Hundreds of people showed up to see the Canadian Instagram poet known as Atticus give the first public reading of his career earlier this month at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. The poet wore a mask.
Atticus has kept his identity under wraps, even as his poet persona has exploded, with 387,000 Instagram followers – including celebrities such as actor Emma Roberts and supermodel Karlie Kloss. His readers are devoted; some have tattooed his words onto their bodies.
Atticus won't reveal much about himself. He's from British Columbia, he's "in the kind of older 20s," and he bounces around a lot, he says, between Canada, Europe and L.A. – he lives in Venice Beach when he's there, as he was when we connected by phone.
The occasion for our conversation was the publication of his first book, Love Her Wild, which includes some of his Instagram poetry but also a great deal of new work and photographs, separated into three sections: Love, Her and Wild.
Here's a sample from Love:
Break my heart
and you will find yourself inside.
And from Her:
She was afraid of heights
but she was
much more afraid
of never flying.
And from Wild:
FORGET TO EAT
AND THEN DO IT
UNTIL YOU DIE
It may strike you as the kind of poetry that might feel more at home in a greeting-card store than a library – but can 387,000 Instagram followers be wrong?
The Globe and Mail caught up with Atticus ahead of his first Canadian appearance.
When did you start writing poetry?
My mom had a poster on the wall growing up of the top Irish playwrights and poets. Under each of them there was a little quote and I think that was my first exposure to poets and poetry and writers. But I didn't start writing physical poetry myself until about three years ago. I was in France and I had a chance meeting with an actor, Michael Madsen. I found him to be the most profound, interesting gentleman and he told me a lot about his history and his struggles with depression and alcohol and troubles with the family and everything. He had just put out his own poetry book. And I couldn't believe it; here was this American badass, the most manly, whisky-drinking motorcycle-riding guy and he put out this book of poetry and he said that writing and being able to vent truly saved his life and certainly saved his marriage and his family. And I really took that to heart. Later I was in Paris walking the streets and I saw something and I ended up writing in my phone about it. And that's how it started.
Was it always short-form poetry you were interested in?
I love the short form. I love epigrams and aphorisms and turns of phrase and just trying to say a lot with just a few words. I'm a huge fan of Hemingway and his ability to say a lot in a little. I certainly write longer-form things, but I think because my medium has started as Instagram, the short-form quotes and turns of phrase play a lot better on there. And they're certainly a lot more consumable. A beautiful thing about Instagram is that it's very experimental. I try things out and some things work and some things very much don't.
How do you know if something works? Is it the reaction from your followers?
You never want to just completely write for the critics, but I think one of the beautiful things about sharing your work on social media is that you get this kind of instant feedback – where back in the day you'd write something and you wouldn't necessarily get feedback for years down the road. But now you can try things and see what resonates and see what doesn't, by likes and comments and engagements and shares; it's an interesting and useful tool.
How did you develop such a devoted following?
I don't know the answer to that. I just started writing and posting and I did it all anonymously. That was important to me. I chose to wear a mask because I wanted to remind myself to always write what I feel and not what I think I should feel. I feel like if I wasn't anonymous that I would start writing for the wrong reasons – trying to impress and such. I think because I try to write very truthfully and vulnerably, I would guess that that's what people relate to.
Do you think it's the social-media age that compels you to remain anonymous in order to be truthful with your feelings?
When people like those classic writers were writing, there certainly was a removal of connection to the audience. You could be James Joyce up in a tower writing for years and you could be very private so I think it was potentially easier to be more vulnerable and truthful and not have it personally connected to you. I think a lot of people would be fine writing very vulnerably and not anonymously. For me I felt it was important. The poetry is a part of me and I don't want it to define me. I don't want people to think they know me because I write poetry. To be honest, I think it came also from a fear of what it meant to be a poet. I grew up as a boy getting the pressures to be a real man. I'm Canadian – chopping firewood and riding motorcycles – and I grew up boxing and I think that was in conflict with this vulnerability. I think I was like, I need to keep these things separate, just kind of from a place of fear. I'm not scared of that any more but I keep it anonymous for that reason and other reasons now.
Such as? What are the other reasons now?
To write what I feel and not what I think I should feel. But also I think I've been exposed to an immense amount of celebrity and fame and a lot of my friends are people who are very well-known and notorious celebrities. And that world doesn't interest me. But that's not why I started wearing a mask.
Do you think you will ever reveal your identity?
I don't think I will. I'm not precious about who I am underneath. If people found out, if people have guesses, I don't care; I'm not worried about that. If everyone knew who I am, I'd still wear the mask because at this point I feel it's a symbol of something bigger and that's what I want to project.
Have you been able to make a living at this?
I have another career, but it was an interesting moment when I started to realize that I was making more money as a poet than I was in my career. If you're making more revenue doing something that you're really passionate about, at what point do you take your art much more seriously? Certainly it was the last thing on my mind, making money in poetry. I don't think anyone gets into poetry for money. I think it also speaks to the change in the world. With the advent of social media, you can build this brand, you can monetize it, people can make livings as brands. I think it's a very interesting shift in global economics.
I'm sure you hear a lot from your readers. Have there been any particular comments that have really touched you?
I receive hundreds of messages every day [from] people who are suffering with depression and anxiety, and oftentimes it's youth [who have] problems with self-injury and things like that. It's been a humbling experience to have those messages come in and people [say things] like, your words spoke to me and in my sadness it made me a little bit happier. Or I got one of your poems tattooed on me and it's a constant reminder of hope.
There was one that was hard to read, but also very powerful. It was [from] this young girl who'd been sexually abused at a young age. She had gotten out of this situation and after seven years had gone by, she got a tattoo of my words. She told me that it was a symbol because there's this saying that after seven years every single cell of your body has been regenerated so you're a completely new person after seven years; there's no cell that existed that was in that body. And she's like, today I'm a new person and nothing that that person touched is still in existence and I'm looking forward and not back and this poem signifies all of that and it's my body now. That was just immense for me. I read it 1,000 times.
Is there anything particularly Canadian about what you do?
Probably some of my spelling. I grew up sailing around the islands on the West Coast and I think that comes into it. I'd say nature is one of my best muses.
Do you think social media has been good for poetry?
100 per cent I do. There are huge cons to Instagram poetry, but there are huge pros. At the end of the day, there's a huge resurgence of poetry and it's because of social media. You're introducing a generation of people to words and playing with words and messing up and making mistakes and that's a beautiful, powerful thing. I sometimes see Instagram poetry as a gateway drug, as it were, to poetry and to more classical poetry. I think you'd have a hard time throwing James Joyce into schools and getting interest from a younger generation. However if you get these young people into poetry by a short quote and they're like, 'wow that's amazing,' and they start following poets and writing their own poetry, I promise you they'll start coming to James Joyce; they'll start coming to these classics and they'll start coming to longer-form poetry.
What are the cons?
People throwing up poems that they didn't spend a lot of time on or throwing up quotes they didn't spend a lot of time on. It's less polished. I don't think you can fault that necessarily; it's just a different art form. I think we're all just learning and experimenting and having fun with it. Last summer I was lucky enough to go to Oxford and take some poetry classes at Wadham College and I learned so much. I basically learned how little I know about poetry and the immense world of poetry. I think I'm speaking for a lot of online poets, but we have a long way to go and tonnes to learn, but we're having fun just doing it. I write to enjoy it and to connect with people. I don't write for any other reason.
Atticus will read from Love Her Wild at Chapters Metrotown in Burnaby, B.C., on July 20 at 7 p.m.