two million followers across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and her books, both poetry and fiction, have sold more than a million copies worldwide. She survives comfortably off her writing and lives with fellow poet Michael Faudet in a house by the sea in his native New Zealand. She sees herself as a modern poet who offers hope, for whom social media is simply a tool.
“If any comparison were to be made, look at the emergence of the Beat poets in the 1950s,” Leav says. “This wave of poets, which included Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, were basically anti-establishment.
“It was a literary movement born from a place of creativity and self-expression, by writers who tapped into the pulse of their generation. Which I guess is what’s happening now, and perhaps explains the rise of pop poetry and its popularity with a more contemporary audience.”
You may not be able to recite his words like those of My Country, nor is his name etched into the national lexicon like Dorothea Mackellar’s. But with an Instagram following of 638,000 and sales of more than 13,000 books, Beau Taplin is the top-selling Australian male Instapoet.
Born and raised in Lilydale, in Melbourne’s far east, Taplin started focusing on creative writing at 19. “But the first poem I ever wrote was for my nan at her funeral, when I was around seven or so,” he recalls. For $250 a time, the 30-year-old will write bespoke poems for special occasions.
He wants to encourage reflection amid the churn of social media. “We are all spending a lot of time on Instagram and so I felt like there was a space there for something a touch more introspective. I wanted people to scroll through their feeds and pause on something that might encourage them to consider more deeply their own thoughts and feelings.”
He concedes he’s not “a classic poet, at least, much of my work isn’t anything I would necessarily consider poetry”, says Taplin – who prefers to communicate online, and lives in South Yarra with his partner, model Alizé Barangé. “But there’s certainly a lyrical element to all my writings.”
In 2017, the 300 copies of his self-published collection, Bloom, sold out on the same day. Harper Collins Australia published his second book, Worlds of You.
“I would call what’s going on a renaissance in creativity,” he says. “But for poetry more specifically, it’s one of our oldest art forms, and so finding its proper place again in the world is heartening.”
Helen Pitt is a journalist at the The Sydney Morning Herald.