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:
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:
- Use a pen name (initials preferably and not too many syllables)
- Be elusive and mysterious (don’t show your face)
- 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.
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.
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.
People who clocked onto what I was doing found it amusing. But the people who didn’t were the most amusing to me.
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).
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.
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.Tweet
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 😔🥀