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.
The most popular among these social media poets, like Rupi Kaur, R.M. Drake, and Atticus, put out new "poems" multiple times a day to the tune of tens of thousands of Likes.
So when another one of these poems popped up on my feed, I thought to myself:
"That doesn't look so hard."
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 a physical 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.
Coming up with a poet persona: The birth of T.T. Poet
There are millions of Insta-poets around the world, but most follow the same rules:
- Use a pen name (not too many syllables, or initials preferably).
- Be elusive and mysterious (don't reveal your face).
- employ lowercase letters only, commas, sporadically.
Easy enough. I grabbed a pillow from my couch, put a toque on it—in my mind, all poets wear toques—and t.t. poet, or @thetumblrpoet, was born.
I started keeping a running note of mundane observations, and every Sunday I'd whip up several poems at a time in Canva—immersing myself in the modern poet's process.
I published a new “poem” every day that, if it wasn't deep, at least sounded the part.
After a few months of subjecting my poetry to the feedback loop of filled-up hearts (i.e. Instagram Likes), the algorithm inspired a style that seemed to resonate with people.
I grew a small but engaged audience on Instagram with my brand of poetry, relying 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, so making poet-friends was easy.
I could've followed and unfollowed people to grow a much larger following—but what I wanted was fans.
And fans I found.
People who clocked onto what I was doing found it amusing. But the people who didn't were the most amusing to me.
At one point, I even promised my followers I'd do a face reveal if I got 1000 likes on a post.
Unfortunately, the post got 2000 likes, so I had to call it off.
I used to think the difference between Art and Content was that Art was made to express oneself and Content was made to be consumed.
I used to think the difference between Art and Content was that Art was made to express oneself and Content was made to be consumed. But The Tumblr Poet had become a living satire—a piece of art that had to become content before it could be art.
And in a way, this parody helped me see where the line blurred, that for these Insta-poets to make a living off their art, they had to make content too.
Making money from Instagram poetry
My poetry finally had a real audience, but it felt incomplete. Every legitimate Insta-poet sells out to the capitalist machine with merch.
I started thinking about what products I could start hawking:
- 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, and snort-laughed when its true nature revealed itself.
I set up a website using an old Shopify store with 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. I was surprised to discover that this poetry book had legs and people were actually enjoying it, sharing it, and leaving positive reviews.
In the end, I made about $1300 USD in revenue from a $15 book—all from the counterintuitive idea of publishing words on a photo-sharing app.
Poetpreneurs? In this creator economy?
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-barrier 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 never saw while they were alive.
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: