Fresh from her success at the Jaipur Literary Festival, 25-year-old Indian-Canadian poet Rupi Kaur met with VICE India editors Sonal Shah and Vivek Gopal earlier this year. Only glancingly familiar with her oeuvre, we flipped through her two books, Milk and Honey and The Sun and Her Flowers during our lunch break, and gleaned some insight from the Rupi-groupie journalists waiting in line for an audience. The following exchange took place:
Sonal Shah: How was Jaipur? Was it overwhelming?
Rupi Kaur: I thought it was going be, but not at all. For the first time in my life, the MC said my name and I started marching up to the stage—my manager had to tell me to calm down because the MC wasn't done talking. I was quite surprised with this new-found confidence. I was feeling a little faint and out of it, but once I got there I have never been so confident and delivered so effortlessly.
"People would be like 'Oh, did she have a seizure on stage?'"
Vivek Gopal: I caught the show and was surprised, because your poems are very vulnerable and slow-paced. And suddenly we see you do this theatrical thing. It works, but no one was expecting that.
Shah: Yeah, were you ever into theatre?
No, I performed kirtan for about seven years, and the moment I quit that, I went into spoken word poetry. I love being on stage, singing and playing the harmonium. I quit kirtan when I went to university. But spoken word was really natural. I showed up one day and really liked it, so I kept going back. Before, I would just look at the paper and stand there like this [holds a paper over her face], not even looking up. I would rush off the stage before the audience would even clap. My hands were shaking the entire time. And after about 10 years—you see what happened at Jaipur.
I used to get made fun of because I move a lot when I’m performing. People would be like “Oh, did she have a seizure on stage?” If you tied my hands behind my back, I would forget my lines, because for me it comes through the ground, through your feet. It dances. The poetry dances. How I publish it, even the way I break it up and use certain words, I count every single syllable and that’s how it translates onto stage.
Shah: Have you ever thought about songwriting?
I would love to. I will definitely pursue that. It’s more a matter of when.
Shah: What about the addition of music?
There’s already music that we have developed in-house for two to five pieces. I couldn't do my full show at Jaipur. My full show is like a set. There’s a stage set up. At the Delhi show, every spoken word piece will be accompanied with music.
Shah: You've said you’re inspired by the Gurmukhi script, and kirtan. Do you have a favourite Punjabi poem?
I love a lot of Bulleh Shah. Actually, last time I was in India, I found out that my dad used to write poetry. I found love poems he wrote when he was living in Japan and he was newly married to my mom. It was so disgusting, because he claims to not have written them. He just bald face lies, to your face. There’s this one specific love poem where he uses the words “milk and honey” to describe her. He wrote in English. Really bad English. But it was pretty cool, because he knew the name of my book when I was one.
Gopal: I found my parents’ love letters. And I still haven't opened them, because not everyone has a great poetic, literary story. What if my dad wrote something horrible like “I can’t wait to put a baby in you.”
Can we talk once you've opened the letters? I refuse to talk until you do.
Gopal: Yeah, I’ll need a bottle per letter. I’ll sip while I'm reading. I’m terrified of reading them, because my parents don't seem loving people.
I know! But then they do weird romantic things, and then I'm like, “Thank god! I didn't know that you could show affection—like, at all.” Also, because I'm a writer and a poet, so I think it’s damn cool. My mum is a painter. So it’s nice to see her art and his art, even though they don't practice it anymore.
"Now, I have to write a book and help so many people."
Shah: You wrote on Instagram that you wanted to make your second book very different from the first one. But you got associated with a certain style very quickly, which can be a challenge for a lot of writers—feeling locked in to a style. How did you approach that?
I definitely felt that. I have a love affair with books. I had no friends growing up, and books were my only friends. I was like “Oh my god, if I could write a book, wouldn't that be everything?” Like, all my childhood dreams coming true. I never expected milk and honey to go anywhere, and suddenly we sold over a million copies. It’s been on the New York Times Best Sellers list for now almost two years. Then I thought, “Oh shit I'm in trouble— they want me to write another one?” But I can’t write a book that sells less than half a million. I can’t write a book that won’t make the list. It’s like your hands are tied behind your back. The first time i did it, it wasn't intentional. I wasn't paying attention to what inspired me.
Gopal: So it wasn't a conscious process. Were you trying to avoid a conscious process?
It wasn't a conscious process, but now it is. I had my own life, trying to finish university. That was my biggest problem. Now, I have to write a book and help so many people. Supporting your family, your team of publishers, agents. So many people. There was also such time gap [between the books]. Although historically three years between two publications is nothing—but in today’s day, it’s wild.
Gopal: Even for poetry? That’s wild.
I didn't want to create milk and honey number two, although everybody else wanted that. It was a conscious decision to only focus on the art and do what came naturally. When it was finished, I was so scared. It was so much longer, there were pieces I was afraid people won’t get. One thing is, you have to stay true to yourself. Otherwise you can’t sleep at night, no matter how many copies you have sold. Nothing fills that space in your heart.
Shah: What would you have liked to have written in the next 10 years? What do you aspire to as a writer?
I feel like I’m just getting started. These two books proved to me that I can do it, and now I'm going to. I’m preparing to write many beautiful things, those things that make me happy. With the first book, I kept thinking, “Is this all a mistake? Am I just a one hit wonder?” Then the second book happened, and I realise that I can do this a third, fourth or fifth time. Now I can really just invest myself in my art, and I want to give it time, so I can create the best thing going forward. When I'm 89 years old lying in my bed somewhere, I want to feel good about what I've done.
"Every other poem was about World War I, people in the trenches."
Gopal: Wow, we were thinking ten years, and you went straight to the end. It’s like the end of Titanic .
Well, if you haven't figured out by now but I'm an overthinker.
Shah: Getting back to your love of books. People tend to pitch you against the classical tradition of poets. So, what do you think about dead white male poets? Did you ever read them as a kid?
I didn't understand what they were saying! The only poem I ever understood was Robert Frost—The path less travelled by…
Gopal: Isn’t that the one that’s always taught incorrectly?
Shah: Right, it’s on all these motivational posters, but it’s actually a flip, or depressing poem, depending how you look at it.
We did this poem in 10th Grade, the whole deciphering of it, and I got it! Every other poem was about World War I, people in the trenches. I was getting tired of World War I poetry. I had to do an entire course on it, and I had to pay for it?! You read Sharon Olds and you read Kahlil Gibran and they save your life—and that’s the kind of poems I want to write. I want to write poems that transform open hearts.
Shah: Your style is very accessible. A lot of people pay tribute to it, or are inspired by you—it’s easier for people to aspire to that; to say “I want to write like Rupi Kaur,” as opposed to, say, Robert Frost. With accessible platforms, like self-publishing and Instagram, and more poets coming up on them, how do you see yourself retaining a unique voice? Or is that not really a concern?
I’ve never seen that as a concern. I don't know why. The writer that was writing milk and honey did not write this book. The third book is not going to be this girl. That’s what growth is about. Also, I didn’t just start doing this, and it wasn't a runaway success. This was 10, 15 years of work that went into it before the internet came about. I was actually drawing and writing by hand in Grade 9. What’s great about this platform is that, especially in the West, it has opened up doors for people who would not have been published otherwise.
Gopal: I’ve read your stuff on Tumblr, or Instagram…
Do you find that reading my poems online is different than reading them the way I have designed them in the books?
Gopal: Tumblr is like loose sheets. So you're randomly reading stuff, as opposed to a narrative.
I have a background in design. Before Instagram, I was doing YouTube. I went through 10 Tumblr blogs, and they were awful. I stepped into Instagram cause it allowed me to be free and showcase what’s in my head.
Gopal: Your Instagram is extremely well curated.
It was a conscious decision to keep sharing all my work online. I really believe in staying true to your story and roots. We couldn't afford toys growing up. My parents would take us to the thrift store, and we would buy books for a dollar each. Those books ended up giving me so much. When you’re in a place of power, do you wanna share your work for free? It was a conscious decision to print paperback before hardcover, so that a 14-year-old girl—that was me—could buy it. Poetry and literature, in the West, weren’t made for 14-year-old women of colour. They were made for rich white men. That’s why hardcover was released first, so that the white men could enjoy it, and once they were done, they would release a cheaper paperback version for everybody else.
Gopal: Did releasing your poems online early on prep you to deal with criticism? How do you deal with criticism? People are coming for your neck.
I have been hearing them blabbing around for the last five, six years. Once you realise its not about you, it’s fine. It comes with success. When milk and honey was sandwiched between Stephen King and John Green, that was an issue for so many people. The fact that it’s a brown person. Or a young woman. And you have people in the industry who have been writing for decades. I don’t focus any time on figuring out “why”.
"Me using a couple of words that the other person also uses, doesn’t equal plagiarism."
Shah: There’s this idea that your poetry is a more democratic format, but that sometimes has its own baggage—the whole plagiarism thing, for example. A woman of colour, Nayyirah Waheed, accused you of plagiarism. How did you deal with all of that?
It’s hard. Especially because you know you both come from communities that deal with a lot. And the reason that both of you are writing is because you're trying to overcome that pain. It’s really sad that someone got so hurt. All those things are so real, and that’s what makes it so complicated.
I also feel that plagiarism is such a heavy, loaded word—it can also silence people. People who would not be writing otherwise. Me using a couple of words that the other person also uses, doesn’t equal plagiarism. If another brown girl with the same last name wants to write about feminism and what it is to be an immigrant, it’s like me saying “you're copying me.” We’re living in a world where me and so many other artists are writing about similar topics is just a reflection of our times.
Shah: It must be weird, because you've got all the recognition for it, but there could be a hundred other people doing it. Is it hard to keep it real?
Do I feel guilty—why did I get all this success, and the other person didn’t? For sure. I wish the world was fair.
Shah: There’s a poem, “pretty”, in which you apologise to women you’ve described as pretty rather than intelligent or brave. Your Instagram, as Vivek said, is very well curated; visually pleasing—it’s beautiful. Even from the menstrual blood image that went viral , there’s a shift towards photo shoots that are quite pretty and alluring. How do you reconcile your message with your image?
It’s difficult, but it’s also a byproduct of what you're doing at the time. When I was creating those photoshoots, I was doing it more fearlessly, cause nobody was looking. Then everybody comes out of the woodwork, and it does scare you. It’s also about time. When I’m touring six months of the year, it’s difficult to create that again. There’s a time and place for everything. I keep telling myself, calm down, stop trying to write book number three.