“My existence as a poet is divisive, which makes me feel powerful”: A Q&A with Rupi Kaur
With a lot of gumption and a little help from Instagram, Kaur has become one of the bestselling poets ever. This month, she brings her world tour to Massey Hall
“Live poetry” evokes beatniks in a smoky bar. Your show is different.
I’m not even sure what to call it—maybe a one-woman theatrical performance? It’s spoken word mixed with stand-up. My work often deals with heavy themes like abuse, so humour is a way to balance that. When I started, I was a teenager at open mics, but as the gigs got bigger, I had to create something on a larger scale. I added music, visuals and fashion.
How does fashion inform your writing?
My family didn’t have a lot growing up. At one point, five of us shared a bedroom in a Malton basement. I wore hand-me-downs that my parents brought in a single suitcase from India. When I got my first paycheque from my first job, at Tim Hortons, I bought a $50 bandage dress from H&M; it was so special. I wanted to study fashion at Toronto Metropolitan University and had prepared a portfolio. Then, the night before applications were due, my dad convinced me that it wasn’t something I could make a career of.
So you said, “No problem, Dad—I’ll pursue experimental poetry”?
No, I enrolled in business at Waterloo. I did poetry on the side. I was a student when I self-published my first collection, Milk and Honey. Even when it started to do well, I was still studying for the LSATs. It wasn’t until my second collection, The Sun and Her Flowers, that I realized poetry was my job now.
“Started to do well” is an understatement. Milk and Honey has sold millions of copies. How did that happen?
A lot of readers told me that they were shocked when the book came out because it’s so personal and vulnerable. It made people feel connected, which led to great word of mouth.
You are the world’s first Insta-poet. Is that a title you love or loathe?
It really depends who’s using it and how. Instagram was a way for me to enter a world that has been inaccessible to people who look and sound like me. Literature has traditionally been policed by gatekeepers who say you aren’t legitimate unless they invite you through the front door. There’s an assumption that the interests of young women can’t be topics of substance. I self-published because nobody took me seriously. Instagram was important, but I’ve sold over 11 million physical copies of my work. My very presence in this space is divisive, which, in a way, makes me feel powerful.
Your latest collection, Healing Through Words, is billed as a curated writing guide. What is that?
It goes back to the early days of the pandemic, when I offered poetry tutorials online. This was mid-2020, when everyone and their mother was hanging out on Instagram Live. I’d have 10,000 people following along, completing creative writing exercises on various themes, such as trauma and self-love. It couldn’t go on indefinitely, so I wrote a book that takes people on the same journey.
So is the audience for this book aspiring poets?
It’s for everyone. In the beginning of the book, I assert that to be human is to be creative, but a lot of people don’t have room to explore that day to day. The book has been therapeutic for me, and I think it has helped people work through some of life’s challenges.
Your books have been banned in parts of Texas, ostensibly because they explore sexual violence. Surprised?
Yes, but also not at all. I mean, look at what’s going on with Roe v. Wade. We have to support the people on the ground—the teachers and librarians who are getting harassed just for doing their jobs. I honestly don’t think the parents who object to my books have even read them. As for the kids, this just makes them want to read the books more, so the plan isn’t working.
You’ll be back in Toronto this month for a show at Massey Hall. What are you most looking forward to?
Watching movies and eating with my family and friends. My aunt lives with my parents, and she makes the best samosas. There are lots of great places to eat in Brampton, but if my mom heard I was getting Punjabi food outside of the house, she would lose it. If I’m going to a restaurant, it’s usually in Toronto.
Will Toronto still be home after your tour?
Toronto and Brampton will always be home, but I’m maybe moving to LA. I already spend a lot of time there, and I want to do more executive producing. I was involved with an incredible movie called This Place by V. T. Nayani. It premiered this fall at TIFF. I’m still writing poetry, but I’m also just ready to be in the sun now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.