Iain Thomas: Why Read Poetry?

"Insta Poet" Iain Thomas finds wide audience in an Emoji generation.

Posted Oct 26, 2017

“I need you to understand something. I wrote this for you. I wrote this for you and only you. Everyone else who reads it doesn’t get it. They may think they get it, but they don’t. This is the sign you’ve been looking for. You were meant to read these words.” — pleasefindthis

This is the message on the back of Iain Thomas’ newly released book of poetry, I Wrote This for You. And, isn’t this really what we all sometimes want to feel when we read poetry?

Thomas (pen name: pleasefindthis) is at the forefront of a genre of "insta poets" who have developed huge followings on social media with short, highly accessible works that resonate deeply and quickly. Case in point: Thomas has nearly 14,000 followers on Instagram. Here’s more from my interview with the eloquent author:

Jennifer Haupt: When and why did you start reading poetry?

Iain Thomas, used with permission
Source: Iain Thomas, used with permission

Iain Thomas: I started reading Shakespeare when I was five or six. My parents had a collection of comics from the seventies called Classics Illustrated, which were very simplified interpretations of everything from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to Hamlet to The Hunchback Of Notre-Dame. I read those a lot. To me, they were just more comic books, like Spiderman or The X-Men, just with less spandex. I won’t pretend that I grasped Hamlet in its entirety, but I remember understanding that there was something different about the language beyond the fact that I couldn’t understand most of it.   

I fell in love with language before I fell in love with any specific poets. I recognized that there was a way to phrase words that made them more powerful. I loved movie taglines because they were a kind of poetry, they told this entire story in the space of a sentence or two. The whole of the movie Alien is summed up as “In space, no one can you hear you scream.” I know that doesn’t sound very poetic or perhaps it’s not a very poetic answer, but it was through being exposed to that kind of pop-culture that I discovered my love of language.

JH: Who were a few of the traditional poets you were first drawn to?

IT: I discovered more traditional poetry in my teen years. I had a thing for Dylan Thomas because we shared a surname and also because "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" spoke to me in a powerful way. My father developed multiple sclerosis the year I was born, so he had it my entire life. But he still carried on going to work every day at the General Motors’ factory so we could live in a decent house and buy groceries and so on. He had this kind of strength, from a wheelchair, that to me was raging against the dying of the light. 

E.E. Cummings was another early favorite of mine. His poem “I sing of Olaf glad and big” spoke to me for different reasons than Thomas. It’s this kind of railing against authority that really appealed to me. I grew up during Apartheid in South Africa and went to a whites-only, boys-only school that was incredibly authoritarian. I never felt like I fit in. I remember writing a line from that poem, “I will not kiss your fucking flag,” on some punishment homework I had to do because I figured they’d never read any of it, and of course, they did and I ended up in detention for the rest of the year.

I’ll always love E.E. Cummings for that, and the last four lines of his poem “Anyone Lived In A Pretty How Town” are the chapter titles of my first book: “sun, moon, stars, rain.” 

JH: What first appealed to you about poetry?

IT: Poetry appealed to me because it was a way to translate the world and what I was feeling, which were very intangible things, into something that I could understand and process. I think certain poems are meant to find certain people at certain points in their life. I was lucky in that several found their way to me over the years. I was an alienated kid and poetry made me feel less alone, and like someone else had felt what I was feeling. I grew up wanting to try and reach other people, and let them know that they’re not alone because certain poets did that for me.

JH: When did you start writing poetry? Did you/do you also write straight prose?

IT: I kept a diary from when I was about 13 or 14 years old and I think that’s when I started writing poetry. Most of it was terrible. I still have trouble considering what I do poetry because it has always felt like such a loaded word for me. In my mind, I create fragments that point to bigger stories with a kind of lyrical language—which sounds like I’m describing poetry, I’ve just never really called it that. It leans more towards prose but I’ve always struggled to look at what I’m doing and put it in a box.

JH: What does reading poetry do for you that reading a novel doesn’t? And, who are some of your favorite poets?

IT: I think poetry allows you to cover more emotional ground when you’re reading. I feel like a poet is pushing themselves into each page in a new way, and there are these glimpses you get of their universe and who they are that are so powerful.

Poems are just songs you don’t sing. You can get that in any of Leonard Cohen’s books because there’s a musicality that embedded in everything he writes. I love Acorn by Yoko Ono. She’s wonderful for all the rules she breaks. And I love the idea of a set of instructions as poetry, which is a recurring theme throughout that book.

I also love what my contemporaries are doing in terms of creating rich, accessible places for people to find themselves. Trista Mateer’s “Dog’s I Have Kissed” and Amanda Lovelace’s “The Princess Saves Herself In This One” [JH2] are good, powerful examples of that. Lastly, Richard Siken’s Crush is, I think, one of the most influential collections of poems ever published. It’s intimate and clear in ways that are hard to measure or quantify.  

JH: Why should we teach our children to appreciate poetry in this age of emoji communication?

IT: I don’t know that you have to teach children to appreciate poetry. If I look at what’s happening in the publishing world right now, there’s this renaissance of poetry. A few of us are very lucky and have sold hundreds of thousands of books. Most of those have been sold to young people.

The age of Emoji communication is a natural home for poetry because poetry has always been a kind of shorthand for the human condition. Young people find something myself or another poet has written, take a picture of it and post it to their social media accounts as a way to say, “I’ve felt this. What this person is saying, I want to say, I just didn’t have the words.” Poetry is alive and well.  

JH: What do you want people to get from reading your latest collection of poetry, I Wrote This for You?

IT: Like I’ve said, I was an alienated kid and I think that stays with you. Today, I like to think of writing a poem as a way to find my way out of whatever dark place I’m in, or as a way to find my way closer to something beautiful.

The poems are maps. I want I Wrote This For You to be a book of maps for others who want to get out of the same places I’ve found myself in and to discover new places. I want people to know that the things they’ve felt are unique to them but also universal. Writing it has made me feel less alone in the world and I hope it can do the same for people who read it.  

JH: What’s the one true thing you learned recently from reading poetry?

IT: Something that’s stuck with me for the past few months since Leonard Cohen’s death was the letter he wrote to Marianne, the woman he immortalized in song, when he found out she was dying:

“Well, Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. 

And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”

He had no way of knowing just how close behind her he was, I guess. But if the question is what I learned from it, because I consider that letter poetry, it’s that you can spend your entire life writing and creating and drawing from whatever sacred space inside of you it comes from, and still somehow find more. I think if you have that desire to create, you never really have to be afraid of running out of ideas or words. I think in some ways, that part of us is infinite. And I think that’s true.