Rupi Kaur is too sick to get out of bed and wishes she had realised this a few hours earlier. Sitting on a king-size mattress in her Soho Grand hotel room, Kaur tells the story of how she almost lost her brunch all over actress Jennifer Westfeldt. “I knew something was wrong when I was talking to Jennifer and the green haze came over me,” she says in between sips of red Gatorade. “I was like, ‘You’re talking about something so deep right now, but the strawberries are coming back up girl, I gotta go.'”
Trying to keep fruit down isn’t exactly how the 25-year-old imagined she’d be celebrating the release of her second collection of poetry, The Sun and Her Flowers. It’s a celebration which kicked off the night before with a live performance of her work featuring Westfeldt, YouTube star Lilly Singh and fellow poet Chloe Wade. But this story of what was supposed to be a nausea-free victory lap, which she spares me the gross details of finishing, is just the kind of anecdote her 1.9 million Instagram followers would adore.
Since 2013, Kaur has been sharing poems about love, heartbreak and womanhood that perfectly exemplify the self-care movement. Most are bite-size affirmations, accompanied by Kaur’s own delicate line drawings, that go down easy when scrolling through Instagram. Kaur’s most-liked poem, which is just six lines and begins “how is it so easy for you/ to be kind to people, he asked,” earned over 240,000 likes.
Her poetry has gotten her more than likes, though. Her debut, Milk and Honey, has sold more than 2.5 million copies worldwide since its 2015 re-release by Andrews McMeel Publishing. (Kaur self-published it a year prior.) In its first week of release, Kaur’s follow-up was duking it out for the top spot on Amazon’s best-seller list with Dan Brown’s latest novel. It would win the coveted spot atop The New York Times list for paperback trade fiction where it stayed for nine straight weeks before E.L. James usurped it.
Uncomplicated and concise, Kaur’s poetry has been criticised for being too simplistic. Parody accounts have shown up on Twitter that intend to show how easy it is to write a Rupi Kaur poem – the gist being you take any conversation, format it in all lowercase and insert random line breaks. Milk and Honey officially became a meme earlier this year when people starting taking the text from Vine videos and stylising them like one of her poems. Now there’s even a book called Milk and Vine that’s quickly become an Amazon bestseller since its October release.
Kaur doesn’t think her poetry is simple. To her, it’s straightforward. “It’s like a peach,” she says. “You have to remove everything and get to the pit of it.” Kaur – who moved from Punjab, India to the suburbs of Ontario, Canada, when she was three and a half years old and now lives in Toronto – doesn’t want readers to agonize over each and every word like she did when learning poetry in school. “I would have to pull out the list of literary devices my teacher gave me and my 10 colorful pens,” she says, her big, almond eyes getting wider. “It was like doing surgery on the damn thing.”
Instead, Kaur wanted to do something more accessible. “I’ve realised, it’s not the exact content that people connect with,” she says. “People will understand and they’ll feel it because it all just goes back to the human emotion. Sadness looks the same across all cultures, races, and communities. So does happiness and joy.”
Though she’s made her name with words, Kaur’s initial Instagram fame had nothing to do with her poetry. Three years ago, Kaur posted a shot of herself lying in a bed with her back to the camera, menstrual blood leaking through her sweatpants. Instagram removed the image – which was for a college assignment in which she was asked to “challenge a taboo” – two separate times for breaking community guidelines. The site eventually apologized and reposted the photo, but not before Kaur wrote a letter reprimanding them for trying to censor her. “Their patriarchy is leaking. Their misogyny is leaking. We will not be censored,” she wrote on Facebook, in a post that’s been shared over 18,000 times.
