This piece is from our coverage of Sydney Writers’ Festival this year. To check out the rest, click here.
“My job is to take feelings and emotions that we all experience and put them into words… I mean, I struggle with verbally doing that, which is why writing is so powerful. That’s what a poetess means to me.”
Poetess, artist, and all-round inspiring woman Rupi Kaur began her poetic career in the basement of a Punjabi Community Health Centre in 2009. In 2015, Kaur self-published her first poetry collection, milk and honey, shedding light on femininity, abuse, love, loss, and culture. For what began as a cathartic form of self-expression, her writing and artwork has resonated with millions of readers worldwide, with milk and honey reaching #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Angsty teens across the Tumblr-verse continue to Instagram her poetry among potted cacti, strategically sprinkled glitter, and dried flowers. I was fortunate enough to speak with the poetess about her creative process.
Kaur says there has “always been this inner need or this greater desire that’s beyond me [to write]. For most of my life, it was visual art, but I’ve been writing for years and years.” She recalls writing birthday poems for friends and love poetry for crushes, but also using poetry as a cathartic process to overcome the challenges of womanhood, and to recount painful encounters with sexual assault and emotional manipulation.
“When you naturally talk about your body, it’s a form of empowerment because you’re not silencing it anymore,” she tells me. Her poem I’m Taking My Body Back, in which she describes the process of reclaiming her body after experiencing sexual assault, is an example of Kaur’s ability to transform abuse and appropriation into something meaningful through honest reflection. For Kaur, though, timing is important.
“There are some pieces where I’m like ‘I’m not going to add that into the second book, I’m not comfortable yet’, but I know that I eventually want to share everything.”
Upon first glance, Kaur’s poetry seems simple. The diction is short. The words aren’t capitalised. And the meaning is often conveyed in a handful of sentences. But she assures me that even though “the work itself looks simple, it’s taken a lot of thoughtfulness and it’s taken over a decade of work to come to that”.
Her decision to combine written word with art was one of such decisions that took years to surface.
“When I first started to share my work, it was just the words…but it felt like I was cheating on my first love, which was visual art. I thought, how am I going to bring this [art] back? I knew I couldn’t do my usual hyper-realistic sketches in charcoal… so I was doodling around while working in an advertising job and thought, [the art is] simple like my poems’ diction, and when the words come together with the art they mean something more complex.”
Kaur’s culture has proven a significant influence on her art. “I come from a faith which is written in poetic prose…it’s a very artful faith, there’s lots of music and poetry, and that’s made a big impact on the way I perform and how I write.”
Such culture, and faith is reflected in her poetic form. “There are no uppercase or lowercase letters in Gurmukhi script,” she explains. “All letters are treated the same, and I feel there is a level of equality this visuality brings to the work. [It’s] a visual representation of what I want to see more of within the world: equalness.”
It’s difficult to ignore the role social media has played in Kaur’s career. Her Instagram account, on which she shares her poetry and photography, has collected over 1.3 million followers. But Kaur insists that the performances are what truly connect her to her readers: “Of course social media is huge…and that’s a great way to have a conversation. But I love the [poetry] performances I do. It’s not just me cracking open a book and doing a regular reading, right? It’s an experience. It’s like a Venn diagram basically between a musician, an author, and it’s also super hilarious because I get super funny on stage…and it’s also a therapy session with your girlfriend.”
Kaur admits, however, that her rise to fame has made sharing her art more difficult. “This has gotten to the point where it’s so wildly successful that I’ve had to manage staff, and learn to negotiate book deals and all of that … It’s been a lot more pressure, because now I don’t get that same intimate relationship [with art]. It has become a full time job.”
Despite her bursting success as an author and poet, Kaur says her most important identifier is ‘woman’. When I ask is what it means to her to be a woman, we both admit it’s a complex question that probably can’t be answered in 140 characters or less.
“I feel like I could write an entire book about being a woman. I haven’t come up with an answer, and that’s probably because being a woman is such a multifaceted [role], a woman is so multidimensional, almost infinite,” she laughs.
But in person, like in her poetry, Kaur manages to articulate her womanhood in a sentence. “For me, being a woman right now, it’s just loving myself and my power, which is so great and beyond me.”
To find the strength to convey such pain and empowerment in her poetry in so few words remains her most impressive feat. She’s as sweet as honey, calm as milk, and stings the patriarchy like the bees on her book cover.
She’s a poetess in the truest sense of the word.