the cult of rupi kaur
How the poet is selling out venues across the world, with help from her nearly two million Instagram followers.
Rup Kaur at TEDxKC. Photography Don Ipock via Flickr.
The rise of social media has given birth to a new generation of Instapoets, but none has become more popular than Rupi Kaur. It's almost impossible to scroll through social media without stumbling upon one of her short emotive poems, typed in her signature black Times New Roman. Her work has gained her nearly two million followers on Instagram and she has sold out venues from Boston to London as she promotes her new collection of poems, The Sun and Her Flowers.
Kaur's massive cult-like following has been growing steadily since 2015 after a picture showing her period stain was removed from Instagram for apparently violating the platform's community guidelines. The incident prompted Kaur to speak out about the censorship of women's bodies. "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 okay with a small leak," she wrote on Facebook.
Since then, Kaur has continued to speak openly about hot-button issues from women's rights to immigration, mainly in prose. After her Instagram controversy, which the photo-sharing app eventually apologized for, she also began publishing poems on the social media platform.
While she had already been performing her poetry at local events and had self-published a collection of her work, Instagram exposed Kaur to a vast new audience. Her concise writing style, inspired by the symmetry and straightforwardness of the Sikh religion's gurmukhi script — along with her black and white illustrations of budding trees and broken hearts — made her work hard to pass over for even the most distracted Instagrammer scrolling through their feed.
Kaur's verses are short, but they pack an emotional punch. Her followers praise her openness and authenticity in addressing love, heartbreak, and sex. "I do not need the kind of love/ that is draining/ i want someone/ who energizes me," Kaur writes in one post that gained nearly 200,000 likes and over 1,500 comments. "This is speaking to me," commented one fan. "Ugh so real I'm gonna put this on my wall," wrote another.
Unlike some more traditional poetry, Kaur's work uses colloquial language and is largely open-ended, which makes it easier for readers to attach their own meaning to her words and to share on their feeds without much explanation. As Lily Whiting, a creative writing student and fan of Kaur, tells me, her friends share the poems like "motivational quotes."
"I'm a fan of of Rupi because you can really feel her through the poems," says 19-year-old Olivia Mullen, who discovered the poet on Instagram. "I could really feel her pain and emotion. I could relate to quite a few of her poems. She makes you realize that you aren't the only one going through a bad breakup or a difficult time in life."
At a time when young people are looking to be engaged and empowered, it makes sense that Kaur's raw and inspiring words would be popular. After the election of Donald Trump, who promised to crack down on immigration, she wrote two new chapters of poems for The Sun and Her Flowers addressing topics surrounding immigration and identity. "They have no idea what it's like/ to lose home at the risk of/ never finding home again/ have your entire life/ split between two lands and/ become the bridge of two countries," one of her poems reads.
"We're talking about real human experiences, in a time where, because of social media and media in general, we're so plugged in that we're almost not plugged into ourselves," Kaur explained in an interview with EW. "So this poetry on this medium which we're always plugged into is almost like looking into a mirror. And it gives people space to suddenly do that inner reflection, which I think is a big reason for why it's moving the way that it is."
Even though Kaur's work has thrived on social media, her reach has extended beyond Instagram feeds. Her debut collection, Milk and Honey, released in November 2014, sold 2.5 million copies worldwide and has been translated into over 25 languages. Her fan following has propelled her to a level of celebrity beyond Instagram fame; she's been referred to as the "pop star of poetry." Her work has attracted readers who were previously uninterested in poetry.
"I wasn't into poetry at all before reading Milk and Honey," says Mullen. "I was kind of skeptical about buying it at first because poetry didn't necessarily interest me all that much. After I had read the book I found myself searching for similar books."
As her popularity has grown, Kaur has received her fair share of criticism. She's been accused of plagiarism and criticized for acting as a spokesperson for the collective South Asian female experience. "Kaur indeed seems to note little difference between her educated, Western, Indian-Canadian self and her ancestors, or even modern South Asian women of a similar age in rural Punjab," wrote Chiara Giovanni in a piece about the poet for BuzzFeed. Her fragmented confessional poems have also inspired numerous parody accounts.
Still The Sun and Her Flowers, released earlier this month, quickly became the number two book on Amazon's best-seller list. While critics may try to discredit Kaur for her social media-focused art, she has undoubtedly found a successful formula. Her poems continue to garner over 100,000 likes on Instagram, her latest print collection will likely sell over one million copies (other published poets are lucky to sell 50,000 copies of their books), and her followers are clamoring to see her perform in person.
"I don't want to sound over dramatic or anything but she really made a big impact on my life," says Mullen. "If I'm having bad days I'll usually pick up Milk and Honey because it tends to give me hope again."