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“I need poetry more than it needs me”: Rupi Kaur on how writing saved her

Rupi Kaur transformed the world of poetry - or was it the other way around? One of the world’s most famous poets sits down with Stylist to talk Instapoetry, mental health and the therapeutic power of words.

Five years ago, most bookshops didn’t make a big deal about poetry. Tucked away at the back or hidden in the basement, poetry sections tended to offer a paltry selection of books by (mainly male) writers, the majority of whom had been dead for years.

Now, things couldn’t be more different. Walk into any bookstore and you are likely to be greeted first and foremost by a large, engaging poetry section, jam-packed with beautifully covered collections, many written by young women. And these books aren’t just for display – here in the UK, the poetry market has grown by 48% over the past five years to £12.3m.

And, arguably more than anyone else, there is one woman to thank for this: Rupi Kaur.

rupi kaur poet

Rupi Kaur’s debut poetry collection sold more than 2.5 million copies

A breath of fresh air in the traditionally stale, male world of poetry, Kaur ignited a movement when she published her debut poetry collection, Milk and Honey, back in 2014. Going on to sell more than 2.5 million copies, the book spent 77 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and has so far been translated into 25 languages. Her second collection, The Sun and Her Flowers, was also met with critical acclaim.

Born in India, Kaur emigrated to Toronto with her parents when she was four. She started sharing her poetry on Tumblr in 2013, before moving onto Instagram a year later. Her powerful prose combined with simple line drawings became instantly recognisable, and with over 3.6 million followers on the platform, she is one of the most famous ‘Instapoets’ in the world.

But while Kaur has undoubtedly helped turn the dwindling popularity of poetry around, she is adamant that poetry has given her more than she could possibly hope to repay. Here, she tells Stylist how the power of poems changed her life, and why we need to stop using the term Instapoet to invalidate the work of young women writers like herself. 

Do you consider yourself an Instapoet?

I consider myself a poet, and I consider every poet who uses Instagram, or who doesn’t use Instagram, to be a poet too.

I think the term means different things depending on who’s using it. I feel like a lot of Instapoets are young women and the term is being used by the gatekeepers of the traditional poetry world, and they’re really not validating the experiences and emotions of young women. That’s definitely something that I’ve experienced, as have so many of the young writers I know. Forget Instagram, even – I know so many women writers who don’t use social media at all, but they’ve had their work invalidated just because they are the ‘other’. My message for my contemporaries is that we just have to keep doing what we’re doing, because it’s amazing. 

The literary world was made for people of a certain class, race and gender. But social media has leveled that playing field. If I’d written Milk and Honey 20 years ago, I never could have published it. I think it came at the perfect time. 

And now we have this platform that is letting so many people access this world, whereas before they wouldn’t have been able to – they didn’t know an editor, or they didn’t come from the industry. These people are living in any corner of the world and they can go online and share their work in a fashion that is free. That should not invalidate it. Social media is amazing, not just for the poetry industry, but for the art world in general. 

Do you think Instapoet is a negative term?

I don’t think the term itself is negative, I actually think it’s very progressive. But it gets employed in a negative way: ‘oh you’re not a poet, you’re an Instapoet’. It’s low key shade.

So you don’t think there needs to be a distinction between poetry and Instapoetry?

Exactly. I think people will get over it, and eventually Instapoetry will be considered as just poetry. But right now we have that term because [Instapoetry] became so popular it became a fad, and it was all over Instagram so people decided we needed to create a special category for it. Which was awesome, because it meant people weren’t just going on social media to look at what people were wearing, but also to gain insight, connection, inspiration and positivity through words which didn’t exist there before.

But my contemporaries and I have had so many conversations about how it’s employed. I feel like it’s used to demote women more than it’s used to describe male writers, who are just considered as poets.

Would you say Instagram has saved poetry by giving it the ability to reach so many new people?

I would say Instagram breathes new life into poetry for sure. There are certain types of poetry I like. I grew up reading The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, which is my favourite book, and I enjoyed it because it was so profound and deep, yet simple to understand. English is my second language – I’m an immigrant, so I didn’t learn English properly until I was in grade two or three. By then I was so traumatised by the bullying [at school] that I refused to speak, so books became my best friends. But I couldn’t really understand the poetry we studied.

In high school we annotated all these ridiculously complex poems. This won’t be everyone’s experience, but I was never presented with a poem that actually represented experiences in my life when I was at school. And then when I was, I just cried. It felt like music in my body. 

That was the first time that I thought, wow, poetry can be like this? It can just be about my life, it doesn’t have to be this other thing that I don’t understand? Before I used Instagram I was on Tumblr, which was where I shared my poems with my original community. That was such a nurturing place, where myself and so many other authors and artists got to talk about what was going on in our heads through our blogs. People reached out and showed their support and that gave me the courage to move to Instagram. It’s pretty remarkable how Instagram is giving a voice to so many writers of different communities. It’s really changing the face of the industry. 

