Rupi Kaur | 'Paper is where poetry lives, but performance is where the words come to life'

Rupi Kaur | 'Paper is where poetry lives, but performance is where the words come to life'

Canadian instapoet Rupi Kaur brought her poetry tour to the UK during London Book Fair, with a sold-out performance at the Gillian Lynne Theatre in the West End.

Kaur’s debut collection milk and honey (Simon and Schuster) sold over 200,000 copies, and follow-up the sun and her flowers became the first ever poetry book to claim the Paperback Non-Fiction number one spot.

Here she talks to us about her poetry journey and love of live performance.

How did you get into writing poetry? Why did you initially choose to share your work through social media?
I got into poetry years and years ago. At first I was just writing poems for friends on their birthdays. And then nine years ago, I began performing spoken word poetry in my local community. It was electrifying. Performing is when I come to life and I’m my favourite version of myself. I initially chose to share my work through social media because friends of mine kept suggesting it. Every time there was a big community event, I’d prepare a poem. Perform it to an audience ranging anywhere from 100-500 people, and then I’d put that poem away forever and move onto the next one. This frustrated my friends because they said "more people need to hear this!!", or "people outside of this community will also connect with this, why don’t you post it online?"

And so I did. I’ve gone through so many iterations of blogs. Where I posted entire four minute poems of text format, and then mp3 format. And the style in which I published my work online kept changing and changing until it was refined into a square box, white, with text and an illustration.

Who or what are your main inspirations and influences?
People. All sorts of people. Conversations with people inspire me the most. Conversations get the wheels in my head turning and coming up with connections and ideas. When I connect with people, I can feel their emotions so deeply and I feel empowered to write.

I have many influences. In terms of poets: Khalil Gibran. Baba Farid. Sharon Olds. Nizar Qabbani. I love children's books. The sentiments in them are so universal and touching. My parents are a big inspiration as well. Their struggles and sacrifices leave me in so much awe. A lot of punjabi folk music and sufi music is also quite influential. That’s usually what I listen to before I sit down to write.

Can you describe your publishing journey for us? How has your style evolved with your second collection?
I initially self-published [my first collection] milk and honey back in 2014. I was told at the time that it was useless trying to get a book of poetry published. A creative writing professor said to me: "There’s no market for poetry. Your best shot is to send single poems to journals and anthologies and try there."

But that just felt like cheating on my collection. It didn’t feel right to just take it apart, and send some poems off one way, and some poems off another. This was a body of work from cover to cover. And so I designed and created the whole thing and released it. It was later picked up by an amazing publisher, Andrews McMeel Publishing, and the book came out in 2015. Then, I wrote, illustrated, and released the sun and her flowers (Simon & Schuster) in October 2017.

Gosh. It’s been a whirlwind, but an exciting one.

The second book has evolved in many ways from the first. milk and honey felt like an inner exploration, while the sun and her flowers felt like an exploration of the outer world.

What impact are you hoping your poetry will have on its readers?
I think my intention in sharing my work has always just been to connect. I love sharing and talking about ideas because I love connection and conversation. So as long as my poetry continues to do that, I’ll be happy with it.

How important do you think live performance is in poetry? Do you prefer your poems to be heard or read?
For me, [live performance] is absolutely essential. I prefer my poems to be heard. Perhaps because I was a performer of poetry long before I took up the craft of writing it on paper and publishing it for people to read.

Paper is where the poetry lives, but performance is where the words come to life.

Do you think public perception of poetry has evolved/changed in recent years?
Definitely. More than ever, people are talking about poetry. People are reading poetry. It’s been completely democratised by the people. Where once, poetry and literature was for a certain class, and it was difficult for women and especially women of colour to be published in the west, now my contemporaries and I have taken the visibility of our work in our own hands, and by publishing our work in creative ways, we’ve built our own readership.

And by doing so, poetry has definitely come to the forefront. I can’t remember another time when I would walk into a bookstore and poetry would have its own special table right at the front of the store. The poetry section was always a hidden corner at the back. And now it’s right there when you walk in!

Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I have started working on book three! So I’m really excited to invest my time and energy into that​.