The Rupi Kaur mystery
What makes millions go crazy over her bite-sized poetry?
It’s the second day of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018, I trundle up to the press terrace of the Diggi Palace hotel in the morning to meet Rupi Kaur, the 25-year-old Indian-born Canadian superstar, whose laconic verses have put millions of hearts in peril. Several hundreds of her adoring fans had been in attendance the evening before when Rupi Kaur performed on the front lawns of the venue, their shrieks and hoots more suited to a rock concert than poetry reading. Later, at a private party, a well-known poet had cornered me. “People were actually shouting out requests of their favourite poems!" she said with a touch of exasperation. “What is it that makes them go crazy?"
What indeed, I wonder, as I wait for my turn in the snaking queue of journalists, armed with cameras, notebooks and smartphones, the next day. The sun is high, mid-morning ennui has planted the thought of lunch in many. As the interviewers fidget, exchanging banter about Rupi Kaur’s poetry, a man in a suit and turban, sitting close by, casts wary glances in their direction. He is, we would learn later, Rupi Kaur’s father, accompanying her on her multi-city tour in India. Apparently, it was one of his poems, written to his wife many moons ago, that inspired the title of his daughter’s best-selling debut, Milk And Honey.
After over an hour’s delay, I finally make my way into the hallowed chamber where Rupi Kaur has been ensconced all morning, speaking to the media in bite-sized slots. She looks fresh—ebullient, focused, convivial. As I pull out my recorder, she begins to stroll around the room. I follow her with my questions. I have precisely 10 minutes to crack the mystery of Rupi Kaur.
The day before, I had watched online her TED talk about surviving sexual abuse. In a bravura performance of nearly 20 minutes, her voice changes inflection several times. From melodrama to incantation to the fuzzy, new-age-y commentary one hears on meditation apps, she delivers every sentence with the right punch.
Just how does she do this—grab our attention, whether we like her poems or not?
“I’m a very empathetic person to a fault, my Dad will tell you," Rupi Kaur tells me. “I see somebody remotely having a bad day and suddenly I’m on the floor crying." At that moment, she looks invulnerable. Not a hair out of place, a beatific smile plastered on her face, she has the demeanour of someone who has sold over 2.5 million copies of her first book—one that she self-published before a big publisher picked it up—and which then stayed on the The New York Times best-seller list for over 50 consecutive weeks. Her second volume of poems, The Sun And Her Flowers, published last year, has only cemented the incredible cult around her.
It’s not easy to be Rupi Kaur though. “Readers who have met me for, like, 30 seconds share the most intense story about their lives," she says. “‘My mom died last week and your poems helped me so much!’ I’m like, dude, that’s a conversation that needs two cups of hot tea and maybe a couple of hours!" With over 2.2 million followers on Instagram, she can’t afford to dwell on her notifications (“I don’t have social media on my phone, for the sake of my health"). A team manages her accounts, filtering thousands of mentions on every platform each day.
Rupi Kaur’s style isn’t unique. Fellow poets like Nayyirah Waheed, who accused her of plagiarism, Lang Leav, Warsan Shire, Atticus and Nikita Gill give her close competition in terms of popularity. (The plagiarism controversy fizzled away, the similarities between their styles were incidental, even inescapable, given their formulaic approach to poetry. ) Then there are the “haters", who deplore her writing as an affront to “real" poetry. Still, it’s not hard to see what makes her tick among her largely millennial audience.
Set aside your lofty tastes and read these lines: “i do not need the kind of love/ that is draining/ i want someone/ who energises me." Then ask any random sample of users of dating apps what they are looking for. You’ll most likely hear a version of this poem in their answers. Whether they sing it out in Shakespearean cadence or intone it in Rupi Kaur’s glib obviousness, the sentiment is the same. We are all broken. We need love. And some of us would rather hear this from Rupi Kaur than Robert Frost. To each their own.
Or sample this: “i won’t let go cause/ being alone hurts more/ than chasing someone who’s left/ but if you’ve left/ aren’t i already alone/ and surviving it." Between the visceral directness of this poem and, say, Wendy Cope’s profound witticisms, which one do you imagine will most likely speak to a restless teenager, whose heart is wobbly like Jell-O from a break-up and their body a tsunami of hormones?
Has Rupi Kaur, then, liberated poetry from the fetters of snobbery? Yes, if the evidence of her sales is anything to go by. Does her success pose a threat to poetry as we conventionally know it—an elevated, complex and sophisticated mode of expression? Not really. Big trade publishing has long ignored the latter, the appearance of a Rupi Kaur is hardly going to deter them from promoting new and emerging “serious" poets.
Rupi Kaur is pragmatic, even self-protective, regarding the barrage of criticism heaped on her. “You can’t control what people say about you," she says. “Even if I fixed the things they complain about, they will find something else to blame me for." The problems of being Rupi Kaur are indeed many. She has been slammed for manipulating readers with her outré racial and gender politics—an “infamous" portrait of her menstruating in bed caused a mini-scandal. But her ardent admirers don’t care what future PhD scholars are going to make of her. To the Rupi-groupie, she will be their new-age Rumi—at least for the foreseeable future—a steady supplier of 2-minute instant comfort when they are in the dumps.