Find Out Why Anonymous Literary Sensation Atticus Says The Rise Of Instagram Poetry Is Something To Celebrate
The young poet who's helped make writing in verse cool again tells Editor Kat why it's a gateway to other literature, why his "mosaic of failures" is important, and why the mask may never come off.
November 2, 2018
In a wonderfully unexpected quirk of human history, poetry is huge right now. More young people are producing and consuming poetry than ever, and for perhaps the first time in history, some intrepid folks are even making a decent living writing it. One of the brightest stars of the new generation is a young poet who shares his work anonymously, using the pen name Atticus. If you've spent any time on Instagram, you've probably seen his spare, romantic missives being cross-posted by the likes of Karlie Kloss and Alicia Keys, or tattooed on the bodies of his devotees. His new book, The Dark Between Stars, a follow-up to his best-selling debut Love Her Wild, collects his latest works into a taut, atmospheric listen read in the author's own voice. Editor Kat Johnson spoke to Atticus about his influences, creative vision, and why poetry looms larger than ever in our lives.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Kat Johnson: I'm going to do a little introduction for you for anyone who might not have seen your work on Instagram like I have. I know you're a bit of a poetry sensation. You've been posting your work anonymously on Instagram, and you've amassed like almost a million followers. You've got celebrities like Emma Roberts, Karlie Kloss. I see your work all the time, and you just published your second book of poetry, The Dark Between Stars. I just finished it. It's beautiful. How's your book release been going?
Atticus: It's been incredible actually. I just heard last night that it became a New York Times bestseller. It was a very humbling and nice surprise.
KJ: That's fantastic.
A: Yeah, thank you.
KJ: That's awesome. Your work tends to be kind of short form. A lot of aphorisms and epigrams, which is very suited to the medium of Instagram. It's not uncommon for your fans to get the poems tattooed on their bodies, which I think must be kind of a weird sensation. The other thing, I just wanted to note, that a lot of people know about you is that you are anonymous. You choose not to reveal your identity. I know you wear a mask in your profile photos. One of the things I do know about you, you say you're in your late 20s. You're from Canada, and you spend some time in LA. Is that right?
A: Yeah, that's right.
KJ: Okay. Well, tell me a little bit about the concept of this new book, The Dark Between Stars, and the format of the book, and if there's anything you want people to know before they listen to it.
A: Yeah. Well, The Dark Between the Stars, my second book kind of takes off, if you've read Love Her Wild, it kind of takes off where Love Her Wild left off. It's a journey into love, but it's also a journey into lost love and kind of refinding yourself after losing love. A lot of people don't know this, but I wrote my very first poem in Paris when I was there on a trip, and for this book I wanted to go back there and really be within the city, kind of the breath of its inspiration that is Paris. There's a lot of kind of French and Parisian influence I would say in this book. Yeah.
Then towards the end, it goes into a section which I titled Dark, and that's more kind of the light and dark that I feel in humans but certainly the light and dark that I experience, and dealing with that, and kind of trying to understand that as well.
KJ: Yeah. I definitely got that. I love there's a lot of Paris in the rain. You're in a little café. There's a beautiful muse. It's very, very romantic, and it's really beautiful. I love the way you contrast with Hollywood too. There's also a little bit of humor in there too. I found.
A: Yeah, yeah.
I think that life is your mosaic of failures as much as it is your mosaic of success.
KJ: I want to talk about the audio version, because I feel like a lot of your fans actually might pick up both, because the print book has these gorgeous images, and with poetry it's nice to see your choices in line breaks and punctuation, but I think the audiobook is extraordinary because you read it yourself, and I think you have a great voice, and I think people will love to hear this coming from you. I just want to know what was your experience like narrating the book, and how was doing it a second time different than the first time, if at all?
A: Right. Well, first of all, thank you. That's very nice of you to say.
A: Yeah. I really love reading the book and narrating for the audiobook because I think I get a chance to read it the way I heard it and wrote it in my head if that makes sense. You can do a lot with line breaks and punctuation, but I think everybody reads it differently. Doing the audiobook gives me a chance to read it in just the way I felt I wanted it read.
I really enjoyed that, and I really do enjoy just reading poetry. I just finished a book tour, and it's just really nice to just see people, and read it to them, and see how they react, and how they react to different poems. That was nice. The audiobook is a way to do that on a bigger scale.
KJ: Yeah. I love the idea that people can get your poetry in a book, or they can hear you perform it, or they can see it in their Instagram feed, or they can see you live. I think that's super cool.
A: Yeah, yeah. I mean those different touchpoints. It was certainly a challenge beginning being anonymous. It was important to me. I really wanted to meet people who were connecting with the words, and I wanted to find a way to do that, and finally decided to do it wearing a mask, but it's really paid off and that type of human connection I've had with so many people has been so rewarding. I'm so thankful that I had a chance to do that.
KJ: Absolutely. I know you have a really close connection to your fans. We're always curious at Audible, especially with poetry, are people listening to your book in one sitting, or are they listening to poems one at a time for inspiration? Do you know how people are listening or anything like that?
I love audiobooks, and I love listening to poetry as well, for sure.
A: Yeah, yeah. I mean I've heard different things, and it's been beautiful to hear. A lot of people have mentioned that they do one poem a night or one poem a morning, which I love that idea. It kind of just starts your day off or puts you to sleep, and it's different every time. I really like that, but I know some people just kind of crush through it in one sitting and listen to it lots of times, which is amazing to hear. I think it's different for everybody.
KJ: Sure. That makes sense. Do you yourself listen to any audiobooks or poetry on audio?
A: Yeah. I love audiobooks. I love them for when I'm in the car or doing something, like a menial task. I love audiobooks, and I love listening to poetry as well, for sure.
KJ: Cool. Do you have any favorites?
KJ: Those are great.
A: I really do love it, because again you can kind of hear the authors, the way the author intended. There's some really old-school Edgar Allan Poe poems that are recorded that are beautiful, and Allen Ginsberg as well.
KJ: That's awesome. I am very inspired. I'm going to start listening to more poetry on audio.
A: Yeah, you should.
KJ: I really should. I really should. I actually met Eileen Mylesand her first comment was-
KJ: Yeah, "You guys need to have lots and lots of poetry, because artists love to listen to poetry on audio." I was like, "We're on it. Yeah."
A: Cool, yeah. "We're on it."
KJ: Yeah, we're on it. Don't worry. I'm curious because your poems are so short, are you a perfectionist? Do you kind of agonize over finding just the right word? Do you edit a lot, or do you just get inspired and write very quickly?
A: I think it would depend, but certainly because some of the poems are very short I do agonize over different words. I'll write ten versions of the same thing. If you change one word, the whole meaning changes. I do certainly spend a lot of time with it. Sometimes I'll just write something and throw it up and say, "You know what? I just want that to exist as it is."
KJ: Sure, sure.
A: Yeah, but it certainly depends. I know when I was reading it for the audiobook, we definitely agonized over how to read it and how to flow, and some poems just flowed really well, and just you just really kind of work out how you want it to sound.
KJ: Right. Do you feel like publishing has changed your relationship to poetry? Because it must be very different to collect your poems into a book versus seeing them on social media, and posting, and getting feedback instantaneously.
A: Yeah, certainly. When somebody asked me to do a book, I was very surprised. I didn't personally think that anybody would want to read it. I was very, very surprised and humbled. I think it's maybe a writer's thing, or maybe it's a human thing, or maybe it's just a me thing to doubt constantly.
KJ: That's a human thing. I think so.
KJ: It's a me thing too.
A: It feels like a me thing sometimes. Putting the book out, I think it makes you kind of lock in your poems, freeze them in time. As a writer, I'm always wanting to change my poems. I always go back and change little words and things, and they're kind of never finished. One of the good things and bad things about the book is that it does make you lock it in.
Instagram poetry is in so many ways a gateway drug as it were into classical literature. You become interested in quotes and words, and then ...
A: Where Instagram, I've always loved because you can change a few words, or if you don't like a poem anymore you can stop posting it, or take it down, or whatever. It's kind of more fluid in that way.
KJ: Sure, sure.
A: For better or for worse, yeah.
KJ: But tattoos live forever, and some of your fans have tattoos of your work. I'm curious about [how] your fans are so devoted to you, and I know you get a lot of comments, and probably personal messages. Do you have any stories from fans that really touched you or that you remember?
A: Yes, absolutely. I have a few. First of all, I love my fans. I'm obsessed with them. I know that's why it was so important for me to go on these tours is because I just wanted to meet them and connect to them. When people say something like, "I got a tattoo," it just means the world to me, because I felt connected when I wrote these words, and if they felt connected enough to write them and put them on their body, I feel very connected to them, if that makes sense. Certainly.
One story comes to mind that has really, really had a profound impact on my life, and that was two weeks ago I was getting ready to release my book, and I received a message from a young girl named Jess. She said, "My friend Elena is a huge fan of your work, and she has been diagnosed with cancer, and she's only been given a short while to live."
A: "What I'm wondering is your book comes out shortly and I'm wondering if I could, any way I could get an early copy of the audiobook, because she's not strong enough to read a book, but she is strong enough to listen to one. And the doctors don't believe she's going to make it to your book release."
KJ: Oh, my God.
A: That just hit me very hard. I, of course, connected with Jess and said, "Of course. Of course, I can get you an audiobook. Is there anything else I can do? Most of all, where do you live? Because I would love to come and read it to Elena in person."
A: She said, "I live in Florida." The next day, I flew to Florida, and unfortunately by the time I arrived to the hospice center she'd already gone unconscious. However, her mother and sister said she could still hear and asked me if I could read the book to her anyways. I spent a day holding her hand and reading her The Dark Between Stars, all the while hearing these incredible stories of Elena, the boys that she'd loved, how she loved her dogs more than anything.
KJ: Oh, my God.
A: Her favorite thing to do in the world was to get a big cup of coffee, and go to the beach before sunrise with her dogs and watch the sunrise, and then go and explore bookstores. She was obsessed with bookstores. She'd also started writing her own poetry and had just discovered poetry during the one year of her treatment. She'd even gotten a tattoo of my words on her arm.
I was given a book of hers, of her poetry, and I started reading it to her. I read her the whole book. Toward the end, there was this poem that she'd written about getting goosebumps. Just as I read it, her mother said, "Look at her arm. Goosebumps."
KJ: Oh, my God. Oh, my God.
A: There was goosebumps all up her arm. I can't tell you how spiritual that moment was. We all touched her arm, and there surrounded by everybody that she loved she passed away just then.
A: Yeah. It was for me one of the most profoundly sad and human moments of my life, and profoundly beautiful as well to see her pass away, but also be so alive and awake there within the love of her family and her friends around her.
That story, and so many others, have hugely impacted my life, and I'm just so humbled to be a part of it in any way. It's just the human connections and the human stories that I've received have been really, really beautiful.
KJ: Wow. That's an amazing story. I mean it's super sad, but she sounds like a wonderful person.
A: So wonderful.
KJ: Social media gives you the opportunity to get your work out there and get it seen by a lot of people, but at the same time you are also receiving. You're being touched by all these people as well, and it's helping the connection for you too, so that's amazing. It actually answers my next question. I was going to ask you if you think that social media has had a positive effect on poetry. I assume you probably think so, but I'd love to hear what you think about the term Instagram poet. If you like being described that way, if you don't like it. What you think about Instagram poetry as kind of this new trend. I'd just like to get your thoughts on that.
A: Yeah, yeah. I mean I don't mind. Call it whatever you like. That's not really important. Yeah, I don't really care. I think that Instagram poetry is having an incredible effect. I think there's some people who are against Instagram poetry, and it kind of always surprises me, because at the end of the day, you're talking about a new young generation of people who are finding this resurgent interest in words. Yes, it's changed from back in the day, but rather than hate it, it's like why not celebrate it and try to get something positive out of it?
