Caroline R. Kaufman’s ’21 Instagram account @PoeticPoison now has more than 200,000 followers, but it started as a secret.
Kaufman was never aiming to be the next Rupi Kaur. At first glance, even though Kaur writes in Times New Roman and Kaufman in Cambria, the two poets seem to have much in common. Both writers eschew regular capitalization; both write short pieces of prose-like poetry; even Kaufman’s forthcoming collection, Light Filters In, resembles that of the cover of Milk and Honey, Kaur’s debut.
With her 2.2 million Instagram followers and two bestselling poetry collections, Kaur is the controversial paragon of the Instagram poet. Kaufman defends her: “People are relating to it and people are buying Rupi Kaur’s work, and even if you don’t think it’s poetry, it’s selling more books than you ever did.”
Kaufman didn’t start writing poetry at the age of 14 with the intention of selling books. Her Instagram account was nothing more than a kind of “catharsis:” a way to cope with mental illness, a diary with line breaks. She wanted to feel like she was “talking to someone, even if it was just a random stranger.” Although she expected to get only a few more followers out of it, she also found a community of other poets, mostly 16-year-old girls.
But within a year of creating her account, it “exploded” in popularity. Seemingly overnight, Kaufman had 100,000 new followers—none of whom knew who she was. In those days, she was still signing her poems with only an enigmatic “c.k.” These two letters permitted her to share truths about herself that she would never normally divulge, all while maintaining ownership of her work.
Her online presence was always a balance between vulnerability and disguise. She used to “post selfies and quickly delete them,” not ready to expose herself to her followers just yet; however, once, in the second year of the account, a follower recognized her in a mall. “That was the point where I realized this has become bigger than I ever thought it was going to be,” she says.
Publishers even began to contact her while she was still anonymous. Few of her friends, however, knew the account existed.
That carefully preserved anonymity ended dramatically during her junior spring, when she accidentally linked her anonymous Instagram account to her Facebook profile, and all of her friends received a notification. They were, understandably, confused.
“I wanted to hide in a hole and never come out again,” Kaufman says. “I went to school the next day and everyone was just looking at me. It was super uncomfortable for a long time.”
But, she adds, it has been liberating in one respect. “Everyone knows all of my secrets.”
Only in the past few months has she begun to sign her posts with her full name and solidified a publishing deal. The resulting book is set to be released in June by HarperCollins. It will be a mix of new content that she hasn’t posted online and the original poems from her Instagram account. Some of these, particularly the earlier ones, are graphic, alluding to depression and self-harm. Kaufman, despite “not being in the same place that [she] was five years ago,” keeps the posts intact on her Instagram as a visual timeline of her recovery.
“I’ve gotten so many messages from people that are like, ‘I’m where you were three years ago, and I’m not where you were four years ago… That progression gives me hope.’” She hopes that her readers “find solace” in her account, and because of this mission, she doesn’t sugarcoat her life.
“I’m not a happy sunshine person all the time,” she says. “I want to be as open and honest as I possibly can be, because I know that there are so many other people out there who are looking for that and need that.”
When she was struggling with mental illness, she says she had no one to talk to about her feelings. She would watch YouTube videos of Demi Lovato “over and over and over again,” she says, hoping that “if I watched them enough times, it felt like maybe she was talking to me.”
Her candor around her mental illness and her bisexuality encouraged her friends to do the same. Once she opened up to her friends, she found that many of them were also in therapy and were also struggling with mental illness. They “were okay talking about this stuff after one person just made the decision to start talking about it. And then suddenly everyone was talking about it,” she says.
With all of the buzz around the upcoming book, Kaufman’s confidence has grown. Recently, she has shared photos of herself, including a photo taken at last year’s NYC Pride, which would have been unthinkable when she started the account. She recalls that as a 14-year-old, “I would have been terrified if you had told me, ‘One day a picture of you is going to get like 8,000 likes on the Internet and hundreds of people will comment on it.’”
This new transparency is important to Kaufman because her poetry is ultimately about human connection, an interest that also motivates her in a different direction—towards a career in medicine.
For Kaufman, there’s nothing paradoxical about this. “Medically treating people is a form of human connection,” she explains. Dissecting a body, setting a broken bone, holding a human heart: “That’s poetic.”
Magazine writer Lucy R. Golub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyRGolub.