····night’s wineglass—spilling the morning’s
This is the prospective interview that inspired my previous post on Instapoetry, so it’s hard to say which followed on the heel of which. Nicholas Denmon is an author, poet and actor who has just published a collection of short-form poems (and some longer poems), drawn from his Instagram presence—Broken Footprints Faded Hearts. If you read my prior post, then you know that instapoets (as they’re called) have taken some heat from more traditional poets (despite instapoetry contributing to a resurgence in poetry’s readership). Interviewing Nicholas allowed me to address those criticisms head on. Is there an “art of poetry” to instapoetry? If so, what is it?
But what also interested me, even more so than the controversy surrounding the criticism, is the seemingly gendered nature of instapoetry. In a Rolling Stone interview, Rupi Kaur stated her fans were “60 percent female and 40 percent everything else…” I can’t speak to the accuracy of the assertion, but I do suspect that the majority readership for instapoetry is women. Kaur’s poetry speaks of and to the female experience. She’s the best selling poet, over a million copies, of her generation or any other as far as I know. Cleo Wade is called the millennial Oprah. Warsan Shire’s poetry, according to Vogue “circles around themes of immigration, sexual violence and trauma”. Demon follows suit. That is, His own short-form poetry specifically addresses to women. The handful of poems addressed to men, as we will discuss, take, in my view, a different form and tone.
To me, these short-form poems stand comparison to the Tanka of Japanese tradition. These five line poems, going back hundreds of years before haiku, were considered (and still largely are I think) considered the domain of women. Unlike the tradition of any other culture I can think of, the recognized masters of the form were generally women and their contributions were celebrated (rather than erased). Is instapoetry a kind of rebirth of Tanka? Is it coincidence that both these short forms seem to find their greatest expressiveness in the voice of women? Does their brevity contribute to this? After the close of our exchange, I posed the question to Mr. Denmon and he offered a generous answer. Criticism? Praise? Comment below if you want to join the conversation. Are you a woman? A man? Do you read instapoetry? What are your reasons? Why instapoetry rather than the poetry of journals, chapbooks and the paperbacks of contemporary poets?
Me: Where did you first encounter “short-form” poetry?
Denmon: I encountered short form poetry first in the form of haiku in grade school I would imagine. However, at the time I didn’t really think of it as poetry the same way as I did the more traditional poetry. I was young, obviously, but realized it felt different to read. As a quick aside, you and I have chatted briefly about the short poetry, instapoetry, proverb overlap. In that vein I was given a book of quotes by famous people from my third grade teacher, Mrs. Grey. The first half was filled with these inspirational sayings but the last half of the book was blank. She told me that I should fill the last half with my own writings. At the time, I wrote in small sayings and quick hits merely because the quotes were all styled that way. So it was a bit of a mimic operation on my end. As I got older I went through a phase where I quite enjoyed epic poems especially as they taught us about John Milton and Paradise Lost. I was in awe of it. The stamina and the discipline to complete an epic was something I admired. I wrote more traditional poetry through my teen years and was a member of Poetry.com which at the time was an anthology site where they would offer up contests to poets who allowed them the use of their poetry for anthologies that they would then turn around and sell. Not the best situation, really, for someone’s content, but I digress. While a member there I saw things like the six word story, more haiku, and quick free verse poems. To be honest, for a long time the short poem wasn’t really for me. I felt like they didn’t leave a lot of room for some of the nuances you expect from poetry – it wasn’t enough to really show off the mechanisms involved in exceptional traditional poetry.
Me: So then, why did you take it up?
Denmon: The internet changes things doesn’t it. I had poetry online, living in obscurity, in places like Poetry.com, Myspace (remember them?), etc. None of the poems in these areas were short writings of the nature I have been producing on Instagram – which cuts to the point. Instagram is a unique forum that is best geared towards a specific writing style. I have experimented on Instagram with the types of posts that receive visibility (call it the marketer in me) – length matters. And it makes sense. You have only so much real estate. Font sizes appear small, they don’t catch the eye, for a long time you couldn’t even zoom in on Instagram. Longer poems just weren’t being read. It could be because of the aforementioned issues but it could also be because of the audience type that lives in that particular social media sphere. If you are on Instagram it is a great forum for pictures. Happily for writers that want to be read, you can take a picture of your words and post it and reach a whole new audience. However, reaching them comes with rules. You have to fit what you want to impart in a square. I saw that writers were making an impact this way. They were reaching an audience that was thirsty for words in a way that I found inspirational. I felt, for a long time, that people were moving away from caring about reading in general, and moving away from connecting with one another because of the EXACT thing that was now enabling writers to reconnect with some of the humanity that, at times, appears to drift into the abyss of the interwebs. I thought to myself, if I can be a part of that and do what I love, which is to write, “What is the best way for me to do it?” And I came up with short writings as being a possible way forward.
Me: I suspect traditional poets are a problematic inspiration when it comes to short-form poetry.