A: Critics have said different things coming out against Instagram poetry, and I just think it's the wrong way to go about things. It's like you can't fight young people wanting to send love notes to each other on the internet. I think it's a waste of time. I don't think anybody's going out there saying that my words are changing the world. I think it's rather just a celebration and a playground for words. It's an imperfect playground, but it should be. It is a playground.
I think it's just such a beautiful thing that people are saying, "I'm interested in writing." Instagram poetry is in so many ways a gateway drug as it were into classical literature. You become interested in quotes and words, and then ... It's what happened to me. It's like I started exploring all the classic poets and all the classical writers. I know it's the same for so many people. I think it's a huge mistake to fight against what's happening, and rather a better way to do it is to try to encourage it, and shape it, and foster these young people.
There's nothing more delicate than a young writer who's just putting themselves out there and writing something that they feel is honest. The critics that come and attack them and other poets, it's just like, what a terrible thing to do.
A: It doesn't make any sense. It doesn't make any sense to me. Sorry. I mean that was sort of a rant.
KJ: No, I appreciate that. I mean there was a great story recently about kind of the changing face of poetry and how this is kind of making way for also a lot of young people, yes, and also lots of writers of color, and queer poets, and refugees, and all different voices that are not in the usual white man canon. I think that's also something to really celebrate.
A: Absolutely. I feel the same way. I mean the amount of minorities or LGBTQ community that reach out to me, it's unbelievable, and it's a beautiful thing. And it's quite powerful. It's so cool that they're getting a voice.
KJ: I find your response about this imperfect beauty that you can find on social media, it kind of mirrors to me some of the themes in your poems, which there's a lot of sort of beauty in chaos or beauty in brokenness. One of your poems in the book says, "Life is always the art of failing magnificently," which I really love. Can you think of a favorite failure that you had or a time you were glad that you failed in your life?
A: It's hard to pinpoint one exactly, but I will say that like my life's been a mosaic of failures. I think that I mean I've just learned so much from my failures, and I continue to fail. I do believe that quote. I think that life is your mosaic of failures as much as it is your mosaic of success.
KJ: Yep. I just want to talk a little bit about the fact that you're anonymous. Do you feel like being anonymous is key to your creative process? I know you've probably said this in a million interviews, but can you tell us why you made that decision and whether you think you're going to always be anonymous?
A: Yeah. I'm happy to. When I was starting out, I think it was a few things. I think part of it was I was shy to be vulnerable. Doing it anonymously I felt would be kind of a reminder, and a symbol, and an allowance for me to write what I feel and not what I think I should feel, and not write for anybody else, or not try to be cool, or try to make myself cool. It was just about the words and everything.
Certainly, as it's taken off, I've appreciated the lack of recognition. I think there's a weird thing going on in the world right nowhere there's like an obsession with being recognized and being like YouTube famous or whatever it is. I'm kind of in the thick of it here in where I live, and I've seen it just hurt so many people, and I've seen people look for fulfillment and connectivity in the wrong places, in the wrong ways. I think if you want to be famous, I think you've just got to be really, really careful how you do it and make sure you're doing it for the right reasons.
To answer your question of whether I think I'll ever take off the mask, no, I don't think so. I think it's important. It's important for me to have that distinction, and separation, and to continue to remind myself to write what I think is true and not what I think is what I think other people want to hear. The mask helps me do that. It's not like I'm so over precious of protecting who I am. It's not really about that. It's kind of a reminder, and a symbol, and something bigger, I feel like.
KJ: Sure. Of course, now the Atticus brand is something people know something from and expect a certain thing from, so you do have some form of recognition there, but I can understand keeping it separate from your daily life.
A: Yeah. No, I mean yeah, listen. Like, branding I think is one thing, and then just kind of like physical recognition is different. That's the kind of distinction that I like to make. Creating an identity is something that's fun and again like a playground, but I think for me, keeping that distinction is important.
KJ: Sure. That makes sense to me. I also just wanted to ask a little bit. You talk a lot about dating in the book. What do you think is hard about dating in the modern age, and what do you think is hopeful about it?
