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Summer 2023 articles

Antecedents of Instapoetry: Considering the Commercial Short Form Aphorism Before and Beyond the Social Media Sphere1

James Mackay and Polina Mackay

Abstract

Instapoetry is a form of short-form poetry that has gained immense popularity in the past decade, and has until now been particularly associated with digital culture. We argue that the success of this form owes much to publishers recognizing the growing cultural obsession with self-empowerment and personal trauma healing, and meeting this demand with mass-produced commercial products. The major Instapoets should, therefore, be separated from the mass of social media poetry, and instead be considered as professional writers producing content for this self-care publishing industry. Instapoetry’s lack of metrical control or linguistic complexity can be attributed to consumer preferences for short-form commercial aphorisms that can appeal to a wide audience. We suggest that broader consideration should be given to previous iterations of commercial short-form aphorisms, such as those found in postcards, greetings cards and novelty items like motivational posters, to better understand the cultural significance of Instapoetry.

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  • 1 We would like to acknowledge the assistance of gifts industry experts Robin and Marianna Mackay, th (...)

let oppression be the reason
you work harder than the rest
Devoue, loc 181

  • 2 For discussion of the meaning and significance of ahegao (“panting face”) in online work, particula (...)

1It is fair to say that Bridgett Devoue stands out in the world of poetry. An “e-girl,” Devoue originally became well-known as a Twitch streamer, live streaming herself playing video games and building a community with mostly male fans (if recordings of her Twitch stream posted to her YouTube account are typical, many of them asking questions such as “are your boobs real no hate just asking” (Mighty D)). On Twitter and Instagram, using the moniker “dæthfærie 𓆩𓆪,” her posted poems are interspersed with photographs of herself wearing anime-influenced and very revealing clothing or lingerie. On TikTok, always posed while crouching in a miniskirt, she makes “ahegao” faces and tells her viewers provocatively that she has no body hair “below my eyebrows” (Devoue, “Videos”).2 Her online merchandise store sells copies of her two books of poetry alongside her self-designed “ZOMBIE MAKEOUT CLUB X” hoodies, mugs and stickers. All of this attests to a fierce work ethic that also shows in her debut poetry volume Soft Thorns (2017). Originally self-published, this volume was subsequently picked up in a deal that saw Devoue reach the shelves of Urban Outfitters. In both this book, and its sequel, Soft Thorns II (2021), very short untitled feminist poems are accompanied with black and white illustrations by female artists, focusing on the female body. Devoue’s concerns are summarized in the section titles of the first volume, characteristically untroubled by capital letters: “bleed / love / scar / learn / heal” (Soft Thorns I, loc 2). These signifiers, and their presentation, are indicative of the aesthetic movement known as Instapoetry.

  • 3 Due to copyright issues, it is often difficult to quote Instapoems in any meaningful or illustrativ (...)

2The resurgence of poetry in the early 21st century in America has been well documented (e.g. Hines). Single-author collections by debut authors have featured on the best seller lists, especially Rupi Kaur’s all-conquering milk and honey (2014). Most of these authors have some salient details in common, all of which can be seen in Devoue’s work. They first acquired a readership through skilful dissemination of individual poems over social media. They have a visual element to their poetry, either by illustrating it or by presenting the text of poem in a visually interesting way. Their poetry is concerned with personal experience, with particular emphasis on trauma, healing and empowerment. Most of their work consists of free-verse poems that generally eschew metaphor and symbol in favor of direct statement.3 These writers are notably ethnically diverse, predominantly though not exclusively female. Their ranks include a high number of first- and second-generation immigrants and LGBTQ+ writers. Many of them are also involved in performance and slam poetry, genres that have similarly grown in popularity in this period. Although in this article we will concentrate on writers who work in English, poets who fit this general description have enjoyed similar success in other languages in the same time period, for example Elvira Sastre (Spanish); Trygve Skaug (Norwegian); Więcej Sztuki (Polish); Amirali Gh (Persian).

3As often happens with literary movements, the question of nomenclature is immediately contentious. These writers have been dubbed “Instapoets,” after the Instagram platform that is their most frequently used dissemination hub: this label has stuck despite many of the writers collected under this label rejecting it. This is likely because the new poetry has been the subject of stinging attacks for its supposed lack of craft and banality of sentiment. These attacks come from other poets (Watts), from professional literary critics (Bucknall), and even from the target audience of heavily online Gen-Z’ers with an interest in poetry (itsdivya). Instagram is by no means the only social media platform that these writers use—Devoue, for example, places most of her poems on Tumblr and uses Instagram for fashion shots—so the choice of the prefix “Insta-” is highly indicative. As used by these hostile writers, it suggests the disposability, immateriality, digital weightlessness and lack of depth that they find to be the defining features of this movement.

4However, one thing agreed on by most critics of Instapoetry is that this is a new phenomenon, the first truly popular form of literature to have emerged from the digital sphere. Camilla Holm Soelseth states that the digital platforms she traces “have reshaped and restructured relations between actors in the grander ecosystem of cultural production” (98). Alison Miller apportions it “a timeliness, agility, and expansiveness that traditional publishing modes have persistently failed to achieve” (166). Anna Kiernan contrasts “instantaneous publication” on Instagram with “the cultural considerations and processes that have historically informed the production and publication of poetry” (46). And although Tanja Grubnic characterizes Instapoets as highly nostalgic, pointing out the preponderance of signifiers for pre-digital print cultures in their poems, even her coinage of “nosthetics” suggests a separation between Instagram poetry and previous iterations. Perhaps the strongest statement comes from Maria Manning, who claims that “Instapoetry is the hashtag-turned-aesthetic-movement born out of the Instagram social media platform, a form of digital storytelling that has come to dominate print bestseller lists” (264).

