A few nights ago in Washington DC, I found myself at a mehfil. Unlike most mehfils, this was not an intimate gathering: there were over 900 people in the auditorium. Most of these people were women under the age of 30 – again, not your typical mehfil. And the poetry spoken on stage was not in Urdu or Hindi, but, rather, in English.
Despite these differences, what poet Rupi Kaur and her responsive audience created can truly be described as a mehfil: she recited her short and tart poems with slow relish and luxurious sweeps of her hand, occasionally using music to enhance the drama, dwelling on vivid images, and delivering closing lines with extravagant tilts at the waist. The audience called on her to perform specific poems, laughed at her jokes; and – most unusual for a literary event – interrupted mid-poem with shouts of appreciation, applause and snapping fingers, the millennials’ version of a “wah!”
The poet as superstar
Rupi Kaur is, quite simply, a literary phenomenon. The Sun and her Flowers, her second collection of poems, came out on October 3 to a blaze of attention. She has been written up time and again by big media (The New York Times, NPR, The Guardian). Her shows have been selling out, as are copies of her books. Her first collection, Milk and Honey (2015), was on the paperback bestsellers list of the New York Times for 77 weeks, and has sold more than 2.5 million copies worldwide.
To anyone who cares about the future of publishing, it is heartwarming to see so many young people thronging into an auditorium for a book-related event, carrying actual copies in hand to read along with the poet. For almost 90 minutes, Kaur stood at the microphone alternately reciting her “favourites” – she has many – and asking the audience for theirs. And the audience complied, leafing through their own copies and shouting out page numbers (Kaur’s poems are usually untitled.)
I came across her work a few years ago on my Facebook feed, and was struck by the economy of phrasing and expressive sketches doodled at the bottom of each poem. They looked like photo images of posters, making them easy to copy and forward. Hers is perhaps the most successful harnessing of Instagram and Tumblr for poetry – with over a million followers who form a devoted fan base. There were doubtless many of these fans in the room that night, calling out “I love you” as people do to music stars and nodding to lines they had read before.
Women’s studies, anyone?
As a women’s studies professor, I find the content of the poems familiar. Extolling women’s inner strength, calling for self-confidence and bodily autonomy, celebrating histories of struggle, decrying abuse – such messages can be found in our introductory college courses. One poem, for example, describes the discomfort she experienced as a teen when her growing breasts felt like a public spectacle. Another scolds a boyfriend for asking her to shave her legs. A third celebrates her mother’s struggles as an immigrant, describing her broken English as one of the few precious residues of home.
It might not be poetry that will be featured in literature curricula because of its rough edges, but such moments can be intensely moving – and even illuminating – for those who wouldn’t ordinarily think of taking a women’s studies course. And isn’t this is, after all, what most feminists would want – to have ideas about justice, empathy, and strength absorbed as burning insights and offhand observations, rather than as didactic slogans or data? So as I listened to her recite, I gently turned my inner editor off.
Speaking for (and to) a generation
Given that Kaur is of Indian origin, I was surprised to see only a few desis in the audience. Her style of recitation was so reminiscent of a mehfil and her lyrical celebration of palpable emotions so clearly like in a shayari that this performance would have readily pleased an older South Asian crowd. Yet it’s not clear that she intends this resemblance – this is not an author who travels under a South Asian banner.
Unlike countless South Asian writers in the west whose book titles traffic in names of spices, tropical fruit, yoga poses, and palaces, Kaur wears her South Asianness lightly. This 24-year-old Punjabi Canadian from Toronto mentions being brown, having Sikh parents and a brother, and speaking other languages, but her ambition is to spark moments of recognition and familiarity through common denominators. She does not try to enthrall with mystery and coy strangeness. Her signature stylistic gesture is personification, and the natural elements she mobilises in its service are so everyday as to be prosaic – flowers, bees, trees, the sun, the moon. And yet she manages to whittle their form into something so spare that they resemble Chinese art, where it is their animating spirit, rather that their actual shape, that matters.
Although her aspiration to convey universal emotions – the pain of heartbreak, the thrill of new love, the depth of mother-love – is laudable, she appears to care little about reaching an audience beyond the niche of 18-35 year-old heterosexual women making their way through the world in search of soulmates. It is to them she primarily speaks when she describes awful ex-boyfriends, obsessions with make-up, and envying other women.
She sounds her age. She acts her age. She doesn’t mind it. And she exults in laying bare her inner self before adoring strangers. Like others in their twenties who came of age in the shadow of Facebook, privacy means something very limited. She unabashedly loves her peers’ love, and they give her permission to speak for them. It is precisely because of these qualities that Rupi Kaur will be more than just the flavour of the month. Hers is the ringing voice of a generation. And I’m so glad they like poetry.