The Accidental Instapoet – Wes Civilz

On Christmas Day I wrote a short, angry poem about Christmas.

I remember disliking the holiday even when I was young. Somewhere in there, maybe around eleven or twelve, the drugging effect of the presents wore off, and I realized how strange and annoying the whole thing really was. Santa, his reindeer, the music. That smug music.

This was the poem:

Christmas is a day I feel

cruel dark bloody feelings

that I am not supposed to feel on Christmas

I decided to post it on Instagram. For the last year or two, the internet had been abuzz with articles about a new crop of writers called “Instapoets.” In particular there was the snowballing phenomenon of young Rupi Kaur, who had millions of Instagram followers, and traveled the world reading her poetry, and even had books on the New York Times Best Seller list.

The clock on the kitchen wall said 3:30 pm. It was wine thirty.

Out came a bottle of Chardonnay from the fridge; I uncorked it and slid it into the plastic cooler thingy. McLuhan jumped onto the table and sniffed at the bottle. He was a good cat. His eyes glazed over as he considered the smell. Filling in my information for an Instagram account, I felt a familiar anxiety that surfaced whenever I joined something new online. I made myself sit with the feeling for a minute. “It’s okay to be feeling this,” I said, and poured a glass of wine.

Searching under the hashtag #poem returned more than 13 million results. There were some odd poetry hashtags, like #spilledink and #poetryisnotdead. My eyes fell on a short poem:

You broke me

but hey, asshole,

it didn’t break me

Annoying. The bold type was silly. And accompanying the words was an extremely silly drawing of a face with red hair and a smug smile. In a way I was impressed—impressed by how perfectly bad the post was. The face seemed to be smiling with pride about surviving the tragedy that had broken, or maybe hadn’t broken, him. Or her.

There were a lot of pictures of typewriters. Too many. A lot of vintage models photographed from hip angles, and pictures of poems typed up on thick, fancy paper. There were even some writers using quill pens.

“Quill pens are taking it too far,” I said.

In the first hour after I posted my Christmas poem, four people gave it a “like.” A like was given by clicking a little heart icon below the post. It turned red when you clicked it.

A few more people liked it before I went to bed. Someone left two emojis as a comment (surprised face, happy face). I checked out the profile, and it was a young woman of maybe twenty-five, from Switzerland. I left a comment of two happy faces on one of her food pictures, the sushi. I avoided commenting on her bikini pictures. It was stupid when people got all frothed up over bathing suit pictures online. Well. Anyway. I felt a little bored. Bored with the Instagram poetry experience. Still, it was kind of neat that a few people out there had seen something I’d written. Maybe I’d made someone laugh in the middle of a hectic, or a bad, or just a boring, day.

*          *          *

Woke the next morning. Rubbed my eyes. Remembered the poem.

Pulled my phone to me from the far side of the bed. Blurry-eyed, I opened Instagram.

The poem had 293 likes.

Adrenaline shimmered through me. I sat up in bed, propping pillows. McLuhan jumped down to the floor and left the bedroom.

By evening, the poem had 500 likes. I sat looking at the number 500, smiling. I reloaded the page: 502. Reloaded again: 503. A mental image came to me of yanking up carrots from the rich earth of some garden filled with a bumper crop. Unlimited carrots.

I reloaded again, and this time there were no new likes. That didn’t feel good.

But in fits and starts, they kept increasing, and around ten p.m. they crossed 1,000. I stared at the number. I jumped up from the couch and loudly said, “Yes!”

I opened a bottle of Chardonnay. It was silly to be this excited. But still.

*          *          *

By the end of the week there were 20,000 likes.

It felt good. But strange.

There were also—and this seemed even stranger than getting all the likes—articles about the poem popping up on the web. A right-wing website, Mark’s Guns, posted a piece claiming the poem was part of the liberal media’s “war on Christmas.” I smiled. It was a crazy idea, but it was true that I would never have written an angry poem about, say, Hanukkah. Let alone Ramadan. Only a bad person would do that. Maybe it was good to remember that Christmas was, for some people, “religious.”

The article was quite well-written, and quite strange. It wove a narrative about elites in Silicon Valley that were funding obscure artists to denigrate Christmas. “What Instagram account has just one post that 20,000 people have liked?” it said. My profile was supposedly part of a “digital coven.” George Soros was referenced.

I giggled. Then fear settled over me like a wet shirt. How hard would it be for someone to find out where I lived?

A feminist website called Cleavage Crusher also had an article. It applauded my dig at Christmas as a “welcome dismantling of patriarchal pageantry,” but also claimed to spot an “undercurrent of toxic masculinity.” The author suggested adding me to something called the MIAWACUPLI list. I googled MIAWACUPLI. It stood for Male-Identified Artists Who Are Comfortable Using Problematic Language/Imagery.

People who saw my name usually assumed I was a man. It could go either way: Blake. But there were a fair number of women my age named Blake. There was a famous actress.

I set up Google Alerts for my poem, and some related hashtags.

I petted McLuhan, who looked up at me with calm concern.

*          *          *

Leaving the house, heading to my shift, I turned off my phone and put it at the bottom of my bag, under the other stuff. Time to unplug. Time to leave the internet behind for a while, and concentrate on making drinks—drinks were real things, real things in the real world. My latest batch of bitters would be ready to go tonight.