5In this article, we choose instead to look at lines of continuity between Instapoetry and pre-digital literary and visual cultures. By examining the historical context of extremely short form poems that have always enjoyed a widespread readership—namely, postcards, greetings cards, and inspirational posters—we suggest that, far from being radically innovative, Instapoetry is simply a new iteration of a tradition of commercial aphoristic writing. This has been disguised because unusually intense attention has been paid to Instapoets’ marketing strategies (such as Atticus’s mask, or the use of social media to build audience), but also partly because commercial short form writing has not often been considered as poetry. We will begin by discussing the way that the rise of Instapoetry has been presented in some accounts, and the way that the role of the publisher has been elided in favor of a romantic belief in the solo author and the digital revolution. We will then discuss a potential predecessor lineage for Instapoetry, thinking about the ways that the commercial epigram has evolved. Finally, we will argue that it is in many ways the critical discussion of Instapoetry, rather than Instapoetry itself, that is most revealing.

1. A Movement Made by a Publisher?

6Lang Leav, though she does not embrace the term Instapoet, nonetheless has a good claim to be one of the first literary successes initially to have found a wide audience on social media. Her self-published collection, Love and Misadventure (2013), took a young writer, who had spent a portion of her childhood in a Thai refugee camp after her parents had fled the Khmer Rouge, to the top of the bestseller charts, largely thanks to a following she had built up through sharing her poems on Tumblr. A year later, the Sikh-American poet Rupi Kaur, also making the choice to self-publish, brought out her first collection, milk and honey. That book also became wildly popular, bolstered by Kaur’s canny use of Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and other platforms.

7This standard account, repeated across many histories of Instapoetry, omits the crucial role played by the Midwestern publisher Andrews McMeel Publishing (AMP), and in particular by its publishing director Kirsty Melville. Leav benefited enormously from AMP’s decision to reprint her book, something that only happened after her agent pitched to the publisher, as it gave her access to global distribution networks that she could never have managed as an individual (“Banking on KC”). As Kaur puts it in her website’s FAQ, her book was initially self-published using Amazon’s Createspace tool, then “My family, friends and I hand sold copies at local events, and we tried to get copies at local stores”—as well as, presumably, selling on the Kindle storefront. 2014 was a good year to be marketing books to young adults, who form a large proportion of both social media users and Instapoetry consumers: for example, a contemporaneous Publisher’s Weekly article shows that “Young adult novels reigned over the top halves of the print and Kindle bestseller lists for the first six months of the year” (Swanson). Nonetheless, and even putting aside the relative lack of cachet that comes with Kindle sales, it is clear from Kaur’s account that it was only the deal with Andrews McMeel that allowed her to move from “local events” to the New York Times bestseller lists. AMP, in turn, had only recently benefited from a distribution deal signed with Simon & Schuster, one of the largest global publishers, which came into effect in 2010 and allowed the Kansas City company access to greater distribution into bookshops (Kirch).

8Indeed, of the major poets identified as Instapoets, a large number have published with Andrews McMeel. In addition to Kaur and Leav, the list also includes Atticus, Upile Chisala, Amanda Lovelace, Pierre Alex Jeanty, r. h. sin, Christopher Poindexter, Courtney Peppernell and Najwa Zebian. Some Instapoets do continue to self-publish (r m drake is a prominent example), and some have been picked up by more traditional poetry publishers (Tyler Knott Gregson is published by a division of Penguin, Nikita Gill by an imprint of Orion). Nonetheless, AMP is the keystone publisher of the new movement. Just how dominant they are can be seen in their sales figures: in 2017, only four years after the company sold their first official poetry collection, they were able to point out in a press release that Andrews McMeel titles comprise seven of the top 10 best-selling poetry books, according to Nielsen Bookscan. We are the premier, dominant publisher—with more than 50% of Nielsen Bookscan’s Top 10 and Top 50 titles—in the Poetry category (“Fresh voices”).

9There have been influential publishers before, of course. John Murray II, for example, was called “the Anak of publishers” by Byron thanks to his championing of Walter Scott, while mid-century Modernist literature would have looked very different without Maurice Girodias, and women’s literature immensely poorer without Carmen Callil (Smiles 29; Williams 105; Birch 12). One could also include influential editors, for instance T. S. Eliot’s stint at Faber. However, there do not seem to be any cases of a single publisher championing a single genre and achieving anything like this explosion of sales in such a short period. As J. T. Welsch puts it, “It is difficult to imagine how online poets could have found such enormous readership without the legitimizing effect of Andrews McMeel’s intervention” (101).

  • 4 Berens also asserts that “Printed Instapoetry shifts the content ‘seamlessly’ from digital to print (...)

10This fact leads us to suggest that one defining characteristic of Instapoetry as a genre should be that it is published literature. That is to say, it is writing that has been printed by a commercial publisher and/or released in single-authored e-books that bear that publisher’s name. Kathi Inman Berens, one of the few critics to have talked about the publishing dynamic of Instapoetry, reads this fact by suggesting that “Book publishers have found a way to extract extraordinary financial value from printed Instapoetry as a dynamic playable event space.” While her argument is certainly highly persuasive, to treat the publisher’s role as purely extractive is to assume that most readers of Instapoetry find these volumes through social media.4 We are skeptical of such an assumption. This is based partly on personal experience, wherein we have seen translated volumes of Rupi Kaur widely on sale in our local Greek language bookshops, reaching an audience that is unlikely to follow the English-speaking Kaur’s account. As Thomas Hodgkinson points out, Instapoets are also highly marketed in bookshops: in each of the seven bays of Waterstone’s Piccadilly devoted to poetry, “one of the ‘face-outs’—i.e. books presented cover-forward to snag the eye of the browser—is by an Instapoet.” While there are many poets on Instagram who have not physically published a collection, their relationship to the main group of Instapoets is surely the same as that between an Instagram selfie and a professionally published photography collection—which is to say, not a distinction of subject matter, skill, consistency, but simply one of professionalism.

