The night before I meet Lang Leav, I have a dream. I arrive early to our interview at the Writers Bar at the Raffles Hotel in Makati—she sits on a plush loveseat wrapping up an interview while I stand by an identical seat a few meters away. For a second, our eyes meet. In the dream, her eyes narrow ever so slightly as though she’s sniffed me out: bohemian floral dress but corporate laptop case, I see her thinking, green Sharpie user, her eyes say, but reporter’s notebook. We’re like two slingers preparing to draw. Bohemian fringe, she sees me think, but moneyed enough for that string of pearls. Poet, she sees me raise an eyebrow, but a bestselling author. At that point in the dream, I waltz, Cherie Gil-like to where she’s seated. “You’re not a journalist,” she tells me, “And you’re not a poet,” I tell her. And then, in that flush nanosecond before she can call me nothing but a second-rate, trying-hard copycat, I wake up.
In reality, Lang Leav is every poet’s best dream and worst nightmare. She’s the proto-Instapoet, the proto-Kaur, beloved by millions of young adults scrawling “verse” along the margins of their Corona notebooks during Algebra class, the author of titles for which she is callously judged, among them, Love & Misadventure (2013), Memories (2015), Sad Girls (2017), and most recently, Love Looks Pretty on You (2019). Her books have sold in the staggering millions, which qualifies her as a legitimate enterprise as far as bestselling authors go. She also has half a million followers on her Instagram account, which qualifies her as a viable peddler of influence. All of this for writing poetry (or, for the snobs among us, “poetry”).
In recent years, poets of the insta-species have inspired both blind devotion and blind ire. They have been made projects of, as in the case of serious, Pushcart Prize-nominated poet Thom Young, who wrote meaningless she-poems on his Instagram account just to illustrate how many likes bad verse could generate on the social media platform (answer: tens of thousands). Back to regular programming, Young averages out to about 100 likes on his Instagram poems. Young wants to instruct his social media audience that what they consider poetry is smut; he’s Cross-on-Golgotha intent to save them from the Kardashian predilections of their simple hearts.
But Leav has no such pretensions. “I feel that, you know, you’ve got to be able to trust your readers,” Leav tells me. “I feel that, in the end, the poets that are successful, and the ones that are doing really well have a certain quality to their work, have a certain standard there. And I feel that that is something that we should trust to the readers. I feel that we don’t give the readers enough credit in what they do.”
If I were asshole enough to pull out the establishment card, I would qualify Young as a hopeful to the western canon, and Leav as the super-subaltern. Leav was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after her mother fled the Khmer Rouge for a temporary haven.
Lang herself was raised in Sydney, and tells as compelling an immigrant story as the best of them out there. “I think about my mom and what she went through,” Leav says. “She was actually on the run from the Khmer Rouge when she was pregnant with me, and I have to think that that was how my life started—in all that turmoil and angst—and you know, it’s just a really strange thing to think about, because I’m sure, in her womb, I was at peace.”
In the midst of that war, Leav continues, her mother created her, “a little oasis of peace.” Leav goes on: “She obviously didn’t know she was pregnant, and when she found out, she didn’t know if I would even make it. It’s probably quite a tough thing for a baby growing up in a refugee camp. So against all odds, here I am.” Whether or not this is gospel truth, it’s an accepted one—enough to dismiss Young’s cause as the ramblings of a first-world poet. To further qualify her as a substantial ally (note: I say ally, and not figure) of literature, Leav writes about female empowerment in her latest book. “What sort of alarms me is that a lot of hate is directed especially to women writers—and especially to girls that are just starting out—and it pains me to see that these people have no idea what they’re talking about. Yet they’re attacking young writers. I just want young writers to know that it’s quite a perilous thing growing up as a writer and trying to get your work out there on social media, which is something you should absolutely do, and you should have the freedom to do it without people treating you cruelly.”
Leav is talking about sixteen-year-old boys dissing female classmates on their parents’ computers, but how different are those boys, really, from poets like Young.
At this point, I note that my dream is speckled with some truth. I have never read a Lang Leav book from cover to cover. I do not know that this is her fourth visit to the Philippines. I am not aware that she has written a book called Sea of Strangers, whose imagery draws heavily on the surrounds of Leav’s current home by the sea—one punctuated by birdsong and the fitful sighs of a nearby ocean. Which is to say, I do not champion social media as a viable platform for good literature, but Leav has been one of the first to show us its democratizing power. She talks about Instapoetry as a movement, born out of a necessity. “We’re not policed by the establishment now,” she says.
But perhaps what she and the other Instapoets have done is create a new establishment—one that’s influenced and perpetuated a new kind of readership. A readership for whom a line like Don’t Stay where you are needed. Go where you are loved (Leav, 2019), is not an aphorism, it’s a poem. Some years ago, I went to the poetry section in a leading bookstore in Makati and all I saw was shelf upon shelf of books by Leav and her partner Michael Faudet (Man or myth? A query for another time). Where was Shakespeare? Where was Oliver, Forché, or Rich, or Berryman or Plath?
“History will look back on this time and see it for what it is, and the significance of how it’s drawn a lot of the youth and the younger generation to reading poetry again. It’s a beautiful thing,” Leav says. I don’t know if she’s talking about her own poetry, or Instapoetry in general, but perhaps the hope is that she serves as a gateway poet leading the young to the likes Dickinson and Frost—two poets Leav grew up reading; or to Plath and Sexton who would have done well in the age of confessional couplets. The question for me is not whether or not Instapoetry is a viable poetry, but what kind of new reader it’s creating. It’s a question my husband (who is both a writer and an editor) and I have discussed for at least an hour tonight—an eon in the Instagram age.
I’ve come to this interview prepared to laugh off Leav, but we’ve just spoken to each other in a place called the Writers Bar. For a brief spell, all we are are two writers talking shop to each other on a lit Makati morning, in the plush interiors of a hotel space no writer I know has ever written in. We both call ourselves poets, but like a Lang Leav poem, “I can already picture us ten years from now, living our lives like parallel lines.” Which is to say it is likely our paths won’t cross again.
Knowing this, I do the predictable thing and ask Leav for a selfie—to which she responds by drawing me to the most Instagrammable nook in the whole place—a towering bookcase scrunched to the hilt with pastel-colored spines. “My book matches your dress,” she says, and gamely complies.
Photographs by Jack Alindahao