The first customers of the night, a friendly tourist couple, ordered Manhattans and commented on how much they liked the bitters. They asked to try samples of the bitters on spoons. They tried a couple of my experimental cocktails, and really liked them. It was interesting to notice how happy I felt, compared to earlier.

A part of me wanted to tell them I’d written something that was stirring up a little fuss online. I noticed the woman was posting a picture of her drink—one of my Celery Fizzes—on Instagram. Would it be weird to ask her to check out the poem? She was on Instagram right now.

Yes, I thought, it would be weird. I kept quiet.

After work I made myself a Celery Fizz. I wanted to turn on my phone, and I caught my hands reaching for it a few times, but I resisted. The Fizz was good. I sat there, enjoying it. I felt good about selling it to people, and they were making the right noises, but there was still a little nagging feeling that something was missing. Maybe a splash of tomato juice would do it. That would give more of a scaffolding for the finish to unfold on. The tomato juice from World Market Source worked well with this gin, so that might be good.

When I did turn on my phone, there was a gush of beeps and alerts. It jittered around on the bar top. Apparently an online battle had erupted between Mark Whittaker, the writer from Mark’s Guns, and Ana Sarafian, of Cleavage Crusher. I googled them. Ana Sarafian seemed to be a social media presence of some note; Mark Whittaker was more obscure. It was quite the online kerfuffle, with skirmishes being fought across different media platforms. As far as I could tell, my poem was the latest flashpoint in an older conflict. A previous point of tension had something to do with a kids toy, a military jeep that was colored hot pink, like a Barbie sports car.

Some people seemed to be very, very angry at Ana Sarafian. There was a series of photographs, obviously photoshopped, in which she was being subjected to various forms of medieval torture. I wondered what it would be like to see fake pictures of yourself being tortured.

*          *          *

A few days later, Sarafian came out with another article: Why The Alt-Right Loves To Hate This Sh*tty Instagram Poem. There was a picture of my poem, and next to it, a goofy cartoon of an AR-15 rifle. The rifle’s “face” was red and bunched up in anger. The day after this article, another one popped up in opposition to it, short and poorly written, which described me as “Ana Sarafian’s bitch-boy.” It seemed to be an entry in someone’s blog. A day later, I received a Google Alert that showed I’d been added to the MIAWACUPLI list.

I sipped wine, and inhaled another hit of vapor from the weed pen. I smoothed back McLuhan’s ears. It was nice to have him around during this time. I closed my laptop. Opened it. Closed it again. I went outside, lay down on the lawn chair next to the barbecue, and slept.

*          *          *

The dream was a dank stew of people and places and events… the main scene seemed to be a potluck at Ana Sarafian’s house. A vegan potluck. Her house had the feeling of Southern California… sunlight, palm trees, expensive cars. I could see into her kitchen from the outside. She was in there, wearing a white robe, talking to people, being a hostess. She saw me and came out to the patio.

“Unfortunately,” she said, “I can’t allow this as your potluck contribution.”

She reached down and tapped the package of hotdogs I was holding. I felt immediately ashamed. They were obviously wrong for a vegan potluck. Why had I brought them?

“You’re still welcome here,” Ana said, touching my arm. “Just put those in the trash, and I’ll introduce you to some people.”

Mark Whittaker was nearby on the patio. He was older, white, gray-bearded. Gnome-like in appearance, although not a small man, he stood by the picnic table, scanning the buns and condiments. He looked over at me.

“Are you throwing those wieners away?” he said. He came over and tapped me on the chest, which was somewhat intimidating. “I’ll cook those up.”

*          *          *

I woke up. McLuhan was lying on my chest. I went back inside and opened my laptop. It was time to delete the poem. In fact, it was time to delete the whole Instagram account. Things were getting weird.

A slow, loud knock came from my front door.

I went to the hallway and stood, listening. The knock came again, louder, more urgent.

I went to the living room window, which looked out onto the front porch, and cracked the curtain very slightly. A kid was standing there. Teenage boy, white, maybe sixteen. He was very skinny, and his hair was in dreadlocks. Each dreadlock was dyed a different color of the rainbow, red, orange, yellow, all of them. This gaudy hair was crowned with a camouflage hunting hat.

I went back to the hall, took a breath, and opened the door. “Can I help you?”

The kid seemed startled when he saw me. As if he’d been expecting someone else. “Did you write…” he said, and trailed off.

“What do you want?”

With a thin, shaky hand, he reached into his shirt pocket and fished out a pink tube. At first I mistook it for some kind of sex toy. He held it up, and I could see there was a little opening near the top. “Shit,” he said, nervously. The tube hissed and spat, and a cloud of vapor bubbled out into the air between us. Then a thin line of liquid pierced through the vapor, splashing the door, a little to my left. I slammed the door shut and locked it.

I sneezed. Sneezed again. Some of the vapor had gotten into the house.

It was mace. It had to be. One of my eyes was affected, I couldn’t open it. But it hadn’t been a direct hit. With my good eye, I looked out the peephole. He was gone. I went to the living room window. No sign of him up or down the street.

I went to the sink in the kitchen, turned on the water, and opened my eye into the stream. I wondered what it felt like to get a direct hit in the face.

***

Wes Civilz lives in New Hampshire, and is at work on a memoir about intoxication. His writing can be found in journals such as The Antioch Review, The Threepenny Review, Arts & Letters, and Quarterly West.