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Poet Rupi Kaur: 'Art Should Be Accessible To The Masses'

Oct 9, 2017
Originally published on October 9, 2017 6:19 am

Rupi Kaur has been called the "pop star of poetry." She's 24; she emigrated from India to Canada when she was 4. And she's famous for the raw, minimalist poems she posts on Instagram for her 1.6 million followers.

But social media and poetry don't always seem to go together — Kaur's been criticized for skimping on depth in favor of reaching the widest possible Internet audience. "I think the issue is because we have a form of art that is highly, highly traditional — meaning poetry — and then you have this other thing which is new and quite non-traditional, which is of course social media," Kaur says. "And so the gate-keepers of these two things are kind of confused at this moment."

That confusion didn't stop Kaur's first book, milk and honey, from hitting the best-seller lists. Now she's out with her second collection, called the sun and her flowers.


Interview Highlights

On deciding to share her poetry

I've always been writing poetry to get it out on paper, but there was an open mic night, and I had this wild and ridiculous idea of writing a terrible poem. And I showed up there, and I got up on stage and I performed it, and there was just something amazing that happened while I was on stage, and it was the way the mic picked up my voice, and how I had all of these eyes looking up at me, and I'd never felt that sort of exhilaration and those many people attentive towards an idea that I have.

On why she decided to write a bad poem

At the moment, I thought it was fabulous ... I thought it was amazing, everybody was super kind and super supportive, but years later, when I realized it was really bad was when one of the guys ... he came up to me and he was like, "I'm not gonna lie, the first time I saw you perform, the poem was awful. But now you're really really great!"

On the criticisms of her style

I don't respond, because I think there's no problem with my poetry being too accessible. Art should be accessible to the masses, and when we start to tailor it in a way that keeps people out, then there's an issue with that. Like, who are we really creating art for? And so I think about who I was creating art for from the beginning — it was for myself, and for people that didn't have access to certain types of English language. I couldn't speak English until I was way into elementary school, and so my choice of diction, all the accessible choices that I make, it's to make sure that it's tailored to the person that I was when I was growing up.

This story was edited for radio by Jacob Conrad and Alyssa Edes, and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Rupi Kaur has been called the pop star of poetry. She's 24 years old. And she's famous for these raw, minimalist poems she posts on Instagram to more than a million and a half followers. Social media and poetry, though, don't always seem to go together. And she's aware of critics who complain that her work sacrifices depth in favor of reaching a wide internet audience.

RUPI KAUR: I think the issue is because we have a form of art that is highly, highly traditional - meaning poetry. And then you have this other thing, which is new and quite nontraditional, which is, of course, social media. And so the gatekeepers of these two things are kind of confused at this moment.

GREENE: Rupi Kaur's debut book of poetry, "Milk And Honey," has stayed on The New York Times best-seller list almost a year and a half, selling well over a million copies. And now she's out with her second collection called "The Sun And Her Flowers." Kaur and her family emigrated from Punjab in northern India to suburban Toronto when she was 4 years old. And she's been writing poetry since childhood. She spoke to our co-host Rachel Martin.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Lots of people start writing poems, and they do it just because it's something they feel they need to get out on paper. They do it for themselves. When did that change for you? When did you decide that the stuff you were putting down were works that you wanted to share with people?

KAUR: Yeah. So that's exactly how it started out for me. I've always been writing poetry to get it out on paper. But there was an open mic night happening. And I had this wild and ridiculous idea of writing a terrible poem. And I showed up there, and I got up on stage, and I performed it. And there was just something amazing that happened while I was onstage. And it was the way the mic picked up my voice and how I had all of these eyes looking up at me. And I'd never felt that sort of exhilaration and those many people attentive towards an idea that I had. And so instantly from that moment, I was like, I love doing this. And I began to perform all the time.

MARTIN: Why'd you write a bad poem?

KAUR: At the moment, I thought it was fabulous.

MARTIN: Oh, got it, got it, got it.

KAUR: Yeah.

MARTIN: You didn't intentionally set out to write a bad poem.

KAUR: Oh, no. I thought it was amazing.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

KAUR: Like, everybody was super kind and super supportive. But years later, when I realized it was really bad was one of the guys who's a really good friend of mine now - his name is Grethen (ph). He came up to me, and he's like, I'm not going to lie, the first time I saw you perform, the poem was awful. But now you're really, really great.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Part of what draws people to your work, too, is just the emotion of it, the emotional rawness of it. So if you could get us into your work - could you read a poem from this new collection? I'm thinking of the one on page 92. And like many of your poems, this is untitled.

KAUR: Yes.

(Reading) When you find her, tell her not a day goes by when I do not think of her - that girl who thinks you are everything she asked for. When you bounce her off the walls and she cries, tell her I cry with her, too. The sound of drywall crunching into itself as it's beat in with her head also lives in my ears. Tell her to run to me. I've already unscrewed my front door off its frame, opened all the windows. Inside, there's a warm bath running. She does not need your kind of love. I am proof she will get out and find her way back to herself. If I could survive you, so will she.

MARTIN: We should say a lot of these poems are you coming to terms with getting out of an abusive relationship. We hear that echoed in that work. The defining characteristic of your style really is the power in its simplicity, the sparseness of the prose. But it's also something you've gotten some heat for, some criticism - that it's too accessible, that it's not complicated enough. How do you respond to that?

KAUR: I don't respond because I think there is no problem with my poetry being too accessible. Art should be accessible to the masses. And when we start to tailor it in a way that keeps people out, then there's an issue with that. Like, who are we really creating art for? And so I think about who I was creating art for from the beginning. It was for myself and for people that, you know, didn't have access to certain types of, like, English language, you know? I couldn't speak English until I was, like, way into elementary school. And so my choice of diction - all the accessible choices that I make - it's to make sure that it's tailored to the person that I was when I was growing up.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about your parents. There's a section of your book called Rooting. And it largely addresses your folks, who immigrated with you from India. You were just 4 years old at the time. Now, before we talk, could you read us the poem that's on page 138?

KAUR: Yeah.

(Reading) My parents never sat us down in the evenings to share stories of their younger days. One was always working, the other too tired. Perhaps being an immigrant does that to you. The cold terrain of the North engulfed them. Their bodies were hard at work, paying in blood and sweat for their citizenship. Perhaps the weight of the New World was too much, and the pain and sorrow of the old was better left buried. I do wish I'd unburied it, though. I wish I'd pried their silence apart like a closed envelope. I wish I'd found a small opening at its very edge, pushed a finger inside and gently tore it open. They had an entire life before me which I'm a stranger to. And it would be my greatest regret to see them leave this place before I even got to know them.

MARTIN: What do your parents make of your work?

KAUR: They're really proud.

MARTIN: Yeah.

KAUR: I definitely think it's something that they could never have (laughter) imagined. My mom's still begging me to do my master's degree in God knows what.

(LAUGHTER)

KAUR: So they haven't seen the new book, though. And we're not the type of family who talks about our emotions and how we feel about each other.

MARTIN: Wow.

KAUR: So it's super awkward to just be like, OK...

MARTIN: Yeah, 'cause there's a lot in this book.

KAUR: (Laughter) Yeah. So I'm just going to do what I usually do, which is just hand it to them and then walk away and never talk about it ever again (laughter).

MARTIN: That sounds super healthy.

KAUR: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Rupi Kaur - her new book of poetry is called "The Sun And Her Flowers." Rupi, thanks so much for talking with us.

KAUR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHANGHAI RESTORATION PROJECT'S "UPROAR IN HEAVEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.