  • 5 One might think here of Elise Cowen’s work, read by Ginsberg in her lifetime, kept alive posthumous (...)
  • 6 There are also professional poets who only create Instapoetry as a small part of their creative pra (...)

11Treating Instapoetry as a published genre—that is to say, narrowing it to that group of texts which have been taken up for physical publication by commercial companies—helps to distinguish it from the general mass of “poetry on Instagram.” This is, is should be said, standard in discussions of other movements. Literary movements almost always consist of a) a core group with similar practices or themes who succeed in getting their work read widely, b) a fringe group of authors who also publish regularly but only overlap with the core group in some areas of their writing, and c) another fringe group whose writing shares methods or preoccupations with the core but who are either the victims of gatekeeping or people who do not attempt to get their writing published. Taking the Beat Generation as an example, the first group certainly includes Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs among others; the second group could include figures like Norman Mailer or Charles Bukowski; and the third group might incorporate barely published figures like Herbert Huncke or Neal Cassady. Completely unpublished writers do not often form part of the conversation except in rare cases where they came to the attention of or were otherwise influential on the core movement (e.g. Cassady) or if their work is discovered and published later.5 Similarly, we draw a distinction between capital-I “Instapoetry” and the general #poetsofinstagram feed (what we might call lower-case “instapoetry”).6 The first is a set of professionals with recognizably similar styles and themes. The second is an incoherent mass that includes photographs with no discernible poetic content, quotes from well-known poets, diary entries and more. This mass can certainly be read to better understand the widespread understanding of “poetic” affect, particularly via its hashtags: however, it is not in and of itself a genre (Knox 483).

12Again, this is not the usual story of Instapoetry. Academic discussion of the genre, which has been developing increasingly fast in recent years, has tended to emphasize—we would argue, to over-emphasize—a supposed lack of gatekeepers in the instapoetry genre. Massimo Salgaro credits the “#instapoets” hashtag with the power of ensuring that “poetry can become a ‘consumer good’ for all, produced outside of literary circles through self-publishing,” while Anuppiriya Sriskandarajah credits the social media as a whole with “allowing creators to bypass traditional gatekeepers that restrict the sharing of works” (182). Mike Chasar credits Kaur with “motivating today’s social and self- publishing media platforms to circumvent gatekeepers and exercise new levels of expressive immediacy or authenticity,” a phrase which seems to somewhat uncritically buy into Kaur’s publicity—Kaur’s website’s FAQ is a prominent source in Chasar’s discussion (187). Yet what distinguishes the major Instapoets is precisely that they have satisfied the conditions of gatekeepers, and, as we have argued above, often one specific gatekeeper (or tastemaker), Kirsty Melville. The predominance of racial diversity, global voices, LGTBQ+ creators, and other previously minoritized voices in Instapoetry, for example, is not a function of the lack of gatekeepers, but a deliberate business strategy on Melville’s part. As Melville has stated in interview: “I think because I’m Australian, I’ve always had a global outlook…. And I’m looking in communities who haven’t had their worlds expressed” (“The Future of Poetry”). This entirely laudable, yet also cannily commercial, decision has also led to Melville’s team creating distinct marketplaces on the publisher’s website for “Black Poets” and “Pride Reads,” alongside “Poetry Self Care” and “Feel the Love.”

  • 7 Divya Victor, in a coruscating essay for the Poetry Foundation site, describes Rupi Kaur’s poetics (...)

13We are not arguing that the digital environment has had no influence on Instapoetry: clearly, it would be perverse to ignore the medium entirely. Digital spaces such as Instagram have been utilized broadly for over a decade as a form of digital commons, creating a “digital underlife” of networked creativity (Mueller 241). In particular, digital spaces have helped minority communities to emerge as communities characterized by mutual uplift, as traced by Latoya Lee among others (105). Such communities have formed early and continuing audiences for many Instapoets, though the effect of this community on the poetry is doubtful given the apolitical nature of the poems and their lack of distinguishable cultural signifiers.7 It would also be true to say that the commerciality of Instapoetry fits with, and may even emerge from, the “false consciousness” of online spaces that play at being digital commons (Ossewaarde and Reijers 618). Moreover, we certainly do not argue that e-lit theorizations or digital humanities methodologies have nothing to offer in the study of capital-I Instapoetry (any more than we would deny that traditional literary studies can be used in thinking about its small-i iteration). Hashtags and other metrics of social engagement can be mined for data that trace the concerns of poets and their readers in a way not available for studies of pre-digital era writing. Platform studies can illuminate the ways that the algorithms employed to sort posts may have influenced or inflected the content of poems or their visual appearance.

14We do, however, want to push back gently against the conflation of the still relatively small genre of printed “Instapoetry” with the generalized mass of online-only “instapoetry,” and therefore somewhat resist the romanticization of the digital. Such a romance can be seen in Leonardo Flores’ characterization of Instapoetry as “third generation e-lit,” when he writes that: “Most 3rd generation e-lit writers are a younger generation who have naturalized what was experimental to us, and even though the work they create may be naïve and disconnected from the artistic and literary traditions of the past, they were more directly formed by digital culture” (40). Flores does not supply evidence that Instapoets are digitally native, certainly not in the form of having grown up with smartphones, streaming video, or instant photo editing apps: certainly, from our observations, we would say that a large number are millennials rather than Gen-Z. Rupi Kaur, the most significant voice in Instapoetry, was writing and performing before Instagram was even launched.

