“Everybody should write”: in conversation with Rupi Kaur

If you’re into poetry, you might have heard of Rupi Kaur. With over 3.6 million Instagram followers, she’s one of the best known ‘Instapoets’ – her debut collection milk and honey, which she originally self-published, sold more than 3.5 million copies, was on The New York Times Best Seller List for over 77 weeks, and has been translated into 40 languages.

Rupi Kaur holds her long plaited hair
Rupi Kaur. Photo: Baljit Singh

Instapoets are writers who gained their following by publishing their poems on Instagram. They often present their work with a focus on the visual, sometimes (as with Rupi Kaur) accompanied by illustrations. Because you can publish whatever you want on social media without the need for an agent or publisher, it’s a way for many writers to launch their careers. It also means that writers from backgrounds that are underrepresented in publishing can get their poetry out into the world with no cost to themselves. 

Much of Rupi Kaur’s work speaks to the experience of women and girls, and especially Punjabi girls across the world. In another interview she has said that she’d chosen the stage name ‘Kaur’ because it’s such a common Sikh name – and she wanted to let other young Sikh girls picture themselves in her place. You can find out more about Instapoets on the National Poetry Library website, where they ran the world’s first Instagram poetry exhibition in 2018.

We had the chance to meet Rupi Kaur when she was in the UK back in March 2019, on the day before her only poetry reading in London. Rupi lives in Canada but it wasn’t her first time performing in the UK – she had been in London in 2018 touring her second book the sun and her flowers. “But this is different,” she told us. “I’ve added lights, a little more music. We’ve created this whole living breathing projection that moves with me.”

Before meeting Rupi, we’d asked the most recent winners of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award (aged 11-17) what they’d most like to ask her, and their questions guided our conversation.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Rupi on her career

“I’ve always written poetry. But there was a point, I think in grade 12, when I felt like I was a sink overflowing. And whenever someone asked me, what’s wrong, what’s going on, I would say I don’t know. I don’t know was my response to everything. I wanted to figure that out and fill it with something very specific.

Growing up, I was shy; coming from a strict Indian family, I wasn’t allowed to wear certain clothes and so on. But in the first week of grade 12 I got out of an abusive relationship and did something totally out of my character: I went to this poetry slam. I don’t know why I went there – I was just excited to explore all the stuff I wasn’t allowed to because of this terrible relationship. So I wrote this poem for performance, and I was hooked. That was the first moment in my life when I remember people listening and paying attention to me. Hearing my voice in that microphone and seeing 25 people listen to it – it was life-changing. So I started to go to more poetry slams.

At the time, I’d write a piece, perform it, and then put it away and never do it again. Eventually my friends started to say, maybe more people should hear that poem than the 100 people in that room. I was writing a lot about the violence that brown women feel, specifically Punjabi women in my community, and they said, you know, they live all over the world. So I started posting poems on blogs, videos, social media, and over time, it became more refined.

I think my first Instagram post was in 2013. I didn’t even like Instagram at the time, but this guy I was dating kept telling me to get it to share my paintings and artwork, and I kept saying no. He ended up cheating on me, and to get back at him I made an Instagram and began sharing my paintings, illustrations and cute photos of myself. Then I asked my friend one day at university, should I post this poem online? She said yes, so I did.

That first poem was about domestic violence and alcoholism. At the time I had around 100 followers, but suddenly these women from all over the world, of all different ages, started to gather in my comments section and talk about the things they weren’t comfortable talking about at the dinner table. It was pretty remarkable, so I just kept sharing. I didn’t mean for it to go anywhere – I was in school, focusing on getting my degree and becoming a lawyer, and travelling on the weekends to perform my poetry. But I had to write the poems to help myself, and I think that’s the only reason they’ve connected with people.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Rupi on illustration

“I’ve been drawing since I was five years old; initially I thought that was what I wanted to go into professionally – before I decided to become a lawyer because my parents thought I’d be a starving artist!

When I started to perform poetry, I stopped drawing. I felt like I had cheated on my first love, so I asked myself, is there a way to do both? I started to try different things: realistic drawings, digital illustrations – in the end I scaled it back to a very loose, almost childlike line drawing, so there was a balance between the text and the illustration. I kind of hoped no one would like them, so I didn’t have to draw for hours in my sketchbook! But people really liked the illustrations, and then I thought, maybe I could do this forever.”

Rupi on self-publishing

“I ended up self-publishing milk and honey because my creative writing professor told me there was no market for poetry. I felt like I had a body of work that needed to be read cover to cover. And I got rejected of course – everyone gets rejected. So I decided to self-publish, even though my professor told me not to because I would be surpassing ‘the gate-keepers’ and people wouldn’t like that. I was like, I don’t even know who these people are! I’m just a broke college student and I’ll never interact with them, so I just did it.

There’s a poet named Lang Leav and I was reading about how she had self-published and was later picked up by a publisher – that inspired me. I learned that Amazon’s CreateSpace was completely free, so I sat for a week in my house with my girlfriends and learned Adobe InDesign through YouTube. I made a lot of mistakes. I had to restart and reformat that 200-page file at least three times. But I didn’t have any other choice.

It was also fun. I was listening to Drake and Beyoncé and Frank Ocean the whole time—they were my soundtrack. And I was going through such a difficult period in 2014, and I needed to put my energy into something.

About a year later, my current publisher in got in touch wanting to publish milk and honey. I was so scared that they were going to change my cover, take out these poems, but they were very kind and didn’t want to change anything. About a year later I signed a book deal again and in 2017 I released the sun and her flowers. So it feels like my career has been happening to me rather than me deciding this is what I want to do. I feel way more grounded than I did two or three years ago, but it’s been really insane.

The toughest part is starting. In the beginning you don’t know anything at all, but once you watch that first tutorial, or take that first step, it gets easier. Trust me, it’s not as hard as it seems!”

Rupi on her live performances

“I couldn’t do it without my audience. As a performer, you only give what you get. When I walk onto a stage and all my readers are meeting me with all their bravery and resilience, we bounce off each other in this amazing way. At the beginning of the show I say, I want you to interrupt me, I want you to speak back, snap your fingers, clap, whatever because that helps me be a better performer.

Performing was the beginning of me getting some self-confidence. Before that, I felt so disgusted by myself that I couldn’t look down at my body or my face in the mirror – I had to shower with the lights off. But when you’re standing on a stage and an audience is clapping, how could you not feel good? Over the course of nine years I’ve got better and better – but I still have a lot of improving to do, and I’ll be improving for the rest of my life.

I think hearing your own voice is so important. When you write, you go into your room and you write quietly – there’s nothing loud about it. But performing is loud. Performing is saying, shut up and listen to me. It’s amazing. That’s why I do it. I want people to hear the ideas I have. I think every poet should try it.”

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Rupi on the second book

the sun and her flowers cover

“I had to go to California and lock myself in an apartment and write every single day. I felt so anxious: I couldn’t digest my food, I had migraines for 72 hours… I was falling apart, but I had to write it. I’m so proud of many of the poems in the book, but I also feel like I needed nine more months with it. But it’s okay.

For me the most important lesson that I got from writing this book was to believe in myself. Once I’d written it I felt like maybe I was right for this path and it wasn’t all just an accident. A lot of people did make me feel like I wasn’t worthy of my success. Writing that second book made me feel like I do deserve it, and it has made writing the third one a lot easier.

It’s funny because I was so fearless with that first one – and I lost all that bravery. I thought when you’re brave once, you’re like that for the rest of your life, but you’re not. Life is cyclical. I was naïve. I’m more fearful than I have been in my entire life in this moment. I have to battle that. I want to write for the rest of my life, and I will, but it’s different writing while knowing your audience has these expectations. I just try to tune into the love and the people that come to the shows and the energy that they give me.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Rupi on her poetry heritage and diversity

“A lot of my poems, especially the love poems of the sun and her flowers, are inspired by ghazal. I grew up singing classical Indian music and Sikh devotional music, which is all written in sonnets, so ghazal were my favourite thing. It’s some of the most beautiful music, and that language can encapsulate ideas of love that English just cannot. It’s what I listen to before I start writing – it gets the emotions flowing, it’s just so beautiful. Love and god and nature and the beloved are one, and I just love that.

At school I loved Robert Frost—he was one of the only poets I understood. But I was never really exposed to poems that cracked my heart open and made me just bawl my eyes out as a 14-year-old. There was never really any poetry shared that spoke to me, as an immigrant, as someone who has dealt with the things I’ve dealt with.

There’s so much room for improvement, and now writers and poets are taking their destiny into their own hands [with social media], we’re seeing so much more diversity within the writing scene and there’s so much room for it. But you can’t wait to be let into the door, you just have to find a way to sneak in.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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nana ji and i. last living grandparent. this truth is a heavy one

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Rupi on the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and writing

“I would say that you have nothing to lose and only something to gain, so why not? It’s amazing that it’s free. Usually it costs like $25 to submit your poems in Canada. So there’s no excuse!

I think everybody’s an artist. Whenever I do workshops people tell me I don’t write poems, I’m not a creative person, and I tell them that’s not true. As human beings we’re so creative and imaginative and throughout life we ignore it more and more until it’s gone. Writing is one of the most cathartic and human experiences. Everybody should write, even if it’s not poetry, just keep a journal. It helps so much. Share your work because you never know who it’s going to touch.”

 

If you’re aged 11-17, enter the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award by 31 July for your chance to win mentoring, publication and poetry books. There are 100 winners every year and entry is completely free – so, as Rupi Kaur says, there’s no excuse! Enter now.

Find out more about Rupi Kaur at rupikaur.com

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