Rupi Kaur sweeps into town on the wings of her words

Rupi Kaur reads from her new collection of poems at the Museum of History. Photo: Zoe Favrin

The global phenomeon that is Rupi Kaur strode confidently into a spoken word performance in the Great Hall of the Canadian Museum of History Sunday evening.

The event was sold out and such is the drawing power of Kaur that the tickets went in a week without any advertising.

The 25 year old poet from Toronto has become a sensation through her Instagram account that boasts 1.8 million followers. She has posted images, poems and drawings 509 times.

She also has two bestselling collections of poetry, the first is called Milk and Honey and it was self-published in 2014. The book sold more than 10,000 copies at readings before being picked up by a publisher — Andrews McMeel. It is now is available in 30 languages and two million copies have been sold. It was at one point No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. She has ignited controversy posting a picture on her site which shows, what she called a “leak” of menstrual blood. And while her work has been attacked and mocked by internet trolls and some more serious critics, the Rupi Kaur juggernaut keeps rolling along.  

Her appearance in Ottawa was the final stop on a fall tour on behalf of her second volume, The Sun and Her Flowers, which is currently No. 5 on the Times list.

Kaur, in a reading, is a practiced and polished performer. On Sunday night, wearing a sleek purple dress dotted with large orange flowers, she was standing inside a circle of white and red rose petals that she had carefully laid out before the evening began.

She walked up to the mic with her new volume and began reading in a slow languid voice from it with an actor’s presence and the crowd of 600 mostly young women loved it. They cheered each poem. 

Kaur’s work ranges from slices of sentiment and survival to feminist anger to calls to action to love lost and found and to longer more penetrating presentations of what it means to be a young woman in the age of Harvey Weinstein.

One such is called The Art of Growing from her new collection. It is about a 12 year old starting to become a woman and finding out that the boys and men around her saw her in a different light and started acting like predators.

“They wanted to touch all the new and unfamiliar parts of me,” she recited.

The poem ends in defiance with the young woman (Kaur herself) pushing the boys down and putting her boot on their necks.

Kaur says she was studying design at university when she discovered writing, she told the organizer of the evening in Ottawa, Komal Minhas, in a question and answer session after the reading was finished.

“I was in school doing my undergrad and I was not focusing on school any more. Every minute I had that I could spare I was hooked on writing. It was this electrifying experience to get these words out. I did it every single day for over a year. And I would spend hours and hours on it.

“I was doing it for me. I needed it. I started sharing it in an online space and it was kind of random.”

A community of mostly young women started to follow her and that community  started growing organically. This evolved to the point that her readers started demanding a book.

So at 21, Kaur said she self-published her first book. Her family would sell the books at readings all over Ontario. Bookstores did not carry them, she said.

She told the audience she likes pizza, which makes sense because Italy is her favourite vacation spot. She has Ariana Grande as a celebrity fan and that her other dream job would be as a fashion designer.

“It is what I was trying to do before the books came,” she said. That training explains the finely crafted pen and ink drawings in her books and on her Instagram site.

“Art was my first love, drawing and painting. Poetry was kind of like the mistress it came and swooped me away,” she told her interviewer. In 2013, she said brought illustrations into her poetry world.

“To me poetry is a full five senses experience.” That means each book is planned to the nth degree.

“I write and then I illustrate.”

She even designs the covers of her books.

“The book for me is one long poem that runs from front to back and so I have to be very thoughtful of every single page of it.

“The reason I wanted to publish Milk and Honey in the first place was that I’m here now and I will be gone soon but I feel so deeply connected to this art that I want to publish this so that it lives beyond me.

“That’s my legacy. If I can live a life where I am able to continue to express honestly and give people access to that, because I love to share, then I will be very happy.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.