My Journey Into the Weird World of Instagram Poetry

FeaturedMy Journey Into the Weird World of Instagram Poetry

Spend any amount of time on Instagram these days and it’s hard to avoid it. Times New Roman or Special Elite type on a white background. Poorly punctuated platitudes about being in love or feeling unloved, written like uppercase letters are illegal.

Poetry once more flows freely in the mainstream.

But how did we go from William Blake to R.M Drake?

From “Tyger Tyger, burning bright” to this:

r.m. drake poem: the right people will always find you at th right time.

Effortless and obvious in a genre known to be careful and cryptic, Insta-poetry speaks to people in a way that feels like it understands them. But more important, in a way that’s easy for them to understand.

These modern poets churn out new poems daily—contenders in a game of volume competing for Likes. So when one of these poems popped up on my feed for the 2384th time, I thought to myself: How far could I get doing this? Where exactly was the line drawn between poetry and not-poetry today?

It was an experiment only meant to last a few months. Instead, it turned into a year-long endeavor, 4000 followers, and ~$1300 USD in sales of an actual poetry book.

In poking fun at the Insta-poet, I had become an Insta-poet. And what was worse at the time:

I didn’t even know it.

The birth of t.t. poet (@thetumblrpoet)

There are probably millions of insta-poets around the world. Writing in different languages, on different topics—some that even illustrate or employ graphic design in their poems.

But they mostly follow the same set of rules:

  1. Use a pen name (initials preferably and not too many syllables)
  2. Be elusive and mysterious (don’t show your face)
  3. lowercase letters only

Easy enough. I grabbed a pillow from my couch, put a toque on it (all poets wear toques in my mind), and t.t. poet, or @thetumblrpoet, was born.

@thretumblrpoet Instagram profile and bio
The “Tumblr poet” was the original Instagram poet, so this seemed appropriate. Plus, t.t. poet had a nice ring to it.

From that point on, I published a new “poem” every day that, if it wasn’t deep, at least looked the part. I kept a running doc of mundane observations and shower thoughts that I could use to whip up a weeks’ worth of posts to schedule out in a half-hour every Sunday (thanks Canva and Later).

After a few months of subjecting my poems to the feedback loop of filling up Instagram hearts, I found a style that seemed to resonate deeply with people.

Through consistent shitposting publishing, I organically grew a small-but-engaged audience on Instagram with my brand of poetry😔🥀. I relied mostly on hashtags, interactions with similar accounts, and some light automation to Like posts from relevant users. Turns out Instagram poets are a heavily networked bunch, some even forming pods to promote each others’ poetry.

Sure, I could’ve followed and unfollowed people to grow a much larger following—but what I wanted was fans like Atticus and Rupi Kaur had. And fans I found.

  • Instagram Story: Ok that's the last in the series of. "Blair fell down @thetumblrpoet rabbit hole...
  • Instagram DM: Glad you're back. I like your poetry. It's like un-poetry. Be well.
  • Snapchat Group Chat where someone rehashed a tumblr poet poem: Luis said he's gonna kick you out of the group chat for saying that Jose.
  • Instagram story: omg follow this guy. some of best stuff i've read
  • instagram comment: i love you
  • instagram DM: every single post of yours is genius. love them! they always crack me up

People who clocked onto what I was doing found it amusing. But the people who didn’t were the most amusing to me.

Comment that says: Your edict reflects the superbness in your pen. Just in love with this. Wish you good luck. Do visit my page and follow me if you like it.
“Your edict reflects the superbness in your pen.” Thanks.

At the height of my little project, I even promised my followers I’d do a face reveal if I got 1000 likes on a post. Unfortunately, it got 2000 likes, so I had to call it off (I guess this is technically the face reveal).

  • instagram post: if this poem gets 1000 likes, i will do a face reveal
  • instagram analytics showing more than 2000 likes

The business of Instagram poetry

I had a real audience for my poetry😔🥀, but the satire was incomplete. A legit insta-poet would monetize it.

So I started thinking about what products I could sell:

  • T-shirts? Maybe later.
  • Mugs? Doubt anyone would buy them.
  • A book? The answer was obvious.

