There are certain places where inspirational quotes naturally end up — on a dorm room poster, above a desktop in an office cubicle or in an Instagram bio.
A less obvious a location is atop Amazon’s best seller list — yet that’s exactly where “Milk and Vine,” a poetry anthology subtitled “Inspirational Quotes From Classic Vines,” ended up last month. The book, authored by Temple University first-year students Emily Beck and Adam Gasiewski, combines two very different forms of social media in sparse poetry that would have been almost impossible to decipher five years ago.
Most millennials might recognize the poems in “Milk and Vine” as transcripts from some of the most popular videos on Vine, a now-defunct social media platform where users could post looping six-second clips that lent themselves to absurdist humor.
The poems’ presentation mimics that of “Milk and Honey,” a 2014 anthology by another social media mainstay — poet Rupi Kaur. Small, Times New Roman font stands out against crisp white pages alongside the occasional line drawing. Kaur, a Canadian citizen of South Asian ancestry, boasts almost two million Instagram followers, less for her sense of humor than her musings on the internet’s other great obsessions — love, sex and relationships — all from a woman of color’s point of view.
That perspective has led many of Kaur’s supporters to decry “Milk and Vine” since it went viral last month. In an op-ed last month for Teen Vogue, freelance writer Aditi Natasha Kini called the book a symptom of “white mediocrity” and a “mockery of a South Asian woman’s writing about violence, femininity, and trauma.” Others want to preserve space in a largely white and male literary scene for a voice speaking to an experience that’s neither.
Whether or not it was Beck and Gasiewski’s intent, their book of meme poems wades into this discussion of minority representation in literary circles. It’s certainly vital to work for a diversity of perspectives. Yet it’s questionable to what extent Kaur’s poetry actually engages with that issue — something “Milk and Vine” plays off of as well.
Kaur’s poetry is undeniably a creature of social media — vague enough to remain relevant to millions of followers, packaging complex emotions of love and rejection into neat boxes and reading more as a caption to an image posted online than anything else.
“if you are not enough for yourself / you will never be enough / for someone else,” reads one of Kaur’s poems in “Milk and Honey.”
“you / are your own / soul mate,” another reads.
Some of her readers find writing like this inspiring, and perhaps they should — it both feels and sounds like it belongs on a poster with a sunset in the background. Kaur herself would appear to agree. In an October profile in New York magazine by Molly Fischer, the poet explained her biggest ambition for her next project — finding a designer whose work “translates well across media — to different sizes, to posters, to digital.”
Yet while it has its own value, an inspirational quote does not equate to a representation of the South Asian female experience. To suggest it does would appear to give Kaur and her poetry a free pass content-wise, replacing authentic reflections with vague platitudes.
Of course, “Milk and Vine” isn’t perfect poetry either. Beck and Gasiewski have faced legitimate criticisms since their anthology went viral because of their failure to credit the creators of the videos they feature. The authors’ efforts to re-release the book with proper acknowledgement are unquestionably necessary.
But even in its current, perfunctory form, the book provides a much-needed alternative to the kind of internet poetry that focuses far too much on appearances over content. That the vines included in “Milk and Vine” were largely produced by young people of color only demonstrates further how insufficient it is to cast Kaur as the poetic voice of everyone who isn’t white and male.
Instagram poetry and Vine comedy make an absurdly humorous visual pairing in “Milk and Vine,” but it’s not one that’s fundamentally all that surprising. Both forms of internet culture derive their minimalism from short attention spans and the mass production of relatable content. Vine was able to adapt to this while retaining a certain vitality, while Instapoets like Kaur coalesced into cliche and lost focus on content.
“Milk and Vine” isn’t going to single-handedly turn every would-be internet poet into an original, introspective author. But using content from more seemingly lowbrow segments of internet culture — like Vine — provides important food for thought that you can’t get from a diet of only milk and honey.