15Romance can also be seen in the way that critical descriptions of Instapoetry have been dominated by questions of visuality (the omnipresent “typewriter font” and granular paper effect) that presumably adds Insta-appeal. This emphasis has continued even though such visual elements are largely absent from the printed collections, which sometimes do include drawings (Kaur, Peppernell), but just as often prefer straightforward presentation with lots of white space on the page. They have also been dominated by discussion of extremely short form, supposedly chosen to appeal to attention-deficient Gen-Zers. Such discussion entirely ignores the longer poems in many Instapoets’ collections (e.g. Courtney Peppernell’s “[It’s been a while now and I still miss the way she said my name]” (loc 229-241)). These elements are also often treated as being produced by the platform and the mobile phone. While these environments certainly have affected the content of Instapoetry to some extent, as we will discuss in the final section, they should also be seen as existing within an existing tradition of the commercial epigram and gift book.

16This context allows us to think about the ways in which Andrews McMeel is a deeply unexpected disruptor in what until its entry had been a world mostly divided between imprints of the very largest publishing conglomerates and small presses. The state of affairs when AMP entered the poetry market in 2013 was bad enough that the UK’s major independent poetry press, Salt Publishing, had just announced its withdrawal from the market for single-author collections. One poetry commentator at the time, indeed, could only suggest that poets attempt to arrest the decline in sales by becoming their own market and buying more poetry collections (reutter)! Until that point, AMP had been primarily a publisher of books for the gifts trade. Prominent examples of their products include collections of syndicated comic strips (e.g. Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury) and Gary Larson’s Far Side gag cartoons, which was licensed by parent company Andrews McMeel Universal to appear in formats including tear-off calendars, aprons, and coloring books. A 2010 dedicated issue of the publishing blog Shelf Awareness, highlighting AMP’s new Fall catalogue, also mentions the full-color recipe books Bon Appétit Desserts and The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook, as well as The Robot Book (“which features actual moveable gears, cogs, nuts and bolts”), and the very on-trend title Twinkie Chan's Crochet Goodies for Fashion Foodies (Mutter and Schmidt). Perhaps most significantly for Instapoetry studies, they also in 2010 published Jaime Morrison Curtis’s Prudent Advice, a book which consists of numbered short pieces of advice from a mother to her daughter. We reproduce an example here exactly as it appears in the book:

It does not take much imagination to see this as a proto-Instapoem—indeed, the last line is echoed in r. h. sin’s poem “Comrade”: “don’t abandon yourself / become everything you need” (269).8

17As Mike Chasar points out in Poetry Unbound (2020), it is in the nature of poetry to appear in unexpected places, including “greeting cards, postcards, calling cards, billboards, breath mint tins, trivets, table runners, stained glass windows, handkerchiefs, pillows, cross- stitchings and wall hangings, subway and bus placards, autograph albums, playing cards, posters, calendars, stickers” (5). Chasar’s focus on projection, in the form of “magic lantern, radio, silent and sound film, television, and digital platforms,” mean that these other unexpected origins are not given much attention: he also follows the general understanding of a poem as a mostly complex or unusual set of words that have been specifically identified by their authors or disseminators as poetry. But the radical simplicity and customary brevity of Instapoetry, its preference for direct statement over metaphor, and its incorporation of drawings, all suggest a much broader definition. It is clear that to think about the origins of Instapoetry, it may be worth thinking about the ways that short texts circulate beyond book publishing.

2. Ashleigh Brilliant to Successories

Ashleigh Brilliant provides a good starting point for thinking about print predecessors to Instapoetry. Brilliant has been producing very short texts since 1967, and was described by the Wall Street Journal as “history’s only full time, professional published epigrammatist" for his product, known as Pot-Shots (Stevens A1). Designed and produced to fit on a standard postcard, Pot Shots follow a highly restrictive set of rules, some of which are the following: each must be accompanied with a tangentially related illustration, sometimes ones that Brilliant draws himself, but often reproductions of Victorian etchings or out-of-copyright cartoons; each Pot-Shot must be no more than 17 words in length; no reference to current events or fashions; no intrusive rhymes; and no puns or other elements that could not easily be translated into other languages (Brilliant). Comparing Brilliant to peers who have also managed the difficult feat of becoming recognized “brand names” within the normally anonymous world of greetings cards and posters shows how unusual this kind of tight focus on language is. Simon Drew prioritises illustration and puns, Gary Larson works with surrealistic images based on puns, greetings card poet Purple Ronnie uses highly culturally specific (British) humor, while newspaper cartoonists who franchise their work are mainly concerned with politics and/or specific milieus.9 In all these cases, the focus is either on the image, with text very much supplementary, or on appealing to a narrow consumer bracket. Brilliant’s texts, by contrast, should be considered as more literary than visual.

18Brilliant’s publishing history is typical of greetings card producers. He began by self-publishing his epigrams in the cheapest possible form available, which in 1970 meant the monochromatic cardboard postcard, produced on a hand printing press in his garage. This limited the scale at which he could produce his work, but he used classifieds and catalogue advertising to set up a mail-order business, and gradually then partnered with other companies to franchise his work. Given Brilliant’s fecund imagination—he has designed at least 10,000 Pot Shots, at a rate of one every 36 hours over his working life—this process enabled him to spread his words much more widely than would have been possible in any other format. He then leveraged this success in partnerships with commercial publishers and distributors—Brilliant’s illustrated epigrams have appeared on caps, T-shirts, mousemats, pillows and more. But as the Wall Street Journal profile puts it, “While Mr. Brilliant attempts to make the prose timeless, it wasn’t until 1979 that the legal system helped make it profitable” (Stevens A1). Brilliant has claimed to be the highest paid writer per word in the world since 1982, the year that Hallmark greetings cards paid him $15,000 to license three sayings he had copyrighted—a total of 32 words. He has also won significant payouts from copyright infringers, after establishing in court that his phrases (considered as epigrams) are of sufficient originality to come under the provisions of copyright law. He received $6,000 from the Post-It company 3M for repeating his epigram “All I want is a little more than I’ll ever get,” $1,000 from Random House for “Everyone is entitled to my opinion,” and $18,000 from a decal company for pirating three of his designs.

  • 10 One could, of course, argue that presenting one’s humor as universally relevant is a particularly m (...)

19It might be objected that Brilliant’s work is different from Instapoetry in important respects. Both are working in a tradition of very short poetry that goes back as far as, say, Polemon (3rd century BC) or Meleager of Gadara, but such short writings are generally divided between epigrams and aphorisms. In epigrams, especially as they have evolved in the era since the Renaissance, the focus is on “brevity, charm… and wit” (Citroni 36); aphorisms, which Andrew Hui claims to be “one of the oldest and smallest literary genres,” are short statements which “seem to encapsulate a truth” (Citroni 36; Hui 7; Grant 1). Brilliant’s work, as a literary product highly reliant on humorous or overtly clever plays with language and originality, is in the main epigrammatic. Instapoets, by contrast, who attempt to “to capture succinctly the emotions and feelings that [readers] have been experiencing but haven’t been able to put into words,” are generally aphoristic (Khilnani 140). Brilliant’s rules also mean that the vast majority of Pot-Shots do not seem to have an implied gender for either writer or reader. By contrast, almost all Instapoetry implies a female or nonbinary reader, while the gender of the writer is usually a significant element in the poetry. 10For instance, in Atticus’s collections of love poetry there is no doubt that a male speaker is addressing a female love interest.

20For the moment, however, we want to put aside these content-focused questions (which we will return to in the conclusion) and instead use Brilliant as a case study of a literary business model. Here, given the claims that the digital marketplace has revolutionized the circulation of short-form poetry, the similarities between his methods and those of the Instapoets are instructive. Both make use of inexpensive publishing methods: the manual printer in Brilliant’s case (where “I found that a card could (in those days) be printed for a penny and retailed for a dime - a profit of 1,000%!” (GoComics)). Both use mass media to draw attention to their products, but also raise their profile in other ways. Brilliant, for instance, sells his products to shops to remarket as well as rely on his customers to forward his postcards to other people through the mail, the equivalent of hashtagging and sharing in a digital space. Brilliant’s decision to make his distinctive name the element that unites his product, his brand, is also highly suggestive of the conditions through which extreme short form writing can become a saleable product.

21Our second case study of a commercial short form, the Successories line of posters, is again not one that has previously been subject to literary criticism. According to a Hoover’s company profile, Arnold “Mac” Anderson began as an entrepreneur with companies in areas including pre-prepared salads and travel, but had a sideline as a “collector of inspirational sayings” (Dun & Bradstreet 3). After selling his travel company, Anderson founded Celex, later Successories, producing posters that either reproduced the sayings of inspirational people (business leaders, spiritual gurus, political figures) or created new sayings that were meant to inspire those who saw them to develop attributes such as greater determination or greater productivity. In the Reaganite 1980’s and onwards, these products struck a chord, so much so that a whole industry of inspirational publishing sprang up around it. The formula was simple. Successories wall art generally consists of a stock image, usually of nature scenes that have been heavily photo-edited to make colors more vivid and contrasts sharper. Another popular theme is the human body in extremis, either in a sporting context or in extreme natural spaces. Below the image, often in a stark white serif font on a black background to emphasize the seriousness of the message, comes a motivational phrase. These phrases are supposedly designed to improve key attributes of the ideal employee, which Shaun Bertram summarizes as “loyalty, compassion, integrity, commitment, or honesty,” or key workplace behaviors such as professionalism and quality (111). Successories’ ideologemes could be identified as memes before the internet, as psychological management tricks, and as kitsch art, but as with Brilliant’s postcards they have not previously been read as literature.

22Their best-selling poster, “Teamwork Rowers,” can serve as an example of their approach:

23The text reads:

TEAMWORK IS THE ABILITY TO WORK TOGETHER TOWARD A COMMON VISION.
THE ABILITY TO DIRECT INDIVIDUAL ACCOMPLISHMENT TOWARD
ORGANIZATIONAL OBJECTIVES. IT IS THE FUEL THAT
ALLOWS COMMON PEOPLE TO ATTAIN
UNCOMMON RESULTS

24An expert in poetry might deny that this is a poem, and we are certain that the original designer was not primarily trying to write poetry. However, the broken lines, especially the design of the shape of the poster to emphasize the final message through placement of language, mean that this poster has the look and feel of a poem. Reading from the point of view of an audience not particularly versed in poetry, there does not seem to be much to distinguish it from any other example of free verse: indeed, it might seem more structured than some free verse poems. A way of accessing a contemporary version of this general audience is to look at hashtags related to poetry on Instagram. These posts include both canonical poems and one-line aphorisms, but they also include inspirational sayings, jokes, and many posts that only contain photographs. Considered with this idea of “the poetic” as a generally understood affect rather than a genre, the Successories poster can be said to have poetic characteristics.

25As Bertram argues, the blandness of the poster’s sentiment—its very forgettable nature—is absolutely intentional. Unlike Brilliant (whose lucrative copyright claims show just how important writing unique phrases can be to the epigrammatist), and indeed unlike most poetry, Successories posters are intended to sound like something that the reader has heard many times previously. This helps them blend into the background—as Bertram puts it, they are “unlikely to produce a deep response”—and thus subconsciously influence both manager and worker (104). The aim, Bertram argues, is to unite two previously opposed modes of management: the “Taylorist” mode which aims towards “efficiency / standardisation / simplification”; and the “Human Relations aesthetic” which emphasises “social harmony” through a romantic and sentimental lens (94). This balancing act cannot be achieved rationally, since its two impulses are in contradiction with each other, but the Successories poster, uniting motivational aphorism with a kitsch aesthetic, aims to use an “aesthetic nostalgia” to blind the worker to the realities of the increasingly short-term, fragmented, and precarious nature of the modern workplace. Elaine Swan finds a similar ideological function in a Successories poster themed around “D.I.V.E.R.S.I.T.Y.,” in which a mosaic photograph of a smiling multi-ethnic workforce is accompanied with the text “Great Achievements Are Not Born from a Single Vision but from the Combination of Many Distinctive Viewpoints. Diversity Challenges Assumptions, Opens Minds and Unlocks our Potential to Solve any Problem We Face” (qtd in Swan 90). As Swan argues, this image carries contradictory messages, both affirming the need for diversity but also containing it within a power structure that is in America historically white, with a “focus on color [that] means… many other differences and forms of otherness are rendered invisible” (96).

26There is some evidence that this subconscious manipulation does actually achieve its goal. Latham and Piccolo, for example, performed an experiment in which they divided call centre workers into three groups, each with the same fundraising task, but with one group having a motivational poster of a runner winning a race in their room, another group having a stock image of a call centre employee doing their job, and a third control group having no image at all. Even controlling for all other possible factors, over several days the group presented with motivational imagery achieved higher success than either of the others (542-543). Importantly, none of the groups recalled the visual prompts when asked about them afterwards: it is their ability to fade into the background that produces the effect.

27Instapoems, in the same way, carry contradictory messaging. On the surface, many of the poems are overtly feminist, with messages such as the following from Rupi Kaur:

(Kaur, our work).

28However, their imbrication with the privatised spaces—both the Instagram platform and the “gift book” publisher Andrews McMeel—strictly circumscribes the possibility of political action. Unlike primarily text based media such as Facebook and Twitter, both of which have been credited with inspiring revolutions in the Arab Spring and elsewhere, Instagram’s image-based format has made it a poor space for political organizing even before the 2016 introduction of a sorting algorithm (Arafa & Armstrong 77; Bosch 160). Posts that are too openly political are often not rewarded with heart emojis, and thus quickly drop off the feed. Equally, Andrews McMeel is not likely to publish openly contentious materials with radical political agendas: even the cartoon Doonesbury, their most politically-oriented product, tends more towards wry amusement than barricade-mounting. Instapoems, then, function in much the same way as a Successories poster, using the rhetoric of feminism but ignoring the political structures that underpin patriarchy.

29We argued previously that Pot-Shots demonstrated the possibility of using personal branding and mass media to popularize and monetize short form texts with a visual component. Successories, on the other hand, can be considered much more directly as predecessors. One way to demonstrate this, as we have been doing throughout this article, is to look at the publisher. Mac Anderson left Successories in 1999, continuing to work as a motivational speaker, but then returned in 2005, founding Simple Truths. This publisher, which continues to operate, specializes in short books intended to inspire, among other things, “Leadership Skills, Positive Attitude, Self-Improvement, Success, Goal Setting—Productivity,” with “Inspirational Quotes” and business insights (“Simple”). They also offer a “Personal Inspiration” division, which alongside titles on “Happiness,” “Faith & Spirituality” and “Sympathy & Grief” also includes a line of books focusing on “Empowerment for Women.” This set includes such titles as Peggy Anderson’s Great Quotes from Great Women (2017), Georgia Murch’s Forgive Your Damn Self (2022) and Lisa Hammond & BJ Gallagher’s Oil for Your Lamp: Women Taking Care of Themselves (2010). This concept of “Inspirational” writing is exactly how Kirsty Melville, who joined Andrews McMeel in the same year that Simple Truths created this line, has marketed Instapoetry: indeed, one of AMP’s publishing lines is called “Poetry Self-Care.”

3. Aphorisms and Trauma

30In the 20th century the aphorism in the social expression industry, whether appearing on greetings cards, clothing, or home decoration, has mainly been focused away from trauma. Many such products, as with Ashleigh Brilliant’s postcards or Gary Larson’s cartoons, use wit and humor. Others consist of uplifting or heart-warming messages. A look at the catalogue of Gifts.com shows message products such as a doormat with “Life’s better on the porch” written on it, wall art stating “Love is a journey, not a destination,” or a personalized decoration that includes the poem “Grow old along with me / The best is yet to be.” The bland wording of these phrases, their near-cliché level of “wisdom,” is immediately reminiscent of Instapoetry. For instance, Devoue begins one poem “let me trace your thorns / with my fingers,” a use of rose imagery that is familiar from folk poetry such as “roses are red” (Soft Thorns II, 65). Many previous commenters have discussed the effortless or untaxing nature of Instapoetry (e.g. Berens; Khilnani 136; Myers 41). However, something that might seem to sharply distance social media poems from the rest of the commercial aphorism industry is precisely a persistent focus on personal trauma. Devoue begins her first collection with poems recounting both her experience of anorexia and three separate sexual assaults: there are no greetings cards that carry the impact of her couplet “i woke up in a naked body / that was not my own” (Soft Thorns I, loc 24). This emphasis can be seen in other Instapoets: Rupi Kaur has also written about sexual assault; Amanda Lovelace about her eating disorder at 11; r.h. Sin writes persistently from the perspective of a man whose partner has previously been the victim of domestic violence. However, such an impression would be incorrect.

