has gone from instaPoet to hellafamous
Last month, the Toronto poet Rupi Kaur was at New York Fashion Week, at a Prabal Gurung show, seated next to none other than Gloria Steinem. “It was absolutely incredible,” she said.
“She was telling me it was her first ever fashion show. I was like, ‘Well, me too.’” Kaur adds with a laugh: “Then I was like, ‘We’re doing a pretty OK job. We’re here, we’re front row and we look great!’”
The trendy Nepalese-American designer had closed a show last fall with a black suit emblazoned with one of Kaur’s lines — “our backs tell stories no books have the spine to carry” — and the pair had kept in touch as Kaur’s fame exploded. These days, it’s not out of the ordinary for Kaur to be an honoured guest at a glitzy pop culture event or to find herself hobnobbing with feminist icons. All of this is emblematic of a new generation of online poets, of which the 25-year-old is at the forefront.
Indeed, the “InstaPoet” phenomenon arguably originated with Kaur, whose 2014 debut Milk and Honey spent a stagger- ing 70 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, was translated into 30 languages and sold in excess of two million copies, her publisher confirmed. According to BookNet Canada, poetry sales in Canada jumped 79 per cent in 2016 and this can “almost entirely be attributed” to Kaur. Her second collection, The Sun and Her Flowers, was released this week to much fanfare.
Kaur’s streamlined feminist offerings tackle subjects such as loss, trauma, violence and sexual abuse. The line drawings that accompany her poems are raw, evocative and utterly striking.
Add to that, her trajectory is nothing short of remarkable. Kaur was born in India to a Punjabi-Sikh family and moved to Canada at the age of four. Drawn to poetry as a child, a community open mic night eventually introduced her to performing, which she did for several years before realizing the medium was called spoken word.
Several years ago, Kaur — then a design student — condensed her poems, paired them with drawings, took them online and swiftly became an Instagram sensation. (At press time, she had 1.6 million followers.) Kaur initially self-published Milk and Honey; it did so well it was picked up by Andrews McMeel Publishing and Simon & Schuster Canada.
Still, in spite of overwhelming fame and fortune, the Brampton, Ont., native says she battles selfdoubt. “There’s so much love,” she reflects. “Why am I sometimes only focusing on that one per cent that’s not that much love?”
In fact, this tension — between social media celebrity and a sometimes chilly reception from the literary establishment — is at the heart of the Instagram poetry trend.
“There’s these two different worlds and they don’t really understand one another,” Kaur says. “Now people like me, and so many other artists across the world, are bridging these two things and not worrying about the gatekeepers of either form. That’s confusing for a lot of people.”
There’s no denying that Instagram has created a surge of interest in poetry and many — inside and outside literary circles — see that as a good thing. In a genre notorious for its slim readership and insanely broke authors, there’s now a publishing apparatus throwing its weight behind young talent, hoping to discover the next Kaur. And a whole new generation is getting introduced to the art form.
Dina Del Bucchia, a Vancouver poet and instructor in the University of British Columbia’s creative writing department says the internet has dramatically widened the scope of voices in poetry, once a bastion of straight white males. Kaur’s example, in particular, has inspired a whole lot of new people to explore poetry, publish chapbooks and start reading series.
“Rupi Kaur is a bestselling poet,” she says. “When was the last time anyone could say that?”
The bottom line is that it’s incredible to see poetry having a resurgence in our generation. b.C.-born poet Atticus
Rupi Kaur has spawned a new generation of online poets.