Rupi Kaur, 25, gained social media fame in 2015 when she protested why Instagram twice took down a photo she posted showing menstruation. Nabil Shash
Rupi Kaur, 25, gained social media fame in 2015 when she protested why Instagram twice took down a photo she posted showing menstruation. Nabil Shash

Jeneé Osterheldt

Meet Rupi Kaur, the Indian rock star poet who’s sold out her Kauffman Center show

By Jeneé Osterheldt

josterheldt@kcstar.com

October 12, 2017 09:00 AM

Rupi Kaur is a rock star. Not the kind with moves like Jagger, either.

The 25-year-old is a poet. And when she performs pieces from her newest book, “the sun and her flowers,” on Monday at the Kauffman Center’s Helzberg Hall, the sold-out space will be filled with just as many Rihanna and Taylor Swift fans as Maya Angelou lovers.

“This poetry just really comes to life when I am performing,” she tells me over the phone from her hotel room in New York at the start of her 13-stop tour. “There’s a certain dance the words do and you can really feel the rhythm.”

But it wasn’t her words or sound that first made her famous. Her flower bloomed not with a poem, but a photograph.

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thank you @instagram for providing me with the exact response my work was created to critique. you deleted a photo of a woman who is fully covered and menstruating stating that it goes against community guidelines when your guidelines outline that it is nothing but acceptable. the girl is fully clothed. the photo is mine. it is not attacking a certain group. nor is it spam. and because it does not break those guidelines i will repost it again. 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. when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified. pornified. and treated less than human. thank you. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ ⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ this image is a part of my photoseries project for my visual rhetoric course. you can view the full series at rupikaur.com the photos were shot by myself and @prabhkaur1 (and no. the blood. is not real.) ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ i bleed each month to help make humankind a possibility. my womb is home to the divine. a source of life for our species. whether i choose to create or not. but very few times it is seen that way. in older civilizations this blood was considered holy. in some it still is. but a majority of people. societies. and communities shun this natural process. some are more comfortable with the pornification of women. the sexualization of women. the violence and degradation of women than this. they cannot be bothered to express their disgust about all that. but will be angered and bothered by this. we menstruate and they see it as dirty. attention seeking. sick. a burden. as if this process is less natural than breathing. as if it is not a bridge between this universe and the last. as if this process is not love. labour. life. selfless and strikingly beautiful.

A post shared by rupi kaur (@rupikaur_) on

Lying on her side in her bed, the photograph shows blood seeping through the backside of her gray sweatpants. A bit of blood also stains the sheets.

It’s happened to most women and girls. A period, or shedding of the uterus lining, is natural. We see commercials for tampons, maxi pads and cramp relief every day. We see blood on movies and TV every day.

But menstruation is still taboo.

The then 22-year-old Rupi was exploring that through a 2015 photo series only to have Instagram take down her photograph. Twice. She objected to the sexist double standards on Facebook with a post including beautiful lines of prose like:

Their patriarchy is leaking.

Their misogyny is leaking.

We will not be censored.

i bleed each month to help make humankind a possibility. my womb is home to the divine.

And this is how we came to know Rupi the rock star. A stand against misogyny and the power of the internet.

“It gives space to people who wouldn’t have access otherwise,” she says of social media. “I was able to put a book together when I was completely broke with no publisher, no agent, no nothing and being told there’s no market for poetry. Social media allowed readers to find my work. And our traditional institutions are being forced to open the doors to people who wouldn’t be represented otherwise.”

Headlines from Vice, Jezebel and Huffington Post supported her fight. That day after her post, the image was back up and she received an apology. People came by the thousands for that photograph but they stayed for the poetry.

Her 2014 self-published book, “milk and honey,” was on full display. It was equal parts girl power, love, abuse and heartache.

Her drawings are reminiscent of Shel Silverstein’s. She designed her cover. Her poetic style — all lowercase (a tribute to gurmukhi script), minimalistic but soulful — brings to mind Nayyirah Waheed, who released “salt” in 2013. But just like “Divergent” shared some kinship to “The Hunger Games,” there’s space to celebrate them all.

From Alex Elle and Cleo Wade to Leav Lang and R.M. Drake, Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram have been outlets for young poets. Warsan Shire’s work is the masterful beauty that was adapted for “Lemonade,” Beyoncé’s visual album. In 2014, Shire was appointed the first Young Poet Laureate of London.

But for Rupi, social media didn’t just put her out there. It catapulted her into stardom few poets enjoy while they are young and alive. On her own, she’d sold about 15,000 copies of her book and rightfully impressed Kansas City’s own Andrews McMeel Universal (who also publishes Leav Lang and Alex Elle).

The publisher re-released Kaur’s book six months after that photo went viral, capitalizing on both her poetry and the moment. A pop poet was born.

“Milk and honey” has sold 2.5 million copies worldwide and spent 78 weeks on The New York Times Trade Paperback Best-Seller List. It currently sits in second place. It’s been translated in over 25 languages.

Rupi says the success is not without backlash. The buzzword for artists like her is “Instapoet.” People don’t think it’s serious enough with free posts and affordable paperbacks. Her agent thought she should release “the sun and her flowers” in hardcover first. Because prestige.

“People say that it’s too accessible,” she says. “I think it goes back to which class and race books and literature are for. I didn’t grow up in a home where I could ever buy a $35 book. I wanted to stay true to my roots. Why publish in hardback just because that’s what they’ve always done just to be accepted by this literary community who is already not validating your work? When we are talking about art and poetry, everyone should get access to it and everyone should ignore the criticism and create.”

Her instincts are right: “the sun and her flowers,” released Oct. 3, is No. 3 on Amazon. Her Instagram followers have swollen from a couple hundred in 2013 to 1.7 million and counting.

“With ‘milk and honey,’ it was like the walk inside of yourself, this hunger to get to know yourself,” she says the day after her 25th birthday. “And ‘the sun and her flowers’ was a walk outside into the world. I was doing a lot of reflection on what is happening outside around me, seeing more love and connectedness with the people around me.”

Separated into five parts –– wilting, falling, rooting, rising and blooming –– the “sun and her flowers” still carries those themes of love, heartache, healing and empowerment but also plants itself in the immigrant experience. It wasn’t her original plan.

The book was supposed to be two parts instead of five and explore unhealthy relationships and recovery. But she couldn’t ignore the xenophobic political climate. Her family moved from India to Canada when she was almost 4. And right after the election, she was living in California, where the undocumented conversation was inescapable.

“With everything going on, it allowed me to reflect on the displacement of people, not just in America but all over the world,” she says. “I think we focus on what makes us different, but I was looking at what makes us the same. And I feel like love is really the only thing strong enough to bring us together to combat that hate and oppression.”

remember the body

of your community

breathe in the people

who sewed you whole

it is you who became yourself

but those before you

are a part of your fabric

– honor the roots

She won’t choose a favorite poem, but her favorite chapter is the third: rooting. So much of it is inspired by her parents and their sacrifices.

“I was in India visiting and I was soaking up my ancestry and my family and I was just in awe and so grateful for the life I have been given,” she says. “I have the privilege to travel and choose my own way in the world. I don’t think I would have it in Punjab. Reflecting on that and how little say my mother had in her life, to know I am the first woman in my family who will be able to choose for herself. Realizing that is such an empowering feeling and I am grateful.”

But it’s not just her family she wants to honor. As she thinks about the future and how quickly doors can open and close, her goal is to stay grounded.

“I don’t think about the literary world and how I fit into it,” she tells me. “I am thinking about my readers. For me to continue to be inspired and create the poetry I do, it is really important to me to be present, stay connected and rooted in the people.”

And that’s how you water a garden, Rupi.

Jeneé Osterheldt: 816-234-4380, @jeneeinkc

Monday, Oct. 16

“An Evening With Rupi Kaur.” 7 p.m. Kauffman Center. The event is sold out. www.kauffmancenter.org