Photo: Peace Ofur
When Nikita Gill was growing up, she was constantly told she was oversensitive. It was a label she didn’t like, even if it did seem fairly accurate. “I used to feel things really deeply all the time,” she says. “The world is overwhelming, especially when you’re young.” Today, Gill is Britain’s most followed poet, with more than a million fans online, who feel that her fine-tuned emotions are not her weakness, but her superpower.
On Instagram, TikTok and elsewhere, Gill posts stylish snippets of her work which are savoured by readers who include Alanis Morissette, Sam Smith and Khloe Kardashian. Her success, since one of her pieces blew up on Tumblr six years ago, has seen her lumbered with another unwanted label: Instapoet. The 35-year-old has never liked the epithet, which she feels is almost invariably used for female and marginalised writers who broke through online after failing to get past traditional gatekeepers. She was even less impressed when one article casually dismissed her work as “sad girl” poetry.
“There’s no such thing as an instant poet, right?” says Gill, sitting on a sofa overlooking St Paul’s Cathedral in London, in the offices of the publisher she signed a deal with after receiving more than 100 rejection letters elsewhere. Even if the badge had ever been accurate, Gill would have long outgrown it. She has published five collections of poetry, whose fans include Marian Keyes and Costa winner Monique Roffey, as well as a novel in verse, The Girl and the Goddess, that is currently being adapted for TV by Lena Headey, AKA Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones. Her poetry features on Sister Susannah, a 2021 single by sitar star Anoushka Shankar. And this month she publishes her young adult debut, These Are the Words, “an empowering feminist collection” she has also illustrated.
The Hampshire-based writer covers everything from heartbreak and coming out to fat-shaming and catcalling in the more than 100 poems with titles such as Absent Father, An Ode to Body Hair and A Song for Dark Skin – the sort of stuff she wishes she had been able to devour as a child. Whenever inspiration struck, Gill would scribble stanzas on receipts and bits of tissue tucked away in her handbag. “It is so much pressure when you have a notebook in front of you,” explains the poet.
Gill was born in Belfast, where her father, who was in the merchant navy, was taking his captain’s exams. She grew up in New Delhi, where she had her first poem printed in a newspaper at 12, thanks to encouragement from “the scariest teacher in my school”. It provided a sense of validation that helped her for years to come. “When you’re published really young, even once, you know it’s not just you who believes in it. That should give you enough confidence through the rejections.”
Gill returned to Britain at 23 for her master’s degree in book arts and publishing at the University for the Creative Arts in Kent, before taking jobs as a cleaner and, for six years, a carer for children with severe physical and learning disabilities. “I would hope that everyone in the world has an experience where you learn so much about yourself,” she says, “and so much about other people and so much about compassion and about love. Because I think everyone deserves to learn about love in this world.” It was the young people she worked with who persuaded a despondent Gill to post some of the poems she read to them on a blog. “And I’ve never really looked back,” she says.
That is not to say she never dreamed of a smoother path. “It would be a lie to say I don’t wish it had been slightly easier. I don’t think the art world is very friendly towards working-class artists.” She cites the hefty cost of higher education and the ever-changing algorithms that dictate who gets read. “It feels like every time some of us find a different way to make it in, they seal up the door behind us.”
She pauses and adds: “People get upset when I say these things.” Which people? “I mean, I’m a woman with opinions online, so of course you get trolled. I recently changed my Twitter feed to only sharing poems, it was so corrosive to my mental health.”
In addition to the odd “really nasty drive-by opinion”, however, readers have shared highly personal stories. “There was someone who told me their son had passed away and that the poems gave them a lot of solace. And someone else said their son was very ill, and in those last few days they were reading him my poems. It would make anyone cry to hear something like that. I feel like that is even more important to me than the work – someone telling me: ‘Your work made me feel safe’, or ‘It helped someone I love when they were in pain.’”
A typical Gill poem harnesses the beauty of nature – silent snowfall, say, or exploding stars – to deliver a mixture of pain and hope in what can almost feel like a benediction. The eight-line 93 Percent Stardust was the piece that piqued the interest of her former students: “We have calcium in our bones, / iron in our veins, / carbon in our souls, / and nitrogen in our brains. / 93 percent stardust, / with souls made of flames, / we are all just stars / that have people names.”
In Wild Embers, she celebrates “the descendants of the wild women you forgot”: “They should have checked the ashes / of the women they burned alive. / Because it takes a single wild ember / to bring a whole wildfire to life.” Elsewhere she advises readers to wear their bodies “like a quiet revolution”, and not to allow any boyfriend “to turn you into a secondary character in your own book”.
Gill – who writes in her second language, Hindi being her first – has mixed feelings about readers who are so taken by her iridescent words that they turn them into tattoos. On the one hand, she says, “it’s a great honour to have a place on someone’s skin”. But on the other: “I have this pure paranoia, I’m not even joking, that I’ve made a typo!”
Although she is increasingly trying to “write from a place of joy”, the word that seems to come up repeatedly is “healing”. I ask when she felt this most acutely herself. “I wish this wasn’t such a common experience for young women, but I wrote Fierce Fairytales after a sexual assault. The collection very much comes from a place of rage.”
Anger “is wedged inside my bones”, she writes in one of her new pieces. But, she says, “that rage is something that people seem really scared of, so we’re taught instantly to forgive or get to a place of healing. For me, once it was all out on the page, it felt like there was a release. It changed my life, that book. At the end of every book I’ve written, I feel like an entirely different person.”
She now wants to share this transformative force with a new generation. “My seven-year-old niece said the other day she likes poetry because no one tells her to calm down when she writes poems. I thought, ‘That’s why poetry is for everyone.’ Because it makes you feel like you can say anything that’s really hurting you and the poems aren’t going to judge you. The poems are going to go: ‘That’s great! How else do you feel?’”
- These Are the Words by Nikita Gill is published by Macmillan Children’s Books (£7.99) on 18 August