Denmon: Traditionally, I like John Milton as I mentioned earlier. I also enjoy Frost. I like them because I respect the mechanisms of traditional poetry, the way universal themes are explored. Emily Dickinson, the raw nature of her words always struck me. The list is long because they were all great for a reason. But I don’t pretend to be in that kind of category of poet. It isn’t really my ambition, though of course I want to continue growth and development there. At the moment, and in the forum that I write, I admire for different reasons, the connections people are making with the average reader. In the Instagram forum, you mentioned rupi kaur, and she is one of the best. She connects with people and has a very real and authentic story to tell which is inspirational. Another one I admire is Salmael Wardany. She speaks of the struggles of women and sexuality in a way that only someone who has experienced it can write and do so as an Egyptian Muslim woman with a very unique yet universal set of struggles. There is a poet named Wilder Poetry and Cheryl Churchill (and here it gets murky because you know their names in the forum and not always in person – some of them like Wilder appear to do it on purpose). They write beautifully and with varying themes of nature, sexuality, relationships.
Me: What does ‘writing beautifully’ mean to you?
Denmon: They can say a lot, with a little. I admire that ability and I think it requires a bit more talent than some of the traditionalists suppose. Saying a lot with a little, with a lot a littles, isn’t always saying a lot with a little if you get me.
Me: The same could be said of Haiku, which leads me to ask what a successful instapoem looks like?
Denmon: There are different kinds of successes. I think it is a success some days to get out of bed. I think from a writing perspective, somewhere along the line, it became about reaching and connecting with people to let them know there are these unique bonds of humanness between us. The amount of folks that write me to let me know I helped them with my words or that they needed what I wrote on a particular day, is the most satisfying kind of success.
Me: What pleases or troubles you about short-form poetry—or instapoetry?
Denmon: My peers may shoot me. Maybe they will understand. I think what troubles me the most about it is that everything is lumped into the category “instapoetry’. We categorize everything in life, and we can do better here. There is instapoetry, sure. I have some on my page. Then I have quotes. I have observations. I write them all down and try to share them if I feel they might invoke thought or feeling in my readers. Folks seem to view all my writings through the poetry lens which is fair I suppose because we have somehow lumped everything into that category- and for my part I haven’t tried to resist it or change it – but if we are fair to the writing, that is what it really is. We are writing. Some are actually poems, some are called poems – all are written works.
What pleases me about it the most is the ability to connect. I feel that anytime we use the written word to help folks feel, to identify with another person’s pain or joy we are taking a step forward towards reestablishing or reaffirming those bonds of humanity.
Me: And now the more complicated questions: It’s obvious that you’re in love with women. Even in the sections of the book entitled “Me”, “Them”, and “US”, half the poems remain focused on women. The first word in a number of them remains “She”. But you’re not alone. Other male authors of the form do the same. The women seem to write about their own experiences, as women, while men write about women’s experience in a way that sounds like you’re writing, not about them, but for them. To me that risks sounding presumptuous. I remember when I was in my early twenties writing a sonnet from a woman’s perspective and my lover called it the most presumptuous piece of twaddle she had ever read. That ended my career as a spokesmen. I mean, when I read your poem “She’s finally realized what she’s gotta do” (which appears twice in your book), you’re definitely speaking for an unspecified woman and addressing, presumably, her ex boyfriend or lover. Who are *you* to do that? It’s as if you’re taking the pen from women’s hands and writing on their behalf. On the other hand, I think I recall that something like 60 odd percent of readers of instapoetry are younger women. Do you think men aren’t as interested in this genre? Acknowledging that a portion of your book is dedicated to your own experiences, I can’t help having the impression, when you write for and through women, that your work is like flash fiction for romance readers on the run? Some poems are like character outlines (“She was always a warrior”), and others are like plot outlines “She made her strength”.
Denmon: We share a pivotal moment of early writing then. I remember when I was in sixth grade I wrote an article for our school newspaper and I wrote about equality for women and totally bombed the intent. I am pretty sure I went without a date to my sixth grade dance because of that article. Even my step-mother was angry at the article and I had sixth grade pure intentions. I am no stranger to the battles of interpretation versus intent. And while it is a point worth noting, I didn’t let it freeze my hopes to achieve a greater level of empathy. What I think I would remind the reader of my “She” type of writings or anything that I write from a female perspective is that the whole launch point for this was a two year self exploration into greater empathy for what our female counterparts go through. Does that mean I am always correct in the lens I have? No. But it does mean that I am trying and I think there is an important place for male allies in this sort of struggle. What I attempt to do is use my observations, through relationships, conversations, and in some capacity my hopes for people that are going through certain things – to empathize by using this perspective. I liken it to when someone comes to you for advice – you aren’t patronizing their situation, you are trying to understand it. Some days, I don’t know that I do a great job of it – but every day I am trying. I think that largely, this effort is rewarded by connecting with my readers in a way that matters to them – and frankly – should matter to all of us. I find the characterization that some of the work feels like flash fiction an interesting one. Because on some level it is fictitious. When I talk to people, talk to women, and hear their stories – sometimes it is how I wish they could be. What I mean by that, and I have to be careful here, is that I have had people speak with me that are in abusive relationships. Have had struggles where, as the person on the outside, you wish certain strengths for them. Sometimes it is the strength to get up and leave a bad situation, sometimes it is to be strong enough to overcome adversity of a different variety. And those pieces, for the actual people that influence those writings – are in a way a fiction. They haven’t won in those battles always at the time that I write and so in the end it is my hope for them and perhaps that comes out in the text. But on the flip side of that, I get a lot of people that message me about those exact pieces and tell me how it was something they really needed to read that day, or it reminded them of someone who overcame something in their own life. Society, and men (and this does not exclude myself) even when we don’t know it, has long been adversarial towards women. Not always intentionally, some of it is so ingrained in our psyche and in our culture that it can seem impossible to overcome, but the struggle is always there. If I can be a voice to help even subtle shifts or to inspire an extra bit of confidence or a moment of “we are in this together” then it is worth the risk that I might offend someone or be seen as someone that is being a bit patronizing. The vast majority (from what I can tell) seem to appreciate the effort to empathize. I would say over the two year period of this effort, that I have only had 2 people reach out to me to say that a piece I wrote either oversimplified a situation or made an “out” seem to easy. And that’s the risk any time you write. Intent versus interpretation. You just hope that in the end you do more good than harm – and continue to grow as a writer, and a human, and being a better human helps you be a better writer.
