TikTok Sensation Whitney Hanson on Home and the Healing Power of Poetry
The viral TikTok poet talks to us about writing poetry as a coping mechanism, finding freedom in her work and her new book, Home
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“The beautiful thing about poetry is that there aren’t any rules. It can be whatever you want it to be,” says Whitney Hanson. She should know: At just 23, she runs a TikTok account, @WhitneyHansonPoetry, that has earned her more than 1.6 million followers. They’ve come to listen to her read aloud her short poems, which often focus on dealing with loss, heartbreak and grief. Now some of those poems have been collected into a book—Home by Whitney Hanson—which will be released on May 9.
Many people read a lot of poetry as kids. And indeed, poems for kids can be fun and funny or beautiful and moving. But often the genre falls away when busy adults feel they don’t have time for art. Amanda Gorman’s poems have recently reignited some popular interest in poetry in general, as well as in Black poets specifically. But most grown-ups only interact with love poems; some of the most popular poetry books are love poems for her and love poems for him.
Hanson, in contrast, tends to focus on what comes after love: heartbreak, but also resolution and peace. She sees her work—Home by Whitney Hanson included—as a way to help readers get in touch with the full spectrum of their emotions, even the difficult ones. Reader’s Digest chatted with her about her new books and how she thinks about the power of poetry.
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Poetry as an escape
Hanson first started writing poetry when she was 16 years old. She had recently picked up Rupi Kaur’s book The Sun and Her Flowers, and it helped her see the format in a new light. “That was really inspirational for me because I’d always seen poetry as really complex,” Hanson says now. “She took it and made it less complex. And I realized that poetry could be whatever I wanted it to be.”
Hanson was also inspired by the way Kaur shared her work online, so around the same time, she started an Instagram account called @creationsbywhit, where she posted poems and song lyrics. For several years, she says, that page had about 50 followers, mostly friends and family. She was going through some heartbreak and loss at the time, and poetry turned out to be the perfect outlet for coping with those tough emotions.
“I spend a lot of time trying to understand what I’m feeling, and writing offers some kind of precision,” Hanson says. “It lets me take my feelings and make them something tangible.”
She wasn’t necessarily ambitious about her writing, though. In fact, for a long time, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do when she grew up. “I never really was pursuing writing, but I also didn’t really know what exactly I was pursuing in life,” she says. “I was very confused; in college, I changed my major three different times.”
But then one social media account changed everything.
The accidental author
Poetry had always been an important coping mechanism for Hanson, and it became even more crucial during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Around that time, she started her TikTok account. At first, Hanson says, she wasn’t putting her poetry up there—she mostly followed the app’s trends, doing things like dance challenges and skits. “I always felt like what I was creating on TikTok wasn’t very authentic to me,” she acknowledges now.
But eventually, she got the courage to share one of her poems. And it took off almost immediately. “I was in shock,” she says, “but also very excited.”
Though you might imagine people would be hungry for funny poems during the bleakest months of 2022, Hanson thinks that her particular brand of emotional work was perfect for the moment. “Part of the reason that my poetry reached a lot of people is because everyone went through something in that time,” she says. “Maybe it was heartbreak. Maybe it was just struggles with mental health from being in quarantine. But I think that the fact that I started writing and sharing my work around that time—it was really relatable for a lot of people.”
Yet even as demand for her work grew, she didn’t intend to write a book. Her first collection, Climate, came together organically, almost by accident. “I was going through something, and I just started writing poems in the Notes app on my phone,” Hanson says. “Then I started compiling them, and it turned into a book! And then I just threw it out there into the world.”
@whitneyhansonpoetrypg 70 of home🐝♬ original sound – Whitney Hanson
Growing as a poet
Climate was self-published in late 2022 and was an instant hit. Knowing she has so many readers is thrilling, Hanson says, but it can also be a lot of pressure. “It definitely changed the way I write and the way I think when I’m writing,” she says. “At first, I was just writing for myself. Then it was hard to disconnect; what other people might be thinking was always in the back of my head. I’ve had to adjust to what it means to remain authentic when I’m thinking of all these people listening to my poetry.”
But she’s found ways to balance her public persona with her private life. “It’s a rule for me that my personal life is a little bit separate,” she says in reference to her social media presence. “And that’s because I get so in depth and so honest in my writing that I just don’t want people actually being able to connect that to a person.”
The compromise worked, and she’s since written a couple more short books of poetry. Home by Whitney Hanson will be released in the spring of 2023, and her third book, Harmony, is due out later this year.
Beekeeping for inner peace
Poets write poems for many occasions—think of Mother’s Day poems, Thanksgiving poems or funny “Roses are red …” poems that you might send to a sweetheart on Valentine’s Day. Hanson’s are closer to nature poems, and one of her favorite metaphors is about using poetry as a form of … beekeeping?
Stick with us here: Our not-so-great feelings buzz at us like bees, but the solution isn’t to swat at them. “We keep these feelings inside of us, like anxiety and of loss and of grief,” Hanson says. Those negative feelings and experiences are the bees she’s talking about. “Throughout [Home], I want my readers to be learning to make peace with their bees, basically.”
She also has advice for anyone intimidated by poetry or those who think the format is too esoteric, academic or just plain complicated for them.
“Music is an important part of everyone’s life,” she points out, “and it’s a short step from music to poetry. It’s all about understanding and having connection to other people. Poetry gives us this realization that we’re not alone in what we’re feeling, and I think that music does the same thing. If you think that music is for everyone, then you should also think that poetry is for everyone too.”
Whitney Hanson’s top three favorite poetry books
Unsurprisingly, Hanson reads a lot of poetry. She recommends Rupi Kaur’s The Sun and Her Flowers, which changed her life when she read it as a teenager. She also says that Courtney Peppernell’s poems, especially her book Pillow Thoughts, have served as an important inspiration for her own work. Finally, she encourages other readers to check out Yung Pueblo, whose poetry collection Clarity & Connection was a New York Times bestseller.
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- Whitney Hanson, poet and author of Home and Harmony