I was disappointed recently, listening to an interview with Zadie Smith, when she revealed that she carries around a 90s’ flip phone and boycotts social media. She has a lot of good reasons for shunning both technology and social media for the sake of her productivity and sanity, and I agree with most of what she says. However, it made me think about a pervading sense of resistance in literature to accurately reflecting technological modernity and the dominance of social media; and whether writers and artists should reject or embrace something which is so often seen as an impediment to the enjoyment and creation of ‘real’ art. Then I saw Charly Cox’s latest book of poetry, She Must Be Mad, on the Instagram story of an ‘influencer’ I follow. For a fiver I downloaded it straight to my phone on a whim, even though I thought it might be the kind of stuff that is aesthetically pleasing on a feed but lacking in any depth. I was wrong to be sceptical. I can imagine the likes of Smith and other literary technophobe’s possible reticence at the (relatively new) concept of an ‘insta-poet’ like Charly Cox. Along with others like the well-established Rupi Kaur or Brian Bilston (on Twitter),’insta-poets’ are launching hugely successful books and accruing followers into the hundreds of thousands or even millions, just from the popularity of their poetry online.
The beauty of insta-poetry is its potential to be shared. Of course, this too comes with its own problems of ownership and remuneration, whilst often demonstrating a concerning desire to simplify work in order for it to be digested quickly. But it also means that young women who otherwise wouldn’t feel compelled to read poetry are now being exposed to work which resonates with their own experiences as women today. More importantly, alongside poets like Cox, it provides a much-needed platform for women of colour, the LGBTQ+ community, and those who aren’t from wealthy ‘literary’ backgrounds to be read – all you need is an Instagram account.
The most shared of Cox’s poems on social media seems to be ‘I wish I’d not spent so long crying in bed’; which captures perfectly and simply the realities and regrets that come from living with a mental illness: ‘…I fear too much/ To think back to/ When I wanted less/ I fear too much/ To see the mess/ Of how much time/ I wasted/ When I had plenty left.’ Both Cox’s poetry and prose (of which there are a few examples in She Must Be Mad) is often simple and repetitive in its form and style, perhaps reflecting the immediacy and cyclical nature of a life in which we are all tied to our phones; so much so that the reader can imagine her writing them in the bathroom at a party on her notes app.
But the accessibility of Cox’s poetry does not negate its emotional resonance. The book is divided into four sections, the first of which is loosely themed around love and sex. In this Cox speaks to the experience of young women who feel conflicted about expressing their sexuality when misogyny still threatens, but in a more nuanced, hidden way. She implores us, as well as her past self: ‘Don’t try and fill the void with empty consumption/ This moment in time that you’ll lie and say was sweet seduction/ Was another episode of you orchestrating a personality reduction.’ In stream-of-consciousness prose piece entitled ‘love part 1’ she reflects on a relationship that grew from equal part real-life and social media interaction: ‘It’s five thirty-six in the morning four years later. Lights still dim, faces still rounded in the glow of the laptop. Girlfriends once stalked are now ex-girlfriends discussed.’
Cox, who has Bipolar II, is at her most vulnerable, raw and funny when writing about mental illness. She in no way idealises or simplifies the reality of it here, but in her stark style conveys the daily experience of those who suffer. In ‘all I wanted was some toast’ she laments: ‘I got a fork stuck in the dishwasher/ And now I can’t stop crying/ Whoever said depression was glamorous/ Had clearly never considered dying/ Over a peanut butter/ covered utensil.’ She also devotes much of the book to body image, and conveys the anguish and anxieties of growing up in a society obsessed by women’s appearance: ‘When our bodies are trailed through media’s dirt/ When school is not about grades but the length of your skirt/ If I’m half a size smaller will I be liked first/ I’ve only had liquids so how do I quantify thirst/ When sex isn’t about love but ‘how much did it hurt?’
Cox didn’t study English or creative writing formally, and instead she cut her teeth as a producer for well-known YouTubers and as an online consultant. This has left her lacking in any kind of pretension, and instead able to directly speak to the legions of young women who spend a huge chunk of their lives online. I’m sure that some critics would find a few of her poems a little trite and their subjects banal; but some of this is to be expected in a 23-year-old’s debut, which is also highly confessional. For me, her universality and direct address to the reader in poems like ‘kindness’ reminds me of populist poets of previous generations like Mary Oliver, whilst her discussion of the female experience lend themselves to comparison with Carol-Ann Duffy. However, there is only so far comparison can go – and Cox certainly represents a new generation of talent able to convey the complexities and nuances of life in the age of social media.