Me: I do get the sense that it’s trendier to write for (or from) the woman’s perspective (or to project your own experiences through the character of a woman)? Don’t you risk sounding as if you’re playing, in an ingratiating and self-indulgent way, to a female audience? Do you think women aren’t as interested in a man’s experience?
Denmon: You sure do. You also risk questions regarding your own sexuality. I have been asked if I am gay because of the identity issues involved. I have also been told that I hate my own sex. People have their own way of viewing motivation that I try and not be too concerned with. I can’t help it at times, and I do think it’s a fair question. But ultimately, I know my motivations. To answer the question a bit more succinctly, I can’t speak to other writer’s motivations. Whether or not it is trendier, if it is a pander, or if it is more nuanced. As for whether or not women are as interested in a man’s experience – I would wager that they are. I seem to get as much interest in writings that are more about my personal experience and not the effort at empathy that much of my writing is geared towards. However, those writings are often longer in nature because I find it harder to condense my personal story into a smaller space. And longer writings don’t fare as well from a visibility standpoint on Instagram. So it is a forum, real estate, issue again as far as gauging interest via analytical tools.
Me: In my post on instapoetry, I stated my belief that instapoets aren’t writing poetry so much as writing proverbs. For example, you’re poem:
She’s a survivor
Scars are what happen
When you stop
Being a victim.
Those last three lines are a proverb. Compare what you’ve written with this old American proverb:
It is the unshed tears that make the scar.
Now, if I lineate and add a first line:
she will not
it is the unshed
tears that make
I think I’ve created the archetypal instapoem. Acknowledging that you also write longer poems, do you agree that what the best instapoets are doing is creating timely and living proverbs? They are, in a sense, creating (if unwittingly) a new proverb lore?
Denmon: I agree here. I think that this goes back to my quotebook. No doubt some are short form poetry. But others are proverbs. Unfortunately, much of what is thrown on Instagram, again, has to fit into a square. So what you are left with is trying to maximize impact in the fewest words possible. This doesn’t always allow for the flowery mechanisms of the best poetry. I think some of us are aware that there is a difference. I think others don’t really care one way or the other. Unfortunately, there is probably an entire generation of readers on Instagram for whom the definition of poetry versus proverb versus general writing will probably continue to get muddled. Because as an Instagram writer, you often want to maximize reach. In an effort to do that you hashtag posts with “poem”, “quoteoftheday”, “proverb”, “wordporn”, etc. Why? Because in the end all those folks really just like to read and you can hit them all in the search function by utilizing the tags even if it muddies the categorization of the piece.
Me: When I read the following poem:
It’s a wonder
Watching her in her element.
Casually blowing minds
I wonder what the point is? Is it just an affirmation? But you seem to be, again, making certain assumptions and presumptions. Is it really about you? Is it you, in a sense, showing off (in a risky self-congratulatory way) your admiration for women? What, to you, is the purpose of this poem?
Denmon: This is situation where some of the writings are just my observations. The piece here was written about an amputee that I knew who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. When you struggle with things that we take for granted on a given day, like using one hand instead of two for example – when someone overcomes that type of situation and gets back to doing what they did before, and they do it while not expecting anyone to have sympathy for them, not expecting people to be amazed that they can do what they did before a particular event – it’s amazing. To me anyway. So like a fly on the wall, I observed not just how this person went about their business, but how inspirational she was to people around her – only she appeared oblivious to the effect. That is where the line “Casually blowing minds” comes into play. However, I leave writings like this ambiguous for a reason. What that scene meant to me, is very specific. I suspect folks are casually blowing minds all over the place, just doing what they do, being who they are. It may be a teacher in the classroom, it may be how someone laughs at a party, but I think those things can be written about and admired even if the risk is perhaps I am presumptuous or self-congratulatory. I wouldn’t prefer that to be the take away! But that isn’t always in my control.
Me: “She always left a window open” is one of your more traditionally “poem-like” poems. There’s even some rhyming. What’s your feeling about more traditional techniques in instapoems? Do they belong there or are the poems better served by free verse?
Denmon: I say whatever floats your boat. Ha! Just write however you want, man. I think that traditional technique has as much a place within instapoetry as free verse. However, again, there are certain real estate problems associated with a one-inch square. You can zoom in now and so there is a bit more liberty in length and size but most readers on instagram won’t prefer to zoom in and take the time. So you are left with the intent of the poet / writer. Are you using the forum to reach as many folks as possible or are you using the forum to just “put it out there”? I know that writers are not supposed to care about how many people read their stuff and it’s about the art and such. I know that is the prefered answer from an artist. But I contend that the second you use social media to post a writing, you are doing it because you want to be read. What’s a General without a war? What is a writer without a reader? So short answer, if you can fit your technique in there you should do it. If you want to free verse it, do it. Just remember there are pros and cons to the forum and certain stuff just won’t get read because of the realities of the platform. Sometimes I will have a piece that I just want to share because I am proud of it, as a writer. And I will shrink the hell out of that font and play with the layout and put it up and man it just won’t get read by the same volume. But that’s okay. It isn’t always about how many eyeballs get on it – and that is a choice I think every writer needs to make piece by piece.
