5 Surprising Facts About Rupi Kaur

Rupi Kaur working at a desk
RupiKaur.com

It’s fairly uncommon for a book of poetry to not only hit the bestseller lists, but to stay there week after week. That alone makes Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey a remarkable book, but the words within deserve more than just a few perfunctory statistics about book sales (a million copies as of January, 2017) and weeks on The New York Times’ bestseller lists (41 and counting). Kaur’s poetry spits fire on subjects ranging from feminism, domestic abuse, and violence. If you hear the word “poetry” and think of dour old rhyme schemes and lofty, flowery language, think more modern. Think unvarnished, and brutally honest, and immediate—reading Kaur’s work, one gets the impression she is pouring her soul directly onto the screen or page without a filter, with nothing more than her keen sense of beauty and rhythm to guide the words into poem-shape.

Milk and Honey has quickly gone from relative obscurity to a secure place in the entrance table of every bookstore, on every list, and in everybody’s newsfeed. Even those normally plugged into the world of modern poetry are a bit surprised; Kaur is just 24 years old, and no one could have predicted that someone so young would just drop a book that sells a million copies. 

If you’re curious about Milk and Honey, start by learning about the poet herself. Here are five things you should know about Rupi Kaur and her bestselling book of powerful, incendiary poetry.

Like so many of the new generation of artists and celebrities, Kaur first made a name for herself online using her website, her Twitter account (where she has more than 100,000 Followers), her Instagram account (where she’s closing in on a million), and her Tumblr. She’s known as an “Instapoet,” posting her work online and engaging with her fans directly in discussions about the themes and issues her poetry addresses.

Kaur spent years building her online presence and community organically in a thoroughly modern—and increasingly common—way. While Internet celebrity remains mysterious to many, the fact is its built on some very old-school notions. For one, people love to be entertained and to be exposed to exciting art. Two, people love to connect and interact with artists and entertainers on a personal level. Kaur proved herself to be a master of both in a natural, honest way.

Kaur was born in Punjab, India, and moved to Canada when she was four years old. She can read and speak Punjabi, but confesses that she doesn’t have the mastery of that language necessary to write in it. That doesn’t mean her heritage doesn’t influence her work; part of her signature writing style is a complete lack of capital letters, and the use of just one form of punctuation—the period. These are both features of Punjabi, features she’s imported into her English writing as a way of connecting back to the place and culture of her origin.

Growing up in Canada, Kaur at first thought she wanted to be a visual artist. She began working on drawings as a young girl, guided by her mother, and in her childhood poetry was solely a “silly” hobby she employed mainly in birthday cards for her friends and family. In fact, Kaur says she only gained a serious passion for poetry in 2013, when she was a 20-year old student—and suddenly exposed to great poets like Anais Nin and Virginia Woolf.

That inspiration excited Kaur and she began working on her own poetry—and posting it to her social media accounts as a way of self-expression. The rest, as they say, is pretty much history.

Something that might be missed when you read her poetry is the influence of the Sikh religion on her work. Much of the work in Milk and Honey takes direct inspiration from the Sikh scriptures, which Kaur has credited with assisting in her own spiritual and personal development. She’s also devoted herself to studying Sikh history as a way of connecting with her past and her heritage, and much of what she’s learned has also found its way into her work.

What’s remarkable is that this spiritual aspect of her poetry deepens and enriches her work without it becoming the focus of her work; her words remain accessible to people of all backgrounds because of the primal, gut-wrenching universal issues she explores. And yet, her faith adds subtle extra dimension to her work that you can choose to delve into, finding a deeper meaning and connection.

Kaur’s fans began asking her where they could buy a book of her poetry in 2014. The only problem? No such book existed. Kaur had been pouring her art directly into the Internet, and it hadn’t occurred to her that there might be demand for something as old-school as a printed book. She put together Milk and Honey as a self-published book and got it to Amazon in November of 2014, where it sold nearly 20,000 copies.

In 2015, Kaur had a dustup with Instagram when she posted a school project: A series of photos focused on menstruation. Instagram decided that one of the images in this “visual poem” violated their terms of service and it took the picture down. Kaur made a name for herself by standing up for art: She publicly denounced Instagram for its double-standards regarding its policies and its patriarchal attitudes. Her protest gained massive public support, and Instagram eventually backed down. In the meantime, Kaur’s book received the sort of free publicity any self-published author would kill for.

A Good Thing

Poetry doesn’t often capture the national attention like this, but when it does it’s like a refreshing change of pace. The bestseller lists might typically be dominated by thrillers, cookbooks, and romantic stories, or war-centric histories, but for most of the last year they’ve also been dominated by poetry—gorgeous, heartfelt poetry. And that is a very good thing.