A poet finds her feet on Instagram

Rupi Kaur
Rupi Kaur

NEW YORK• Last Monday, about 1,000 people, most of them young women, lined up at a New York City theatre for a poetry reading by Rupi Kaur. Giant fake sunflowers outside made a safe space for guests to pose for Instagram in their hijabs, baseball caps, pantsuits, combat boots and cocktail dresses.

Then last Tuesday came a big and quietly savage profile in The Cut. Last Wednesday, The Guardian published an article on the "inevitable backlash" against her.

Kaur, who is 25 and Punjabi-Canadian, is used to the ups and downs. In the three years since her blockbuster, Milk And Honey, was first self-published and later picked up by Andrews McMeel Publishing, she has dealt with the issues other women face on Instagram and off: comparisons, aggression, bullying. But she has also built a community and an audience there in particular, with 1.6 million followers.

"Instagram makes my work so accessible and I was able to build a readership," she said recently in a cafe in SoHo. "But then I always feel like within the literary world, there's, of course, downsides because you have that label attached to your work and then, for some reason, that means you aren't a credible literary source."

Instagram was where, in 2015, Kaur first seized on some fame, when the platform removed a photo of her.

In it, she was in bed, back to the camera, with fake menstrual blood stains on her sweatpants and sheets. Instagram said the removal was an accident and then returned it; now it is just shy of 100,000 likes.

She appended a note: "i will not apologise for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be okay with a small leak."

Milk And Honey has sold 2.5 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 25 languages. Over the past two years, it has spent 77 weeks on The New York Times paperback trade bestseller list. Her second book, The Sun And Her Flowers, was released this week and is No. 2 on Amazon's bestseller list.

But Instagram is really where she publishes. Some of her poems are just a line, like "i think my body knew you would not stay". It lends itself to parody. Her themes do not vary much: heartache hurts, love heals, women are strong, loving yourself is key to most things. Her work has been criticised as "disingenuous" and it is true that she stays remarkably on brand.

She also has been accused of writing about experiences that she has not had herself. Asked about this, she shrugged. "It's so complicated," she said. It is also not, historically, a requirement for poetry. Writing poems is how she processes the news and the world around her, she said, and for what she has not lived, she tries to understand.

The literary world does not have a great track record of embracing or even acknowledging artists like Kaur, who are different in some notable way, but attract an enormous and fervent audience.

"Critics might think that Kaur's readership is young and female, so her work can't be serious, which is obviously wrong," said professor of English and comparative literature Matthew Hart at Columbia University. "Her style doesn't seem naive."

Two chapters of Kaur's new book were written after United States President Donald Trump's inauguration. In them, she tells the story of her family. Poems about her ancestors and her mother's bravery in leaving Punjab read as thank-you notes.

The gratitude she feels to her parents for working hard and giving her the opportunity to get an education will resonate with children of immigrants.

It is hard to ignore the power of such work in a moment when the White House pushes for mass deportations of people like Kaur's family. Her father Suchet Singh arrived in Canada as a refugee in the early 1990s.

After stumbling on Kaur's work on Tumblr nearly three years ago, Ms Rijoota Gupte, a fan of writers Jhumpa Lahiri and Khaled Hosseini, could not stop thinking about Kaur's words.

"Rupi's not like other writers and that's exactly why I like her," she said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2017, with the headline 'A poet finds her feet on Instagram'. Print Edition | Subscribe