The Time Of Rupi Kaur In The Era Of A Vexed Generation
Last month, a sunny Thursday afternoon saw me headed to Taj Lands End in Bandra for a tête-à-tête with Rupi Kaur, who was in the country to promote her second book The Sun and Her Flowers. Coordinated by Crossword Bookstores, where she’d hosted a book reading the previous evening, it was with some curiosity that I stepped into the conference room to find Kaur wrapping up her 2 o’clock interview. She smiled apologetically for her tardiness and asked if she could grab a quick bite before we got down to business. The India-born, Toronto-based poet began slurping spoonsful of soup, nibbling away daintily at a piece of bread, but on realising that she had kept someone waiting, immediately switched up her speed. The sheepish twinkle reorganised itself into a wolfish grin as she wholeheartedly embraced her Indian roots and the bread was converted into a spoon with Kaur proceeding to eat her soup curry-style. When even that fell short, she just dropped all pretence of table manners, poured the soup into a glass and guzzled it in one go. The word ‘relatable’ flashed somewhere in my mind as I attempted to dissect the phenomenon that is Rupi Kaur.
In 2015, a spoken word poet and illustrator developed a photo series called ‘period’ in her final year at university. The goal, she said, “was to challenge a taboo, tell a story without the use of words”. Rupi Kaur’s picture was deleted by Instagram barely 24 hours after it went up. She fought back. Reporting the event on Facebook, she countered, “Thank you Instagram for providing me with the exact response my work was created to critique… I will not apologise for not feeding the ego and pride of a misogynist society that will have my body in underwear but not be okay with a small leak when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified, pornified and treated less than human.” Her response was liked by over 53,000 people and shared over 12,000 times.
Thereafter, Kaur amassed somewhat of a cult following among millennials and celebrities alike, much to the chagrin of pseudo-intellectuals who relegated her poems to fodder for simpletons. Also fuelling the Kaur-hate were allegations about plagiarising the work of fellow-poet Nayyirah Waheed, whose topics and formats take on a similar tone as that of Kaur’s. But if that were the case, what do these naysayers have t0 say about the recent discovery that Shakespeare himself had fallen prey to the P-monster, “borrowing heavily” from George North’s 1576 unpublished manuscript? More importantly, where does one draw the line between inspiration and blatant poaching? Is there an ultimate authority that rates poetry on the complexity of its themes and eloquence? Isn’t art created for the express purpose of stirring and soothing the soul? It goes to show that Kaur has gotten to where she is because she has managed to mingle with the masses. Take, for example, the sing-song fashion she employs to narrate her poems, the unabashed manner in which she starts over when the lines evade her during a reading session or even the summoning of audience members to the stage for an impromptu duet. One only has to look at the sheer number of comments to understand that the millennial poet’s words greatly resonate with the emotions of her audience — some of them fervently thank her for summing up their thoughts in a way they could never have.
I snapped out of my musings as Kaur happily chirped ‘finished!’ indicating that she was ready to field my volley of questions. As I whipped out my phone to record our conversation, she beamed radiantly at the sight of my case emblazoned with the Hogwarts sigil. A fellow-Potterhead, she concluded and hugged me unexpectedly, warming up to me in a way I could not have anticipated, even presenting me with a copy of The Sun and Her Flowers signed ‘Sadaf! Fellow Harry Potter fan — I’m honoured to have your love and support’. Utterly relatable and warm, I think to myself again.
Excerpt from our conversation….
Wilting, falling, rooting, rising, and blooming. Had you always envisioned your second book as a division of these sections or did something change along the way?