Me: At the heart of great literature is ambiguity. But one of the criticisms of instapoetry is its lack of ambiguity. It’s often mawkish, sentimental, and lacks the sort of emotional complexity that distinguishes great literature. There’s no ambiguity, for example, in your poem “She hid momma’s lipstick”. The poem is unembarrassed in its mawkish appeal to sentiment. There’s some cleverness, but let me ask you: What is the art behind your poetry beyond its immediate appeal to the reader. Leave the reader out of it.
Denmon: As soon as I finished Googling “mawkish” I was ready to answer this one. What is poetry if not an appeal to sentiment? I am not embarrassed to say that this piece was absolutely an appeal to sentiment. I contemplated the role that “looking the right way” has in our society and what I would like to say to a daughter or young person even, not just a daughter though that is the example in the writing. What values would I like for her / him and how would I go about explaining why, as adults, we act one way and hope a different way forward for our youth? My nieces are young. One is 3 and another is 4. Both have vanities with fake makeup in them. It is so ingrained in our youth that these things matter. The premium on how we look. How to alter and cover who we are. The art here is the portrayal of emotion – how I wish I would handle that type of situation. And that maybe somewhere, somehow, someone else is teaching their kids a similar value – and after I am gone – that they can find someone that helps to reinforce those concepts. It is a hopeful fiction.
Me: But as I read your response, the question inevitably arises: Aren’t you presuming to know how a woman should think of her beauty? You must know that there are many women who like makeup and enjoy the clothes and fashion that go along with it?
Denmon: Sure. But I think and again it is always the risk right, that there is a vast difference between what a woman decides and what a child is given. Now, that being said, I will state that some of this is presumption – and I am okay with that in regards to younger people – it is hard to tell nature versus nurture. They may already like it for some reason – it could be nature but we aren’t born with certain types of clothing etc. and this stuff is pushed on folks in commercials, magazines, society, how we raise them etc. So the poem is a hypothetical about what I wish for those in my family. That makeup in this case “is a toy for someday” that it doesn’t change who you are etc. But this stuff changes as a person changes as well. What a four year old has as a toy and what a person uses for enjoyment and self expression are entirely different scenarios.
Me: When Rebecca Watts accused instapoetry of being artless, what is your response? How would you describe the art that informs your work?
Denmon: If only artists decided what was art and what wasn’t, only that artist would be an artist and they would be the best and only artists they ever met. I don’t have time for folks that look for ways to bring down other folks who are creating art. Art is as varied as the stars in the sky. Look for the positives, find the beauty in things, as best you can. How we relate to one another, the way in which we perceive one another, the areas where we interconnect and overlap are an important study. More than that, how we make one another feel – is such a crucial component to my efforts. That doesn’t mean that my writing is above reproach, on the contrary it means that it is absolutely fair game for tough questions especially about presumptions. I am not immune to these things. But I do try to relate my perspective, I try and understand other perspectives, and I try and do it through a one by one inch square on Instagram on a daily basis.
Me: So I’ve been watching you respond and I notice that you seem to struggle, or slow down at least, when answering questions concerning the art of your writing. Your answers are in the context of your relationship to the reader, but Watts’s criticism was focused on the actual “art of poetry”, the use of metaphor, for example, or figures of speech, and other techniques traditionally associated with poetry. Maybe that doesn’t come into the picture for you?—if only due to the constraints of the form?
Denmon: So as you mentioned earlier – I have a few pieces that are more traditional or have an attempt at rhyme scheme, alliterative text, etc. Occasionally, I make an effort to be more traditional. But the VAST majority of what I put on instagram is not with that in mind. It isn’t because I don’t respect the craft but rather I think it is different. Though you can do more traditional work on Instagram, there is a specific type of audience there that you can gear your writing towards in order to reach as many people as possible. And I don’t mean reach as in generating “likes” but reach as in – these folks are scrolling through 50 pictures a minute. You need to capture their attention in the first 2 or 3 words. Then hopefully you hook them. It is a different kind of art if you are trying to leverage the forum to connect with as many people as possible. It isn’t artless. It is new. Like I said earlier, and maybe need to elaborate on – if only the artists doing art a certain way at a certain time got to declare what was art and what wasn’t – the natural evolution of art or at least the forums by which art is consumed (and again that is a bit of a paradox but I think you get my point) would never change. We would still be reading lovely epic poems via scroll or painting on cave walls. You can either embrace the evolution of art or you can throw your hands up in the air and declare it not art.
Me: Yes. “You need to capture their attention in the first 2 or 3 words.” I think this really gets to the crux of something like “an art form” in what you are doing.
Denmon: Well – here is the thing. There are conflicting needs here, right? To be an artist, you have to have some foothold in traditional artistic expectation or else we are just declaring everything art because we said so. And I get that. But just because it isn’t what “you” do (speaking generally) doesn’t make less of an art form. I would wager that many poets who are phenomenal, and I can think of one in particular – absolutely hate how everything is called poetry when the differences are actually very stark. However, I think that is why the term instapoetry was coined. It is different. But not less than. And not worse. But the frustration from a traditional poet is understandable. You write something with amazing technique, and no one reads it. Some guy writes six words and it goes viral. And as a poet that has all this skill in a traditional sense, is like, “That is not even poetry. It is a sentence.” But the skill here is making a sentence that conveys something important (you hope) very quickly. And sometimes we even get to string four or five sentences together (laughs).
