If you haven’t come across a piece of Atticus poetry on Instagram Explore, you might recognize his work from Karlie Kloss’s feed. Or Shay Mitchell’s. Or Alicia Keys’s. Or Belletrist’s, the feed for Emma Roberts’s online book club.
Atticus, an anonymous Canadian poet currently living in L.A., has become one of the most well-known Instagram poets around, at a time when—thanks in large part to fellow Canadian Rupi Kaur— social media poetry is more popular than ever. But Atticus didn’t set out to be a poet. For most of his life, the young writer did “basically anything that was the opposite of poetry,” until he had a chance meeting with actor Michael Madsen (who you might recognize from Kill Bill and Reservoir Dogs), who told him that reading and writing poetry was what saved him from addiction and depression.
“I thought, here’s one of the most American badass people I’ve ever met, and he’s reading and releasing his own collection of poetry,” Atticus explains over the phone from California (FLARE has his phone number, but no other identifying info). “That really stuck with me. So a few days later, I started writing, just jotting things down. I figured I’d post whatever I wrote anonymously, so there was no harm in it. I never really expected it to take off the way it did; I certainly never expected people to start tattooing it on themselves. It’s all very humbling.” At the time of our interview, Atticus had 375,000 followers on Instagram. Just two days later, he’d added another 10,000.
Even with all those followers, Atticus has managed to maintain his anonymity. “The main reason I wear a mask is to remind myself to always write what I feel, instead of what I think I should feel,” he said. “I’m not precious about my identity, it’s not that no one can know at all costs or anything. It’s become a symbol: in a world of people that want to be famous, I’m very fine not ever letting people know who I am. I just want to continue writing what I feel; I never want to lose that.”
Atticus—whose name was inspired by the ancient Greek Atticans, known for their art and poetry—names F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac and Sylvia Plath as some of his favourite writers. “Ernest Hemingway is really inspiring, with his ability to cut the fat and say a lot with a little,” he added. “I try to do that a lot.”
FLARE spoke with Atticus about the popularity of Instagram poetry, why he’s chosen to write under a pen name and the meaning behind the title of his newly-released collection of poems, Love Her Wild (Simon & Schuster, $25).
Instagram poetry has been such a popular topic lately. Do you think of yourself as an Instagram poet?
I am an Instagram poet—I primarily grew an audience through Instagram and it has somewhat defined the poetry that I write: on Instagram, short-form poetry is what’s most consumable. There’s a lot of young people finding poetry through these more accessible, consumable poems. In my book, I write some longer stuff. But I like writing the shorter works—epigrams and aphorisms and turns of phrase. I love messing around with the English language. Some of it works; some of it definitely doesn’t. I like to try and reinvent things.
One of the criticisms of Instagram poetry is that it can seem like a formula: one to two sentences broken up into multiple lines, posted in a typewriter font.
That’s very true. That criticism isn’t going to go away. The fact is, there is a lot of bad poetry out there. I’ll certainly post things that I’ll think are bad, and end up taking them down. But the medium [of Instagram] is different [from print], and that’s something we need to get used to. Just because something is short doesn’t mean it’s bad. To say a whole story in four words is really challenging. I try to challenge myself to say as much as I can with as little as possible. I’m very far from where I want to be as a writer, but I’m studying all the time, trying to experiment, to improve. I’m not scared to make mistakes and write badly.
How has Instagram changed poetry, other than in length?
In the past, it was hard to get feedback on your work. The writers that rose to the top were the ones that followed conventional, linear paths to success; it was just this constant grind to get published. It could be years after writing a piece that you got feedback. Where social media has changed things is that you now get immediate feedback. There are certainly pros and cons to that. It’s much easier to find yourself writing to please your critics now, for your audience rather than for yourself. But it’s a new medium, a new art form; I don’t think it’s fair to say that no one should be writing like this. There’s a whole world of people that do enjoy this form of poetry.
In a lot of ways, it’s a gateway drug, in a sense, to longer-form poetry. The amount of people that have messaged me saying that they never would have picked up a book of poetry in a million years, but my poems have spoken to them in a different way, and now they are starting to read [other poetry]—it’s a great way to get people into poetry in general.
How was putting together a book of poems different from posting to Instagram?
Honestly, it was a long and difficult process. Writing a book is an immense amount of work. It was fun, but it also came with a lot of pressure, and a huge amount of self-doubt. There was lots of wondering, Is this good enough? Should I really be writing a book? Do I even deserve to? But you just chip away at it, and my publishers at Atria Books and Simon & Schuster were really great in guiding me through that process, helping me make choices and put it all together.
Every poem can stand on its own. But with the book, the idea was really to take the reader through a linear journey from start to finish. And then adding photography—pairing photos and poems is really a bit of an art in itself, because you don’t want the photos to distract or take away from the words. In the collection, we wanted there to be synergy between each piece, making them more powerful together than either would be alone. That was something we worked really hard to do.
The collection is titled Love Her Wild, and is made up of three sections: “Love,” “Her” and “Wild.” How did you settle on the title and themes?
It took a long time to come up with a title that captured what we wanted to include in the book. Love Her Wild is a bit of a double entendre, in the sense that it can be about loving her wildness, or about loving her wildly. The first section, “Love,” is made up poems that came out of my own relationships, past ones and current ones, and break-ups. It’s about what it feels like to be in love, to lose love, about the power of love. The second section, “Her,” is about different muses: my main muse, and my imaginary muses. And it’s also about the female spirit, particularly its strength. Then the last section, “Wild,” is another theme that often comes up in my writing. It’s the wild in all of us: the idea of infinite youth, where you run away to the desert and chase campfire sparks, ride motorcycles and drink whiskey. Just that nostalgic, endless summer type of feeling. I could write about it forever; even talking about it now makes me want to go write a poem.
What do you want people to know before they start reading?
The epitaph that I included in the book is a Charles Dickens quote, from A Tale of Two Cities. It ends with the line, “I wish you to know that you inspired it.” I started writing for myself, but I put this book together for the reader. I can’t tell you how incredible the support has been, from the very beginning. I’ve almost given up writing—hung up the mask, as it were—so many times, just stopped altogether, and then out of the blue I’ll get this message from a reader about how a poem I wrote has helped them through a rough time. I don’t think people know, at all, how those simple messages can bring me back to writing. Before cracking open the book, I want the reader to know that this is for them.
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