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Kathi Inman Berens, Assistant Professor at Portland State University's English Department, works on digital-born literature, contemporary book history, and digital contexts of book publishing. A longtime scholar and artist in the electronic literature community, Kathi joined Portland State University's book publishing faculty in 2015 after completing a Fulbright in Digital Culture at the University of Bergen, Norway. Kathi's current scholarship examines the digital bibliographic conditions of 21st-century books, including creative amateurism in Instapoetry, and metadata of picture books depicting nonwhite kids and families.
Why do fans of Instapoetry buy printed versions of exactly the same poems they can get in the Instagram app for free? Why buy what they already have?
The answer to this question wends through immigration offices and CreateSpace automated book publishing software, through an ocean of likes, reposts, hashtags and comments, and plants a flag onto bestseller lists with such unambiguous force that almost half (47 percent) of poetry books sold in the United States in 2017 were written by Instapoets. Hereís the same awesome metric in different terms: twelve of 2017ís top twenty bestselling poetry books -- 60% -- were by Instapoets. In 2012, Instapoetry didnít exist. It is a publishing industry disruptor par excellence.
As an artform, Instapoetry lacks most of the attributes readers of print-based poetry associate with poems. Instapoetry is semantically simple. Some say it's banal, even opportunist, more like branded content than an artwork freestanding from a cult of personality. To what extent does the legacy of literary modernism influence what counts as "poetry" today? Is the "slow reading" necessitated by richly allusive, complex, text-only poetry an artifact of print culture? Modernist poetry resisted the ways technologies like automobiles, telegrams, typewriters, ticker tape, and cinema speeded up culture. What to make of poetry -- Instagram and otherwise -- in a faster age powered by inhumanly fast computers and byte-sized attention snacks?
Transcript of Kathi Inman Berens' Facebook conversation
For me, it's not so much politesse or academic reserve as my sense that Instapoets are the NYT bestsellers of the digital-born world. They are earning livings, and have escaped the precarity endemic to most e-lit artists, working without academic funding. If you think about the provenance of a book like The Bestseller Code, which uses macroanalytics to parse shared traits among bestsellers across genres, you begin to see patterns that apply also to Instapoetry: use of common language close to spoken word; themes of intimacy and closeness. In Instapoetry, they can be saccharine because undiluted with, you know, plot and action typical of bestselling fiction.
I would add: the most interesting thing about the Instapoetry is not the poems. It's the conversation they can excite. Some of the comments are, admittedly, banal. The kind of adoration that is simply encouragement. But other poems spark conversations about, say, Trump's policy of separating refugee and immigrant families at the US border.
The challenge to any scholar, as opposed to hobbyist, following Instapoetry is the sheer volume of output. Even if I were able to scrape all the data -- which I could do, with some help -- there would still be a flood of superabundance. In this sense, then, close reading rather than macroanalytics is (at least for me) the best way to reading Instapoetry as data.