Pop Star of Poetry

Poetry and social media seemed like strange bedfellows until Rupi Kaur’s poems shook up Instagram with millions of ‘Likes’. And that isn’t the only thing she’s shaken up.

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Rupi Kaur is a stark contrast to her dark, depressing and serious poetry. The 25-year-old Indian-born Canadian is gregarious, charming and quite goofy. “There are days when we’re all sad. But I am not sad all the time. I really want my readers to know that part of me as well,” she says about her latest book The Sun and Her Flowers. Her debut book Milk and Honey has sold 2.5 million copies worldwide and has sat comfortably on the New York Times bestseller list for 78 weeks—a rare feat for any author these days and even rarer for a poet.

But Kaur is no ordinary poet. She built her explosive success on the strength of social media. Kaur started sharing her poems about love and loss, abuse and healing on Instagram in 2014 while still in college. The response was so overwhelming that she self-published her first poetry book. Her Instagram account has over 1.6 million followers (including Sam Smith and Ariana Grande) and thousands more on Facebook and Twitter. “The reason why poetry is filling in perfectly today is because we live in a quick-paced world with so much noise. Poetry just jumps at you in the middle of all that noise and forces you take a pause and feel your emotions.”

Kaur’s popularity is not difficult to fathom. Her bite-size poems characterised by short phrases without punctuation and sparse drawings are hugely relatable and accessible. Some of her verses focus on female empowerment and self-esteem. And then there are the spicy ones—how we make up. Here is an authentic, intensely personal writer who isn’t afraid to bare her innermost trauma to the world. But doing that has exposed her to speculation.

rupi-kaur PHOTO NABIL SHASH

How much of what she writes is autobiographical? “I’ve had reporters specifically ask me if I was raped and how. I think that the things I discuss in Milk and Honey and some of the plot points aren’t as aggressive as the questions I’ve been asked. It’s not fair to put a writer in front of a microphone or a camera, and ask, “Have you been raped and what was it like?” With time, Kaur has learnt to dodge questions like that. “Of course, it didn’t all happen to me. Apart from personal experiences, I also write about what my mom talks about—immigration, motherhood, things that happened to my best friends, cousins… I feel like it’s true and it’s ours.”

The reason why poetry is filling in perfectly today is because we live in a quick-paced world with so much noise. Poetry just jumps at you in the middle of all that noise and forces you take a pause and feel your emotions.

But it’s been far from easy. Especially in the beginning when people (specifically young men) would go up to her dad after a show and say things like “you know what she is talking about, right?” They expected her parents to be angry, when in reality they didn’t mind at all. “Initially, I used to be scared to perform in front of my parents. I used to have nightmares before I published my book. I was writing about men and sex. I was horrified that someone was going to print it and send it to my dad and then…that’s it. So when I presented him with the book and he was flipping through the pages he was stuck at a poem which said, “no matter what… your body is the only one I want to be undressed under…” It was painful while he was on those. My dad and I just exchange 10 words in general. It’s awkward as he’s not an expressive human being. But it’s cool.”

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With a lot of positivity, there’s going to be negativity. How does she handle the backlash on social media? “I try to protect myself from what I read. I fear that if I read too many comments, it might actually change what I write about. I don’t want 500 comments under a poem telling me to suddenly change my vision. My job is to focus on the art and that’s what I stick to. I have a dedicated team that helps me manage my social media.” And, though it has been a great vehicle to bring her poetry to the world, Kaur doesn’t have any social media apps on her phone!

Other than the written word, photography is her biggest passion. “My dream is to just take off and dedicate 10 years of my life to a camera.” Learning to swim better, screen writing, song writing and even writing a novel are on the anvil. Clearly, Rupi Kaur’s best work is always going to be ahead of her.

Writing to me Is like is listening to my soul and responding to that.

A book I carry all the time Kahlil 
Gibran’s The Prophet.

Books I’d recommend If you do like feminist poetry, I think Sharon Olds is absolutely wonderful, as are Jhumpa Lahiri, Ocean Vuong, Hera Lindsay Bird, Alex Elle, Sarah Kay, Andrea Gibson, Alice Walker, Elvira Sastre, Junot Díaz, Joan Didion, Sylvia Plath...

My writing process I like isolation. There’s so much noise, and my mind can’t rest. I’m a hyper-thinker who has to get away from all of that in order to really be in touch with her creative self.

My inspiration I look up to people who are fighters and warriors through hard times. That resilience is so inspiring. I see it in my parents.

India for me is where I come to meet my grandparents and extended family. Our narrative in Canada just started with me. But everything before that is in India.

On dealing with pressure There is no more pressure to create my best work.

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