I had a lot of poems😔🥀 written at this point, so most of the work was done. All I had to do was curate my top-performers, expand on them, and add a few more until I had my first poetry book, which was appropriately titled: Flowers Are Just Tiny Trees.

I bugged some coworkers to help me with the cover illustration (Skye Zhang 🙏🏾) and the book layout (Vineeth Sampath 🙏🏾). I wanted it to be a product that people mistook for a Rupi Kaur book, picked up to leaf through, before snort-laughing when its true nature revealed itself.

screenshot of www.thetumblrpoet.com

I set up a website using an old Shopify store and Lulu Xpress to print and ship the book on-demand. Aside from a ~$150 Facebook campaign I ran as an experiment, I focused on getting all my sales organically:

  • I drove people to a coming soon page to build an email list while I prepared the book for launch.
  • I promoted it to my existing Instagram audience using product tags in posts.
  • I sent a free copy out to a handful of larger accounts (I didn’t make a lot of sales but got some new followers).
  • Some people saw the book in the wild and googled it after to buy their own copy.
  • A few who bought it also bought a 2nd copy later to give as a gag gift.

Friends bought the book of course. But I didn’t expect so many orders from strangers or for anyone unfamiliar with the account to “get it”. I was surprised to discover that this poetry book had legs and people were actually enjoying it, sharing it, and leaving positive reviews.

I didn’t make a lot of money from this $15 book (~$1300 USD in revenue). But it was enough to appreciate the business of Instagram poetry born out of the counterintuitive idea to publish writing on a photo-sharing app:

Poetry is by nature the most economical content you can create. So it makes sense that a handful of words can be worth more than a photo when those words speak so directly, so efficiently, to so many people.

Poetpreneurs—in this creator economy? Of course

The Tumblr Poet started as a parody of the commoditization of poetry. It ended in a deep respect for this evolution of the genre.

It’s almost like poetry was waiting for social media all these years. To help carry it literally into the hands of the masses. To open poets up to rapid feedback loops, low-investment merchandising, and the opportunity to grow an audience they could call their own. To allow the writer to reap the recognition and revenue that the poets of the past often only received posthumously.

Now, is this species of poetry any good? That’s up to the consumer, as t.t. poet taught me.

But it does bring me some joy as a writer to know that the written word on today’s internet can still compete with selfies and photos of a meal that you paid someone else to cook.

Or to put it in the words of one such Instagram poet:

there are 
two things that 
will
always move people:
getting evicted 
by your landlord,
and 
     poetry.

          —t.t. poet 😔🥀

Choosing 100: Confessions of a Recovering Underachiever

FeaturedChoosing 100: Confessions of a Recovering Underachiever

When I was in high school, I had this gym teacher who was a real hard-ass.

The kind of guy who would make you do 4 laps around the school in the middle of winter if you were even 2 minutes late to his class.

But he inadvertently taught me one of the most valuable lessons of my life.

One day, we were all in the weight room doing what people do in weight rooms (for me: standing around and talking).

Without explaining why, our teacher decided to call us up one at a time and ask us what grade we wanted to get in his class, jotting down each person’s answer.

“80…90…85…93…”

Each student would walk up, say his answer, and then rejoin the class.

Then my turn came.

“What grade do you want in this class?” he asked without looking up from his clipboard.

Now, before we continue, let me say that during the tail end of my high school years I wasn’t exactly a model student: skipping class, clowning around, coasting through math on copied answers, and landing myself in the occasional trouble—just so you fully understand the seriousness of my answer.

“100,” I shrugged.

“Everyone. Come here,” he said in his usual stern voice. A circle formed.

“This is what everyone should be aiming for. Why would you only want 80 or 90 percent of anything? Braveen is the only one who said 100. ” He looked at me and nodded and dismissed us all.

Have you ever felt 25 people rolling their eyes at you?

“Fuck you, Braveen,” said one of my classmates who thought I was full of shit.

I was. I didn’t care what grade I got in P.E.

In fact, when it came to grades, I was pretty comfortable with mediocrity—70% is a glass that’s more than half full, at least by my standards back then.

