Caroline Kaufman is not your typical 18-year-old. For that matter, she’s not your typical poet.
Kaufman grew up in Westchester, New York, where her family still lives. When we spoke for our interview, she had recently come back home to her parents’ house for the summer, having just finished her freshman year at Harvard University, where she is pre-med and still contemplating a minor in English. Speaking to Kaufman on the phone, I found her to be sweet, thoughtful and unassuming; belying her enormously popular online presence, Poetic Poison. Poetic Poison is Kaufman’s Instagram poetry account, where she currently has 203,000 followers.
Kaufman began writing poetry when she was 13 years old. It began as an outlet for connection because she felt alone and disconnected. She used writing and then Instagram to put her feelings on paper, or on screen, and have the sense that someone out there in the ether was reading and resonating. She never intended for it to become so big, but then again, how could she have.
“I thought maybe if I put this out there, one or two people will read it and say that they feel the same way,” Kaufman recalls. “Maybe I’ll feel less alone. But it ended up being a lot more than one or two people.”
Kaufman opened her Poetic Poison account in December 2013 when she was a freshman in high school. It was around the same time she began delving into writing and discovering herself as a poet. The concept of what has now been termed Instapoetry was new at the time, but she remembers seeing people utilizing their online accounts to post about their feelings or what they were struggling with and that sometimes they would be in the form of diary entries or poems. She chose Instagram because it was the platform with which she was most familiar.
“The first poem I ever posted was really bad,” she says. “I remember being on vacation. It was Christmas Eve and nothing was open, so I decided to post my first poem. It was something about me not being pretty, but being a really nice person. I make it a point to leave all of my posts up from 2013 on, to see how far I’ve come not just as a writer, but in my recovery from mental illness and my growth as a person. I cringe sometimes to look back on it, but it’s important.”
KAUFMAN’S STRUGGLE with and eventual triumph over depression is an overriding theme in her poetry; it appears in many of her poems in a way that is honest and vulnerable. She developed depression at a young age, 11 or 12. She describes that time as being confusing, with seemingly no one to talk to and no words to describe what she was feeling. It became the catalyst for Poetic Poison. She describes her entire high-school experience as being chronicled by writing and depression. Kaufman’s writing is a raw testament to her journey through recovery from mental illness.
“It was very difficult as a 13-year-old to not have anyone to talk to, so it was amazing to be able to write and put it online and have so many people from all over the world respond and give support,” she explains. “I don’t want to say that writing saved my life because I went through countless hours of therapy, but it definitely helped.”
Choosing the name Poetic Poison was also a nod to Kaufman’s battle with depression, albeit it an unintentional one. She had planned on using her initials and naming the account something like CKPoems or CKPoetry, but those were taken. So she embarked on an alternate plan to showcase her love of alliterations. Searching for nouns that begin with the letter P, she chose “poison” because it related to the subject matter on which she was focusing. Her depression, and the feelings of alienation and self-loathing which often go along with it, were poisons that Kaufman was trying to rid herself of through her writing – a way to purge the darkness from her being.
Poetic Poison’s Insta success was, well, instant. Within the first year, Kaufman had 100,000 followers, which she attributes to the fact that she was dealing with subject matter that a lot of people would shy away from, in an open manner. At first, she posted anonymously and would sign only with her initials because she wanted to be able to continue writing in such a candid manner.
“I think that’s why it was so popular,’ she continues. “I was sitting there as a 14-year-old in the moment, saying, I’m going through this right now and this is something that needs to be talked about. People who struggle with depression always feel like they’re alone and this was proof that they’re not alone. That really resonated with people. I didn’t know what to do with the amount of followers I had. I was only a freshman in high school. I thought it was cool that people were reading my work, but that’s about it.”
In 10th grade, Kaufman was at the mall with a friend and someone recognized her from Poetic Poison. Although the account was anonymous, she would sometimes post pictures of herself. The girl told Kaufman that she followed her on Instagram and loved her work. Kaufman’s friend was understandably confused; what Instagram account, what poetry? That was the point where she realized Poetic Poison was larger and more influential than she had ever intended it to be. After the incident in the mall, Kaufman decided to tell her closest friends about Poetic Poison, but she remained private about it with family and acquaintances at school. At some point in 11th grade, her Facebook account accidentally connected to her Instagram, and all of her Facebook friends received a notification that she was on Instagram as Poetic Poison. The cat was officially out of the bag.
“I started getting all of these texts from people asking me if that was really me,” she recalls. “It was kind of the worst feeling in the world. It was like my entire diary was published for the whole school to see. At that point, I had about 150,000 followers and I was posting secrets, things I was ashamed about, things I was going through. It was really difficult to have my whole school find out. But in the end, it was for good I guess.
“A few months after that happened, I was trying to hide and not bring it up. I wasn’t posting as many personal poems. But eventually I said screw it, if everyone already knows and I’m going to be vocal about these things online, then I might as well continue to be vocal about them in person. That was really when I started being open about my struggle with mental illness with friends and people in my high school. It was great for me to learn to be so open with everyone around me.”
ANOTHER SUBJECT Kaufman is frank about in her writing is her sexuality. She identifies as bisexual or queer and it’s something that features strongly in her poetry. When she first opened Poetic Poison, she thought she was straight. It was important for her to write and share about the process of experiencing and discovering her sexual identity because she has such a large platform and recognizes, even at such a young age, the power and responsibility that entails to express her truths.
“I’m not writing for an entire generation; I’m speaking and writing for myself,” she says. “But I know that my feelings are very common and I’m part of a movement toward increased honesty and openness with subjects that have been taboo for too long. I think a lot of people in my generation are starting to be more honest about these kinds of things. While I can’t claim to speak for my entire generation, I do see that this generation is starting to speak.”
When asked about her poetic influences, she references classics such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Kaufman first heard a Whitman poem read aloud when she was eight years old. It was “I Hear America Singing,” and she describes it as the most beautiful thing she had ever heard. Afterward, she grabbed a notebook and decided to start writing poems. She still has the notebook and laughs at how her first poem went on for three pages and was, in her estimation, “completely terrible.”
When she began writing again years later, that first attempt served as a signpost for the poetry that has inspired her. With Dickinson, she cites the verses’ rhyme and rhythm. Kaufman plays five instruments and sings as well, so a love of lyrics and music seeps naturally into her love of poetry. As for other Instapoets, she has many favorites. Trista Mateer is at the top of the list. Kaufman has four of Mateer’s books and of course follows her on Instagram; describing everything she writes as absolutely heartbreaking. Catherine Hancock is another Instapoet whom Kaufman admires. Hancock is one of the few poets who is really popular and as young as Kaufman herself.
“I find that a lot of the Instapoets are in their late 20s and early 30s,” she adds. “I tend to be the youngest and she’s there with me. I also like Amanda Loveless. What I found so incredible is that because of this platform I’ve gotten to contact these other Instapoets and actually become friends with them. It’s really amazing what the Internet allows for these days; being exposed to so much work and also getting to be in contact with these people.”
A typical successful Instapoet will have 50,000 to 100,000 followers, although there are some who garner as many as 500,000. Then there is Rupi Kaur, who boasts 2.9 million followers. She is probably the most successful and best-known Instapoet.
“She gets a lot of flak, but I appreciate everything she has done to bring modern poetry to light,” Kaufman says. “She gets a lot of criticism for her work being too simple, not really poetry, or pop poetry. That’s the general criticism of Instapoetry and since she has become the face of it, she gets the brunt of the negative feedback.”
Kaufman has a response for this kind of criticism, which every Instapoet faces from time to time, culled from a course she took at Harvard last fall on lyric and narrative poetry. The professor was a devotee of the Romantic era poets of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, such as Edgar Allan Poe, William Wordsworth and Lord Byron. He told the class repeatedly that when these poets were alive, no one appreciated them. They were thought to be too modern and thus not real poets. Of course, in modern times they are viewed as poetic giants.
“We look back on those poets now as the cornerstones of poetry,” Kaufman says. “Yes, Instapoets are breaking the typical poetic forms, but that doesn’t mean we’re not real poets. Poetry is seen as something sacred and untouchable. So there is always going to be backlash about the modern part of it, but that happens with any art form when boundaries are pushed and forms are broken. This is an art form that’s evolving. So I take the criticism with a grain of salt because people said the same thing about John Keats.