Me: I see that you’re answering this question above, but I’ll leave the following on the table if you want to add anything: To what do you ascribe the hostility, in some quarters, to short-form poetry (or instapoetry)?
Denmon: It is frustration. Misunderstandings. Really I think that it comes down to the forum. Understanding the audience. If you are trying to write the world’s most amazing epic poem, Instagram is clearly the wrong venue, right? So don’t get angry at the folks that are using the venue in a way that maximizes the platform. The community would be better served if we understood that some forums are great for one type of art and other forums are better suited for others. Or at least, accept the limitations of the forum without the animosity.
Me: You’re not dumbing down poetry, you’re learning to exploit a new platform with its own constraints.
Denmon: I would agree with this. I think modern poetry is so different anyway. How we write, how many techniques a person uses, is still important. I don’t think that you can compare the two very easily. I keep going back to it but you simply cannot say, or show off, as much in an Instagram square as Lost In Paradise. It is impossible.
Me: “It aint right to take an infant” is one of your full-blown poems. What I find interesting is that your tone and outlook is very different when you adopt the persona of a man. I think in your poems toward women you can sound patronizing. ‘Yes, you’ve suffered, but you’re gonna’ be okay. Don’t you worry, I’m here to tell you there’s sunlight behind every cloud. The world doesn’t know how strong you are but I do. Etc…’ In your poems about men there’s ambiguity. You don’t address them that way. There’s not the feeling of a pat answer to every problem. In “The air holds a chill tonight” the poem ends with a primal sigh “God I wish you were still around.” In “There’s a man out on 4th”, there’s no pat solution for his suffering. The narrator states that the man made him “feel for something real”. I’m not left with the impression that the narrator is left with “something real” in his poems about women. They tend to be idealized, abstracted, or “If only love came in a box”, treated with a certain condescension. Would you and could you have started a poem: “There’s a woman out on 4th…”? And in tandem with this observation, I notice that the women in your book are, but for a mother and young mother-to-be, all young, all beautiful, semi-nude, in sexually suggestive poses and (in a couple) the images are outright erotic. The men, on the other hand, are given an entirely different treatment. Several of the men are middle-aged, two are old men, and they are, in general (dare I say it) not treated as objects of male desire. This despite your poem disavowing the objectification of women. On the other hand, and in fairness, your portrayal of men and women is so reflective of the cultural norm that it almost slipped my notice.
Denmon: There is a lot in that question. Some of this goes back to the idea that some of the writings are observations or advice quips and others are empathetic concepts being explored by “putting myself in their shoes” as best I can with varying degrees of success. The idea that the human element is still there even if it is from a starkly different perspective. I do wonder at times if I have developed an echo chamber of folks that appreciate the effort, if I am doing well at it, or otherwise. The risk factor is always there that someone may view it as an appropriation of sorts, or as patronizing, as you said earlier.
But it is a hard pivot from those attempts to others where I am writing from a male perspective about a woman. How I perceive her with my base instincts. Those are in there too. I am not above it. I try to be. But at the end of the day I will occasionally write about a woman and her beauty and that can be construed as an objectification. I prefer it to be an admiration. But again to interpretation. As a writer, I also write about the urges and emotions that the opposite sex inspire in me. I don’t think this makes me a terrible person, it makes me a more human person. I think if I were to not explore that part of myself, I would be leaving out one of the most key ingredients of art. Sexuality, the expression of it, the attempt to lift above it at times and to fall straight into the gutter of it on others, is a constant human struggle.
You mention an example of Frank on 4th. The simple answer there was that Frank was a man who I spoke with. I suppose I could have shifted it to the perspective of a woman, but that conversation stuck me so poignantly and through so many years, that I just wanted to give Frank his due in verse.
Me: But you understand my point? Where are your “Frank” conversations with women? It strikes me that so many of your poems talk to and not with women?
Denmon: Fair question. Outside of a few, there are some where I address my mother for instance, I have often kept the writing regarding women more general because what I am attempting to do – and I can leave the success or failure of this to the masses – is to either connect with the general human components that I can empathize with as a man (because face it while the sexes do have many differences we also have common components that bind us together) or to impart advice / wishes on those that need it. I speak pretty much daily to women that read my writings and share their stories with me. They don’t all want to be a “Frank” but I still try to capture the commonalities that I can find, how I think I may be able to empathize or what I would wish for them if they were my sister, mother, or daughter. You mention how “She finally realized what she’s gotta do” I believe. And this is my wish for someone that is in a precarious spot, that needs to change their circumstances. That is an example of why at times they may seem more general versus specific – I am trying to apply it generally, and in many cases though these poems that have “She” at the beginning you could just as easily replace it with “He” and it works just as well. We all occasionally need extra strength, or motivation. But writing for “He” wasn’t my effort of the last two years. It was primarily an attempt at empathy.
Me: I’m not sure I believe you when you say you could easily replace she with he, but I’m willing to be convinced. I think there’s a different tone that poets tend to adopt when addressing women as opposed to men, and men and women read poetry (short-form poetry) for different reasons (I suspect).
Denmon: Well, the pieces certainly aren’t a catch-all. So I think it would be fair that not all could be interchanged with he/she. However, some can and the concept being conveyed would still be applicable.
Me: So I’ll just ask: Do you think women are treated differently in your poetry?
Denmon: Yes. I do. I am not sure that that in and of itself is a negative. But just like the reader of an epic is going to be a different sort of reader of an instapoem (at times) – you have different audiences that you are trying to reach. Some may say that is a pander – but I think it is about message packaging. If we go back to catching the attention of a reader quickly, and we sprinkle in the differing needs of readers and audiences, then you attack the piece differently.
If I were to be writing a piece with my sister or mother in mind I know what interests them is different than my father. But I am not always sure that is a sex thing – it is a state of mind thing. Who is reading this work? Who do I intend it for? Those things have to enter the equation.
Me: I think of all your poems, the following is my favorite:
She bore a scar
Just above her lip
Because some god
Made her perfect
And in his jealousy
Let the chisel slip
That’s partly because there’s a sense of rhythm (just shy of meter) and the rhyme nicely emphasizes your wry humor. I personally would like to see you write more like this. It feels less didactice, less determined to make a point, and more content to simply be in the moment. It gives the reader space to laugh with the poet, rather than be addressed by the poet.
I guess that leads me to my last question, the nature of proverbs is, to an extent, to be didactic. When reading rupi kaur’s poem, their didactic, proverbial roots strike me as unmistakable. The problem I have with much religious/spiritual poetry (or the poetry of affirmation) is that it’s too often didactic. (And there’s no room for the ambiguous in didactic poetry.) When the aim becomes too instructional, both the poet, the reader, and the poetry itself can suffocate. On the other hand, I expect you don’t share the same aesthetic and artistic goals that I do.
Denmon: It can definitely be an artistic handicap to purely quote a piece of advice. But I think here is where the waters muddy again under the term “instapoet”. I think an instapoet is often a catch all for the proverbs, the quotes, the poetry, etc. And some people will use their page for a bit of all three as you develop your readership and community. We aren’t writing in a vacuum on this forum and you develop relationships with your readers and on some level there is a bit of understanding the community you develop that goes into the influence of what you post, if that makes sense.
Me: How do you want readers to read the poems in this book? What’s the best kind of letter that you could recieve from a reader? And for you to grow as a poet, what will that growth entail?
Denmon: I’d like readers to come away with the idea that a little understanding, even the attempt at understanding, one another goes a long way. It matters that we try and let ourselves feel for one another even if we don’t always grasp one hundred percent of the realities of another person’s situation. Trying to get there matters to people. Anything we can do to help each other feel even a bit less isolated is a good thing.
The cool thing about getting letters from readers as an instapoet is that they just slide into your DM’s. Every day I get folks who thank me for the effort, or help to reaffirm that I am usually on the right track. They let me know when I fuck up too. It’s a growth experience. But the thing is, the fact that we are reading, having the discussions in our community, I think are all positive. Even when I get called out, or find myself slipping into older habits. I don’t mind being corrected. I like the conversation. And I think if the conversation occurs because we are all trying to understand each other, little by little we will move the ball forward. As a human, that is the growth I want. And I hope as I evolve as a human, the writing will evolve with me. I want to continue to have something to say, and to continue to add to the discussion – and if that is in a one inch square, then let it be in a one inch square. I’ll leave the epics to the purists!
Me: So, this question of how you/instapoets write “for women” continues to gnaw. It’s interesting because when I wrote poetry, I don’t think to myself: Am I writing for a man or woman? And yet in reading your poems, you clearly do. And I don’t think you’re alone. And that makes me wonder if instapoetry might be a feminine form?—like Romance Novels, let’s say. As I mentioned earlier, the majority of readers, if polls can be trusted, are women. So what do you make of that? What is it about this form, if the majority of readers are women, that appeals to them? (In Japan, you know, the Tanka, a five line poem, was considered a feminine form and its greatest exponents, over hundreds of years, were women.)
Denmon: I think that poetry, comes out in generally two ways. You have poetry which is cathartic, or therapeutic. We write as a release of certain emotion and it makes for great personal poetry. In this type of poetry we don’t need to consider the audience. It was written for an audience of one. Then there is the poetry that we write for others or as a sort of social commentary. Here I would contend that we must consider the audience. What is the message we are hoping to convey and to whom through poetry, quotes, proverbs, etc?
For much of my work over the last two years, the focus has been to empathize with women and to help refocus the social narrative towards how strong women actually are. While the focus is skewed towards the audience I have cultivated, it is also intended to draw into the fold men who are allies of this type of thought as well as men who are open to listening. If a man is reading poetry through the feminine lens he is probably already well onto the path of listening and we just might draw him in as an ally to this insane concept that women are just as strong as men and in some ways, have an emotional resilience and strength that dwarfs those of a man. All of this is not to say one gender is greater than the other or to highlight a divide, but rather it is to shift the social narrative towards one of appreciation versus one that is structured, currently, in such a way as to sow the seeds of self doubt which in turn is really a way to suppress half of the population – which is an entirely other conversation!
So, last night I was contracted by a publicist hoping that I would interview an instragram poet by the name of Nicholas Denmon. I’m not familiar with Denmon’s efforts but am familiar with instapoetry and even bought Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. In case you’re not familiar with the term Instapoetry, it refers (if contemptuously in some circles) to free verse poems that are as little as two lines or as epic as twelve.
