How poet Rupi Kaur became a hero to millions of young women
Judy Woodruff: And finally tonight, we take a look at a poet reaching new audiences in a new way.
At just 25, Rupi Kaur has burst onto the literary scene, surging to the top of nearly every bestseller list.
Jeffrey Brown reports how she's done it by embracing social media, and building an avid following of young readers.
Jeffrey Brown: It's become a strange new normal for 25-year-old Rupi Kaur, fans eager to share how her work has changed their lives. There's often a photo and a hug. Sometimes, the exchange becomes emotional.
Woman: It's because you remind me of my mom.
Rupi Kaur: I still don't believe it. Like, I have to pinch myself. It's real, but it still doesn't feel real.
Jeffrey Brown: And how could it? Kaur's debut collection of poems, "Milk and Honey," has sold three million copies worldwide. And her new work, "The Sun and Her Flowers," has already sold a million since its release in October.
Meanwhile, performances of her poetry, like this one in Washington, D.C., recently, routinely draw hundreds.
Rupi Kaur: There are mountains growing beneath our feet that cannot be contained. All we've endured has prepared us for this. Bring your hammers and fists. We have a glass ceiling to shatter.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
Jeffrey Brown: It's heady stuff for a young woman who grew up in the Toronto suburb of Brampton in a large South Asian community, and used social media to build an ardent fan base of mostly young women.
Rupi Kaur: They are like my sisters. They are me.
Jeffrey Brown: We spoke recently at Brampton's Rose Theatre, where Kaur graduated from high school, and these days performs her poetry.
Rupi Kaur: I was 18, 19, 20 when I was writing "Milk and Honey."
And so, we're always going to be growing together, and I think what I want to say to them is like, I'm with you. I'm here.
I think people just want to feel understood and feel seen. It's what I want growing up. And so that's why I think the poetry works so well.
Jeffrey Brown: Kaur's poems are typically short, even just a few lines, with simple, unadorned language and spare punctuation. They're often accompanied by her drawings.
In them, she writes of everyday occurrences, like starting relationships, or ending them.
Rupi Kaur: You ask if we can still be friends. I explain how a honeybee does not dream of kissing the mouth of a flower and then settle for its leaves. I don't need more friends.
Jeffrey Brown: But she also tackles raw issues of sexual violence and trauma and how to heal.
Rupi Kaur: The books are not 100 percent, like, autobiographical.
There are — the emotions of it, yes, perhaps, but they're also stories that my sisters or my cousins or my mom or my aunt experience every single day. And so I have had the ability and the privilege to go and write poems about their experiences.
Jeffrey Brown: Kaur was born in Punjab, India, and emigrated to Canada at the age of 4. Her father is a truck driver, work that takes him as far away as California, her mother a stay-at-home mom.
At home, they speak only Punjabi.
Rupi Kaur: The rule was kind of like, you know, you're going to speak English 90 percent of your day, you know, out and about, no matter where you go in the world. This house is like where you're going to speak Punjabi.
Jeffrey Brown: In fact, Kaur didn't learn to speak English until the fourth grade. And she says it was through writing and performance that she found her voice.
Rupi Kaur: I think I just fell in love with the way the mic picks up my voice, and it like boomed throughout the entire space.
And for someone that felt voiceless for so long, that was so refreshing. For me, poetry is like holding up a mirror and seeing myself, and it gives words to these very complex emotions and these feelings that I had as a child, and not being able to put words to them.
Jeffrey Brown: She continued to write, posting work online, but it wasn't until 2015 that she captured national attention, after the social media site Instagram twice removed a photo for an art project showing her with what looked like menstrual blood on her sweatpants.
Kaur responded: "I will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear, but not be OK with a small leak."
The response generated an outpouring of support online, and that same year, a major publisher picked up her first book. Since then, she's cultivated a massive online presence. Nearly two million people follow her Instagram page.
A lot of lovers of poetry would think that poetry and social media just don't go together, right?
Rupi Kaur: Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: Social media's this ephemeral, surface-type thing.
Rupi Kaur: The gatekeepers of these two worlds are so confused. But, in my mind, it also seems so very natural that these two things would come together, because — because of technology and because of social media, so many things are changing, and social media has become a platform for so many different industries.
Why can't poetry do the same?
Jeffrey Brown: But social media can also bite back. Kaur's poetry has been the subject of frequent parody online, while some critics have questioned its literary merits.
And the title of Instagram poet, she says, comes with baggage.
Rupi Kaur: To be completely honest, I'm not OK with it. A lot of the readers are young women who are experiencing really real things, and they're not able to talk about it with maybe family or other friends, and so they go to this type of poetry to sort of feel understood and to have these conversations.
And so, when you use that term, you invalidate this space that they use to heal and to feel closer to one another. And I think that's when it becomes unfair.
Jeffrey Brown: Does it hurt you when the poetry is being critiqued as more therapeutic or more emotional, rather than real poetry?
Rupi Kaur: No, not really.
And it's because I never really intended to get into the literary world. This is actually not for you. This is for that, like, 17-year-old brown woman in Brampton who is not even thinking about that space, who is just trying to live, survive, get through her day.
Jeffrey Brown: Kaur says social media, the thing that first connected her work to the world, can also be a cause of the pain that so many young people feel today.
Rupi Kaur: What happens when you're so connected with other people through these things, you become so disconnected with yourself, and we find it so difficult to just sit with ourselves and just be alone.
Jeffrey Brown: And the poet who's followed by so many on Instagram follows no one.
Rupi Kaur: What it teaches you is to put up your boundaries and really figure out, OK, this tool is so great, and it's brought me so many great things, but I also need to protect myself if I want to continue to do what I'm doing.
Jeffrey Brown: Self-preservation.
Rupi Kaur: Oh, yes. Yes. And it's like, I'm here to like be around for the long haul. Like, I'm not going anywhere. I want to be around until I'm 80.
And so I need to start some practices now, so that I can sort of continue on for the next 50 years.
Jeffrey Brown: Kaur just wrapped up a North American tour. The next stops, India and Europe.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown in Brampton, Ontario.
Judy Woodruff: And on the NewsHour online, you can listen to Rupi Kaur read more of her poems about womanhood, love, loss, and trauma.
That's at PBS.org/NewsHour.