The ‘Instapoet’ who defies critics: Rupi Kaur on poetry and fame

She’s 25 years old and she’s famous. You may love her or hate her, but ignoring her may be difficult as she’s not only a #1 New York Times bestseller, but also a modern poet who has made headlines the world over. Vivek Tejuja talks to Rupi Kaur, in an interview that’s open, raw and honest.

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Is she a poet who forces you to see beyond color, gender and your own experiences to gain inimitable insight? Or one who’s undeservedly climbed the ladder of success in the short-attention-span world of Instagram? No matter what you believe, you cannot contest the fact that Rupi Kaur is a poet of the 21st century—a millennial whose personal expression in short, pithy lines of poetry has gained her more than 2.4 million followers and fame that no poet could even dream of achieving today.

Pegged an ‘Instapoet’, a new generation of poets who publish their work exclusively on Instagram — and there are many like Christopher Poindexter, Nayyirah Waheed, or RM Drake who do this — Rupi Kaur writes poetry that looks uncomplicated but holds a world of meaning for many. Her fans attest to it while her critics compare her work to pop music. While you can read her published works and make up your own mind, Rupi has also used social media, her penchant for photography, art direction and illustration to create awareness and ‘normalize’ certain taboos. Her Instagram photo series on menstruation, for example, which was twice deleted by the company and then restored with an apology, is an example of why she’s such a success.

Defying any notions of the starving artist, she has carved a niche for herself — an Indian-born Canadian Sikh poet who brings up sometimes poignant, sometimes raw thoughts on love, loss, relationships, femininity, judgement and discrimination. Her appeal lies as much in her personality as it does in her work. Watch her TEDx performance “I’m taking my body back” to see for yourself.

After the recent launch of her second book, The Sun and Her Flowers, we caught up with her in an interview where she talks about trolls on social media, the way she writes her poems and her plan to write fiction.

Here is the excerpt.

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Vivek: When it comes to your work, I have noticed extreme reactions in readers. Some feel that you have been able to attract easy fame though your Instagram poetry. What do you think about this?

Rupi: I don’t have a short answer to this. My dad always told me that other people’s hate is not about me. So, I’ve not spent much time to figure out why, but I think it’s because not everyone will like your work, and that’s okay. I also believe that the existence of one extreme creates another extreme. So, there are people that love my work and think it’s powerful, while there are others that find it ridiculous and wonder what I’m talking about.

A couple years ago, when I started using the internet and the trolls came in, I thought it was about me and I wondered if I should change my work. But everyone has haters and that is something that somebody close to me put in perspective for me at the time. You realize this is true for everyone right from Mother Teresa to Nelson Mandela, people who are my heroes.

I also think that in my case, reactions are complex because I write poetry, a very traditional form of art, which is being displayed at a non-traditional place – social media. My work has gone from being printed in newspapers to being shared on social media, and the gatekeepers of both these worlds are confused as to what is happening.

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V: In the strange world of social media, does it bother you when people dig out everything to use as ammunition to hit you where it hurts most? It also seems like these critics haven’t read your work, while trolls have turned to critics that judge the technicalities and structures of your work rather than finding the expression in it.

R: I’ve studied literature, so I know everything about poetry, sonnets, etc. But for me, the poetry I grew up with was never about technicalities. It was something in my community that was sung when people passed away or when you were born. Our names come from poetry, and poetry itself was like a place of love and devotion for nature, the universe and all things that are so emotional that technicalities were never considered because they didn’t matter.

I have performed keertan for 8 years, which is all about poetry and rhyme. The West doesn’t understand it and I don’t try to explain it to them. So, I think that’s why there is all this confusion stating that my poetry is not real. Well, it’s real for us, it’s real for me. That’s why I always tell people to come to the shows to see the way even the line breaks and the use of period starts to make sense.