“The title never changed since I first came up with it in 2014 although the themes and chapters did. Initially, The Sun and Her Flowers was supposed to be a two-chapter book that would explore the dynamics of an unhealthy relationship followed by my idea of what a happy relationship looks like. What I actually was interested in was bridging the gap between the episodes in the middle and exploring how healthy relationships after unhealthy ones aren’t necessarily easy to accept. I pitched the idea to my publishers and we signed the book deal. When I began penning down my thoughts, it was about something entirely different and I was panicking because those topics didn’t fit into the theme of my initial pitch. I struggled with sticking to the script but continued to write, thinking that I would save the content for book three. That failed to happen and I continued to write in the same vein. The Sun and Her Stars actually began taking shape because I was away from my family for a very long time while writing the book and my mind kept revisiting all the sacrifices they had made to bring me up they way they did. I was working on reconnecting with them and my roots; chapter three comprises those endeavours. I was in the U.S. when Trump was elected and I witnessed the women’s marches firsthand; that’s where a large chunk of chapter five came from. My book is based on the life cycle of a plant since it mirrors the general ups and downs — wilting, falling, rooting, rising and blooming — in the life of a human.”
Punctuation and paragraph breaks play an important role in your style of writing. How do you arrive at these trademark characteristics?
“That’s a very intuitive process because I write poetry the way I would perform it. I could go on a litany of explanations about how it all comes together, but I believe that until you have seen it being performed live, you won’t really understand the intrinsic nature of it. I insert line breaks where I would pause while reciting the poem and I put a period where a new idea is introduced. When I read my work out loud, it suddenly even starts to sound musical and that’s when I know I’ve hit the nail on the head.”
Many artists are known to deal with criticism but I’ve noticed people are particularly scathing towards your work. How do you deal with this?
“It was absolutely gutting, initially. I was just a young girl putting out all this stuff that was so personal to me and all of a sudden, people I didn’t even know were ripping it apart. But I think you come to a point where you realise that none of that is actually about you or your poetry; these people probably never even read the poetry to begin with. It’s just the troll menace of our times. My job is to protect my art, keep my head down and focus on my path, which is all about fearless creation and intrepid sharing.”
India is your home but you have been raised in Toronto. Now that you have been spending so much time here, have you noticed any special quirks or idiosyncrasies in the women here?
“This tour has been quite enlightening because it has put me in touch with so many incredible people from all over the world, who come from different walks of life. It’s a gift because I have been privy to some stirring conversations that have allowed me to sit back, reflect and incorporate sections of it into my work.
My travels have taken me far and wide but I have to say Indians love more fiercely than anybody else in the world. I have never felt such intense affection from readers and India is a completely different playing field. The women here acquire wisdom at such a young age — I’ve met 12-year-olds who are ready to take on the world, in fact, some of them are already doing it. It’s really moving and hopeful to share my ancestry with such visionaries.”
Inspiration can strike anywhere and at any time. How do you ensure that a thought never escapes you when you’re on the move?
“I have to whip out my phone and type out every thought so that I’m not left scrambling for inspiration when I sit down to write. My notes application is brimming with random thoughts. I know it must look quite strange when I am at a networking event and suddenly break into ‘Wow, let me write that down’ in the middle of a conversation.
I often wonder whom I would read my stories out to if I could pick any person in the world. I think it would be family members that are no longer here since they never got to see, read or experience my work. If I were to extend this hypothesis to a conversation, I would love to sit down with people that inspire me from the past. Imagine sitting down with Kahlil Gibran and asking him, “What were you thinking when you wrote The Prophet?”
What are you planning on presenting to the world next?
“The themes that I believed were under my purview have definitely expanded. I thought I would never write and when I did, I never thought it would be about immigration and so many other topics. I think real magic happens when happens when you arrive at your desk and open yourself up to it. And that’s precisely what I always tell aspiring poets. Write fearlessly, practise every day and work hard at putting your best work out there.
I’ve diversified into long format poems in The Sun and Her Flowers. I like the current format of my poetry so you’ll definitely be seeing a lot more of that but I’d also like to explore longer prose in terms of fiction and short stories. I would love to write music. If you see me experimenting with a smorgasbord of ventures, you’ll know that I’m doing what I really want to do. Poetry is my first love and I’m going to be doing it forever but I also feel like I’m ready to try other things.”