culture

The Instagram Poet Outselling Homer Ten to One

Walking the Manhattan blocks near NYU, the poet Rupi Kaur wears a loose cream-colored suit and an air of easy self-assurance. Her hands rest in her pockets, her kimono-shaped jacket hangs open over a cropped black turtleneck, and she comfortably strides her realm: the realm of college freshwomen who have recently been or may soon go through breakups. She looks like someone prepared to tell you convincingly that “you / are your own / soul mate,” to quote one of her poems in its entirety.

Most professional poets cannot expect to be approached by fans. But , the 25-year-old Punjabi-Canadian’s first collection of poetry, is the best-selling adult book in the U.S. so far this year. According to BookScan totals taken near the end of September, the nearly 700,000 copies Kaur has sold put her ahead of runners-up like John Grisham, J.D. Vance, and Margaret Atwood by a margin of more than 100,000. (In 2016, Milk and Honey beat out the next-best-selling work of poetry — The Odyssey­ — by a factor of ten.) And because Kaur’s robust social-media following (1.6 million followers on Instagram, 154,000 on Twitter) has been the engine of her success, she is accustomed to direct contact with her public. So, when a young woman stops her on the way out of Think Coffee — “I love your work!” — Kaur greets her with a hug, poses for a selfie, then turns and calls back to her publicist. “She preordered the second book!”

On the gray late-summer day when we speak in New York, the October 3 rollout of Kaur’s second collection, , is well underway. Entertainment Weekly has published at the book’s cover. Kaur has of its design (white background, black text, geometric sunflowers) painted across her nude back. And, she reports, the physical copies themselves will go to press the following day. She had scarcely finished finalizing details — “I’m so particular about the spacing and the page and the color” — when her publisher called to tell her that 18 truckloads of paper were on the road. “It really just takes a giant community,” she says. “Some random dude or woman driving this truck is helping millions of people have the book in their hands.”

Kaur’s father, as it happens, was a truck driver: The family came to Canada from India when she was 4, and moved around in pursuit of his work before settling in Toronto’s Brampton neighborhood for her adolescence. In classic immigrant-parent fashion, they encouraged her to study science. But she resisted, and although parental disapproval precluded her original goal of fashion school, when the time came for university, she applied to business programs. “Publishing a book was never really the intention,” she says. Still, she’d been putting her writing on blogs for years, and kept a Tumblr before switching over primarily to Instagram. She released Milk and Honey through Amazon’s CreateSpace platform in 2014, and it was rereleased the following year by the publisher Andrews McMeel. Best known for collections of comic strips like “Calvin and Hobbes,” Andrews McMeel has lately become home to a number of poets who first established themselves online, like Kaur and Lang Leav. Leav’s collection was a self-published hit before AMP picked it up in 2013; they’ve since released four more of her books. Khloe Kardashian once on her estranged husband Lamar Odom’s .

Today, a publicist and a VP from Andrews McMeel accompany Kaur. This is a limited entourage. Recently, on her international tour, she often traveled with a manager, a photographer, and a videographer as well as a publicist. “It’s a lot of people, and so it’s been a lot about setting boundaries,” she tells me later. Self-care is a theme of Kaur’s work, though it is typically addressed in the context of personal relationships rather than managing a multimedia retinue.

Kaur’s ascent to social-media celebrity took place in early 2015. Milk and Honey was just beginning to gain traction with audiences through her Instagram when Kaur (still an undergraduate at the University of Waterloo) she’d taken for a class project. It showed her from behind, lying on her side, with blood leaking through the crotch of her sweatpants. Instagram took down the photo. Kaur responded to their censorship with righteous fury in posts on Facebook and Tumblr. “Their patriarchy is leaking. Their misogyny is leaking,” she .
“[M]y womb is home to the divine. a source of life for our species.” Instagram , saying that the photo had been “accidentally removed,” but Kaur had already become a free-bleeding cause célèbre, an icon for the sect of internet feminism that held body-positivity and emotional empowerment as central tenets. The incident emphasized a political cast to her writing, which strives for a similar degree of intimacy and raw self-exposure. It created a sense of feminist defiance that —notwithstanding lines like “sex takes the consent of two” and “removing all the hair / off your body is okay / if that’s what you want to do” — might not otherwise have been predominant.

Milk and Honey does touch on themes like the immigrant experience and overcoming sexual trauma, but its overall shape — divided into sections called “the hurting,” “the loving,” “the breaking,” and “the healing” — is something like a breakup record. The book offers readers an equivalent array of instantly familiar moods: anger, desire, pain, self-pity, self-reflection, and cathartic bursts of affirmation. Much of it is written in the second-person voice of a pop song — to a You whose identity either goes without saying (“the very thought of you / has my legs spread apart”), or else expands to encompass Me (“if he wants to / be with you / he will / it’s that simple”). With The Sun and Her Flowers, Kaur ventures into a wider range of subjects, contemplating her parents’ lives and the passage of time. Its sections are called “wilting,” “falling,” “rooting,” “rising,” and “blooming.”

On Amazon and Goodreads, reviewers tend to greet Kaur’s work with either total embrace (“”) or else a kind of baffled skepticism. “I know I’m going against popular opinion here on this one, but I just … didn’t love it,” “If you want my honest opinion, it felt like I was reading angsty teen Tumblr posts for 200 pages.” Mainstream professional assessment has been limited. “Her poetry does not need heavy analysis,” , in a piece that placed her “at the forefront of a poetry renaissance in both Britain and US.” Last summer, the New York Times’ feature credited her appeal to an “artless vulnerability, like a cross between Charles Bukowski and Cat Power.”

