'I'm even thinking of getting a flip phone,' the Milk and Honey author says
Poet Rupi Kaur, whose debut collection Milk and Honey has sold 2.5 million copies worldwide and has sat comfortably on the New York Times best-seller list for 78 weeks, has seen the kind of commercial success that’s rare for any author these days — but even rarer for a poet. In large part, Canadian-born Kaur, 25, owes this success to her wildly popular Instagram account, which boasts 1.7 million followers who “like,” comment, and re-post her verses about everything from heartbreak to female empowerment to immigration.
Kaur’s momentum hasn’t slowed with her second book, The Sun and Her Flowers. Released in early October, the collection had a first printing of one million copies, and will debut at No. 1 on the Times’ paperback fiction best-seller list on Oct. 22. Her triumphs haven’t come without criticism, of course: Sure, some of her more simplistic poems are easy to parody. But Kaur deserves praise for figuring out how to combine social media and shrewd branding with an often inaccessible art form, introducing poetry to new, younger audiences.
The writer and artist sat down with EW in September to discuss the pros and cons of social media, the crippling writer’s block that can follow early, outrageous success, and counting Sam Smith as a fan.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Have you always thought of your poetry as performance-first? Or is it the words on the page that come first?
RUPI KAUR: Performance first. I’ve been performing since high school: I was performing classical Indian music for seven years, and then I was doing speech competitions throughout middle school. I didn’t know it was called performance poetry. I didn’t know it was called spoken word. I was just itching to share ideas and share stories, so I would write these stories that weren’t stories, but they were something. They were three or four pages long, and I would go up and perform them at local open mics.
I did that for a few years until I saw a TED Talk Sarah Kay did. She’s a brilliant spoken word artist, and after I saw her talking about spoken word, I was like, “Oh, that’s what I’m doing. Okay, now I get it.” So I performed a lot, and the first work I put out, other than my paintings and my sketches, was a video and audio of that poetry.
Then I experimented for many years because things weren’t sticking. I enjoyed putting out the audio versions of the poems, I enjoyed doing the videos, but I just felt like it wasn’t having the same impact. And that’s when I realized that spoken word poetry comes to life onstage. But then when they’re published online and a reader is scrolling and scrolling and scrolling, it’s almost like the message gets lost.
So I was figuring out, “Okay well, what’s the issue here? What can I create so the message isn’t lost?” And I was like, “What if I pick gems out of these pieces? Like, what are the parts in this that really kick my gut?” So that’s when I think I developed that direct style.
What makes a poem right to post on your Instagram, versus the ones that stay in the book only?
If I can read a piece that I’ve written, and by the last line, it kicks me in the stomach, then I know that I can share this online.
So which of your poems do you look at and say, “This one isn’t going on Instagram”?
I think that’s going to be a new challenge for me, because mostly, everything in Milk and Honey I’ve shared online at some point or another. And if I haven’t posted them, it’s because I’m very embarrassed. I’m like, “Oh my God, this is what I used to think like five years ago! This is not the 2017 version of me.”
But going to the new book, I don’t know. It’s difficult to share something like “Broken English” online. I don’t think it’s possible to share a whole piece online [when it’s so long].
So now I’ve kind of split those into like, the exact thing I was telling you earlier: Picking a couple gems out of each one, and then being like, “Okay, I’m posting this as just an excerpt.” Or if there are pieces that are, for example, the one about female feticide — that’s a poem that I think needs a lot more context. It’s something that I think the West could read wrong if not given the right context. We’re figuring out how to do that, and introduce a large part of my audience who doesn’t know what female infanticide in India and China looks like — but doing it in a strategic way that will help them bring awareness.
How did your experience writing The Sun and Her Flowers differ from Milk and Honey?
The first book was super organic and there was there was no pressure because I wasn’t attempting to write a book. It was only when I had everything done, when I had hundreds and hundreds of pieces, that I was like, “Oh, I can do this.” Because all of the readers online were like, “Where can I purchase your book?” At that point, all I really had to do was put something together, whereas when we approached this one, I was entering that whole scenario with publishers and agents with such success from the first one. I felt like if I wrote anything that did not achieve as much as the first, then it would be a failure.
For a long time, it debilitated me a lot. Nothing that I wrote was good enough. I’d start writing then be like, “Nope. This is sh–.” And that was a really negative experience to have with my writing, because the more I said that, it was almost like the writing in my heart would cower into a corner and be like, “I’m not coming out.” I really had to work through a few weeks of being kind to myself and saying, “Your job is to get to the desk, have your pen out, and write, write, write, write.” You have to get through the bad stuff before you can get to the pit of everything that you really enjoy.
You get very political in The Sun and Her Flowers.
Yeah, and I didn’t even want to get political! Originally, the concept of The Sun and Her Flowers was different. But I couldn’t help it. I was in the States from January to April, so naturally…
Oh, the mood was great here!
Literally, a lot of the pieces of chapters 3 and 5 where just because I was also crying along with everybody else with what was going on.
Are those the chapters that have a lot of poetry about refugees?
Exactly. Lot of that, and then a lot of being at women’s marches across the States, that sort of thing.
With the platform you have now, do you feel an obligation to cover political issues?
Not really. You know why? Because I feel like, first of all, I can’t cover every issue. And second, I feel like I cover a lot. When I first started to write, all of the pieces I was writing — whether they were spoken word or whether it was on Instagram or Tumblr — it was all about domestic violence or sexual violence. I was covering so many issues that I’m like, “Okay. I don’t have to cover everything. My job is to do what comes to me naturally.”
That makes sense. I can’t imagine the pressure.
Everybody will be like, “Can you write about this? This just happened! Figure it out, write a piece!” And that’s why I don’t do commissions. The moment you tell me you’re going to pay me to write about a certain topic, it already feels so not genuine and inauthentic that the writing voice in me just goes to sleep and can’t do it.
Is there one line or one poem that gets quoted back to you more than any of the others?
There’s a few. One that sticks out in this book is, “What’s stronger than the human heart / that shatters over and over and still lives.” And from Milk and Honey it would be the one with the mountains and not calling women or girls pretty because they’re so much more than that. Something like that. [Whispers] I don’t have it memorized.
I’m so fascinated by the Instagram thing, as everybody is. But what do you think about this whole Instagram poetry phenomenon as a whole? Why is it resonating with people?
That’s a big question. I think that it’s resonating with people because… I mean, why would it not? We’re talking about real human experiences, in a time where, because of social media and media in general, we’re so plugged in that we’re almost not plugged into ourselves. So this poetry on this medium which we’re always plugged into is almost like looking into a mirror. And it gives people space to suddenly do that inner reflection, which I think is a big reason for why it’s moving the way that it is. And I think that’s absolutely incredible. Poetry is amazing, and it should be mainstream, and I hope that it can only move in that direction more and more.
Yeah. Have you been a gateway for a lot of people to get into poetry?
They do say that. Somebody said to me last night, “You’re my gateway drug to poetry.” I was like, “That’s fantastic.”
Who do you recommend when someone says they want to read more poetry?
I always recommend Kahlil Gibran, Sharon Olds, who’s my absolute favorite, and Sylvia Plath.
Who’s your most surprising Instagram follower?
I was most excited about Sam Smith — who got one of the illustrations from the new book tattooed on his arm. I think that was the most exciting thing, because I was like [whispers] “I think I’m in love with you.”
That’s crazy. Have you spoken to him?
Yeah. We’ve spoken. He tweeted and was like, “This is what I’m doing, and I love you.” And I was like, “I love you too.” He’s just amazing, and I listened to “I’m Not The Only One” on repeat forever while writing some of these pieces back when the book first came out, so it was really incredible.
You’ve talked about how the intimate nature of your poems inspires readers to share their own stories with you. What is it like to receive all that?
For a long time, I was receiving all of this stuff, reading it, responding to all the emails. It was nice to have support from them and to create that dialogue, and it pushed me a lot to write and keep writing. It assured me that these are topics and themes that I can write about, because sometimes you write a piece, maybe it’s about domestic violence, and you put it out into the world and you feel really, really naked. You start to doubt yourself a little bit. But when somebody reaches out and they tell you that this piece meant so much or that it’s helped them, then you feel good about it. You’re like, “Okay, this is not a topic that I should shy away from. I should write about this a lot more because I can, and I’m allowed to.” But at one point, I think my full-time job became responding to these emails.
