Towards the end of her 45 minute-long performance at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Rupi Kaur forgot the words to her poem Broken English, an impassioned tribute, set to music, paying homage to the immigrant experience of her parents. “Wow, that never happens,” she said, adding with a disarming shrug of her shoulders, “but it’s Jaipur, it’s fantastic over here and there’s a million people looking at me, so what the heck.” She needn’t even have asked for the round of applause that followed, it would have come automatically. The hundreds of people crowding the largest of several venues at the festival, were completely in the thrall of the 25-year-old poet.
“That, yesterday, comes from a lot of experience,” Kaur said the next day while sitting down to talk about her poetry and popularity – it seems impossible to discuss one without the other. “I can tell you that when I first started this, for years, I would go on stage with my paper. I didn’t even memorise my stuff at that point. I would not look up, wouldn’t even talk. And then I would cover my face for years, I performed and before I was done, I would drop my papers and I would run off.”
Any mention of Kaur comes with the inevitable and frenzied listing of numbers – 2.5 million copies of her first book, Milk and Honey, sold worldwide, 2.2 million followers on Instagram, her second book, The Sun And Her Flowers debuting at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, the hundreds of people who throng her packed-to-capacity shows. The day after her performance, the poet was a oasis of calm within the flurry of people who surrounded her, scheduling interviews, planning her itinerary and putting the wheels into motion for the next leg of her months-long, first-ever India tour.
“You need balance, I do that by not having social media on my phone,” Kaur said. “It has been a great vehicle for my poetry to be brought to audiences but it has also affected me in negative ways. Just the way, it affects everybody else. As young people, we get too wrapped up it.” A lot of those young people seem to hang out in the comments section of Kaur’s Instagram posts, excitedly noting when they identify with her words and experiences or tagging friends who might. It is a form of instant relatability that has propelled Kaur to the level of stardom she currently enjoys.
Her poetry speaks openly about abuse, it extols young women not to be ashamed of their bodies, that they don’t owe sex to anybody, it signals the importance of mental health, tells people that they are worthy of life and joy, even if they are heartbroken at the moment. In that, her poems, in their bite-sized simplicity and occasionally confessional tone, hone in on that most basic human desire – to be seen, to be told you are not invisible and that you are not alone.
Jibes with the cheers
Why then, does Kaur garner vitriol and sneering jibes in as much measure as she does adulation? Charges of dumbing down poetry, generating consumer-driven content, usurping space meant for “real poets” and over simplifying a South Asian female identity are lobbed at the Punjabi-Candian poet with almost-predictable regularity. Some of the criticism is valid – Kaur’s poems can often lack complexity, conveying the very first germination of a thought instead of evolving it further. Some poems seem little more than a text message you might send a friend when you’re having a bad day.
How much does it really matter, though, especially when the condemnation comes from within the world of poetry and publishing? Is Kaur really destroying the sanctity of poetry, trampling over foot soldiers as they desperately scramble to guard the last bastion of literary ambition and merit? Hardly. Several publishers have noticed a slight increase in the demand for poetry and are hoping the success of Kaur and her social media-savvy contemporaries will only spur further interest in other offerings from the genre – a milk and honey-infused gateway drug. Others dismiss her for being so far removed from the world of traditional poetry that her contribution (or lack of it) to the space is an irrelevant conversation to have.
Kaur, for her part, seems to be unperturbed by the backlash. “I don’t engage when somebody says I am taking up too much space. I see the space as infinite. I think we have a scarcity complex at play where the industry, especially poetry, makes you feel it’s so small that not everybody can have success in it. But I will say...if there are many, many white male poets who can be successful, why can only one brown girl be successful? My job is to continue to do the work that I do and to also bring more people into that space,” she said.
The argument about precious space being monopolised does seem farcical in the context of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Snide remarks about Kaur’s presence as one of the headliners lose a lot of their heft at an event where the biggest crowds turned up to see actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui and comedian Mallika Dua.
While talking about the authors she’s reading – the poet has also been derided for not reading books – Kaur mentioned her love for Elena Ferrante and Junot Díaz and her respect for the work of Nizar Qabbani. She has invoked the Syrian poet in past interviews, holding up his bite-sized format as an example of how far back the style goes, a counter to charges of plagiarism. But it is her adoration for Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet that is the most telling.
“It’s one of those books where I feel like the world gave birth to him so he could give birth to that book. It’s so timeless and beautiful,” she said. The enduring success of The Prophet, published in 1923, continues to puzzle many literary critics who have regularly dismissed the poet-philosopher as “simplistic, naive and lacking in substance.”
Poet, pop star or both?
Apart from the question of complexity, a fundamental point of difference between critics’ derision of Kaur and the affection of her followers seems to lie in the pop star nature of her performances, replete with hordes of cheering crowds who seem to know all her poems like you would a favourite tune and a perfectly-turned out Kaur, decked in couture. During her performance in Jaipur, she was resplendent in pink, sporting immaculate soft curls as she effortlessly won over the audience with her likability, reflecting the vulnerability of her poems in her personality on stage. “My feminism is not about being perfect,” she said.
She expressed nervousness about being in front of such a large crowd, humility about her first performance in India and was visibly moved when a poem was met with particularly exuberant applause or when listeners recognised a particular verse. “I’m very proud of myself for overcoming so many of my fears and the crowd and audience being one of them,” she said the next day.
By the end of her session, the middle-aged man sitting next to me, who, at the start of her session, had turned to ask “Excuse me, who is she?” was enthusiastically snapping his fingers in appreciation with the rest of the audience, angrily gesticulating at anyone who was blocking his view by standing in the aisles. Sitting directly behind him, a teenager clutched a dog-eared copy of Milk and Honey, gasping when her favourite poem was performed onstage. “She’s so nice, this is unbelievable,” said 15-year-old Ankita after the performance. “I can’t believe she read out my favourite poem, it’s actually not one of her most popular ones. I write poetry on my Facebook page also but my profile is private.” Her impatient best friend tugged at her sleeve as she spoke, eager to get their copies signed before rushing home. They live in Jaipur but had no intention of attending any other session at the five day-long literature festival.
“You know, I’m able to talk to the crowd and audience now because I feel like we know each other, we’re connected though the poetry,” she said, reflecting on what’s changed in her attitude to performing. As is the case with most things born from social media, the line between sincerity and script in the Rupi Kaur phenomenon can sometimes be hard to divine. Some of us might never pick up a single book that she writes or look for the echo of our own life crises in the grid of her Instagram profile but for now, Kaur, and Ankita, probably couldn’t care less what we think.