Sometimes Rupi Kaur seems like more of a rock star than a poet.
She recently finished the European leg of a world tour (yes, world tour). She has her own Amazon Prime Video special. And her Instagram account boasts 4.5 million followers.
Kaur’s rise has been meteoric. In 2014, at age 21, she wrote, illustrated and self-published her first book of poetry, Milk and Honey. It was followed it with two other collections, The Sun and Her Flowers (2017) and Home Body (2020) published by Simon and Schuster. Collectively, these books have sold more than 11 million copies.
Kaur, 30, writes clearly about love, hurt, trauma, sex and femininity. She is bold and vulnerable in ways that many people are afraid to be, which is perhaps why so many readers, especially women, gravitate to her poetry.
Though she is better known for her short, Instagram-ready poetry – compact verses that she pairs with her own sketched illustrations – Kaur’s longer performance poetry is highlighted on her current world tour. In addition to Europe, Kaur, who recently was a co-host of the Scotiabank Giller Prize gala, has performances scheduled in New Zealand, Australia, the U.S. and Singapore. The Canadian leg of her tour began on Nov. 20 in Saskatoon.
The Globe and Mail spoke with Kaur over a video call while she was in Madrid about stage fright, mental health and what she thinks about hecklers.
I’ve heard you talk about how much you love performing your work. What is it about being onstage that you love so much?
I actually fell in love with poetry because of the stage. That’s where I really started to explore the craft. And 13 years ago is when I started performing, and I was writing poetry exclusively to perform it. I love the stage so much. It was electrifying. It made me feel confident and powerful, and I didn’t feel those ways in my regular day-to-day life. And so I sought out as many opportunities as I could to get onstage. And I think for me, that is a full experience. That is the final act. You know, writing it is one thing and releasing my writing through a book is one thing, but the final act is the performance. And it’s been such a pleasure to now go all over the world and share this new show with people.
When you were first starting to get up on stage to perform your own work, were you ever nervous?
Of course! I maybe only stopped being nervous this year. I used to be so nervous. I switched to wearing just long dresses, because my knees would tremble so much that you could see them shaking when I was wearing pants or when I was wearing anything short. And the worst was when people would be like, “Great job, also, were you nervous up there? Because your knees were trembling.” And I was like, all right, folks, long dresses only.
Your new book is essentially a series of writing exercises that you’ve curated to help people work through their own experiences. Why did you want to put this book together?
It was a book that I didn’t know I was putting together until it was kind of already done. I was actually creating the writing exercises for me because I feel creatively blocked a lot. And so I use these exercises to help me find inspiration. And throughout the pandemic I was using them to write my third book. But then I started doing these writing workshops, on Instagram Live, and they were going so well. I mean some of these sessions, I’d be on Instagram Live for maybe an hour and a half and 10,000 people would be with me, steady, throughout the hour and a half. It was the first time I realized that, oh my God, so many of my readers are also writers, whether it be something that they just do for self-care or something that they want to pursue as a hobby or professionally. And so I decided to put this book out because I know that so many people across the world feel so seen through my words. But now I think it’s time for them to feel seen through their own words.
What can someone get out of writing down their thoughts, feelings and experiences in this way?
Writing is so cathartic. You know, I think that especially coming from a working-class immigrant family, where things like therapy and other mental-health resources were so out of the question, writing and art and that form of expression was really my therapy. And of course it doesn’t replace regular therapy, but it becomes one of many tools that you can use. And I think that it’s something that can help you process your experiences. It’s a form of self-care, a form of self-love and can really help you work through the difficult challenges of life.
Have you found that people are more open to talking and thinking about mental health and their feelings since the pandemic?
For sure. I mean, In Home Body, my third book, which came out in 2020, there’s an entire chapter on mental health, but I think that if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I don’t know if that chapter would have been in there. I was writing all that poetry before the pandemic, but I was writing it just for me. And I wasn’t ready to admit to the world that, yeah, folks, I, too, am depressed. It just felt like people would laugh, or wouldn’t believe me or they would belittle my pain. And, you know, depression is something that I dealt with very seriously before the pandemic. But I think it was seeing so many people talk about it openly that really inspired me and pushed me to feel like it was okay for me to speak about it. I do have all of these blessings and so many opportunities and I’m so grateful for them every day. But I think what the last few years has taught me is that depression doesn’t care. It can still come into your life and try to take it over.
You also write a lot about women. And we’re at a point in history, I think, where we’re collectively reflecting a bit more on how we treat women. What role do you see your poetry playing at this moment in time?
It makes me just so emotional because I’ve been on this world tour and every other night I’m in a new city, and I get to look into the eyes of so many women, and I see myself in their eyes. All of us can leave the next generation a little better than the last. We have a long way to go. You know, every time I think things are getting better, and they are, I see how much work there is to actually be done. Like last night I had a show in Venice, and it’s so interesting because when men are uncomfortable, they still feel like it’s okay to sit in the crowd and heckle. And I don’t say anything offensive. I know that. But it’s interesting what happens when men feel like they are not at the centre of our narratives, or if a show was not built for them. And if it was three years ago, maybe I would have sat back and been like, oh my God, I need to change what I’m saying and I need to change the poems I’m performing so that everyone in the audience feels comfortable. And as I was up there last night, and some dude screams something up at me, I was like, you know, you [should] be uncomfortable. Be uncomfortable, because [women] have been uncomfortable for our whole lives, you know? It’s not enough for men to support us and cheer us on. We need them to be a part of the conversation and a part of the action if we’re all going to move forward together. And sometimes that involves being uncomfortable.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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