I think you fully understand it when you hear it read out, because readers may not hear it in their own voice, but hear it in mine. And suddenly the words are dancing and are doing things that they weren’t when they were reading in their own house. So, I look forward having a larger conversation with the world about what all of this means.

I’ve never taken the opportunity to do so, because right now, I’m lucky enough to have so much support globally for the work. I also feel that poetry for me is rooted in that place that’s so divine that those criticisms don’t bother me. Of course, they hurt; these are such emotional and personal things, and when somebody is writing about heartbreak and rape and their bodies, I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t hurt. But because my poetry is rooted in this place of community and beauty, it has to just wash off. I know that I’m not the first person to do it, and I come from a community that has been fighting injustice for so long.

See Rupi reading out her work here.

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V. Since you’re a poet of a different kind and for a different generation, tell us what your writing process is. Does the poem just appear, and you have to stop and note it down?

R: By the time I hold a pencil in my hand, the poem is done. This is because my poetry is like a reflection of my thoughts and it’s cooking in me before I write it. And a lot of times I feel it when I’m driving and I haven’t written for a few days. It starts coming up and suddenly it’s like I’m going to sink because it’s overflowing and it’s running over. So, I have to pull over and write it down.  It’s a very physical experience.

There are some poems like the one that is from Milk and Honey where I’ve written about calling women pretty when they are so much more than that. That poem played in my head for three months. That entire poem, line by line, was like a super catchy song in my head and I wouldn’t write it down because I thought it was so stupid and silly that no one would want to hear it. So, I kept trying to write about other things for three months, but while I was physically trying to write something else, this was still playing in my head. And what’s magical is when that thing in your head gets so loud, you just have to surrender it.

It’s so funny because it was actually on International Women’s Day about 3 or 4 years ago when I just surrendered to it wrote it down. I thought to myself “This is so corny, it’s so cheesy!”, and I happened to be going to an event for Women’s Day, and I thought I’m just going to share it and why not? So, I put it online not expecting anything and it ended up being the most popular, most discussed poem of mine, and still is.

I think those are the moments that teach me to do what comes naturally and honestly. There are also other poems like “Our backs tell stories that no books have the spine to carry”, about women of color, which was a lot more difficult. It transformed from initially being a love poem to what it finally became. And I think that’s what’s so lovely for me — when these 10 words that by themselves are so simple, but when you change them around, they have their own universe, their own meaning. I love when writing becomes like putting a puzzle together, because you have to take these simple words and create something that touches you.

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V: So, is it almost like a trance-like state because of all those emotions bubbling inside?

R: For sure! And I think it’s like any other art. When you’re performing music, you dance as well, and poetry writing is exactly like that.

V: Have you ever thought about writing fiction or non-fiction?

R: I have. I have written about 20 chapters and I stopped writing that because I had just started writing poetry. I decided I would like to dedicate five years of my life to something like that, because it uses a different part of your brain.

When I’m writing a poem, it’s almost like writing an essay. I had really good professors and English teachers in high school, and one professor always said that a good essay has one thesis statement and all your points and body paragraphs just point directly to that thesis statement. That has been drilled into me since the 9th grade, and I think my poems are like that too.

I write freely and my poem will be a page long! Then I go through it and think about what I’m trying to say or what message I’m trying to give out. Then I pick one and cut the others out. I then make sure that each word and sentence supports that one message.

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V: Is there a lot of editing?

R: Lots! In my physical journal, you will find the initial poem that I transferred online. Then you’ll notice the journal sometimes goes on for 20 pages because I keep editing it. But I think writing fiction will be the opposite of that. I’ll have to train my brain to do the longer prose because now I’m finally at the liberty to do that. I think it would be interesting to take some ideas that I discussed in Milk and Honey and turn it into a book of fiction.

Now that’s something her fans wouldn’t want to miss! Check out Rupi Kaur’s poetry books and audio CD on Flipkart and join the conversation.

Also read: These 8 Indian women authors have a bold message for you


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