Kaur’s response went viral and soon she was doing interviews with The Huffington Post and Viceabout the need to “demystify the period.” Talking to Kaur now, she says she wishes she never wrote that letter – curious, since that’s how so many people found her Instagram. “I think that day, this anxiety came upon me that’s never left,” she says, recalling how scary it was to get “that much hate literally from every corner of the planet.” While Kaur says she received overwhelming support from the letter – the most memorable, she says, was an email from a war general in Afghanistan – she also never experienced “so many people saying so many mean things and telling me they were going to kill me.” Still, she doesn’t deny that the strongly worded letter benefited her career: “They came for the photo, but they stayed for the poetry.”
Why they stayed is simple, according to Kirsty Melville, the president and publisher of Andrews McMeel Publishing, which had previously been best known for releasing Calvin and Hobbes. “She’s given voice to things that people may not have been able to articulate for themselves,” she says. “In this digital world where content marketing is this sort of buzzword, Rupi is the content and it doesn’t need the marketing.”
Kaur’s popularity on Instagram is part of a trend so prominent in publishing right now that it’s spawned its own genre. “Instapoets” has become the term used to describe a new generation of writers including Lang Leav, Tyler Knott Gregson, Nayyirah Waheed and Robert M. Drake, all of whom have landed book deals thanks to their respective social media presence. “We were told for so long that there isn’t a market for this, and there is,” Kaur says. “I’m seeing so many more poets who are getting published, which I hope isn’t just a trend that goes away.”
Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter have allowed more poets – especially those of color – to share their work with a larger, younger and more diverse audience, but not everyone loves the “Instapoets” nickname. “Personally, I think it is ridiculous that a social media platform is used to define a genre of writing,” says Leav, who has 393, 000 Instagram followers. After all, Leav released her first two bestselling poetry collections – her 2014 self-published debut, Love & Misadventure, which sold 10,000 copies in the first month, and Lullabies, which was published that same year by Andrews McMeel – without ever writing a word on Instagram. (She preferred Tumblr.)
No two Instapoets are exactly alike, but there are similarities between writers that even those in the community find worrisome. Earlier this year, Waheed, who self-published her debut, Salt, a year before Milk and Honey, accused Kaur of “hyper-similarity” after fans on Twitter and Tumblr made those charges. Waheedwrote in a Tumblr post, which has since been taken down, that in 2014 she emailed Kaur, “woc writer to fellow woc writer,” to share her concerns “in the hopes that upon awareness on their part. efforts would be made to cease and desist.” In the post, Waheed, who keeps a low public profile, rarely giving interviews, said that her concerns went ignored.
Kaur declines to comment on Waheed’s specific allegations, but when speaking in her hotel room says she believes some crossover between poets is natural when they have “similar experiences and similar ideas about the world.” She also wonders if some of the accusations of similarity between her work and others are a way of silencing women of color. “It’s like that scarcity complex,” Kaur says. “‘We already have one and it’s enough,’ as if we have to fight each other off now and I think that’s really dangerous.”
Kaur certainly isn’t spending her time duking it out with other poets. She holds her own unique space in the literary world where her poetry readings are more like pop concerts. To launch The Sun and Her Flowers, she put on a special theatrical performance at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in New York City to a sold-out crowd of over 900 people willing to shell out $75 to $100 to see her.
In a nod to the book’s cover, Kaur’s fans – mostly women in their late teens and early twenties – took photos with gigantic sunflowers. Beyoncé, Rihanna and Drake played over the speakers before the petite poet took the stage in a dress that hit right above the knee. It was something that gave her pause, knowing that her Sikh father was in the audience. “It’s the shortest thing I ever wore in front of him,” Kaur says later. “I was like, ‘My legs! He’s never seen my legs before!'”
When Kaur speaks, her fans, which she says are “60 percent female and 40 percent everything else,” listen. They also whoop and holler when she delivers the climax of her most suggestive poem, Milk and Honey‘s “How We Make Up”: “Sweet baby, this is how we pull language out of one another with the flick of our tongues.” They snap their fingers in solidarity after “What’s stronger than the human heart/ that shatters over and over and still lives,” a line that found its way onto posters at the Women’s March in January.
