Rupi Kaur is a new kind of poet. The 23-year-old India-born, Canada-raised woman began sharing her poetry and photography on social media while she was in college — and found an audience of hundreds of thousands who connected with her work. At the urging of her followers — she has over half a million on Instagram alone — Rupi self-published a book of poetry, Milk and Honey, in early 2014. Earlier this summer, it hit the New York Times bestseller list, and has now stayed there for 16 weeks.
BUST called Rupi to talk about becoming a viral poet, how she balances working in different mediums, and why she deleted her social media accounts.
What’s it like to see Milk and Honey hit the bestseller lists two years after you first published it?
It feels like I got on a train and I was expecting to get off in five stops or 10 stops, but the train keeps on going, and it keeps going faster, and I’m like “Okay!” I feel like I gave life to this book in 2014, and now, since the publisher picked it up and re-released it in 2015, it’s taken on a life of its own.
Milk and Honey reads like a very coherent whole. Did you write it that way?
Kind of, but without knowing it. When I first started writing, I was really dissecting rape and sexual abuse and domestic violence. That is and always has been what first got me into writing. So, when I first started to share my work, it was really those pieces. Honestly, I never thought I could write love poetry.
I was sharing my work on the internet, and then it was the readers who were like, “Hey, where can I purchase my book?” And I was like, “Oh, I guess I should do that then.” I printed out hundreds of pieces, and then I cut them all up and I laid them in little squares across my living room floor. And I was like, “How the heck am I going to organize this? What are the common patterns, what are the common themes?” and I came up with labels like “abuse” and “love” and “family,” and then I limited it down into four groups. I realized there was this one subject, who starts out as a child, and she goes through all of this and then she ends up healing.
Would you say that subject is you, or a character?
I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t me, but it’s not all me. People are like, “Is this 100% biographical, blah, blah, blah?” It’s not, but the emotion is, and a lot of it is. Milk and Honey is the dissecting of emotions that I’ve carried all my life, but it’s also the emotions that the women around me have carried. Sometimes you see Milk and Honey in the biography section, and sometimes it’s in nonfiction, and sometimes they put it in fiction bestsellers. People are throwing it around everywhere and not knowing where to place it.
So much of what you write about is seen as young women’s topics. Do you get a negative response from men about your work?
No, actually. At most shows and readings, Toronto will probably have 75% women, but then I was in Washington, DC, and there were so many dudes. They’ll come up to me in line and go, “Thank you, you’ve helped me understand what it’s like to live in my sister’s shoes, my girlfriend’s shoes, my mom’s shoes.” There was one article that was written that said, “Rupi Kaur is the poet every woman needs to read,” and there were guys commenting that were like, “Yeah, we get it, that’s cool, but that’s preaching to the choir, she’s a poet that men need to read.” And I was like, “Yeah, that’s really true,” because these are issues that affect men, too. We all sit at the same table and we all want to move forward, and we’re not going to do that without the other.
Your poem that goes “something is terribly wrong if the pain, sorrow and outrage of a people makes you more uncomfortable than murder itself” is being shared pretty widely after these recent deaths [of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile]. What’s it like to see your words take on a life of their own in that way?
I didn’t even know it’s been shared because I’ve just gone off social media. I deleted it. I don’t check it. But it’s crazy how these things travel. That’s a piece that’s so old. I think it’s cool, because with art in general — in moments of tragedy, in moments of pain, we’re always asking, “Why, why, why?” and art is the core.
You deleted your social media?
All my accounts are up, my management would kill me if I deleted them, but I deleted them from my phone. I got into the really weird habit where my routine in the morning and before bed was to go on Twitter, see what’s trending, and find what’s been bombed in the Middle East or who has been shot today. That became a very consistent pattern and I could see how negatively it was affecting my mood and my work. When Alton Sterling was shot, I didn’t sleep for four days. It felt like I had drank 20 cups of coffee, because my heart was beating and I needed answers. I can’t do anything to help the cause if I’m putting my heart in that position. I decided that I need to take a break from this for a while, figure my thoughts out, and that’s what I’ve been doing and it has been healthier. I feel like I’m more connected to myself.
When you post your poems to social media, do you find yourself really noticing which poems get the most likes and comments?
Yeah. It’s always the love poems and the heartbreak poems that are the most popular, and the thing is that those aren’t my favorite ones. Those will get way more hits compared to ones about abuse or that sort of thing.
Do you feel pressure to write more of the ones that are popular?
When I first self-published, my friends were like, “Well, maybe you should write some more love poems and share those because it will help push the book.” And I was like, “Maybe you’re right,” so I did that, and I stopped posting in an organic or natural way. Before that, I would write what I wanted to write when my heart was feeling it, and I would post what my heart wanted to post. But when I started to go away from that, it felt like I was crushing myself, so I stopped. I think people are understanding that the longevity of my writing career and my art will rest in my honest view of myself.
You also work with photography, and you do the drawings you do for your poems as well. How do you see these mediums connecting?
I started drawing when I was four or five years old, so it was kind of my first love. I found writing later, in middle school, and by the time high school came around, I was drawing pictures and writing words on top of them. And then university came and I stopped drawing altogether and focused on writing. Then one day in 2013, I kind of felt guilty, like I was cheating on art. That was really the night that I was like, “How do I bring it back?” It was 4 a.m. and I couldn’t go to sleep until i figured out how to bring it back.
With photography, it’s a little bit different, but I’ve always been a visual person. The day after I self-published Milk and Honey, I woke up and I designed the cover of my second book, the photography and the color palette and all the visuals. I want to do more photography work. I don’t necessarily connect to words on top of photos, but if you look at the photos I post, it’s always in the captions. The words are like, “This is what I’m thinking in my head” and the photos are, “This is what I see in my head.”
Your work is often called feminist poetry. Do you identify with that label?
Definitely. I’ve identified myself as a feminist for as long as I can remember. Feminism is so interesting because people get so offended when people call themselves feminists, but they have no idea what feminism means. I’ve seen so many people debate between themselves, “I don’t think it should be called feminist poetry because it’s for everybody,” but I’m like, that’s what feminist poetry means, though, it is for everybody. We are including everybody, and that’s why it’s feminist, and it’s beautiful.
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