Dissertation Abstract: “Viral Verses: Poetic Movements and Social Media in Southeastern Africa”

My dissertation project examines the influence of new media publication and international organizations on poetic form and aesthetic networks in Malawi, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.  Bringing together ethnographic observations of in-person and online communities, formal readings of poetry and performance, and critical theory from media studies and postcolonial studies, I argue that poetry’s digital circulation has produced new communities connected by their investment in poetic rhetoric and style, even as the immanence of digital networks in literary production molds poetry’s live address to produce new poetic forms.

Viral Verses is based on eighteen months of fieldwork and archival research, as well three dozen interviews with poets, arts organizers, and audience members, conducted in Malawi, South Africa, and Zimbabwe between 2012 and 2016. My work considers the range of social and cultural situations that poetry engages – its mediation, live performance, literary qualities, and cultural contexts – to better understand how poetic communities form. Rather than seeing digital media and in-person performance spaces as separate spheres, I read their points of overlap as spaces where the oral-written divide dissolves to reveal interactive, networked modes of poetic production. The project therefore uses sites of poetic reception – such as protests, social media platforms, poetry slams, and arts festivals – to examine how poetry moves between online and offline spaces, and how digital aesthetic norms shape poetry performed in-person. By reading poetry as it moves through the world, Viral Verses demonstrates that, through multimodal performances and aesthetic networks, poetry provides a rhetoric of affiliation that binds protest movements, online communities, and collective identities.

Chapter 1: On Hashtags and Chants

My first chapter analyzes the poetry of student and youth protests in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Malawi in 2014-16.  I argue that poetry created a shared language of dissent, enabling and supporting the protesters’ causes while creating a tangible cultural product that spoke to their shared experiences. I support this argument by documenting how the rhetoric and form of chants, hashtags, and poems moved between social media and live demonstrations.  This poetic discourse – punctuated with hashtags and slogans such as #FeesMustFall and “Books not bullets” – marked an engagement with global movements which stood against austerity measures and for increased youth power. The human microphone effect of social media amplified the chant, the poem, and the hashtag, bringing together many voices in a single networked place.

Chapter 2: On Comments and Communities

My second chapter investigates how digital publication mediates global movements by comparing poetry circulated on WhatsApp, Facebook, and YouTube. Analyzing the aesthetics of the platform themselves, I argue that the each platform’s relative investments in multimodal communication and open publication shape different standards of poetic connection across regionally specific networks. Because of the growing popularity of digital interactions and publications among African writers, the aesthetics of social media sites have altered poetry’s forms, with more poets favoring brief, interactive, imagistic styles that suit the flow of digital information online and call for direct audience engagement.

Chapter 3: On Poems as Memes

Digital popularity, however, relies on local success. As artists seek digital platforms for publication and respond to the popularity of digitally circulated forms, new strategies for managing audience relationships develop on the ground, as well. My third chapter, traces the regional rise and spread of slam poetry networks. I argue that these networks, supported by international NGOs and moderated by individual poet-organizers, are transforming poetic standards across the region, bringing them in line with norms for digital publications.  These new forms and stages have engendered anxieties about what constitutes poetry and spurred debates about the possibility of indigenizing a digitally circulated form.

Chapter 4: On Movement and Migration

While digital media privileges universalist poets whose work speaks to myriad audience experiences, it also heightens anxieties about authenticity and the relationship between the poet’s identity and her speaking voice. These anxieties come to the fore in the international arts festival, the focus of my fourth chapter. The arts festival has become a site through which poetic agency may be negotiated apart from, yet in tension with, digital sites of production and digital aesthetic norms. Examining audience-artist interactions at international festivals in Malawi and South Africa, I argue that the imagined cosmopolitanism of the contemporary poet comes into tension with the international audience’s expectations of an “authentic” performance, staging anew the poet’s conscription into the collective logics of the nation.

Conclusion: Poetry’s Futures

Despite the diversity of these four chapters – concerned at varying levels with community formation, technological mediation, poetic form, and social norms – each represents a key piece of the puzzle of contemporary reception. What remains unclear is what these shifts mean for poetry’s future as a digital, performance, and print form. What is the future of poetry’s institutions in the face of digital publication and communication? How has the rise of digital poetry influenced the processes of  canon formation? The conclusion  considers the ramifications of digital publication and popular reception on poetry’s institutionalization and its relationship to cultural capital. Taking Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia as a case study, it argues that  popularity of poetry on social media has both broadened its audience and brought a new, populist form of gatekeeping to the fore—one that emphasizes virality as prior to institutionality.

Together, these case studies offer a new way of reading poetic production in the digital age – one that takes seriously the fact that digital means of publication and circulation are shaping poetic discourse everywhere, and that nonetheless, most consumers of poetry remain offline. The shift in poetry’s address has broader implications for all its forms – transforming local works into translocal, mediatized ones; repositioning the audience as active producers in poetry’s meaning; and intensifying poetry’s already-multiple address. Viral Verses forms the core of a book project, which will include an additional chapter on the regional history of poetic activism and updated research on the ongoing role of poetry in mainstream media, especially radio. The book will thus attend to the many ways that poetry continues to mediate increasingly mobile and connected urban communities – even as most consumers of poetry remain offline, without recourse to digital production and circulation and yet affected by it.