They have nothing to do with haiku and at worst are little more than declarative sentences. At right is one of Kaur’s better known examples and typifies the ‘form’, if it can be said to have one.
But what a kerfuffle I’ve missed these last six months. Turns out there are a number of poets and critics who have written some scathing reviews of Kaur’s poetry—and Instapoetry in general. Foremost among them, as far as I can gather, is wrote a fairly damning review in PN Review. , who
Momentarily setting aside Watts’s diatribe, I didn’t read Kaur’s book for its mastery of the arts of language and poetry. On that count, I think, a two or three line instaresumé would suffice. But she does have one skill set shared by other “masters”, and I use that term loosely, of the instapoem. Take the instapoem above. What’s clever about it is what makes it memorable. It’s a species of rhetoric, what’s called a figure of repetition. It’s an example of isocolon. Possibly also scesis onomaton and some other less pronouncable rhetorical figures I’m too rusty to recall. Isocolon is defined as “a rhetorical device that involves a succession of sentences, phrases, and clauses of grammatically equal length.” Strictly speaking, the two phrases aren’t of equal length, but close enough.
The most memorable lines in poetry, let alone Shakespeare, are commonly pristine examples of various rhetorical figures. Here’s Shakespeare’s use of isocolon from Sister Miram Joseph’s compendium Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language:
“Your reasons at dinner have been sharp and sententious; pleasant without scurrility, witty without affectation, audacious without impudency, learned without opinion, and strange without heresy.” [p. 60]
You might also observe that Kaur’s verse is an example of grammatic parallelism, something which virtually defines Walt Whitman’s poetry. The point I’m making is that part of what makes Kaur’s verse memorable (along with good inspirational quotes and add copy) is her knack for rhetoric. This isn’t something to be lightly dismissed. While her Instapoetry will never be confused with great literature, it’s worth trying to understand some of the elements that make it work and make it appealing. At left is another example.
This instapoem pirouettes nicely, and meaningfully, on the pun of ‘spine’ (a pun is a rhetorical figure). While I’m in no way comparing Kaur to Shakespeare, this is the sort of game Shakespeare often played, and it works. Hence the appeal of Kaur’s poetry.
Instapoetry can be, to a degree, a rhetorician’s playground. The best examples, and the most memorable, I’m willing to bet, are those that skillfully, if unwittingly, make use of rhetorical figures, puns, figures of repetition, amplification, balance, antitheses, etc… Although I’m not going to exhaustively review Kaur’s poetry to prove or disprove my point, my hunch is that her own instapoetry, as compared to her peers, is the most skillful in that regard, and is amplified by subject matter that is, in fact, meaningful to a great many readers: immigration, domestic violence, sexual gratification along with sexual assault. Out of curiosity, I googled Tyler Knott Gregson’s favorite poems and landed here. Many of these poems contain examples of rhetorical figures found throughout poetry, though not as condensed as Kaur’s. All this is to say that when I read Rebecca Watts’s criticism of Instapoetry, I think her criticism of the verse form is rather shallow. I’m tempted to write more on that but a sufficiently thorough and effective response to Watts can be found here.
Among other criticisms, the most curious is the following:
“From literature we have hitherto expected better – not least because endurance, rather than fleetingness, is one marker of its quality. As Pound put it, literature is ‘news which stays news’. Of all the literary forms, we might have predicted that poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché. Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords”
This assertion deserves some skepticism. Above all, correlation does not equal causation. Just because these short verse forms coincide with social media’s ‘short-form communication’ doesn’t mean the former is a result of the latter. Are we to blame the entirety of Japanese literary tradition on the invention of the Internet?—the five line Tanka and the three line Haiku? But setting aside Japan, what about Martial’s epigrams? These are nothing if not instapoems.
The bee enclosed and through the amber shown
Seems buried in the juice which was his own.
Compare the following by Martial:
You never wrote a poem,
yet criticize mine?
Stop abusing me or write something fine
of your own!
To the much wordier Tyler Knott Gregson:
And Ben Jonson also took up Epigrams. Was this turn to short-form communication also a result of social media?
XXXIV Of Death
He that fears death, or mournes it, in the just,
Shewes of the resurrection little trust.
[The Complete Poetry of Ben Jonson, p. 16]
Compared to Rupi Kaur:
takes my hand
i will hold you with the other
and promise to find you
in every lifetime”
So, apart from its name, I’d argue that instapoetry isn’t anything literature hasn’t seen before. Despite Watts’s criticism of instapoetry as “artless” — “The short answer is that artless poetry sells.”— Kaur’s verse is firmly within the century-long aesthetic manifesto of free verse. The instapoem by Ben Jonson is metrical and rhymes. The instapoem by Kaur is free verse. If artlessness is a lack of metaphor, figurative language, meter (let’s say), rhyme, or any of the “Arts of Language” associated with poetry prior to Ezra Pound, then artlessness equally applies to the entirety of the free verse project. There’s really little difference, at all, between a poem by Tyler Gregson and one by W.S. Merwin. Merwin, of all poets, anticipates the “artlessness” of instapoetry (if it’s to be labeled “artless”). To be blunt, there’s not a single criticism that Watts levels at instapoetry that can’t also be leveled at Watts’s own poetry (let alone the poems in the same publication, in the selfsame issue, that printed her critique). Not one. To whit: A poem of hers, Turning, published at The Guardian begins:
Now it’s autumn
and another year in which I could leave you
is a slowly sinking ship.