31In fact, Instapoetry directly reflects more recent trends in card and gift publishing. Hallmark Cards, Inc., like Andrews McMeel based in Kansas City, has always printed cards which make use of poetry. This is because, as company founder J. C. Hall notes, “People can express emotions in verse that might seem embarrassing in prose.” Hall also states that the company has always made strong use of sentiment in their writing as “intense relationships require sentimental language” (qtd in Hall 190). In 1995, Hallmark began popularising the phrase “Emotion Marketing” as part of their new loyalty programme division, designed to sell cards on a business-to-business basis. As Don Hall, Jr, a vice-president and grandson of the founder, writes in his Foreword to the company’s 2001 book explaining this concept, “expressions of caring can help you strengthen relationships with employees and customers” (Robinette and Brand, xi). This is an evolution of the approach exemplified by Successories. Rather than aiming to create a purely inspirational brand that would push employees towards particular attributes, Hallmark encourages its business clients to respond to all forms of emotional experience, including negative experiences. Borrowing from R. C. Maddock and R. L. Fulton’s model of personal needs, Hallmark’s model attaches maximum importance to motives they call “spiritual” (inspiring emotions including “love, passion, guilt, acceptance”) and “personal” (“self-esteem, self-image”) (27).

32As Emily West observes, greetings cards companies perceive critiques of the commercial nature of their industry as “a threat to a business that trades in aesthetic and sentimental content” (243). Company representatives expend a lot of energy stressing the quality of authenticity, whether in attaching their product to the world of fine arts, talking about the historical origins of the holidays they celebrate, or de-emphasizing the mass production aspects in favor of discussions of the individual craftsperson. This authenticity is also used as a way to spin the companies’ extensive customer research: rather than finding new sources of revenue, the creation of new lines is explained as responding to what customers already want (254). In 1992, this meant creating new lines of “recovery-specific” cards for people struggling with addiction, a major step into the space of trauma and healing. In 2001, however, card companies found a new commercial opportunity in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center. Kathy Merlock Jackson, in a study of Hallmark’s response to 9/11, shows that the company viewed the new product lines it brought out towards the end of 2001 as ”psychological first aid,” allowing senders and recipients to express their trauma through pre-written verses such as the following: “You have an inner strength that keeps you hanging on in situations that would try the best of us / That’s not to say it’s easy, just that you’re a fighter” (from a card reproduced in Jackson 18).

33As we can see, the trend in gift book publishing towards self-care and inspiration pre-dated Instagram by more than a decade, and it had already taken a turn towards marketing products toward treating trauma through the use of aphoristic advice. In around the same period, Andrews McMeel published The Blue Day Book, consisting of advice for sufferers from depression, rarely more than two lines to a page (sample line: “Live every day as if it were your last, / because one day it will be” (Grieve 24)). The success of Bradley Trevor Grieve’s book, and the ramifications of that success, can be seen in the way AMP described this title in its blurb for the 2019 reissue as a “uniquely funny, compassionate book that inspired an entire genre of uplifting gift books.” The expansion into short form poetry with healing from trauma and celebrating love at its heart was not, after all, a radical change of direction.

4. Conclusion: The Profession of Instapoet

34In this article, we have suggested that Instapoetry, as an aesthetic movement, owes as much to the decisions of publishers as to its writers. We argued that, without the decision of AMP to promote these poets, it is unlikely that Instapoetry would have been more than another piece of internet ephemera to be placed alongside Vine comedy sketches. We have sketched some of the reasons that a publisher, largely aiming at the gifts trade, would have thought such a move in keeping with trends in their industry and therefore a logical brand extension. These trends intersect with much broader cultural obsessions with self-care that date at least back to the rise of psychoanalysis in the 1950’s, and healing from the trauma of sexual assault in particular, which are beyond the scope of the current article. But it may seem at this point that the one thing that has largely been lost in the discussion is Instapoetry itself: so, in this conclusion, we want to think through some of the implications of our suggestion for understanding Instapoets. By defining Instapoetry as a separate phenomenon only partly related to the general mass of poetry put out in posts on social media, we have suggested that the Instapoet can be understood as a professional producing content for a self-care publishing industry. Like Ashleigh Brilliant and Successories, they create a narrowly defined product which they popularize using the media of their day. In this, most of them are helped by a background in fashion or graphic design (Lang Leav was a fashion designer before she published her first collection, Tyler Knott Gregson and r.h. Sin both work as photographers), while many also collaborate with graphic designers.

35We want to be clear that noting the professionalism of Instapoets is not an insult, though it might be taken as such by their fans as it takes away from the vaunted authenticity of their words. As with the greeting cards companies surveyed by West, this quality is heavily stressed by Instapoets and their promoters. Melville, for example, argues that Rupi Kaur’s “honest, authentic voice speaks to young people” (qtd in Beardsworth, 89). Similarly, the word “authentic” appears all over Andrews McMeel’s website, whether on cookery books (Japanese Farm Food conveys “an intimate, authentic portrait of life”), herbalism (Cecelia Lattari, author of Moon Phases, “[stimulates] people to know the most authentic part of themselves”), or hilarious looks at the secret lives of nuns (“Absolutely authentic, unretouched vintage photos offer glimpses of nuns at ease and in action” (Regan, back cover)). While some of these are examples of publisher hype, there is something deeply unpleasant about questioning the authenticity of women talking about their experience of sexual assaults—and, to be absolutely clear, pointing out their professionalism does not in any way question the reality of these experiences.

36However, we do suggest that placing these books within their proper context of gift trade publishing explains the artlessness of most Instapoetry—its lack of metrical control, its avoidance of metaphor, and its brevity in particular. Rebecca Watts, in her jeremiad against Instapoetry, has laid the blame at the foot of smartphones and “decreasing attention spans,” a commonplace yet meaningless critique of digital culture. It is actually better explained by reference to consumer preferences for short-form commercial aphorisms. As West points out regarding the use of poems in greetings cards:

The vast majority of greeting card sentiments should generally not read like poetry… and designs should support the emotional content, rather than draw undue attention to themselves…. Writers of manuals for freelancers always emphasize that successful greeting cards are more ‘design’ than ‘art’, more ‘verse’ than ‘poetry.’ Because most consumers purchase cards to represent their own sentiments and relationships, the editorial must be vague enough, and written in plain enough language, that many people can use it to stand in for their own sentiments. Workers in the greeting card industry argue that poetry is too specific to one person’s experience, and generally written in language too far removed from the vernacular to be successful in a greeting card. (251)

37The producers of Instapoetry, in the same way, work hard to remove personal references from their work. This is both the strength and the weakness of Instapoetry, in that it has become a radically diverse international movement open to historically marginalized groups as a matter of policy, while at the same time the practice smooths away many of those differences by avoiding overly specific references or personal symbolisms in a way that enables the purchaser to find their own experiences in the verse instead.

