At The Outline, Laura Yan narrates the saga of a beleaguered poet recently piled on by the internet. A marine scientist by trade, Collin Andrew Yost is tattooed, has a beard and lives in Portland, Oregon, none of which worked in his favor. Neither did the fact that he posted his poems on Instagram in a typeset font, accompanied by images of cigarettes and frequent references to coffee. Yost had a lot of fans on Instagram, but when a writer tweeted critiques about what she viewed as misogynistic and clichéd aspects of his poems, others began to bash him personally. Electric Literature called him “Brobert Frost.” Another said cruelly, “Wow. I think I got cancer reading this.”
After piling on herself, Yan looked more closely at the person who had become the literary internet’s punching bag. She saw her young self, who wrote personal essays and self-published poems on Tumblr. Behind the pile-on is a simple fact: The internet changes the way people behave. Emboldened by anonymity, we align ourselves according to what we love or hate, creating a place that can be as hostile as high school. Bur if one of literature’s gifts is its ability to create empathy for readers, then maybe Yost’s experience can teach us something about the value of empathy online.
Collin frames his brush with Twitter infamy with uplifting platitudes: love eventually conquered hate, and hate eventually backfired … But it was clear that the incident changed him. “I went from [being in] a close-knit Instagram family to being a woman hater and this ‘bro’ to all these strangers,” Collin said. “I mean, it sucked.” Now, some mornings, he wakes up a little afraid to look at his phone. But then again, his friends told him, maybe that was a sign that he was getting it right, on the road to making it. Collin enjoyed his work as a scientist, but his dream — like almost everyone who writes, he said — was to inspire people, give “people an emotion when they can’t find it themselves.”
I asked Collin if he thought there might have been any validity to the criticisms leveled against him. “No,” he said immediately. “I’m completely fine with criticism when it is actually criticism. But saying “you’re a pretentious dick and your writing is trash. please stop. hope you die” isn’t criticism. That has been 99.9 percent of the comments and messages.”
And so Collin, with his cigarettes and typewriter and goofy smile, continues to share poems on Instagram (at least when you were with me, you were an artist/now you’re just someone’s girlfriend/I’m not sure who that hurt more, goes a recent poem). “It shouldn’t matter if your ‘poetry’ sucks,” he said. “You wrote it. You created something, you molded words together and it means something personal to you… to me, poetry is simply being pure and honest with yourself.”