“While there is a simplified form to Instapoetry and the poems are often shorter, my most popular pieces are the longer ones. I have a page-long rant that has 20,000 likes. I think that maybe the wording is simplified, but it’s not because people only want to read short, simple things that they relate to. It has to do with poetry becoming more accessible to everyone. We grow up being taught that poetry is elite and untouchable and we glorify these writers who are dead, while giving the message that no one really writes poetry anymore. The more simple language is a byproduct of the belief that everyone can read and write poetry. You don’t have to have a degree in English from an elite university to have something to contribute poetically.”
Kaufman cites Hebrew school as the place where her affinity for looking beneath the surface was nurtured.
KAUFMAN’S READERS are a near mirror-reflection of her, at least in terms of demographics. Eighty percent are women and 66% are under the age of 25. Kaufman has certainly found her audience, which she emphasizes as another way in which Instapoetry is breaking apart the bygone poetic mold, which was for so long the almost exclusive arena of older white men. For poetry to be published, a writer had to go through the traditional routes of shopping their work around to publishing companies. But the Internet has changed all that.
Kaufman points out that many creative forces on social media are women of color or members of the LGBTQ community. The Internet has given marginalized groups the ability to find their own following and reach readers without going through the traditional routes. She herself landed a book deal in a decidedly non-traditional manner. By the time she was 16, many indie publishers were reaching out to her because they knew she had a large following and that a book of her poetry would sell. However, at the time, Kaufman was busy with SATs and college applications. During her senior year of high school, a literary agency named Empire Literary reached out to her and she started working with them.
“I love them, but nothing really came of it. I was going to send out manuscripts to publishers with them, but I got caught up in the college process. The summer after I graduated high school, the person who is now my editor at HarperCollins messaged me and told me that she wanted to publish my book. I thought it sounded fake, but we had a phone call and I realized she wasn’t kidding. If HarperCollins says they want to publish your book, you don’t say no. It was also the right time in my life. So it was something I both needed to do and wanted to do.”
Kaufman signed with HarperCollins and handed in the manuscript for her first book of poetry on January 1. The book, called Light Filters In, was published in the spring. The title comes from a line in one of her poems. She chose it because it speaks to a recurring theme in her work; equating sadness with darkness and nighttime. As she recovered from depression, themes of light and sunshine became more prominent in her writing.
“It felt like a good way to sum up the plot of the book,” she adds. “It’s weird to say that a book of poetry has a plot, but this one does and I’m really proud of that. It reads more like a novel in verse. It’s chronological and follows my recovery from depression. We thought that bringing that light metaphor back into the title was a good way to show people what the book is about.”
Kaufman, who was raised in a Reform Jewish home
and attended Hebrew school until her bat mitzvah, does not write overtly about her Judaism. But she does cite her experiences in Hebrew school as formative in developing her ability to ask questions and search for meaning. In regular school, she felt that the students were not given any room to question or explore. You just had to follow the rules. But in Hebrew school, it was not only okay, it was encouraged. That was the place where her affinity for looking beneath the surface was nurtured.
She sees the influence of that time on her personality as a young adult; as someone who refuses to accept things at face value and loves to question authority. Hebrew school was the only place where Kaufman was encouraged to seek the truth. She remembers always having a plethora of questions for her rabbis and teachers, and that they were consistently welcomed as opportunities for learning and discussion.
“For me, Judaism has been less about religion and more about culture and the values that are integrated into my life,” she adds. While she doesn’t have any specifically Jewish poems, she has many about faith and the belief in something bigger; something beyond the physical. Given her life’s story thus far, it’s difficult to not see a divine hand in its events.
“As a published author now, I still don’t really know how this all happened, it’s just life,” Kaufman states. “I’m going to keep rolling with it. I think because I’m so young, I don’t know what else to know or expect. I’m just going along with it. I haven’t even asked about sales, for me the success of the book is that it was published. I’ve gotten so many messages from people that it has put into words, feelings of theirs that they couldn’t express. Someone messaged me that they brought it to therapy with them and had their therapist read it because it explained what they were feeling better than they could. To me, that’s success.”
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