38We want to suggest, finally, that our discussion of Instapoetry provokes some interesting thoughts about the way that the culture conceives of poetry. Why, after all, do greetings cards and Successories products not feature at all in the critical discourse? As Jed Radula and Mike Chasar have both noted, the majority of poetry in the 20th century is unconsidered—“a layer of duff on the forest floor” in Radula’s words (191). For Radula, this is because critical attention is too narrowly focused on a small group of writers, while Chasar expands this discussion, as we mentioned above, to argue that poems lead lives outside the printed book that are not adequately considered. Commercial short-form aphorisms and epigrams, the tradition of the keepsake, the greetings card and the novelty apron, are even less considered as poetry – so much so, we believe that the continuation of the form in Instapoetry was barely recognized. The difference between a Bridgett Devoue and her many predecessors who also wrote in short aphoristic form is not that she wears cat ears and hashtags her posts, but that her name is known at all. Instapoetry is not the first time that such aphorisms have been gathered between the covers of an illustrated book, as examples in this article from The Blue Day Book to Prudent Advice have shown. However, such books were not previously categorized as “poetry” and thus did not have the same disruptive effect on the publishing marketplace for verse. They also did not come with the opportunities for publicity provided by 21st century anxieties about (and/or enthusiasm for) social media, which has made Instapoetry the ideal subject for critics who believe that the digital environment—rather than, say, capitalism—is fundamentally altering human culture. What our investigations suggest is that both a broader understanding of the literary, and a lower investment in dramatic claims about the fundamental newness of hashtag culture, may be in order.

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Notes

1 We would like to acknowledge the assistance of gifts industry experts Robin and Marianna Mackay, through whom we first encountered almost all of the products mentioned in this article.

2 For discussion of the meaning and significance of ahegao (“panting face”) in online work, particularly its use by non-Asian models, see Felkins 67-77.

3 Due to copyright issues, it is often difficult to quote Instapoems in any meaningful or illustrative way.

4 Berens also asserts that “Printed Instapoetry shifts the content ‘seamlessly’ from digital to print,” and that “Printed books of Instapoetry collect exactly the same content accessible for free in the Instagram app.” As we have already noted, the visual appearance of printed Instapoetry is very different to the way most poets format their work on Instagram—although one could argue that the texture of printed paper always already gives readers specific and tangible qualities for which the visuals of the online poems are a substitute.

5 One might think here of Elise Cowen’s work, read by Ginsberg in her lifetime, kept alive posthumously by Leo Skir, and then published decades after her death thanks to editor Tony Trigilio (Cowen 2014).

6 There are also professional poets who only create Instapoetry as a small part of their creative practice. An example might include Laura Tansley, who published a series of poems on Post-It notes to Instagram for a project on writing during maternity leave (collected in Notes to Self (2021)), but whose creative work is much more varied in form and subject matter.

7 Divya Victor, in a coruscating essay for the Poetry Foundation site, describes Rupi Kaur’s poetics as abstaining “from political and materialist critique [and exempting] any organization, nation, state or demographic of their role in producing or perpetuating trauma.”

8 Many quote sites and blogs credit Sin with having authored a poem that includes “you are everything / you’ll ever need,” which might be the ultimate Instapoem, but as far as we can find this poem has not appeared in any of his collections.

9 The only other creator from the same period who has aimed for simplicity and universality in the same way and on the same scale is the New Zealand cartoonist Kim Casali’s “Love is…” cartoons, which might well form an important comparator for the emotional work in Instapoetry.

10 One could, of course, argue that presenting one’s humor as universally relevant is a particularly male trait.

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References

Electronic reference

James Mackay and Polina Mackay, Antecedents of Instapoetry: Considering the Commercial Short Form Aphorism Before and Beyond the Social Media SphereEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-2 | 2023, Online since 03 July 2023, connection on 23 April 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/20084; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.20084

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About the authors

James Mackay

James Mackay is Assistant Professor of British and American literatures at European University Cyprus, where he serves as co-ordinator of the BA in English. He co-organized the first international conference on Instagram poetry, “Reading #Instapoetry” (University of Glasgow, 2020), with JuEunhae Knox—the resulting collection of essays, also entitled Reading#Instapoetry, is forthcoming with Bloomsbury Academic. With Knox and Anna Nacher, he has also co-edited a special issue of the European Journal of English Studies (27:1 (2023)) focusing on the global and translingual aspects of Instapoetry. He is a co-founder of the diamond open access journal Transmotion, and has worked extensively on Indigenous American literary studies.

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Polina Mackay

Polina Mackay is Professor of English Literature, and Head of Department of Languages and Literature, at the University of Nicosia. She is the Vice President and co-founder of the European Beat Studies Network. She is the author of Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism (Routledge, 2021) and the co-editor of several other books and special issues, including Global Beats (with Oliver Harris), The Beat Generation and Europe (with Chad Weidner), The Cambridge Companion to H.D. (with Nephie Christodoulides), Kathy Acker and Transnationalism (with Kathryn Nicol) and Authorship in Context (with Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi). Currently, she is working on a Horizon funded project on the political novel in Europe, and concurrently writing a monograph on gender in the narratives of breast cancer.

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