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It's National Poetry Month. Here's how one TikTok poet finds his creative spark

MILES PARKS, HOST:

And now that we have a better sense of how to read poetry, let's talk about writing it. Every April, to celebrate National Poetry Month, we ask you for your original poems, which you post on Twitter with the hashtag #nprpoetry. This year, like last, we're adding TikTok to the mix. And to help kick things off this year, we're joined by Donovan Beck. His poems have gotten millions of views on TikTok, and he's here to tell us more about his work. Hi, Donovan.

DONOVAN BECK: Hi. How are you doing today?

PARKS: I'm doing great. Thank you so much for being with us. And I'm really curious, you know, you've had this kind of meteoric rise as a poet on TikTok. When did you start writing poetry, and what drew you to it?

BECK: I found poetry when I was younger, around 16 or so, going through just, like, youth and the onsets of, like, early rings with depression and anxiety. And I found writers through the realm of spoken word, like Andrea Gibson and Rudy Francisco, and it helped me discover things that I was doing with and going through and sort of putting words to the feelings that I was having. And then eventually I started to write my own pieces. And it kind of just sat as a feature of my life for the years following. And then eventually through COVID, I started writing more and more and performing at open mic shows online and eventually beginning to share my work onto the internet, especially through TikTok after, actually, losing a bet with my friends to post my first videos on TikTok. And that eventually led to everything that we do today.

PARKS: Yeah, it's so interesting. I - as a teenager, that's kind of how I started writing as well, writing poems in middle and high school. And I think if somebody had told me at that time that I had to post them on the internet, I still feel like so - my whole body kind of goes cold thinking about that. And I guess I wonder, have you adjusted your writing style at all to the medium? Or how has it affected your writing?

BECK: Most definitely. I think I love - the beauty of, like, spoken word, especially, and a lot of the free verse and modernist forms of writing is that it is so emotive. It is so true to the idea of wearing your heart on your sleeve, which for a lot of people is scary. But for me, I always - I have a saying that says you welcome the environments that you want to be in. And so for me, sharing my poetry and creating online was just me making space for others to do the same as well. That's kind of been my biggest thing with it. And over the course of the past year and a half of the following and community growing, my writing has definitely shifted. I definitely write more short form pieces that can fit into the 60-second barrier. But it also has become more truthful, I think, to me.

PARKS: You had a poem go viral last year. It's called "A Friendly Reminder," and it's gotten millions of views, nearly 5 million on TikTok. Let's take a listen to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK)

BECK: A friendly reminder that you have only ever seen yourself through photographs and the mirror. You've never seen the way your smile beams from its edges every time you talk about something that you love or the way that your eyes light up at the sight of sunrises or coffee or puppies. So the next time someone tells you how beautiful you are, don't question it, because although you've never seen it - your beauty, I mean - it's all that they know. And they've been amazed by it every single day.

PARKS: Can you talk a little bit about that, Donovan? What inspired you to write this? And also, what was it like, you know, when millions of people saw or heard this poem?

BECK: Yeah. That whole week was insane. The story behind that poem is I think poets are just people who take notes on the universe. We just happen to notice things that people don't often pay attention to, and then we write about it, and then we explain it through prose and through word. And so a lot of my writing is just little notes that I would take. And I spent a lot of my life as a photographer and a filmmaker, sharing stories through that medium. And I realized - I was like, we don't ever really see ourselves without knowing that we're being watched.

I remember I posted it at, like, 1 a.m. in Pacific Standard Time. And I went to sleep cause I just - just wanted to throw it into the world and just gave it to TikTok. And then I wake up, and it was just my phone vibrating the entire time. I thought I had an alarm going off. But it was all these notifications. And I woke up to - you know, the video at the time was, like, 1.2 million in the couple of hours that I was asleep. And it was incredible not because of just that happening, but it was all of the people who were acknowledging that note for the first time in their life, where the people are saying, oh, yeah, I've never thought about that.

PARKS: It's crazy. Yeah, it really is like you inspired a light-bulb moment for 2 million people in the span - you know, in the same week.

Like I said, it is Poetry Month this month, and you were kind enough to write an original poem for us at NPR. Let's take a listen to it, and then we'll talk a little bit about it.

BECK: (Reading) A love letter to you subtle anchors of hope, you rafts made up of dreams and sails lined with courage. Never let the sea calm your burned, bright spirit. By the time you make it to shore, you will be a lighthouse for all of us to know how to make it home.

PARKS: Tell us a little bit about that poem.

BECK: So a lot of my writing over the past year has been around this concept of just hope. And that's why I love that piece because it talks about that concept, that we all are kind of just these boats that are afloat in the ocean that we call life eventually finding our way to shore through the lens of hope and courage. A lighthouse has been a feature in so much of my writing, and I've realized that recently more so that it's because of that, that concept that a lighthouse is this beacon of hope. And I like to think of people as their own little lighthouses through their own experiences and journeys. That's why I'm such a big advocate for people to tell their story.

PARKS: Before I let you go, Donovan, I'm curious, do you have any tips for people who want to write but don't know how to start?

BECK: Yeah. One of my favorite things to do when I'm looking for inspiration is to take an index card or a small notebook with me and go on a walk. There's really a beautiful thing about how much poetry is in our world when we start looking. So one of the biggest recommendations that I make to writers all the time is to go out dedicatedly for 30 minutes or so. Just start taking notes on the things that you notice around, and then take those back to your editing space. And at that point you can really like, oh, this is a cool concept that I can expand on. It's a cool practice that I like to do, and it always leads to some cool little notes that I get to take.

PARKS: That is poet Donovan Beck. You could find his poetry on TikTok under the handle themindofsol - that's S-O-L. And he has a collection of poetry out called "A Fool's Guide To The Universe." Donovan Beck, thank you so much for joining us.

BECK: Thank you so much for having me.

PARKS: And if you'd like to participate in our celebration of Poetry Month, you can post your original 15-second poem to TikTok with the hashtag #NPRPoetry. Please remember to keep it radio friendly and 15 seconds or less. Of course, we'll also still be doing the original Twitter poems. You can tweet those at @npratc, also with the NPR poetry hashtag. And the original Twitter rules apply. Poems must be 140 characters or less. Each weekend this month, a professional poet will join us on the air to talk about some of the submissions that caught their eye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.