National Poetry Month 2018: Nayyirah Waheed and Instapoetry

The cover of Nayyirah Waheed's poetry collection "nejma," featuring a blue-golden nebula in space.

I actually stumbled across Waheed’s poetry last November, but since I’m always at a loss when it comes to recommending and enjoying poetry, I kept it under my hat until my annual National Poetry Month post.

As it turns out, poetry on Instagram–Instapoetry–is a thing. A popular thing. This is what I get for not being on Instagram, I guess? I first came across Waheed last November, when a member of my Facebook book club shared a link to the free Kindle downloads of Waheed’s collections, salt. and nejma. I didn’t realize that Waheed is part of a larger movement that includes New York Times bestsellers and international book tours and full-on celebrities.  As this take from the Guardian points out:

Despite their popular success, the Instapoets’ style of angsty heartbreak poetry and daily outpourings of emotion is not to everyone’s taste. Nor do they undergo the same rigorous revising processes of more conventional poets. Gregson has said he never edits his 17-syllable haiku – “because it felt like betraying the exact emotion of the time” – and Leav says anything she posts online should be considered a first draft.

And while Instapoetry may feel insipid and bland at times, does poetry need gatekeepers? If Instapoetry is the poetry of capitalism, is that such a bad thing? Surely Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, and Langston Hughes would have been sharing early drafts of facile, ambitiously vague poetry on Instagram if it had been around sixty years ago? Are we only sneering at Instapoetry because young women like it?

I don’t know. I can only know what I like.

As someone who’s had a life-long fascination with patterns and structure and rhythm, it’s not really surprising that when it comes to poetry I am naturally attracted to closed verse, with its underlying regularity in meter and rhyme. No surprise, then, that I tend to prefer my poetry in the form of song lyrics.

Waheed’s poetry, on the other hand, is thoroughly modern: free verse, fragmentary, and with an interesting relationship to punctuation. Unsurprisingly, I was not consistently blown away at every page, but there are some gems in both collections.

As Rishi Distidar says in that Guardian article:

What makes you a poet is learning the craft, spending time reading other poets and bringing writerly tools to the emotions you are trying to convey. I think it’s great if people are enjoying poetry through social media but the next step would be to read more poetry and understand what else is out there. Contemporary poets offline are incredibly vibrant – it’s just directing people into that world.

However! Such short little bursts of language are perfect for EFL students to work with, in the classroom and outside of it. You can order paperback copies of her work from Amazon if you want copies for students to browse in your classroom, or you can follow Waheed on Instagram for little bits of poetry in your Instagram feed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *