In the vein of poetry collections like Milk and Honey and Adultolescence, this compilation of short, powerful poems from teen Instagram sensation @poeticpoison perfectly captures the human experience. In Light Filters In, Caroline Kaufman does what she does best: reflects our own experiences back at us and makes us feel less alone, one exquisite and insightful piece at a time. She writes about giving up too much of yourself to someone else, not fitting in, endlessly Googling “how to be happy,” and ultimately figuring out who you are.
Your Instagram account (@poeticpoison) began as a secret – a way to express yourself honestly and be vulnerable while also having anonymity. What happened that made you go public with the account and how did you feel?
I never planned to go public with my account. It was a diary for me, it talked about my struggles with mental illness, self-harm, even my sexuality. At the time, while I was on the road to recovery, I was still struggling. I wasn’t there yet. So, of course, I was not ready to tell people yet. But, when I was sixteen, my Facebook account automatically connected to my Instagram somehow. Everyone I was friends with on Facebook got a notification that I was on Instagram as @poeticpoison. I didn’t even realize it happened, but then I started getting texts from all my friends asking about the account—as well as a lot of the subjects that I talked about. I wanted to curl up into a ball and never come out. When I went to school the next day it was really awkward, I knew everyone could know my deepest darkest secrets and it was just a really awful feeling. I mean, it was like my diary was being passed around the school. I felt like I had nothing to myself anymore. But, eventually I got used to it. And in the end, I think it really helped me become more comfortable with talking about more difficult subjects, because they were already out in the open for me.
Social media is often a catalyst for self-esteem issues because we constantly compare ourselves to others. But you’ve turned to social media, specifically Instagram, as a way to really find empowerment. What are some other examples of teens using social media for good as a platform to drive change or inspire action?
There are so many amazing people that are turning their social media accounts into platforms for positivity and love. I see it more and more everyday. Jazz Jennings, for example, has been a transgender activist for years and now has over 500,000 followers on Instagram, and she’s only 17 years old. There’s also Kay Ska (@kay_ska), who uses her account to post about self-love, acceptance, and radiating positivity. It’s so amazing for me to see people turn platforms that had a negative impact on their lives into a way to find happiness, and it drives me to do the same.
Why do you think (or DO you think) adults should pay attention to the teenage voice, whether they’re discussing mental illness or gun control or civil rights or any other number of important topics in the national spotlight?
Absolutely, no question about it. We are the future of this country. It may seem easy to brush us off right now, because many of us can’t vote yet and aren’t in positions of power. But, it’s only a matter of time until we have that power. If people don’t listen to us now, sooner or later that won’t matter.
We are going to go out there and make change ourselves. We are not going to grow up and suddenly flip our opinions. We know what we want. And eventually, if we are not heard, we will be able to just go out and get it ourselves.
Your Instagram account has grown to have over 200k followers – what has been the most rewarding aspect of @poeticpoison? Do you identify as a poet or an #instapoet (or “None of the above, I identify as _____!”)?
I think the most rewarding aspect has been the people who have reached out to me individually. So many people have told me that my work described feelings that they could never put into words and it made them feel less alone. Others have said that following my progress over the last few years by reading my poems gives them hope that things can get better in the future for them. What is so crazy is that some of my most personal pieces, the ones where I think I’m completely alone, end up being the most popular ones that people can see themselves in. We think, especially with mental illness, that no one else in the world is experiencing what we are, and it’s so immensely relieving to know there are others out there feeling the same way and surviving. It reminds me of a line from the poem “This is Not the End of the World” by Neil Hilborn (who I love immensely)–“this is not to say that you’re not special, this is to say thank god you aren’t special”.
As for what I identify as, I’d say both. I’m an instapoet, because I began sharing my work on the platform and that’s how I built my following, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I’m also a
poet. And it’s taken me a long time to be comfortable saying that. Poets aren’t just old white men we study in English class. Anyone can be a poet. If you write poetry, you’re a poet, plain and simple.
The topics you tackle in LIGHT FILTERS IN are hard-hitting: suicide, depression, sexual assault, self-harm just to name a few. How did turning to poetry help you? Did you seek outside help when struggling?
I started writing because I felt like I had no one to talk to. I couldn’t turn to anyone about depression, self-harm in particular, because I knew it would get back to my parents out of a fear for my safety. And while yes, that is important, it made me absolutely terrified to talk to anyone about what I was going through, because I knew it wouldn’t be confidential. So, I turned to writing. Poetry was a safe place for me to talk about anything I was going through, and that was what I needed at the time. Eventually, about a year after I started writing, I finally told my parents I wanted to go to therapy. I’m not going to sit here and say that poetry completely saved my life, because that’s not true. Therapy saved my life. There is no replacement for professional help. And I’m so lucky that I was able to get that help. But poetry gave me an outlet when I wasn’t yet ready to recover. And I needed that.
Have you tried expressing yourself in another format rather than poetry? Who do you view as inspiration?
Yes! I’ve been involved with music all my life. I play guitar, piano, ukulele, and I sing. Music has been an outlet for me ever since I can remember, and it still is. I even tried writing songs once upon a time, but I decided rhyming was too hard and I just couldn’t do it. Oops. As for who I view as inspiration, there are so many people I look up to. I appreciate anyone who is brave enough to write or sing or express themselves in a way that’s raw and honest about who they are. Demi Lovato has opened up about mental health issues, Hayley Kiyoko is pushing for lesbian representation in her songs and music videos, Amanda Lovelace is writing poetry on her struggles with abuse and body image—every time I see someone find the courage to be open and honest, I’m inspired to do the same.
What are the defining characteristics of Generation Z and do you identify with them?
I think the defining characteristic of Generation Z is that we are tired of the status quo and ready to do something about it. We saw firsthand what happened to Millennials when they graduated from college and tried to get jobs. We saw every shooting that happened play over and over on the TV. We are the first generation that had all these news sources and articles and facts right at the tip of our fingertips growing up. And all we know is that we don’t want to live in a world like that. We are ready to fight for change because we remember practicing active shooter drills at eight years old. We are ready to fight for change because we had to watch Donald Trump get elected president without being able to do anything about it. We are ready to fight for change. Some of us already are.
And that’s the defining characteristic of Gen Z.