Lang Leav’s poetry, written on soft grey backgrounds and often curated with drawings, has become a trademark of a new subculture. The poet has carved a new space within literature where poetry and prose mix seamlessly. Leav’s work carries a signature timbre that she often describes as a swing between whimsical and woeful. Her literary journey has sparked a digital renaissance of poetry that has shaped the way poems are written, read and shared in this day and age. ‘Over time, my love of books spilled beyond the joy of reading and I began to dream of books filled with my own words and pictures,’ Leav explains in the introduction to her anthology of bedside poems, Lullabies.
Lang Leav was born in a refugee camp in Thailand when her parents were fleeing Cambodia, then ruled by the Khmer Rouge regime. She was eleven months old when her family moved to Sydney, Australia. Leav spent her childhood in the predominantly migrant town of Cabramatta, where, at an early age, she became a translator for her parents. As an award-winning writer, she credits this experience with simplifying language for the global appeal of her writing style. ‘There was this melancholy that permeated the air, a certain heaviness you could feel. It had a profound impact on my work – I write a lot about melancholy and struggle because that’s what I grew up around,’ Leav told Friday magazine. Narrating some of her mother’s experiences as a refugee, Leav shared she hopes to write her story someday.
Today, the poet’s writing can be found in leading bookstores across the world. Lang Leav is an international poet and novelist with a list of bestselling titles to her name. She enjoys a unique global audience that stretches from the Philippine islands to Brazil and America. Her writing resonates with readers across borders and cultures due to its simple style and universal themes. Leav spins poetry from basic human emotions – lovers making dumplings together, the nostalgic memory of a lost friend, a young girl dreaming of fairytales in the library. Her literature on love, heartbreak, longing and self-empowerment has given more power to poetry as a means of catharsis. Her words not only bring solace to millions of readers, but have also inspired many to pick the pen themselves. Lang Leav often tours the world for literature festivals, book signings and readings where throngs of her fans bring immense love and warmth, many camping overnight to meet her.
Leav studied at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney. This was unusual in a community of migrants where feelings of instability and displacement were common. During this time, her mother worked as a seamstress while her father practiced acupuncture. Leav recalls her first job was making pizzas. Whilst in college, Leav worked on a thesis titled ‘Cosplaying Lolita’. The project ensued a coveted Churchill Fellowship to study underground fashion subcultures in Tokyo. Lang Leav’s career as an accomplished artist and fashion designer is less known. Her fashion label Akina has a sharp oriental character and is often worn by celebrities on network television. It is sold in key boutiques throughout Australia and Japan. As an artist, Leav creates fairytale characters in familiar spaces. Her work has been exhibited in Australia and United States and was handpicked for the landmark Playboy Redux exhibition curated by the Warhol Museum and Playboy Enterprises. She is also the honoured receipt of the Qantas Spirit of Youth Award.
Leav continues to illustrate her poems and draw cover art for her books. She often writes poems next to her paintings and incorporates her writing into her artwork. ‘Writing is my first love, and in a way, will always be’ the poet says.
Infamously, Leav is an unordinary social media sensation with a combined following of two million on Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr. Leav began her journey on Tumblr, where her poetry became popular overnight. A decade after publishing her first poem ‘Sea of Strangers’ on Tumblr, Leav has published her most recent collection with the same title. The poem enjoys special significance in her life, as a month after its publication she found love across the sea. She now lives with her partner and collaborator, Michael Faudet, in a forest of twisted trees overlooking the ocean in New Zealand. She continues to actively share her work on digital platforms, methodologically reposting photographs of her books shared by besotted readers from all corners of the world. Her Instagram is punctuated with a regular stream of original writing that Leav shares each day.
Leav’s strong social media fanbase is an extraordinary achievement in a century where poetry is thought of as a ‘lost’ art form. The resonance of her short and lyrical verses has catapulted a new movement in literature where social media has become a meaningful platform for young and emerging writers. According to The New York Times, three of the top ten bestsellers in poetry are written by upcoming “Instapoets”. Lang Leav understands the Internet as a level playing ground. ‘Everyone has access to it and can post their work. It’s like word of mouth but on a much larger scale […] It always comes down to the merit of the work and I think good work will be seen and it will be passed on and read,’ she says.
In 2013, Lang Leav self-published her first book Love & Misadventure. It went on to sell 10,000 copies in one month and became an essential collection of poems. It is now read popularly all over the world. Leav was signed by the Writers House when two literary agents in New York came across her work. She soon won a publishing deal with Andrews McMeel and has now published five collections of poetry including Lullabies, Memories, and The Universe of Us. In 2014, Lullabies won the Goodreads Choice Award for best poetry. More recently, Leav authored her debut novel Sad Girls which presents a whole new world of imagination. The book follows the life of Audrey and her experiences of anxiety and self-discovery. It is read widely and celebrated as an exceptional coming of age story that topped bestseller lists in UAE, Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore.
Lang Leav acknowledged that writing a novel was a ‘million times more challenging than writing poetry’. ‘You’ve got to be juggling characters, you’ve got to be juggling a plot, you have to have something that readers can follow’. Lang Leav’s partner, Michael Faudet motivated her immensely when she was on the verge of giving up writing. She advises aspiring writers to develop a discipline and write every day – ‘maybe just one to three thousand words per day — try to get it out as much as you can’.
The writer has witnessed firsthand the growth of poetry in the twenty-first century. Leav remembers her first book shared a shelf with Shakespeare and Poe in bookstores. Today, there are entire sections dedicated to contemporary poetry. This is a fresh wave in a literary culture where poetry is no longer a part of everyday life – read aloud for friends, recorded in notebooks, or memorised vividly like important telephone numbers. However, the art has had a surprising resurgence with social media. Poems now lace every digital interface of our lives and are making space on our bookshelves again. Leav has been an iconic voice in this movement.
Leav won her first prize for poetry when she was 14. As a schoolgirl, she passed around her handmade notebooks of poems in school grounds. Till date, she continues to create and exhibit handmade books. Her most recent sell-out book, Charlie’s Widow, was presented to Tim Burton by The Australian Centre for the Moving Image. ‘I think in this electronic age, there is something very special about a book, made lovingly by hand from scratch,’ she told Stated magazine. Her ultimate dream is to have a little factory with letterpress, binding, embossing and sewing machines.
While Leav is accompanied by armed guards at her poetry events, she lives a quiet life at home. Each morning, she drives to a quaint seaside town to drink coffee where the locals know her by her first name. She spends about three hours every day interacting with her readers on social media. Leav enjoys the process of getting to know her audience and believes those who enjoy poetry often find love in similar things.
The idea for Leav’s first published poem came to her one night like a lightning bolt. Her hand could ‘hardly keep up’, she writes. Lang Leav often pens her thoughts on the closest surface she finds. In her experience, the good lines stick. ‘When the time is right, the poem will find me. It sort of taps me on the shoulder!’ She confesses to receiving a lot of letters from readers across the globe, and to using their envelopes to make notes. She is currently working on a thriller novel scheduled for publication in 2019.
Story by Network Capital Associate Nikita Biswal