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Rupi Kaur, one of Instagram’s favorite poets, writes about love, heartbreak and womanhood. She speaks to Jeffrey Brown about her rise to fame and her message for young women.
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.
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.
It's because you remind me of my mom.
I still don't believe it. Like, I have to pinch myself. It's real, but it still doesn't feel real.
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.
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)
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.
They are like my sisters. They are me.
We spoke recently at Brampton's Rose Theatre, where Kaur graduated from high school, and these days performs her poetry.
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.
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.
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.
But she also tackles raw issues of sexual violence and trauma and how to heal.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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?
Social media's this ephemeral, surface-type thing.
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?
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.
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.
Does it hurt you when the poetry is being critiqued as more therapeutic or more emotional, rather than real poetry?
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.
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.
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.
And the poet who's followed by so many on Instagram follows no one.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Elizabeth Flock is an independent journalist who reports on justice and gender. She can be reached at email@example.com
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