I feel like you need to get a degree in therapy or something.
Yeah, and that’s the thing. It got to a point where I was like, “I’m not allowed to give advice about certain things.” So that was my response: “I feel your pain, and I want you to feel good and I want you to be happy, but I cannot advise on certain things. Here are the hotlines or resources to go to.” And then what happened is, I’m empathetic to a fault, and I’ve been that way since I was young. It’s why I’ve always used art, since the age of 5, to funnel my emotions into something. When someone tells me something terrible that’s happened to them, I will begin crying in the first minute because it’s so intense that I internalize it.
So after like a year of reading [these messages] — you don’t think that you’re carrying other people’s weight, but then you are, because you’re tired all the time, and then you’re sad all the time. And you’re like, “Okay, but why am I sad? Because I feel like x, y, and z has happened, but it hasn’t.” That’s when I was like, “Okay, I need to step back, because this is going to go one of two ways. Either I can take a step back and not respond and just send thank you’s and put my time into working on a collection because I feel like that would help more people, or I’m just going to get stuck responding to people full time and be stuck in a dark place that I worked really hard to get out of.”
It’s so interesting to think of the way you work now, because someone like Sylvia Plath wasn’t interacting with her readers every minute. Do you ever want to take months away from the internet?
Of course I do. I don’t have social media on my phone, which is so nice. It’s like, a new way of living now which is so necessary. I’m even — I don’t know if I should tell you this. I’m even thinking of getting a flip phone.
I think about that all the time!
I know! I was away from my phone for the first four months of this year, and not talking to anybody, while working on The Sun and Her Flowers, which was great. Now I’ve decided that for the third book, I’ll do even more isolation. There’s so much noise, and my mind can’t rest. I’m a hyper-thinker, so you have to get away from all of that in order to really be in touch with your creative self, at least for me.
For you it must be weird because social media has served you so well and helped you cultivate this relationship with your readers, but then… you can’t just comment back to everything.
Yeah. I’ll go on my manager’s phone when I’m posting something, and she’ll show me a photo. Recently there was a class — I don’t know what part of the world they were from, but all these little kiddos were holding up the Spanish version of Milk and Honey. I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s amazing,” so I commented on that. But I’m very careful about how deep I dive into it, because I think when you dive too deep, you let people’s ideas change what you want to create and what you want to write.
Tell me more about that.
For example, I get the most love online for love poems and heartache. So there was a time really, really early on in 2014 when all of my friends were like, “Okay, well don’t you think that that’s what you should just focus on writing about? That’s clearly what’s going to sell the most books, and that’s what people love.” They would compare likes and shares for a certain piece versus one about sexual violence. And that was really challenging. I was like, “Oh no!” because obviously I want to put food on my table. So then, should I not do that? I tried for a month — the only pieces I shared and wrote were love and heartache pieces — but it didn’t feel genuine at all. So I was very lucky to be self-aware about that, but that’s when I took a step back and was like, “No, no, no. You have to write for you. This is where you started, and that’s the route you always need to go back to.”
Did you find that the numbers did go up, though, when it was more love and heartache poems?
Yeah. So originally, I was writing about a lot of tougher issues. I honestly never thought I could write a love poem to save my life, because at that point in my life I just needed to work through other emotional stuff. Eventually I started to write about love, and then it was like [makes “up” motion with hands] … I would still post older pieces about the other stuff, but what I found was, you might not get as many likes [on a post about sexual violence], but the responses underneath go way deeper, and that’s important. What matters is how deeply something touches a person.
Do you always want to write poetry or would you consider writing something else for your third book?
For some reason, I like to think in threes. So three collections of poetry makes me feel at peace. I’ve written about 10 chapters of what might be a novel, but I feel like I need to create space for something like that. And then I’m working on short stories and screenwriting and songs all at the same time. But I don’t know which one of those comes out first.