Arch Hades, the $525,000 poem and the new meta verse
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On a November evening at Christie’s New York last year, a poem was presented for auction. Rather than a leather-bound book or a weighty manuscript, the poem, Arcadia, was sold in the form of a nine-minute, 48-second-long abstract animation, soundtracked with ASMR-esque electronic music by musician RAC. It became “the first collaborative interdisciplinary fine art NFT to come to auction”, as the press release put it. With a hammer price of $525,000, it also made its creator, the 30-year-old Russian-born British poet Arch Hades, “the highest paid living poet of all time”. The video has since gone on show at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, and this autumn the poem is being published as a book too.
In five rhyming cantos, Arcadia is a cry of contemporary despair: “I want to break free of this labyrinth/switch off all these screens/Escape this simulacrum/which makes man into machine.” The work represents a new medium and a new tone for a poet who gained her one million Instagram followers and three-book deal with poems dwelling on emotionally unavailable lovers, summer nights and questions of privilege. This one explores philosophy. Hades (a name of her own invention) had worked as a parliamentary researcher straight out of university, a period about which she is tight-lipped. “NDAs on NDAs on NDAs,” she explains in her clipped accent that holds notes of Russian, American and British boarding school. She left to pursue writing. “Philosophy is my true love,” she says. “It’s my parents.”
She means this literally. When Hades was eight years old, her father, who worked for a prosperous shipping company, was murdered in an alleyway in St Petersburg. Her family moved to Knightsbridge, changed their name, and she was sent to boarding school. “I had a very lonely time there, going through this existential crisis by myself,” she says. “I had a lot of free time on my hands, so all I ended up doing was reading through a lot of dead philosophers. They sort of did the parenting for me.”
Rhyme and reason
Hades wrote Arcadia over a month during lockdown and decided to turn it into an NFT with RAC, a friend of hers, in the face of a cancelled book tour: “Suddenly we realised, fuck, we have to make money somehow.” They had done well with an NFT of a postcard bearing her words; success to the tune of $71,410 (that’s $4,200 a word) made them wonder if they could create another “bespoke project” that they could convert into another NFT. Arcadia was already penned and ready to go; a video exploring some key visuals (a half-filled glass of water, a glossy red apple) was commissioned; and a friend working at Christie’s managed to get the pitch in front of the right person. A few months later the hammer went down, and the token went off to a private collector. “With Arcadia, the artists have set a new bar for narrative and emotion in NFT-based art,” said Noah Davis, then Christie’s head of digital sales.
Hades’s inventive commercial flair isn’t particular to her. She’s part of a body of “Instapoets” including Canadian Rupi Kaur, who has sold over 10 million books of her snappy, self-empowering verse; UK-based Greta Bellamacina; and “Twitter’s Poet Laureate” Brian Bilston. Each has turned their social feeds into book deals, contributing to a 40 per cent increase in poetry sales between 2015 and 2020, with 41 per cent of buyers aged 13 to 22. Amanda Gorman, 24, secured a four-part deal with Penguin Random House following her reading at President Biden’s inauguration, which made headlines both for her impassioned delivery of “The Hill We Climb” and for her ankle-length, sunshine-yellow Prada coat.
Then there is 35-year-old New Zealander Hera Lindsay Bird. The poet behind two tender, hilarious and fabulously graphic poetry collections has seen several of her poems go viral, including “Monica”, which begins as a tirade against the Friends character, and ends up a reflection on falling in love with her friend. The poem’s online popularity had a real-terms pay-off: “It probably helped me sell the UK rights to Penguin.” Did the viral buzz make her happy? “Yes! Always. I aspire to the mainstream.”
Bilston, an academic publisher from Oxford, joined Instagram “to understand what people were talking about at work when they said things like ‘We need to optimise our social media channels’”. His jovial verse can now be found in four Macmillan-published collections. He also sees value in poetry that speaks for and to new audiences. “Poetry has always been a broad church,” he says, “and there is plenty of room underneath that word for all kinds of approaches.” East London-born poet and editor Gboyega Odubanjo, whose forthcoming first collection Adam set off a bidding session among publishers, concurs. “There are many more avenues to release, show and publish poetry,” he says. “And there are many types of poetry that you can engage with. And people reading poetry is generally a decent thing.”
Hades is now working on a collection of poems that are “way more political”, and “future projects” with experiential art gallery Superblue. But she remains mysterious about whether more NFTs are on the cards, saying only that she is “open to it”. Maybe the financial freedom they’ve already bought her will be enough. So far Arcadia has earned her a garden for her dog, Byron. “It means that Byron is happy,” she says. “The main thing is that Byron is happy.”
Arcadia by Arch Hades is published by The Black Spring Press Group on 15 October