Kaur’s Instagram feed is immaculately manicured, a checkerboard on which her poems — all lowercase, often alongside her drawings — alternate with photos, mostly professional, mostly of Kaur. Recently, she posted a picture of herself smiling next to Gloria Steinem in the front row at Prabal Gurung’s show at New York Fashion Week. She is, deeply and truly, a poet of Instagram: In the manner of that medium, her work is human experience, tidily aestheticized and monetized, rendered inspirational and relatable in perfect balance. Her poems are, for the most part, short enough to fit easily in Instagram’s square frame, and her sentiments general enough to be universally recognizable.

In the Instagram feeds of Kaur devotees, Milk and Honey appears beside plates of figs, cups of tea, scented candles, Polaroid photos, and the work of Paulo Coelho. It appears against rumpled white bedding and cloudscapes as seen from airplane windows, above lean thighs and beneath wilting floral arrangements. Its matte black cover — the words “milk and honey” and “rupi kaur” in lowercase white serif, plus two line drawings of bees — conveys the message “I am reading a book” with maximum directness and simplicity (plus a feminist gleam). Other fans render Kaur’s words in tattoos or watercolors or careful handwriting, and the effect is something not so different from digital needlepoint: an exercise in copying out the day’s mores of femininity (to be soft is to be powerful; if you are not enough for yourself you will never be enough for someone else; however you need, just bloom) while demonstrating skill in its flourishes.

The poems collected in both books frequently conclude in a final italicized line that explains the poem, either identifying its audience (- to fathers with daughters) or articulating its theme (- closure). But the versions that she posts online end “-rupi kaur,” which has given rise to the convenient Twitter punch line of turning things into Rupi Kaur poems by putting “- rupi kaur” at the end of them. :

raindrop

drop top

smokin on

cookie

in the

hotbox

- rupi kaur

When I bring up the cottage industry of parodies, Kaur laughs. “That’s what I get a lot,” she says. “Like, this isn’t real poetry so I’m just going to enter some spaces and that’s it. I’m like, oh, God.” She does not seem especially perturbed.

And, perhaps, why should she? Earlier in our conversation, Kaur’s constellation of gold rings caught my attention as she was speaking; I compliment them, and she thanks me. “This one I got when Milk and Honey reached number one on the New York Times list,” she says, indicating an emerald on her left middle finger. “I got this one in Oakland, and then this one I got when I finished writing the manuscript, and then this one was for selling over a million books. And then this one I got after I got all these and was like, oh, I’m just allowed to buy them now for no reason at all.”

We’ve been sitting in Union Square, on a bench near a flock of volatile pigeons; Kaur has ignored them to an impressive degree, but eventually her publicist suggests we go someplace else. It begins to rain, and so we head toward the Strand. The publicist has warned me in advance that this could be a challenging place to speak — “They adore her,” so she may be obliged to sign books — but we are able to browse undisturbed.

Kaur does not like to read when she is writing, and says that she hasn’t finished a book all year. Now that The Sun and Her Flowers is complete, though, she’s looking forward to digging into the many books she’s bought and not yet started.

“I will always go into a used bookstore,” she says, even when she’s working. “I’ll collect a lot of covers that inspire me — whether it’s the paper inside, whether it’s a font, so then later I can be like, okay, how’s mine going to look?”

She enjoys reading nonfiction, especially biographies — “so I want to jump into a bunch of those. They inspire me.” She has Marina Abramovic’s memoir on her desk; she’s interested in the way Abramovic practices vulnerability. “And I have still yet to read Steve Jobs, so I’m going to do that, because why not? I watched the movie; it was pretty cool.” Her favorite part was when Jobs tells his incredulous daughter that he’s going to put 7,000 songs in her pocket. “She looks at him like, you’re crazy and you’re annoying and I kind of don’t like the fact that you’re my dad. I was like, wow, the fact that he said that, and look what happened,” Kaur says. “Those are the moments that really inspire me — those types of big, big thinkers.”

On a cart at the Strand, Milk and Honey sits alongside Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates. Kaur read half of Between the World and Me. “I had to take notes,” she says — it was “more academic” than her typical reading. Recently she got Notorious RBG, and she’s been enjoying that.

“This guy is the best,” she says, noticing an edition of Kafka’s complete stories; she’s referring to Peter Mendelsund, the book’s designer. “The dream is to have him design my next book.” His work, she points out, translates well across media — to different sizes, to posters, to digital.

Her experience at Andrews McMeel has been her first time working with an editor. Still, she’s familiar with the collaborative dynamic of a workshop from her college classes, and taught her own creative-writing classes for high school and college students while she was in school.

“For me it was like less about teaching writing and more about providing an environment where people were comfortable enough to express themselves freely, which is what I feel like is needed to write poetry,” she tells me. I ask her if there were particular poems she remembers teaching in class.

“There were no particular works,” she says — but list poetry, she adds, was one of her favorites.

“It’s basically just a list of stuff,” Kaur explains. “I would ask them to write a list of things that they wish they were born with, and write the first thing that comes to mind. And then folks would write a list of 20 things, from physical things to abstract things, and it was super cool because then you would go around and you’d read them out loud and everybody had different answers. And the best part was they’d walk away, like, oh, I can do this, I’m a poet. I’m like, yeah, you are.”

The Instagram Poet Outselling Homer Ten to One