Sites such as Movellas and Wattpad are seeing huge numbers of teens writing, reading and sharing poetry. Alison Flood investigates the phenomenon and talks to some of the teens publishing their poetry online
Read about Ollie's experience on Movellas and his advice for other teen writers
Talk to publishers or booksellers about poetry, and you'll hear the same refrain. It's niche, it's difficult to sell - and young people just aren't interested. Look online and you'll see a different picture. More than 20,000 teenagers are writing poetry on the social reading website Wattpad, and over 100,000 are actively reading Wattpad's poems on both web and mobile, while on the young adult community writing site Movellas, there are 20 to 30 new poems uploaded a day, with the most popular read up to 15,000 times, receiving between 20 and 200 comments. That's not a particularly convincing display of indifference.
Today, there's a mixture of love, angst and comedy to be found in the most popular poems on Movellas. Rawrz is doing well with "Secrets" ("I can't run away from the secrets, / They're everywhere"), Tess Towler with "All I Have Is My Words" ("I look at you / But my glance has no meaning / For all I have is words"), and Niall the Nerd with "Why me?" ("Why must you be? / So mean to me? / Do your friends say you're cool? When you're being so cruel?").
On Wattpad, 14-year-old Abby Meyer - who goes by SnowDrop07 online - is still reeling after being shortlisted for a competition judged by Margaret Atwood alongside much older competitors. She had to write 10 poems, including, impressively, a sonnet, a villanelle and a cento, but thinks her narrative poem Metamorphosis was her best. "Half-dimmed coffee shop lights. / Residents stir dusty rumours / Into mugs full of soap"...
"Many teenagers can be very self-conscious, and afraid to be themselves or show their emotions to people close to them. I know that I was initially very nervous about showing my poetry to my family, for fear that it wasn't good enough, or that they wouldn't like it," says Meyer. "But with an account online, anyone can post poetry, and let out emotions that they don't want others to know about, or write poetry that they felt wasn't good enough to show to others. On the internet, it doesn't matter if your poetry is dreadful, because most likely, the only people who are going to read it are strangers, and it doesn't matter so much what they think."
Chloe Smith, 16, writes as sleepisfortheweak on Movellas, and joined when the teacher running her creative writing club asked the class to do so. "Since then, I've been hooked," she says. "I seem to be starting to get a lot more recognition on Movellas now that I've started publishing my poems, especially from the more popular people on there, which is good as it means more people see my work. I get criticism that helps me build on my ideas and improve them so that they are even better than before, and it helps me become better at writing."
Poetry is a good fit for teenagers, she feels, because it "seems like a way to convey a person's emotions, and because teens seem to be going through so much with exams and relationships that they need to be able to put it down somewhere". Meyer feels similarly. "I think that teenagers like writing poetry to let out their 'teenage angst', or to write about things they wouldn't have otherwise known much about. When you write a poem in the point of view of someone else, you have to put yourself in their shoes, and feel everything that they would have felt. It gives you a unique view on events, and I don't know if other teens feel the same about it as me, but it is certainly why I like to write poetry. As for reading poetry online… I think that it gives teens reassurance that other people their age feel the same way as them, and are going through the same emotional changes."
Movellas, which launched in Denmark in 2010, made its UK debut last February. It now has 20,000 "movellas" on the site, one of which - a fan fiction story about One Direction - was signed up by Penguin last autumn. And poetry, says editor Jordan Philips, is the site's second biggest category behind fan fiction, bigger than fantasy, science fiction and romance. "We've 2,500 poems on the UK site, and a similar number on the Danish site. It grows by 20-30 poems every day," says Philips. "When we saw how big it was, we ran a competition with the Poetry Society and had 250 entries in four weeks. [And] we released a poetry app on the iPhone last week and had 3,500 downloads in six days."
Ollie Lambert, 15 (known as WriterMan), came second in the Movellas competition for his poem "Walk". "Why I write poetry is a ... complicated question," he says. "I suppose I like the fact that it seems to distil experiences and emotions; to communicate ideas in a powerful, yet economic way, and having tried various styles of writing, the feedback I got on my poetry from Movellas encouraged me to develop this particular aspect of my writing."
On Canadian site Wattpad, in the past six months teens have read poems almost a million times, and added over 100,000 to the site's library of poetry. "It tends to be emotions - what teens are facing every day. In the past, teenagers would write their own poetry, and the only person who'd read it was themselves," says the site's founder Allen Lau. "Now, they can share it with someone 5,000 miles away. That by itself is so exciting. It's not only self-expression but the ability to have someone to appreciate your work."
Both Lau and Philips believe that the mushrooming interest in online poetry could mark big changes for the genre. "I think we are really seeing a renaissance of poetry," says Lau. "It's very hard to make poetry financially feasible in print. I think digital is really trying to resurrect that genre."
"There's something about mobile and the internet and self-publishing which works really well with poetry," agreed Philips. "I had a conversation with someone at a publisher who said 'we can't sell poetry to young adults'. I think it's something about the difference between engaging with poetry as a community online, where you can write and talk to each other, and poetry written by adults for young adults."
Movellas, he says, is showcasing "poetry in a digital age". "It's talking to [teenagers] in the right way, and perhaps the way publishers do it is a bit more academic, a bit more highbrow. Perhaps - and we're seeing this with our site - it doesn't have to be very formal and academic, studied at university. Perhaps it can be really accessible, really enjoyable," he says. "Whenever we tell people about how well poetry is doing, they all say, 'I would have been on that site if I was 16'. Anyone interested in writing had this phase, writing in a little black journal in their dark room. It's just taking that idea, that everyone's written poetry even if they've shown it to no one - and putting it online."
He's right - teenagers Smith and Meyer are both avid readers of poetry online, but don't tend to buy collections from bookshops. "I enjoy reading lots of poetry on the site, and I have found some poetry collections that are really good. It is a shame that people say there isn't a market for poetry, because some poems seem to me to deserve to be published," says Meyer. "I don't regularly buy poetry - mostly because I've not seen much of a range of poetry in bookshops. However, I often borrow poetry books off my mum, and when I was younger, my grandma and grandad bought me a poetry anthology that first sparked my interest in poetry. It would be great to be able to buy poetry easily from bookshops."
"I always look at the new poetry published on Movellas. It's great to see so many new ones published every day; it always keeps me busy! I like providing constructive criticism to newer poets, and following my favourite Movellians as they publish newer pieces," says Smith. "I've never really bought poetry from a bookshop; I prefer reading novels in books, and I've never found any poetry in my local shops. It's quite distressing how it's mostly all online now; I think Movellas should start publishing books of the top pieces of each category, especially poetry."
Movellas is already there: the site has just announced a poetry competition in conjunction with Macmillan Children's Books, in which the 25 winners will see their poems included in an ebook anthology from Macmillan this June. The site is likely to be flooded with entries.
"We all know how hard it is nowadays to get published in book form," says Lambert. "Movellas offers you that chance to be published, no matter what your level of experience. It is a place for people who want to share their work and develop at the same time. Accessibility is key. Especially among the younger generation. With the internet, publishing is easier than ever before. You don't have to wait months to hear back from a publisher, or worry about constant rejections, which can be off-putting. Instead you can load your piece onto Movellas and know that people will read it within days. This makes writing online very attractive to young writers."