In the last decade, Instagram poetry has seen an almost meteoric rise in popularity. Kicked off by poet and novelist Lang Leav and propelled by the popularity of Rupi Kaur (who boasts 4.4 million followers on Instagram at the time of writing), Insta-poetry has shown no signs of slowing down. A quick Google search of Instagram poetry yields results on the best poets to follow, best hashtags to use, and even its own Wikipedia article.
Opinions on the form have been divided. Poet Rebecca Watts famously criticized the creators of this short form poetry in an article as products of personality rather than of poetry. The form has even become its own parody. But many who both create and consume this type of content speak about how much more relatable it is, as well as how it helps poets get paid for their work.
I won’t lie; I myself cringe at the notion of referring to poetry as “content.” My favorite medium of storytelling has always been movies, and I similarly cringe at the notion of referring to movies as “content” for streaming platforms. Scour through any film-related Twitter threads and subreddits and you’ll find the same feeling encapsulated in the question of “Is this film a piece of real cinema, or is it a piece of content?” Even famous directors have taken sides.
However, the high-brow sentiment of that question bothers me more than referring to something as “content.” My answer has always been the same — if a movie resonates with you in some way, then to you, that film is a piece of cinema, even if for others it may not be. The same applies to poetry or any other art form. I’m a fan of Rupi Kaur’s work, and I approached F. S. Yousaf’s new poetry book, “Serenity,” with the same excitement. I had not heard of his work before and was looking forward to chatting with him about the inspiration for the collection.
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“Serenity” is Yousaf’s fourth published poetry collection. On the surface, it is what you would expect from the short poetry format: brief, yet broad aphorisms about hope, peace, and aspiration. They urge the reader to remember that in the end, not only will everything work out but that everything’s meant to work out. The book is broken up into three sections, each with its overarching themes — Acceptance, Hope, and Tranquility, and each preceded by a brief aside to set up the motivations for the poems. The collection is also scattered with illustrations by Suede, mimicking what you usually see in poems like these posted directly to Instagram. In his own words, this is how Yousaf describes the collection:
This book is about hope, hopelessness, and finding beauty in life. I want readers to know other people also feel these same emotions and that they can get through it.
I asked Yousaf what drew him to the short form format and he mentioned that he was always drawn to poetry that let you fill in the details with your own experiences. Yousaf’s first exposure to this was when he read “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. The lack of context in the poem fascinated Yousaf. He saw a challenge in writing poems that were short but still evocative and decided to take it on, although Yousaf admits the task can be tricky:
It’s a fine line between poetry that doesn’t align with a lot of people and really good poetry…If the wording is right, it can mean so much more than the longest poems. It’s an artform that’s hard to master.
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I asked Yousaf how the book came to be, and he mentioned how he has tried to reach different audiences with each book he’s written. His first, Euphoria, he admits, was a “mess.” His second, sincerely, which helped solidify Yousaf’s career as an author, was a collection of love letters written for his now-wife. It was also how he proposed (you can find that book recommended on sites that recommend gifts for your significant others). Yousaf’s third collection “Prayers of My Youth” was a set of longer poems written for himself. With “Serenity,” Yousaf wanted to write poetry for others rather than for himself and his loved ones, which is how he landed on the theme of hope and peace.
Those themes were also personal to Yousaf. The writing process was riddled with overlapping challenges. The publishers had asked for a draft of a collection around the same time Yousaf was going to marry his now-wife and move out of his parents’ home for the first time, all while continuing to teach full-time. Moving out of your parents’ is a unique challenge for the South Asian community, let alone the stresses of planning and executing a wedding.
Yousaf spoke about the “brown guilt” he faced about moving out. He spoke about how the feeling felt overplayed but still hit him just as hard. But these stresses inspired him to keep the poetry hopeful. His favorite poem from the collection is For Life, which explored the peaceful tranquility of living with his wife for the rest of his life and the permanence of that feeling. To Yousaf, this peace was the culmination of all the challenges he faced to get to it.
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Challenge seems to be an unspoken theme of “Serenity.” Poem after poem reiterates the theme of hope and getting through the tough times. They reiterate the theme of finally being able to live a life of peace (of serenity, if you will). And I interpreted this repetition as a reminder to keep pushing through whatever challenges currently ailed me. As with other Insta-poems, there was no specificity to these emotions and reminders. But I found myself filling in the details for what serenity looked like for me, and what challenges I specifically had to push myself past.
If you’re not a fan of Insta-poetry, “Serenity” will not make you a believer. But if you are, then “Serenity” is like a visit to a fortune-teller. When the teller tells you that you are facing tough times but that inner peace lies ahead of you, the teller may not know exactly what that means. But you do, and it’s nice to hear from someone else that it’ll all work out.