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Tue, Nov 26, 2013
The Sunday Times
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Tumbling into poetry
by Akshita Nanda

Poetry rarely brings in big bucks but Australian writer Lang Leav is changing the game with her popularity on microblog site Tumblr.

A self-published collection of poems, Love & Misadventure, sold nearly 10,000 copies when the 33-year-old brought it out in June. By September, the book had attracted an agent and was being rushed to print by Andrews McMeel Publishing (AMP). About 25,000 copies of the AMP edition have sold in the two months since, leaving industry watchers gaping and retailers clamouring for more.

"We were taken by surprise," says a spokesman for local distributor Penguin Books Singapore. At least 600 copies of Love & Misadventure have been snapped up in Singapore alone - it topped Books Kinokuniya's bestseller charts for two weeks - and re-orders are backed up as AMP prints another 50,000 copies to meet worldwide demand.

Some lovers of verse might be puzzled by the mass appeal of a book of 75 poems such as Just Friends: "I know that I don't own you,/and perhaps I never will,/so my anger when you're with her/I have no right to feel."

However, retailers point out that her buyers are mostly aged 13 to the early 20s. "She is very savvy with social media marketing, Tumblr, Facebook, the perfect avenues for her target audience who, by and large, seem to be millennials," says Books Kinokuniya merchandising manager Felicia Low-Jimenez.

Books Actually co-founder Kenny Leck, 35, says: "For the first time, this age group is exposed to poetry which they are averse to or see only in a school setting. Hopefully, after this experience, they are not so averse to picking up another poetry book."

Books Actually sold 100 copies of the self-published edition of Love & Misadventure - at press time, this version commanded US$4,000 (S$5,000) on Amazon - and two months ago offered to bring the poet in for a reading.

"We wanted to bring her over because the demand is practically insane for a poetry title. We were getting at least one in-store query and at least three phone calls on a daily basis, asking whether we had stocks of the book," says Mr Leck.

By then, however, Leav had struck a deal with AMP, which sent her two weeks ago on a tour of South-east Asia. Last Saturday, she did readings in Singapore at Books Kinokuniya and Books Actually. Both sessions were packed, with the crowd at the Books Actually session tailing well out the front door.

Leav is the first to say that she has caught a lucky break, given that she began posting poems on Tumblr only on a whim last year.

She was losing interest in her career as a freelance graphic designer and felt she was drifting through life.

"I was feeling kind of really sad one day. I'd had all these breaks in my life but I lacked the passion to see them through," she says in an interview before her book signings in Singapore.

The youngest of three children and the only daughter of a seamstress and acupuncturist, she was born in a Thai refugee camp as her Chinese-Cambodian parents fled the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

The family moved to Australia when she was a year old and Leav grew up in the "drug capital" of Cabramatta, a Sydney suburb.

She nearly went the substance-abusing route of her peers but was brought back in line by her parents and her own ambition.

"I was a troubled teen, lots of detention. I have a tattoo now I kind of regret, a rose from Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince," she says with a laugh. "But as I got older, I wanted to achieve something, get into university."

She studied design in the College of Fine Art in the University of New South Wales and dropped out before completing her degree.

But she had built up a successful portfolio that won an A$10,000 Qantas Spirit Of Youth Award in 2006and another A$25,000 Churchill Fellowship that same year to study fashion in Japan.

Her clothing label, Akina, launched in 2005 and now defunct, sold successfully in boutiques in Australia and Harajuku in Japan, as did prints of the whimsical wide-eyed girls who adorned the clothes.

Her sideline was handmade books, one of which was Charlie's Widow (2009), a continuation of Roald Dahl's Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. The book was presented by the Australian Centre For The Moving Image to Tim Burton, who directed a 2005 movie adaptation of the book.

Then she moved to New Zealand to be with her partner Michael Faudet, who is in his 40s, and 10-year-old stepson Oliver, and found she no longer saw her design career as anything but a hobby.

So she turned to posting poems on Tumblr for a lark, sometimes illustrating them to attract more readers. "I woke up one morning and I had 400 notes on my poems. That was a very big defining moment," she says.

Readers soon began asking for a book and the rest is history.

Leav is writing another book, slated for publication next year, while her partner, who is in advertising, handles the social media marketing side of her career.

She declines to say more about the new book but reveals it will be another collection of poems. Leav seems to have no desire to move away from her confessional style.

"Why write about love? Love is universal, everyone can relate to it. Even the great poets like Shakespeare wrote about it," she says.

Eager readers can expect snippets of the new work to appear on social media sites such as Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter. "Social media has been everything," she says. "I don't think I would have had anyone to sell the book to without it."

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Love & Misadventure by Lang Leav retails at $25.50 (without GST) at bookstores such as Books Kinokuniya, Popular, Times and Books Actually.

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