As a teenager, I paid detached interest in English class.
I couldn't deal with Shakespeare and had no patience for pentameters, iambic or not. Writing was predominantly by old white men who bored me half to death. Their poetry was mouldy bread; a soggy genre of language. Though I'm sure upon revisiting their work I would get a lot more out of it, in high school it felt irrelevant and awfully calligraphic. It didn't represent my concerns over ankle socks, being the chubby kid during netball summers and that blistered knee graze called growing up.
It was pure happenstance that I discovered poetry. I found it before I knew it had a name, fishing online through the depths of Tumblr. I liked the quotes I read, and I wanted to read more of them. Occupying my living room headspace, Clementine von Radics petitioned "to keep my bad habits like charms on a bracelet". Lang Leav pleaded that, "If you were kind, / you'd cut the tether — / but I must ask you / to be cruel." When I felt my most misunderstood, someone across the globe had documented my exact feelings.
With the help of working Wi-Fi and a keyboard, I found these resonant voices everywhere. They lived in my phone, my laptop, the kitchen and bathtub; browsing YouTube until the water went cold. Pretty, by Kate Makkai, was regular company for me, as was Lily Myers' Shrinking Women. After school, my best friend and I would swap html links like text messages. We would scour the web, sending dozens of quotes and images like care packages.
Here were people who had lived my own experiences, and then responded to them. They showed me scabs of broken hearts and bandaged relationships. Before I felt open to talk about mental health and self-image, these poets had already discussed, and lived, these topics. It was these founding writers who made me realise language could be written to be received.
My best friend adored Leav's Love and Misadventure and would regularly send me passages. For me, Leav represents internet binges, gangly legs on worn couches, isolation and young restlessness. She represents the new occupiers of the internet, fandoms and fingertips. To say I identify her as an online writer isn't to dismiss her: it's to say that reading a page felt like you had, for a second, been seen.
Young women have a special connection to poetry, yet it is young female poets who seem to bear the brunt of this critique. The literary industry would be bereft without the avid interest of this audience yet works most consumed by them get written off endlessly.
Young people who write (especially in accessible online formats) are often disregarded.
They're seen as tarnishing the literary scene with their irrepressible feelings. Their language is lowbrow, their sentences too simple — with many critics repudiating this form as artless instead of accessible. Those who "make it" become easy fodder for critics, partly because they're loved by online audiences larger than a circular heaving breath of old men foggily regurgitating the word metonymy.
This isn't to essentialise the writing nor interests of young women and it's not to be dismissive of other styles of writing either. What I am trying to say is that the measure of a book shouldn't solely be its number of pages nor its complexity of metaphor. Sometimes, it's enough for it just to be resonant.
I learned to write from the first texts I encountered with interest, from the books I absorbed at high speed. "Online" writers like von Radics and Leav were among the first to show me that my own voice was valid. They were older sisters who shared my same concerns.
When I learned to write, I copied their rhythms. With pages of mimicked styles, it's no surprise that all my Google docs from high school look more like crawling. My understanding of what I thought writing was — and who it was for — expanded because of poets like Leav.
What drew me into writing wasn't Shakespeare. It was young women writing about the things I cared about. It was watching a good friend discover herself through someone else's fingertips. It was staying up late to talk passionately about words outside of class.
Mostly, it was the joy of realising that I could communicate.
Lang Leav appears in Sad Girls, at the Auckland Writers Festival on Saturday, 7pm; Vanessa Crofskey appears in the Best Best Showcase spoken word poetry event on Friday at the ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre.