To appreciate Rupi Kaur’s poetry, find a quiet place and feel how her words dislodge your emotions, the same way that inhaling ocean air can lighten the weight of a terrible week. The poet and artist self-published her debut poetry collection, Milk and Honey, in 2014 – which went on to sell more than half a million copies – and became a New York Times bestseller this year.
On jealousy, she writes, “learning to not envy/someone else’s blessings/is what grace looks like.” On the experience of being a woman of colour: “our backs/tell stories/no books/have the spine to carry.” Her words are simple and relatable, sure, but they also possess a pinprick intensity. These are the sort of verses you commit to memory before returning to them over and over again.
With her poetry centred on the themes of love, loss, abuse, survival and womanhood, Rupi has a knack for arranging words in a manner that somehow strips away the beliefs that limit us, leaving behind kernels of truth. And this Toronto native, who immigrated with her family to Canada from Punjab in India as a three-year-old, has been tipped as being partly responsible for getting a new generation hooked on an art form more commonly (and perhaps, unfairly) associated with high-school English and dreary old men.
“We’ve been told a million times that there’s no market for poetry, but when I started sharing my work online, my readers found me and I took control and carved out my own space.”
“We moved over to Canada when I was a child and, as someone who couldn’t speak English at school, I started to draw and paint and make art,” says Rupi. Fresh from giving a TEDx talk titled ‘I’m Taking My Body Back’ at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, she plans to take her spoken word performances, known to spark hushed reactions, to stages around the world. “As soon as I learnt English, I became a very avid reader and started making up my own stories and then in high school and university I started taking it more seriously. I used to write longer prose but then the work started evolving and becoming simpler. I’ve been writing and drawing all my life.”
Like most artists hungry to catch a glimpse of themselves in a culture more often interested in talking about diversity than embracing it, Rupi started writing the poems that spoke to her deepest self, the type that she wanted to read. These poems, which she began posting to her Instagram account in 2013, are equal parts tender and brutal.
“The stories that I read in school were great,” she recalls, “but I could never see myself in them. There were moments when I was writing about being a woman of colour, or sexual abuse, and thought maybe I should write about more mainstream topics that the wider community would understand. Reading the work of writers and poets [of colour] like Juno Diaz, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker made me realise that actually – no! – nobody else is going to write my story for me.”
Strangely enough, it was the courage that saw her wring poetry out of her personal experiences that struck a chord with readers around the world. Her Instagram posts, which often couple fragments of verse written entirely in lower-case with a simple line-drawing, quickly drew the attention of users looking for something authentic amid a sea of glossy flatlays. (A recent post on self-respect: “how you love yourself/is how you teach others to love you” received over 57,000 likes.) When I suggest that social media is a godsend for artists, people or minorities who haven’t historically had access to a broad audience, she emphatically agrees.
“I have a friend who’s a woman of colour and musician and shares all her work online,” says Rupi. “Her partner, who’s this arty kind of guy, told her that he doesn’t think art on social media is real. We’ve been told a million times that there’s no market for poetry but when I started sharing my work online, my readers found me and I took control and carved out my own space. Social media allowed me to have a voice when I may not have been allowed to have a voice before.”
However, that voice has not always been welcomed. In March 2015, Rupi ignited a global debate on the lingering taboos surrounding menstruation when she posted a photo, taken by her sister for a university project, of her back with a spot of menstrual blood on her clothes and another on her bedsheets. The image was censored by Instagram twice, though the company later apologised and admitted removing the photo was a mistake.
Along with Warsan Shire, the 28-year-old British-Somali poet who shot to fame after her words featured on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and Lang Leav, a Thai-born poet known for pithy meditations on heartbreak, Rupi is part of a new guard of female poets who’ve become online sensations.
Dubbed ‘Instapoets’, their words are reposted and reblogged on Tumblr dashboards around the globe. And although their popularity has attracted cynicism from some quarters of the literary world, (one New York Times book review in June 2016 accused Rupi of “artless vulnerability”) this response echoes the hostility often directed towards young women who are brave enough to express themselves in public. Not that it really matters. At the start of 2014, Rupi started receiving queries from her fans about where they could buy her book. Buoyed by this show of support, she self-published Milk and Honey in November 2014 and, within months, publishers came knocking. She signed with Andrews McMeel, shot to the New York Times bestseller list and has since sold over half a million copies and counting.
“The book was actually just a side-effect of everything else,” explains Rupi. “Whenever things are tough, I always draw or write, but when readers were asking me where they could purchase a book, I was like, ‘What?! I can write a book?’ I wasn’t done with university and was talking to a friend about what I wanted to be when I grew up and he said to me, ‘But you’ve already started your career, you’re a writer.’ But I said, ‘Oh, that’s not a career, that’s a hobby.’ It was way later that I started owning it. I wrote that book in my bedroom and everything in it has been touched by me from the cover, to the page layouts, the font. The process is bigger than me but the response still doesn’t make sense.”
But, as any artist will tell you, to cultivate the right conditions to let yourself create, you need to let go of your attachment to success, even if it happens to be of the most stratospheric kind. Rupi tells me that she no longer responds to every single email she receives, though she used to. It started depleting her energy: “I wanted to help people who write to me but it struck me that I could just use that time and energy to write another book for my readers to use as a tool,” she says.
“I don’t even look at what people are saying on social media. Now that poets are going straight to their readers, they’re responding because it speaks to them. I really believe that poetry can touch our hearts the same way music does. Now that I have networks and platforms and the ability to make executive decisions, I’ve realised that I can bring this vision to life any way I want to. I don’t want to look outwards, I want to look inwards.” And, perhaps, convince a generation that there’s power in looking inwards, too.