In 2017, the “Instagram poet” label seemed to reach a fever pitch, leading many to criticize the use of a social media platform as the antithesis of serious poetry. But the platform continues to be a powerful way for many poets to share their work with a wide audience. New among them: singer-songwriter Johnathan Rice.
Rice uses L.A. as his muse in Farewell My Dudes: 69 Dystopian Haikus (Hat & Beard Press, $20), his first book of haikus. And it all started with haikus that he wrote on his iPhone.
“The brevity of the haiku — it's somehow in sync with our culture,” Rice says. “There's so much brevity in the way that we communicate. And we're always looking for ways to shorten words, and one of the things I really think about in Instagram is that it kind of spawns new language very quickly. There's new words that pop up all the time. And they're in vogue for a few months and then they're kind of gone.”
The haikus feature all those annoying phrases we use in texts, like bae, bb and NBD. As a group, they speak to our splintered existence: the way we manage to be more present online than IRL. And there's something about L.A. that makes this painfully obvious, Rice says.
“To be in traffic and stuck at a red light on the corner of Sunset in Echo Park or something and looking out my window — very few people are looking at one another, everyone's looking down at the screen,” Rice says. “Myself included, most of the time, and it is pretty strange. It’s a total cultural takeover. And I mean, I love Los Angeles so much but I can’t help but see it the way that it is.”
If you scroll back long enough on his Insta feed (just pretend you're virtually stalking an ex), you notice Rice’s feed filling up with the pithy haikus. Not one to post a selfie, Rice wanted to rebel against the visual nature of Instagram and give people something quick to read instead.
"His personal brand:
'The guy that hates the Beatles'
He would die alone"
"Grandma made cookies
Sadly, grandma is also
He dips his toes before totally jumping into the haiku pool though, breaking up a string of haikus to share a photo of himself strumming a guitar or posting info on an upcoming event or a snapshot with friends. Before that his feed looked like the rest of ours do — photos of dogs, friends, memes, inside jokes, neon signs and a screenshot of a Twitter notification saying Melissa Joan Hart is now following you on twitter (OK, not all of us can relate to that last one).
The more he shared haikus, the more people asked questions. They wanted to know his emotional state when writing this haiku or that one; in fact, they seemed more curious about the 5-7-5 pieces than about Rice's songs.
Rice decided to ask friends to read some of them aloud. Not for the sake of seriousness, though — he calls slam poetry “one of the more excruciating art forms that exist today.” Watching people read the haikus slowly and with emphasis is all part of the joke; soon more people started sending him videos, without him even asking.
But there’s a catch: So far all the readers featured on his feed look like what your standard L.A. bro would call "really hot chicks." Singer Jesse Jo Stark, model Abrielle Stedman, singer-actress Mandy Moore and others fill up the feed with their own renditions of each haiku. It fits into the self-aware joke: Instagram, after all, is the home of the thirst trap and the selfie. But having hot women read your haikus isn’t a bad marketing move, either.
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The journey of these cynical haikus, created and popularized on a digital device, ironically culminates in a printed piece. It’s something that Rice appreciates as a musician who is still a sucker for a good vinyl record or a sexy microphone. Hat & Beard Press first offered up the idea and Rice ran with it. The format, after all, just offers another way to reach people.
When asked whether he hopes to reach a specific audience — poetry buffs? L.A. natives? — Rice says he would honestly feel flattered if anyone picked up the book.
“I hope people realize that I'm not taking myself super seriously,” he says. “I'm really trying to make myself and other people laugh in a time that most of us are feeling pretty anxious.”
You can currently preorder "Farewell My Dudes: 69 Dystopian Haikus.”