About a year ago, a line of black paperbacks with white titles began to appear on my 16-year-old daughter’s bookshelves. They are testament to her devotion to “Instapoets”, like Rupi Kaur and Amanda Lovelace, who have garnered huge followings for their work on social media before being published in physical form. Rupi Kaur from Canada is the superstar of the genre, with sales of 1.1 million in the US for her debut poetry collection Milk and Honey, and almost 100,000 copies sold in the UK, but there’s a UK star in the ascendant: 30-year-old British-Indian writer Nikita Gill.
With an Instagram following of more than 220,000 and a fleet of celebrity followers, including LeAnn Rimes, Alanis Morissette, Nicole Richie and Khloé Kardashian (more of whom later), Gill is set to publish Wild Embers: Poems of Rebellion, Fire and Beauty, her first collection for a mainstream audience (the lines extracted are from a poem called “The Becoming”, see right). She is also an ambassador for National Poetry Day, for which she has been commissioned to write a poem about freedom. “That’s right up my street,” she laughs. Gill, who arrives for our interview clutching an edition of Anne Sexton’s poetry, is tall and striking. She comes across as both highly articulate and confident, but confesses to being anxious about our conversation.
Gill grew up in a house full of books and started writing when she was a child. She was born in Belfast, where her Indian parents were living temporarily while her father, who was in the merchant navy, was taking his captain’s exams at Ulster University. “My Mum, being a seafarer’s wife, didn’t really want to be away from him for a year.” The family moved back to India when Gill was a few months old. At school in New Delhi, she was far from a model student. But, like so many other writers, she had a life-changing teacher. “I was a naughty kid and didn’t do my homework. But that teacher obviously saw something in me. She encouraged my creative spark and I started writing stories.” At the age of 12, a non-fiction story Gill had written about her grandfather was published in a newspaper. This early publication kindled in her an abiding sense of the power of words. “Something inside me said: ‘This is a really powerful thing, to be able to tell a story and give it to a stranger.’”
While Gill harboured an ambition to be a writer from then onwards, her parents encouraged her to seek a more realistic career, albeit still a creative one. So her writing took a back seat while she studied design at university in New Delhi. In 2012 she moved to the UK to do a Masters which focused on distraction theory in relation to young people with ADHD, ADD and dyslexia. This led to a desire to work with children with special needs. “I wanted to do something meaningful with my life,” she tells me. This move was also the catalyst that made her start writing seriously again. “It made me realise there are so many marginalised people who don’t have a voice, and who just need someone who can understand.”
In 2015, Gill, who often pens her poetry on old receipts or on restaurant napkins, began posting her work on a Tumblr blog. “I got one response to that first post. But even that meant that someone was reading, someone was listening.” Her following soon grew, however. “I opened my blog one day and almost logged out in fright because six or seven thousand people had shared my work.” Gill began posting on Instagram a few months later, and after being profiled in a Buzzfeed article, gained 15,000 followers. Now celebrity shares of her work are a regular occurrence, although Khloé Kardashian once shared a poem of Gill’s without crediting her. “It’s not comforting in any way to know this, but I’m not the only person she’s done this to,” shrugs Gill.
By this time, Gill had also started contributing to Thought Catalog, a digital youth culture magazine, writing pieces on trauma, healing, mental health and relationships. Last year Thought Catalog also published Gill’s first poetry collection, Your Soul is a River, both online and in a small print run. Then last autumn, an email from editor Emma Smith at Trapeze arrived, asking Gill if she would be interested in being published for a more mainstream audience. “My first thought was, ‘This has to be a joke.’” Wild Embers, her collection for Trapeze, will contain 75% new material. There are poems about the miracle of life and being one’s unique self, the importance of having flaws and the power of womanhood, together with a strand of feminist retellings of fairytales and Greek myths.
While Gill’s work burns with empathy for the travails of others, it’s abundantly clear that her poems have been forged in home fires. “I would really struggle to write about something that I hadn’t experienced. And I’m very openly vulnerable.” She tells me of the deeply uncomfortable and enraging experience of being a young woman in New Delhi. “There was so much anger inside me. Men would strip me bare with their eyes and comment on my body. My parents wouldn’t let me out past a certain point at night. You literally become caged, because your safety is constantly at risk. And you’re not allowed to be yourself.” From the age of 18, Gill also found herself in a series of relationships with men that were both physically and emotionally abusive; she has also suffered bullying throughout her life. Her return to writing helped her deal with the emotional fallout from these difficult experiences, and now she imagines she is addressing her younger self when writing for the benefit of her core readership, which is young women from the age of 18 upwards.
Gill, who cites Sylvia Plath and Robert Frost as influences, also aims to open up a conversation about mental health through her work.“We are living in a world where anxiety and depression are coming to a head.” Why does she think so many people are turning to the work of “Instapoets” in search of empathy and empowerment? “I think the poems give people a shot of positivity that is quick and easy to drink down. I love reading Sylvia Plath - her poetry has such depth and beauty - but I have to be in the right mood because there are so many different connotations to what she’s saying. Whereas ‘Instapoetry’ is much simpler to understand.”
Devotees of more traditional poetry might find this lack of subtext in “Instapoetry” makes it rather lightweight. Yet booming tallies of both followers and sales suggest that the likes of Kaur and Gill are reaching audiences that such traditional poetry struggles to tap into. Gill’s poems were even seen adorning placards during the Women’s March early this year.
When I ask my daughter to explain what she loves about the work of “Instapoets”, she says: “They have a talent for putting into words what others are feeling.” I repeat this to Gill. “That’s really why a lot of us write: to help. When you publish poetry on such open platforms, people can approach you more easily. If someone talks to me online and tells me a very personal story, I am compelled to respond to them. Someone wrote to me a little while ago and said, ‘Because of your poem I was able to face my rapist in court today’. That is so powerful.”