I laugh now because I self-published Milk and Honey because my creative writing professor said, ‘listen, there’s no market for poetry, people don’t publish this, have you never been to the poetry section in a bookshop?! Everyone in there is dead.’ And I thought, ‘OK that’s true, I guess I have to die then. See ya, maybe I’ll get published when I’ve been dead for 100 years.’

But now, there are a lot of really, really young people who are being published. And this juxtaposition is remarkable. It makes me so proud of everybody. I think we’re in a time when we need vulnerability, and we want connection, and we need it right now. That’s why poetry is working. That’s why the readers are there.

In the UK, young women aged 13 to 24 are now the biggest consumers of poetry. Why do you think this is?

First of all, young women are the trendsetters, especially in the digital e-commerce space. Young women pick up on something, and it becomes a whole thing.

With this trend, it’s not necessarily the poetry that they’re after, but what’s in the poetry. The poems offer experiences that reflect their lives. Young women are after something that allows them to exhale and that says, you are understood. I’ve had that experience too.

I don’t think young women see themselves in a lot of the things they’re fed. They’re fed so much negativity. We are constantly told, you’re not good enough, this is what you’re missing in you’re life. But now, with poetry, we are being told we are enough. That’s amazing and I wish there was more of that.

Do you primarily write for young women?

I guess so. I’ve had to create a distinction in my head so I can be true to myself as an artist. I always say I write for myself because that’s why I started writing, and that’s what led me to eventually write these books. I needed them way more than they needed me.

I was working through some issues in my life and I started writing about them, and if I didn’t then I don’t know where I’d be. Of course, as a young woman, other young women are going to relate to what I’m saying. They’re the reason that I keep writing. 

rupi kaur

“There are words that saved me andI might write something that might actually help someone else”

There are days when I think, screw this, there are no more books left in me, I’m done. Then I think about when I was 15 and had no agency in my household, and I was going through so much and so much was happening to me and I couldn’t stop it. So I think about that girl, because that’s who I write for. There are words that saved me and I might write something that might actually help someone else. Not that I think I’m a saviour, but someone might pick up a book or it might reach her hands, and somehow touch her.

As young women it’s really hard, because no one’s really fighting for you all the time, so how do you learn to do that fearlessly? Books are a great way to do it.

Last time I interviewed you, you said you don’t read the comments on your Instagram pictures. Is that still true?

Yes! Now more than ever. I’m scared that if I read them I’ll let them influence what I write about. I think the magic is in writing what comes to me naturally, and if I start to curate too much then something’s going to happen. I just think, let’s not mess with it.

Will you be celebrating World Poetry Day?

Yes, I’ve been celebrating women’s month so much. On International Women’s Day I was in my car, dancing to Destiny’s Child, and I was just the happiest person. I try to take a moment, or many moments, to sit back and think wow, look how far we’ve come. I feel so blessed and so lucky – I wake up every day and I can’t believe this is happening to me. 

And I do think it’s happening to me – I don’t feel very responsible for any of it. I think the universe uses me as this container to push something, and every day I’m making sense of it. It’s weird and I’m embarrassed at the same time saying it. Poetry saved me and I can’t believe I get to write it every day and travel the world with it.

What do you mean when you say that poetry saved you?

I feel like I was going through so much and poetry gave me a voice. I never really knew how to put my pain into words. We weren’t really a communicative family – we didn’t talk about our emotions and what we were going through. Survival was at the top of my parent’s minds – there were six of us, and my dad was the only one who worked. He would be driving a truck across the continent so he would be gone for six days, then come home for eight hours on the seventh day and leave again. So I never saw him. 

My mum was raising four kids, so she didn’t have time to sit and talk about emotions or label them and do all the healthy mental healthcare stuff that people should be doing. So I grew up thinking, what is happening! There was so much going on, which I’ve written about in the books. 

Poetry challenged me. Before, when people would ask me what was wrong, I wouldn’t know the answer. I would have so many feelings that I felt like an overflowing sink, but I wouldn’t know why. And poetry was like, well, you’re going to figure it out. 

So then I had to start putting words to it, and it was such a beautiful challenge, like making a puzzle. Now, every poem is like making a puzzle. I take one specific experience and try to make it concise and think about how I want it to be.

What comes first in your creative experience, the poems or the drawings?

The poems. After the poem is done I close my eyes, and the first image that comes to my mind is what I draw. I draw it by hand and then digitise it.

Am I allowed to ask what’s next…?

I’m writing my third book! It’s nerve-wracking but I’m excited. It should be published in the next year or two.

I feel like I’m going back to the fearlessness I had with Milk and Honey. Not that I was fearful writing the second book [The Sun and Her Flowers], but I didn’t expect anyone to read Milk and Honey so I just wrote whatever I wanted to write. And then a lot of people read it, and when I went to write the second book, I knew how many people would read it. So I went into it censoring myself quite a bit. I’m so proud of it, but I was going through such a rough time personally that it didn’t get the love and attention I wish it had.

But now, going into my third book, I’m back to my roots of being fearless and saying whatever the heck is on my mind and not caring about who picks the book up. That makes me feel really good.

Images: Baljit Singh, Nabil Shash

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