I’m not sure of the best way to write about Nikita Gill’s latest collection of poetry, Your Heart Is The Sea. On one hand, I see a book that really means well — that wants to help people, and that wants to have good, tough, important conversations; on the other, I see something trite, self-important and emotionally manipulative — and while there are some quite good pieces of poetry in this book, those bright spots are lost among some eye-rolling work that reads like Chicken Soup for the Soul for the Instagram era —but then again, I might just be old and bitter.
Gill is among a growing category of poets whose primary mode of publication and promotion is social media, (The best known of this group, Rupi Kaur, quickly became one of the best-selling poets of all time with her 2014 debut collection Milk and Honey). Perhaps trying to replicate that success, Gill has successfully leveraged 28,000 Twitter followers and 494,000 Instagram followers into a publication contract with Thought Catalog Books. To put this in context, 2018’s National Book award winner for poetry, Justin Philip Reed, boasts a mere 2,665 Twitter followers (and doesn’t have an Instagram), which is still a lot for a poet, but you get the idea. (Reed’s latest collection, Indecency, is great, by the way).
Your Heart Is The Sea is a beautifully made book, with one of the best covers I’ve seen anywhere in quite some time; the interior is similarly beautiful, with great layout and tasteful illustrations. The work itself, however, is uneven. It begins with no less than four short introductory poems that all seem to want to convince the reader how immensely clever and important the book in their hands really is; these first steps into Your Heart Is The Sea are absolutely groan-worthy, and if I were simply browsing for something to read instead of writing a review, I would have not gotten any further. That said, I’m glad I persisted and got a bit deeper into the collection; there are some beautiful pieces here (the poems “I Named Us Grief,” “Permission,” and “The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships” are particularly good.) Still, the best of this collection gets kind of lost among trite pieces that seem ready-made to be pasted over a stock photo of some clouds and shared on Facebook and prose pieces that would be more at home on a self-help blog than in a book of poems. A skilled editor could have made Your Heart Is The Sea into a shorter, but much better, book.
There are some great poems in this book, but they’re surrounded by a lot of stuff that reads more like content than poetry. This leads me to entertain two possibilities:
1. I am old, stodgy, behind the times, and not the person that this book was made for, or:
2. The work was born in a feedback machine of social media that rarely rewards a person’s best impulses (artistic or otherwise).
I worry that the current wave of poets using Twitter and Instagram to get their work out are walking a dangerously narrow path. These media are engineered for quick consumption and immediate reaction; poetry should be digested slowly. While I have nothing against poets trying to use our current communication technology to express themselves (Dylan Thomas was one of the earliest radio stars, after all), judging the success of creative work through likes, shares, and follows often tempts the creator to go for the immediate reaction, or worse, to pander. In this way, the medium may drag down the work more than the work is able to elevate the medium.
But then again, I may just be old.