But what I didn’t realize was that this attitude would hold me back in a big way when it came to what I actually did care about:

Writing and putting my ideas out there.

When it came to that, I did it every chance I got because, to me, it was fun flexing my imagination and having an audience.

It was fun spending a month writing full-length plays, bringing them to a stage, hearing people laugh, penning poems, performing sketches, coming up with jokes, and spinning up short stories.

But I had a line I wouldn’t cross: on the other side of it was taking writing too seriously.

The thing about underachieving is it feels great to do well when it isn’t your goal. But by contrast, it feels terrible to fall short after trying to reach your goal.

That’s why we often choose 80 or 90 instead of 100. We’ll lower the bar so our goals are achievable, even if it might mean denying ourselves a better outcome.

If you achieve it, you feel good. If you exceed it, you feel great (for about 5 seconds if you’re an underachiever, then you realize: Oh shit, I have to do this again?).

But if you fall short, well, you’re a failure and why the hell did you even bother?

It’s a paradox that plagues a lot of young people. Some people go their whole lives without ever overcoming it. It’s much easier to choose to play a game you know you can win, even when the prizes aren’t the ones you want.

So when it came time to decide what I was going to do with my entire life at the tender age of 18, I was thisclose to committing to a career as a teacher despite my dreams of being a real writer: the kind who left a body of work in his wake.

For some reason, being a teacher seemed safer and more realistic. Writing could be a hobby, I thought.

Even if I managed to navigate around all the broken dreams a career like this attracts, I had been convinced the pay wasn’t worth it. Plus, I didn’t see many bylines like “Braveen Kumar” in the things I read back then.

You know, I’d probably be an unhappy teacher right now, if it wasn’t for a teacher who showed me the paths I could take and all the jobs I could reasonably get as a writer, mostly in marketing and journalism.

Because of her, I chose 100 and I made up my mind: I was going to go all-in on being a professional writer.

By my own estimates (and other peoples’) I thought I’d be writing shit no one would read for $30-something-thousand a year at 28 years-old.

It didn’t help that when I shared my ambitions with most people, they’d react with basically the in-person equivalent of a lowercase “lol”.

But at least I was directing all my efforts at something I could get behind:

  • I started a satirical blog where I would publish a piece of creative writing every week and jokes every day, whether they were funny or they flopped.
  • I took on any writing-related job that came up: resumes, essays, press releases, website copy, consulting, blog posts, grad school applications, and favours for friends, helping out on their projects.
  • I consumed everything I could that would help me improve my craft.
  • I pitched and wrote for whatever publications would accept my work.

In the process, I got a lot of invaluable real-world feedback—good, bad, and weird—from the total strangers who read my stuff:

confession__i_am_a_homo-phobe___thought_catalog
Thanks, Mike 🙏🏾

532128_10151451037928500_960628437_n
This one is my favourite.

braveen_kumar__writer
Some people were actually nice.

With a lot to gain and only time to lose, I poured my entire self into it. I didn’t know how much effort it would take, so I gave it everything.

And then something happened.

I hit 100—at least relative to my low expectations.

I got my first job out of college as a “content marketer” (basically what writers call themselves these days to get decent pay). I was getting a steady paycheque to do my favourite things: come up with ideas and write them into being.

A year and a half later, I landed the best job I could hope to get at what is now one of Canada’s most valuable companies. I’d broken 100 when I only expected 70.

This sounds great. It was. It is. But for the first time in years, I didn’t have a concrete goal anymore.

My “why?” had become “what now?”

I still felt the rumblings of my old hunger—to be a real writer—but I didn’t need to feed it anymore. It was already well-fed, decently paid, and couldn’t complain about its commute.

But here’s the thing: It’s never good when your thoughts linger too long in liminal spacethe place of uncertainty that exists between answers.

Ambition without a personally meaningful direction eventually hollows you out and becomes restlessness and depression.

Despite everything, I was still afraid of failure and the helplessness it evokes, still afraid of success and the expectations it sets.

Looking back over the years, bit-by-bit I shrugged off my dreams in favour of a safer path: a career in marketing.

Without realizing it, I had gone back to choosing 70.

My old ambition gathered dust. I told myself that I’d outgrown it, that most writers eventually do. But I still lugged it around. every. single. day.

draftcount
This is what writing looks like when only half your heart is in it.

When you deny yourself something that is so central to your identity, it changes you. In choosing 70%, I also became 70% of who I really was.

I didn’t realize this until recently when I forced myself to write this.

For two weeks, I sat down after work to at least stare at this page for an hour or two, no matter how exhausted I was.

For two weeks, I wrote and edited for free—for me.

And for two weeks, I felt more productive, happier, and more like myself because caring about something—really giving a shit—is contagious and will infect every part of your life.

So, here’s the thing I’ve grown to accept:

Ambition is the purpose woven into the very fabric of your life and it will ask a lot of you. Some people can ignore it and live happy lives. But the bigger it is, the louder it gets.

It’s better to embrace it.

That’s why I finally published this: the first piece I’ve really cared to write in a very long time.

And it feels good.

Not because I think you’ll like it, but because I can say it came from me.

So going back to my old gym teacher (how the hell did we get here?), I think he had a point. Kind of.

I still don’t give a shit about P.E, but this?

One hundred fucking percent. 

If you liked what you just read, subscribe to my blog to get my next post in your inbox!

Embracing Your Inner Raccoon (Or: The Problem With Pandas)

Embracing Your Inner Raccoon (Or: The Problem With Pandas)

I love pandas as much as you do. 

They’re adorable. Just look at this little bastard.

giphy
A Giant Panda in captivity. Also me at the club after a few drinks.

But be honest with yourself.

Aside from the awws and oos that their derpy demeanours provoke, they’re not all that impressive.

Even if we weren’t destroying their habitats, pandas aren’t exactly the poster bears of survival:

Can you really argue with me?
This is a GIF so you can’t hear the ferocious sound of the baby panda sneezing.

Still, we love them.

We ignore the sad reality that these animals have become prisoners of their own fate.

For the most part.

sneaky_zoo_panda_fakes_pregnancy_to_get_more_treats_-_again_-_trending_-_cbc_news
Some pandas can be pretty clever. #NotAllPandas via CBC News

In captivity, where we usually see them in GIFs and YouTube videos, panda life is synonymous with a lot of eating, sleeping and repeating the last two things.

It looks like a pretty dope life, aside from the whole “being endangered” thing.

In fact, if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably forgotten that pandas are technically a kind of bear.

It’s hard to believe “panda startled by sneeze” is related to “grizzly that ripped Leonardo Dicaprio’s face off”.

To me, pandas are a reminder that destiny is a depressing concept.

Raccoons, on the other hand…

Raccoons—or “trash pandas” as they’re unaffectionately called—are on the other end of the spectrum of survivability. They’re the entrepreneurs of the animal kingdom.

We don’t like them because they’re the very thing that pandas aren’t:

They’re resourceful and relentless.

In fact, raccoons are one of a few animals that constantly force us to adapt to them.

Raccoon vs. Raccoon-Proof Bin. Spoiler alert: Bin wins—but not without a fight.

Raccoons give zero f*cks.

They get into our garbage bins, break into our home, and even open our jars (something many humans struggle with).

Plus they’ll eat pretty much anything.

“Cat food? This is raccoon food now! Snee snee snee!”

Your Panda vs. Raccoon Instinct

I think everyone’s got a panda instinct and a raccoon instinct. Kind of like “fight or flight”, but more like “can or can’t”.

When you do something new, something that forces you to learn from scratch, your initial reaction might be, “I can’t do that.” And I think that’s perfectly normal.

When I was learning how to write and no one read my shit, when I was learning how to dance and tripped over my own feet, when I was learning Tae Kwon Do and couldn’t kick over my head, when I was learning how to build my first ecommerce site and it looked like 💩, I remember giving up countless times. I remember thinking these things were beyond me. I remember believing I was a panda.

I’m not afraid to tell you I’ve thrown my hands up and said, “Screw this” a **lot** in my life. Sometimes I really meant it and that was that.

But every time I couldn’t quite commit to the idea of defeat, something else happened: I became okay at those things.

When we’re faced with something so far away from what we’re used to—a new job, an unfamiliar problem, a foreign skill—we sometimes mistake a learning curve for an inability to adapt.

We grossly underestimate our inner raccoons.

Our panda instinct tells us we are what we are because it’s easier than going off-script and trying to be more. But when you fight past that doubt, you draw out your inner raccoon.

And we’ve all got a little raccoon in us—the proof is all the times you’ve been forced to be resourceful:

  • When your back is against the wall
  • When your job is on the line
  • When you need the money
  • When you’re facing a deadline
  • When someone is shoving the end of a broom into the make-shift home you’ve chewed into the ceiling

That’s when we shift our perspective.We shed the panda mindset and adopt the raccoon’s:

  • “I don’t know” becomes “I don’t know yet.”
  • “I can’t do that” becomes “I’ll figure it out.”
  • “Am I allowed to do that?” becomes “Let them stop me.
  • “What if…?” becomes “Screw it.”

Resourcefulness seems like a respectable trait on paper. But it’s messy.

It’s desperate. It’s hungry. It’s ungraceful. It’s obsessive. It’s a shit storm of trial and error. And it can be a bit of an asshole.

It’s sidestepping the red tape—sometimes real and oftentimes imagined—and doing what you need to do, ignoring what the world thinks about it. It’s Googling what you don’t know. It’s drawing on other people as a resource. It’s making time when you don’t have it. It’s trekking through the “grey”.

But above all, it’s sticking with your problems.

None of this guarantees success, but it does ensure that you look everywhere for it—outside of your comfort zone and beyond the cards you’re holding.

Like them or hate them, unlike pandas, raccoons embody our better instincts.

So the next time you feel like you’re being a panda about a problem, take a step back and ask yourself:

“What would a raccoon do?”

The answer is: Whatever it has to.

Note: No pandas were harmed in the writing of this piece. Not even emotionally. Because pandas can’t read. Besides, they’re technically not on the endangered species list anymore, so they’re safe to use as a rhetorical prop here 🐼.

If you liked what you read, subscribe to my blog to get new posts in your inbox— up there 👆🏾 if you’re on desktop, down there if you’re on mobile👇🏾

How Religion Helps Me Understand “Mindfulness” (As an Atheist)

How Religion Helps Me Understand “Mindfulness” (As an Atheist)

I may be a bad hindu in many ways—a hindDON’T, if you will—but I do appreciate the symbolism and the stories of the religion I grew up in.

So if an atheist is allowed a favourite god, mine would be Ganesh.

And not just because he’s a quarter elephant with 4 arms. Or because he’s literally part of the Marvel comics universe (not joking, look it up). 

ganesha_28earth-4100129
Marvel movie adaptation starring Ron Perlman as Ganesh. No? Okay, another Spiderman reboot then.

What I like is that he’s considered the remover of obstacles and the god of wisdom.

And like most Hindu gods (and Power Rangers), Ganesh also has a dedicated “vehicle” or animal mount—in his case, a mouse.

I know what you’re thinking: *Someone* drew the shortest straw. Especially when some of the other gods roll through on tigers and lions.

Pasted_Image_2016-05-10__7_15_PM
Shotgun! Oh…wait…

But I like to think this mouse represents those pesky, destructive thoughts—thoughts like envy, fear, anger, regret, “what if” and “never will”—that nibble holes in our happiness.

These unproductive thoughts enjoy biting at our heels and have the potential to become bigger obstacles than anything in front of us.  But Ganesh, with the weight of his wisdom (his body too; he’s not the slimmest god), knows he’s bigger than the mouse —these thoughts.

I’m still not sure what “mindfulness” means, or why it seems to be the cure-all for everything today, but I think this at least makes a good metaphor, a powerful reminder, that our own bodies are bigger than our thoughts.

It’s not only what you do to take care of your body, but how much time you spend taking care of your mind and cultivating good mental habits—something I’m trying to focus on as my life gets more hectic.

If we pay attention to ourselves—if we learn to step outside of our minds and put our foot down whenever we feel the need to stray toward negative thoughts—we can stop ourselves from being controlled by our thoughts, from letting them take a piece of our peace of mind.