The first stanza is a declarative statement ending with a clichéd metaphor. In isolation, its virtually indistinguishable from any number of Kaur’s instapoems. That said, here’s a poem by Kaur:
i know i
for better reasons
but have you seen
the sun to
Kaur’s passage, “brings the sun to its knees”, is a much more original and powerful metaphor than Watts’s trite “sinking ship”. Watts does better, though, as her poem goes on. She makes an effort: “The air has developed edges”; “…the brazen meadow no longer/ presumes to press its face to the window/ like an inquisitor.”; “even the river will evince a thicker skin”; “…my breath each morning will flower white…”; “all of summer’s schemes will fly like cuckoos”; “Bonfire smoke/ between us like a promise lingers.”
How do instapoets compare? Watts personifies the “brazen” meadow (as an inquisitor via a simile) that presses its face to the window—an example of prosopopoeia. This isn’t bad, as far as things go, but the simile “like an inquisitor” gilds the lily. Compare this to an instapoem by K. Towne Junior:
sometimes a heart must be
broken to slip through the bars of
K. Towne Jr’s prosopopoeia is nearly identical to Watts. The only difference is that K. Towne Jr possessed the wisdom not to add the extenuating simile, like a prisoner. Watts writes that “even the river will evince a thicker skin”. This and the metaphorical “the air has developed edges” and “my breath…will flower white” are, I think (again, being a little rusty), examples of catachresis. A good definition of catachresis comes from here:
Catachresis is a figure of speech in which writers use mixed metaphors in an inappropriate way, to create rhetorical effect. Often, it is used intentionally to create a unique expression. Catachresis is also known as an exaggerated comparison between two ideas or objects.
Do instapoets use mixed metaphors like catechresis? Here’s Tyler Gregson, even using the same imagery, combining catachresis and prosopopoeia:
The parallels aren’t exact but close enough to say that Watts doesn’t do anything, as far as the “art” of poetry goes, that instapoets like Gregson and Kaur don’t. So either their verse is as artful as hers, or hers is as artless as theirs. And that begs the question, if artless poetry sells, why is contemporary poetry in such a miserable state? As it happens, a number of observers ascribe the criticism to nothing more than envy and resentment. How is it that an MFA graduate, having spent thousands to obtain a degree in the “art of poetry”, molders in the obscurity of barely read poetry journals while an artless versifier like Rupi Kaur, never published in an important journal and lacking the grateful connections afforded by academia, amasses a following of tens of thousands and sells over a million copies of her book? She hasn’t even been published <gasp> in the American Poetry Review! How is it that that once living synechdoche of everything the late 20th century poetry establishment stood for, the inscrutable John Ashbery, is already fading <understatement> into the obscurity of two (2) reviews at Amazon while rupi kaur’s Milk and Honey has already garnered five thousand eight hundred and eighty (5,880)? The establishment poets of the last 50 years are left like Anthony whistling i’th’marketplace, while the crowds run off to gawk at rupi’s riggish Cleopatra. And rather than give them pause, they have drawn the only possible conclusion: It must be because their poetry is so artful whilst the poems of the instapoets are so artless.
Ask me and I would say that the free verse manifesto of the last hundred years has become the serpent biting its own tale. Poets can’t declare, as England’s Poetry Society did, that:
“There is poetry in everything we say or do, and if something is presented to me as a poem by its creator, or by an observer, I accept that something as a poem.”
Then point a trembling finger at instapoets proclaiming that their verses are not poems and their authors are not poets. But, to the embarrassment of pots and kettles everywhere, they do.
My own opinion of instapoetry is that of amusement. It does take a certain kind of talent to write them—though maybe not poetic talent. I have a collection of books that I love, all of them collected proverbs. In Vermont, for example, we might say of some: He’s so crooked, he could hide behind a corkscrew. If we’re impatient: He’s slow as a hog on ice with its tail froze in. In my dictionary of American proverbs: A Wolf may change his mind but never his fur. Another proverb (worthy of Kaur): A friend by your side can keep you warmer than the richest fur. If you’re feeling put upon: The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine. Two other books I have: Shakespeare’s proverb lore, because Shakespeare loved proverbs and sprinkled hundreds throughout his plays (many of Shakespeare’s most famous lines are actually inspired by proverbs), and another is of English proverbs prior to 1500: Leave not an old friend for new. Prior to 1500 we might say: The habit does not make the monk. Nowadays we say: He’s all hat and no cattle.
My observation is that the best instapoets are not writing poems. They’re writing proverbs. Poets who criticize and satirize them, I think, misunderstand the nature of what writers like Kaur do and the reasons they’re so beloved. It’s not clear that Kaur herself understands but she clearly has a genius for proverbs. (Poetry and proverbs are kissing cousins.) And you can trace that genius in other poets and writers. Kahlil Gibran, who Kaur reminds me of, was beloved by readers, considered a poet, and was a wellspring of proverbs:
“You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore but let there be spaces in your togetherness. And let the winds of heaven dance between you.”
Visiting a Pinterest site I came across this instapoem which, again, is really a proverb (and worth waking up to every morning):
We are all bad in someone’s story.
But if all this isn’t enough to mollify the critics of instapoetry, then the best I can do is to paraphrase one of Rupi Kaur’s poems:
so much pain
but here she is
making gold out of it