With her book ‘The Sun And Her Flowers’ out today, we look at how the Punjabi-Canadian poet built an empire through social media
Milk and honey. Legendary South Asian agents of healing and also the name of the bestselling poetry collection that revolutionised perceptions of the artform with each one of its 1.5 million copies sold worldwide. Behind the phenomenon is Rupi Kaur, a 24-year-old Punjabi Canadian who built her empire from the ground up and spearheads a new generation of ‘instapoets’, people who made their name on social media, distributing their work on their platforms.
Kaur first shot to fame when she protested Instagram’s problematic removal of her picture (twice) which depicted visible menstrual blood. She spoke out on the misogynistic double standards at play, and refused to be silenced on the topic.
“I decided to choose menstruation [as the theme of my project] to try and demystify the stigmas around it,” Kaur told Dazed. “And so I developed the series with my sister, Prabh over a weekend. After it was created I decided to share it online, as a part of the project, to see how different medias would embrace/reject it.”
With her new book The Sun And Her Flowers out today, here’s your guide to an artist who’s been described as the “poet for the Instagram generation”.
WHY DO PEOPLE LOVE HER WORK?
Kaur's popularity as a poet can be largely attributed to the lucid simplicity and accessibility of her writing, though the subject matters of love, loss, trauma, healing, femininity, migration, but the condition of being both woman and of colour are anything but straightforward.
“I want to put words to feelings we have trouble putting into words,” Kaur explained to Huffington Post, and Milk and Honey being translated into 30 different language does attest to the poignant universality that the book inspires: intangible feelings are put into tangible words and consequently, millions want to hear them. The immense popularity of Milk and Honey is almost unheard of for a first-time published writer, and as the overwhelmingly warm reception promo for her new book The Sun and Her Flowers has already received suggests, Kaur’s success will only continue to grow.
Kaur’s modest but provocative poems are sometimes accompanied by scribbled illustrations, also simple in nature yet able to sharpen the resonance of the prose. Kaur describes the fusion as a marriage of her two loves, as she became obsessed with drawing long before she did writing. This model of presenting poetry, both on Instagram and accompanied by visual art, has meant that for a lot of people, poetry has become a space they are being encouraged to occupy for the first time. With the advent of easy-to-understand literature made easily spreadable through social media, traditional models of poetry are dismantled, notions of the traditional poetry reader challenged, and the definition of poetry itself up for radical reconsideration.
POEMS IN MILK AND HONEY
INSPIRING NEW DEFINITIONS
Back in the summer of 2015, just as Kaur was on the cusp of global fame, I went alone to watch her perform in the intimate space of The Rag Factory, right in the heart of East London. Meeting her, she was just as ethereal as her Instagram account may suggest. She has pop star charisma, and as she performed some of her longer pieces over the hauntingly beautiful voice of her folklore singer friend Keerat Kaur, the lines between poetry and music became so gorgeously blurred they were amalgamated. Performance poetry is another field Kaur has explored, as well as photography, screenwriting and even novel-writing.
A personal note: exposure to Rupi Kaur’s poetry helped to me to understand that there was a world beyond what I was taught in English lessons, instead it could be vivid, contemporary, immediately inspiring, and maybe most importantly, written by someone who looked like me.
CRITICISMS OF RUPI KAUR
As Rupi Kaur’s popularity grew, criticism of her work also surfaced. Popular tweets satirised Kaur’s pairing of simple language and profound subject matter, often alluding to her poems being formulaic, cheesy and somehow not ‘real’. This I find unfair, and as merely reasserting teachings restrictive definitions of ‘real poetry’. To me, there can never be any wrong in more people becoming engaged and empowered by a new wave of poetic art, especially if those people possess a marginalised idenity or have been traditionally barred from access to such art.
Valid criticism of Kaur, though, does come in the form of Chiara Giovanni’s well-researched BuzzFeed article ‘The Problem With Rupi Kaur’s Poetry’. Giovanni discusses Kaur’s tendency to homogenise the South Asian female experience without sufficiently claiming her Western privilege or giving due credit to the underprivileged women from whom she extracts stories as inspiration. Giovanni also has unease with the watering down of Kaur’s identity in order to become marketable to the Western mainstream: the way writers of colour are often encouraged to harbour elements of exoticism but not be too specific, or too palpably ‘foreign’ in their writing, as that would not appeal to the universal, and thus lessen their market value.
Like any artist, Rupi Kaur isn’t without problems and should be challenged accordingly, but there is no doubt that her work and rapid ascent helped to inject a pump of adrenaline into 21st century poetry. I only hope that with her, and the grassroots rise of other such Insta-poets, more voices that have traditionally been relegated to the sidelines will be encouraged to flower, and definitions of what is ‘worthy art’ will continue to expand.