OWhen Nikita Gill was growing up, she was constantly told that she was hypersensitive. It was a label she didn’t like, although it seemed fairly accurate. “Before, I felt things very 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 believe her sheer emotions are not her weakness, but her superpower.
On Instagram, TikTok and elsewhere, Gill posts stylish snippets of her work that are relished by readers like Alanis Morissette, Sam Smith and Khloe Kardashian. Her success, since one of her pieces exploded on Tumblr six years ago, has seen her become encumbered with another unwanted label: Instapoet. The 35-year-old has never liked the epithet, which she says is almost invariably used for female, marginalized writers who have broken through online after failing to outgrow traditional gatekeepers. She was even less impressed when an article dismissed her work as “sad girl” poetry.
“There is no instant poet, is there?” says Gill, sitting on a sofa overlooking St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, in the offices of the publisher with whom she signed a deal after receiving more than 100 rejection letters elsewhere. Even if the badge had never been accurate, Gill would have long since passed it. She has published five books of poetry, whose fans include Marian Keyes and Costa winner Monique Roffey, as well as a verse novel, The Girl and the Goddess, which is currently being adapted for television by Lena Headey, AKA Cersei Lannister. in Game of Thrones. Her poetry features Sister Susannah, a 2021 single from sitar star Anoushka Shankar. And this month, she’s releasing her debut young adult album, These Are the Words, “a thought-provoking feminist collection” which she also illustrated.
The Hampshire-based writer covers everything from heartache and coming out to fat shaming and cat calls in over 100 poems with titles including Absent Father, An Ode to Body Hair and A Song for Dark Skin – the kind of stuff she wishes she could devour as a child. Whenever inspiration struck, Gill scribbled stanzas on receipts and bits of tissue hidden in her purse. “It’s 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 age 12, thanks to the encouragement of “the scariest teacher in my school”. It gave her a sense of validation that helped her for years to come. “When you’re published at a very young age, 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 aged 23 to pursue a master’s degree in book arts and publishing at Kent University of the Creative Arts, before taking up jobs as a housekeeper and, for six years, working on her own. caring for children with severe physical and learning disabilities. “I hope everyone in the world has an experience where you learn so much about yourself,” she says, “and so much about others and about compassion and love. Because I think everything the world deserves to know more about love in this world. It was the young people she worked with who persuaded a discouraged Gill to blog some of the poems she had read to them. never really looked back,” she says.
That’s not to say she never dreamed of a sweeter path. “It would be a lie to say that I wouldn’t have liked it to be a little easier. I don’t think the art world is very friendly to working class artists. She cites the high cost of higher education and the ever-changing algorithms that dictate who gets read. “It’s like every time some of us find a different way in, they seal the door behind us.”
She pauses and adds, “People get mad when I say these things.” What people? “I mean, I’m a woman with opinions online, so of course you get trolled. I recently changed my Twitter feed to only share poems, it was so corrosive to my mental health.
In addition to the odd “really nasty driving opinion,” however, readers shared some very personal stories. “Someone told me that his son had passed away and that the poems had brought him a lot of comfort. And someone else said their son was very sick, and for the past few days they were reading my poems to him. It would make anyone cry to hear something like that. I feel like it’s even more important to me than the job – someone says to me, “Your job made me feel safe” or “It helped someone I love when he suffered”.
A typical poem by Gill harnesses the beauty of nature—silent snowfalls, say, or exploding stars—to offer a mixture of pain and hope in what can almost feel like a blessing. The eight-line piece 93 Percent Stardust sparked the interest of his former students: “We have calcium in our bones, / iron in our veins, / carbon in our souls, / and nitrogen in our brains . / 93% stardust, / with souls made of flames, / we’re just stars / that have people’s names.
In Wild Embers, she celebrates “descendants of the wild women you forgot”: “They should have checked the ashes/of the women they burned alive. / Because it only takes one wild ember / to bring an entire forest fire to life. Elsewhere, she advises readers to wear their bodies “like a quiet revolution”, and not to allow any boyfriends “to turn you into a supporting character in your own book”.
Gill – who writes in her second language, Hindi being her first language – has mixed feelings about readers who are so captivated by her iridescent words that they turn them into tattoos. On the one hand, she says, “it’s a great honor to have a place on someone’s skin.” But on the other: “I have this pure paranoia, I’m not even kidding, that I made a typo!”
Although she increasingly tries to “write from a place of joy,” the word that seems to come up repeatedly is “healing.” I ask her when she herself felt this most acutely. “I wish it wasn’t such a common experience for young women, but I wrote Fierce Fairytales after a sexual assault. The collection largely comes from a place of rage.
Anger “is stuck in my bones,” she wrote in one of her new pieces. But, she says, “that rage is something people seem really scared of, so we are instantly taught to forgive or find a place of healing. For me, once everything was on the page, it felt like there was an exit. This book changed my life. At the end of every book I’ve written, I feel like a completely different person.
She now wants to share this transformative force with a new generation. “My seven-year-old niece said the other day that she liked poetry because nobody told her to calm down when she was writing poems. I thought, ‘That’s why poetry is for everyone .’ Because it makes you feel like you can say anything that really hurts you and the poems won’t judge you. The poems are going to say, ‘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 August 18