A: Yeah. I think that, and it's just my opinion, but I think that it's a hard time and a confusing time for dating in the world right now. I think it's a real shame and there's going to be some sort of backlash. I think it stems from, and I know a lot of people have said the same thing, but it's this idea of connectivity. I think we're missing like a real human connection, and I also think that with the introduction of all these kind of dating services it takes away the human connection and gives you a huge amount of access to options so that people don't invest necessarily in specific people and rather they maybe spread themselves over like relationships with lots of different people. I think that there's a lot of danger in that to me, and I think that we'll find a backlash in society about that.
I mean, that's kind of my experience and my friends' experiences. Yeah, for me it comes down to that idea of connection, and human connection. You can only get so much connecting with somebody over your phone or social media or whatever. I think it comes back to why it was so important to me to go on a tour and meet people, because it's human connection. You look each other in the eyes. Even though I'm wearing a mask, you do have this kind of human connection. You hug, and you shake hands, and you hear stories. I think there's something important there.
KJ:Cool. Thank you. That's great.
A: Yeah. What do you think?
KJ: About dating in the modern age? I totally am married and I'm out of the game. It's been a long time for me. I'm lucky I guess.
A: Yeah, you are lucky.
KJ: Yeah. Soon I'll be probably handling it with my kids, but we'll see.
A: Oh yeah.
KJ: Yeah. Until then, I'm staying in the dark. Speaking of being in the dark, I wanted to ask how you handle hiding your alias from your friends. You probably have an inner circle that knows who you are.
KJ: How does that work?
A: Do you want to know a bit of a funny story around that? When I first started out, I came home after I think it was the first two years of writing anonymously, and I was doing Christmas with my little sister. She brought out that she was following this poet online named Atticus. She's been following me for two years and had no idea that it was me. I thought that was very, very funny. She, of course, knows now, yes.
KJ: Yeah. Then now she's like, "Oh, I'm not as into it"?
A: Yeah. Like, "Oh, it's my older brother. I don't want to follow him." No, she's been great. Yeah, it's been funny. I do have a crew that knows and lots of people just don't know, and that's fine. That's great. That's kind of the way I want to keep it. If people find out, it's fine.
I think even fans that know or people who have found out, there is this kind of element of, "Yeah, let's keep it a secret. I think it's better that way," and it kind of becomes our secret. I think that's great as well.
KJ: Sure. That makes sense. I wanted to go back to something you said before about poetry kind of being a gateway for you into beautiful literature and older books. I just wondered if you have any poems or even quotes from great books that you have memorized because you think they're really beautiful.
A: Yeah. I'm terrible at even memorizing my own poems, but I do have one and I'll butcher it.
KJ: Go for it.
A: There's a quote that I love from [The Great] Gatsby. It's F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald's a favorite writer of mine in the way that his quotes just I feel like flow like music. I'm constantly like, "Wow, I can't believe someone wrote something so beautiful."
A: It's in Gatsby, and it goes something like, "The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain."
KJ: That's beautiful.
A: Yeah. I just love that, like how vivid and how powerful a sentence.
KJ: That's gorgeous. What is the significance of the rain for you? Because there's so much rain that shows up in your book.
A: It's a good question. I mean I'm from the Pacific Northwest, so I grew up in the rain. I just love the rain. There's something so poetic about being rainy outside. I will say there's nowhere safer to be than inside while a storm is going on. I love the idea of cozy, and rain helps me. Rain kind of creates that cozy feeling for me. I'm sure I'm nostalgic for my childhood or such, but I just love it.
KJ: Well, thank you so much. I really, really enjoyed talking to you, and I love your book. I love how you read, and I think a lot of people are going to really love it on Audible, and we're just so thrilled to have you here today.
A: Well, thank you. Likewise, it was very nice talking to you. I really, really love Audible and love audiobooks. It was absolutely my pleasure.
KJ: Cool. Well, thank you so much.
A: You're welcome.
KJ: If you want to let us know who you are, you have my number. Just kidding.
A: All right. I'll text you, "It was me."
KJ: Perfect. After this, okay?
KJ: Well, thank you, Atticus.
A: Thank you so much.