The great thing about art in the age of social media is that it’s basically amorphous; you can create it, share it and build on it. It becomes a malleable property solely by living on the internet. The problem with art in the age of social media, however, is much the same thing.
You can publish poetry, fiction, blogs, vlogs and images in any format, anywhere – whether it’s on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr or Pinterest. In each case, part of the artwork’s purpose becomes speaking to or for an audience, whether it’s while they’re waiting for a bus and scrolling through their phone, or between texts. Social media makes for a casual vessel, both in presentation and in reception, because it’s a free community.
That very accessibility has become a new way for younger people to discover and connect to poetry and art they may not otherwise see, in a format that’s digestible on the daily. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in 140 characters, but it does have to be retweetable, rebloggable and likeable. In other words, it has to be relatable. But while all of this makes it easier to share art, it also makes it easier to steal art, borrow it or be “inspired” by it.
While social media might still hold a widespread stigma for being superficial, not so in the world of social media poets, for whom sharing a piece on their feed is like having a tattoo on their body. Sure, it’s all a lot less permanent than ink, though not necessarily any less meaningful. For many, Twitter or Instagram function a lot like a diary or an archive; they’re a representation of who you are and what you believe in.
Perhaps the biggest advantage to this evolution in representation has been a new platform for marginalized voices, such as those of poets Warsan Shire, Nayyirah Waheed and Pavana. Then, of course, there is Rupi Kaur, the 25-year-old Indian-Canadian “Instagram poet,” the most commercially successful of them all.
Kaur has become not only a voice for the marginalized, but a social media commodity as well.
In 2017, Kaur outsold John Grisham and Margaret Atwood, according to New York Magazine. But, more importantly, she has over 155,000 followers on Twitter, and over 1.6 million followers on Instagram.
She self-published her first poetry anthology, milk and honey, on Amazon in 2014. The book spent 52 consecutive weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, and has since sold over a million copies. Her follow-up, the sun and her flowers, is out this month, and its numbers are bound to come close if not exceed its predecessor’s – if the growth of her digital footprint has anything to do with it.
Kaur has become not only a voice for the marginalized, whether that be in support of online feminism or racial equality, but a social media commodity as well – and she is very well aware of it, readily capitalizing on all those likes and follows from a community that had never seen itself represented quite so loudly before.
In a 2016 profile by The Guardian, Kaur made special reference to her hometown, the Toronto suburb of Brampton, one of the most diverse in the city. “I thought that I would go to Brampton and do readings there and it would be filled with Punjabi people. It’s not. They’re very timid. I think poetry and this form of expression is still kind of new and there’s a lot of hiding happening.”
As an Indian immigrant raised in Western society, Kaur’s core subjects have often been about straddling those two worlds, holding a mic to what the South Asian community typically sweeps under the rug, whether it be abuse, rape, gender roles or body image. But that is also a community that has found safety on the nameless, faceless internet, a market Kaur has essentially created thanks to her ceaselessly rebloggable content.
The numbers speak to this claim, certainly, but what about those artists who came before her?
Like Waheed and others, Kaur’s writing follows a very simple structure that easily fits a cell-phone screen, right down to her hand-drawn illustrations. Lines sound like those scribbled in the back of an elementary school notebook, whether accented with the heartbreak of a high schooler or the inequality felt by an adult woman. The layers of her poetry are not too difficult to peel back thanks to common cultural metaphors and motifs (ex. honey, fruit, water). They’re all quirks reminiscent of the social network they inhabit, right down to the aesthetically appealing use of repeated lower case and line breaks. While that simplicity can belie its own complexity, it’s also easy to imitate, which is why it’s become synonymous with social media poets.
In the social media world, where sharing is everything, it is very easy to be derivative, but very hard to prove you are not
For them, this calls Kaur’s artistic integrity into question. In her August Buzzfeed story, The Problem With Rupi Kaur’s Poetry, Chiara Giovanni writes, “There is something deeply uncomfortable about the self-appointed spokesperson of South Asian womanhood being a privileged young woman from the West.” She goes on to suggest Kaur’s work is exploiting and commodifying female trauma, and that her interpretation feels “disingenuous.”
And earlier this summer, Waheed accused Kaur of “plagiarism, paraphrasing and hyper similarity” on her Tumblr. While the two overlap in style and theme, along with countless other social media poets, some suggested the praise of Kaur’s work over Waheed’s is rooted in anti-blackness. Meanwhile, this movement of poetry itself seems inspired by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, Sikh scripture and East Asian poetry.
In the social media world, where sharing is everything, it’s very easy to be derivative, but very hard to prove you’re not. But in the realm of digital poetry, shouldn’t the question be, not where did it come from first, but rather, how is it evolving?
While Kaur is undeniably a woman of certain privilege, that doesn’t negate the fact that she is still a marginalized woman who, simply by creating, has given a voice to an otherwise largely invisible community. Social media breeds trends and, five years ago, the thoughts of a 20-something woman of colour were nowhere near as trendy as they are now, thanks in part to Kaur. While that commercial tendency is indeed insidious, it’s also the first step to a larger platform for more minority artists.
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While it’s certainly important to call disingenuous literature into question – particularly if it is choosing to speak for a lived experience it does not know – it’s also true that writing about her own trauma and her own experience with being a woman of colour doesn’t inherently qualify Kaur’s work as more than superficial. Often opting for a “we” over an “i”, Kaur positions herself as a voice for all, even if she doesn’t directly claim to be one.
But poetry is a form that, by its very nature, invites healthy discourse. And while critique is important, so is recognizing the consequences of art in the age of social media, which will be fighting to be considered more than just vapid musings of a teenager for years to come. Despite that, Kaur has managed to strike a chord with countless young brown women who don’t or can’t share their voices outside the internet. In her work, they’ve found themselves, and if that isn’t the job of poetry – online or offline – I’m not sure what is.