“Whenever I read her poems, I have the same thought: ‘This is exactly how I feel but never knew how to say it,'” Lilly Singh writes in an email days after sharing the stage with Kaur to read selections from The Sun and Her Flowers. “Rupi’s words make people, especially women, feel safe and understood.”
Kaur has no problem connecting with her audience, but now she’d like the literary world to take her more seriously. She admits that her goal with her new collection was to improve as a writer and show “that just because your work is successful does not make it bad work.”
Kaur started writing Milk and Honey when she was 18. Now 25, Kaur doesn’t deny that she’s outgrown some of her early work, but isn’t ashamed of anything she’s put down on paper. “We grew up in a time with every single one of our moves being recorded and documented forever and in that was this idea that we can’t make mistakes,” she says, “but when that’s not happening you’re also not growing.”
The way she looks back at her life and lets her fans know it gets better is a big part of Kaur’s appeal, but some critics question whether the stories in her work are really hers to tell. Kaur’s been criticised for blurring the lines between her own experiences and the experiences of others when writing about the trauma women face – rape, sexual assault, domestic abuse – most notably in the Buzzfeed piece “The Problem With Rupi Kaur’s Poetry.” The essay makes the case that the poet’s “use of collective trauma in her quest to depict the quintessential South Asian female experience” is a way of forcing universality to reach a larger, more mainstream audience. It’s a dilemma that many writers of color face, knowing that sticking with specifics in regards to their own story could mean alienating readers.
Kaur tells me she writes about the South Asian experience – hers, her friends’, her family’s – because she doesn’t want to see these stories go untold. “I began writing pieces about violence at the age of 16 after seeing what the women around me were enduring and facing,” Kaur says. “It was my way of reflecting on all of these issues.”
With so little South Asian representation in entertainment, Kaur also understands how important it is for her to share these stories even if it may come with some backlash. “This name,” she says, pointing to the “Kaur” that appears on the binding of her latest book, which she pulls out from underneath the white comforter of her hotel bed, as if scripted, “is so important on a bookshelf. That’s the name of every Sikh woman. If I was six years old and I saw this in Barnes and Nobles, I would cry. I would sit there and be like, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.'”
With Sun and Her Flowers, Kaur’s still following her peach-pit philosophy, but she’s also getting at the core of who she is, delving deeper into her South Asian identity in a section of the book fittingly called “Roots.” The eldest of four writes at length about her parents, specifically her mom, whose struggle with being an immigrant is something Kaur admits she’s often taken for granted.
During her Tribeca performance, Kaur tells a story about how, as a kid, she would ignore her mom at the supermarket, too embarrassed by her accent to be seen with her. The anecdote acts as the perfect lead-in to “Broken English,” the standout of her latest collection in which she chastises herself and anyone else who’s ever been ashamed of their immigrant mother. “She split through countries to be here/ so you wouldn’t have to cross a shoreline,” she writes. “Her accent is thick like honey/ hold it with your life/ it’s the only thing she has left of home.”
The funny thing is, Kaur almost didn’t include this section in her book. “I thought nobody cares about this,” she says. “It’s not cool to talk about your parents.” But it’s the part that’s gotten the most feedback from fans who want to tell Kaur about their own mothers and how far they traveled for a better life. “When you start writing those other poems about your parents and all that, it’s like, how can you write about love and heartache?” Kaur asks. “That just seems so silly.”
For those who want it, there are still plenty of traditional love and heartache poems in The Sun and Her Flowers, but Kaur’s expanding on these topics. She’s now writing more authoritatively about the love and heartache that accompanies her mom and dad’s immigrant story and discovering that her specific experience of being a woman, being Punjabi and being a child of immigrants has universal appeal.
Knowing how far her reach is, Kaur doesn’t just want to write poetry, but prose, too. Back in 2015, she wrote 10 chapters of a novel that she’s still figuring out what to do with. She’s also thinking she might even want to give music a try. “It would be cool to write a song with Adele,” Kaur mentions with a chuckle. “You know, if she calls me up.”