Poet Rupi Kaur reaches new audiences in a new way

JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally tonight, we take
a look at a poet reaching new audiences in a new way. At just 25, Rupi Kaur has burst onto the literary
scene, surging to the top of nearly every bestseller list. Jeffrey Brown reports how she’s done it by
embracing social media, and building an avid following of young readers. JEFFREY BROWN: It’s become a strange new normal
for 25-year-old Rupi Kaur, fans eager to share how her work has changed their lives. There’s often a photo and a hug. Sometimes, the exchange becomes emotional. WOMAN: It’s because you remind me of my mom. RUPI KAUR, Poet: I still don’t believe it. Like, I have to pinch myself. It’s real, but it still doesn’t feel real. JEFFREY BROWN: And how could it? Kaur’s debut collection of poems, “Milk and
Honey,” has sold three million copies worldwide. And her new work, “The Sun and Her Flowers,”
has already sold a million since its release in October. Meanwhile, performances of her poetry, like
this one in Washington, D.C., recently, routinely draw hundreds. RUPI KAUR: There are mountains growing beneath
our feet that cannot be contained. All we’ve endured has prepared us for this. Bring your hammers and fists. We have a glass ceiling to shatter. (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) JEFFREY BROWN: It’s heady stuff for a young
woman who grew up in the Toronto suburb of Brampton in a large South Asian community,
and used social media to build an ardent fan base of mostly young women. RUPI KAUR: They are like my sisters. They are me. JEFFREY BROWN: We spoke recently at Brampton’s
Rose Theatre, where Kaur graduated from high school, and these days performs her poetry. RUPI KAUR: I was 18, 19, 20 when I was writing
“Milk and Honey.” And so, we’re always going to be growing together,
and I think what I want to say to them is like, I’m with you. I’m here. I think people just want to feel understood
and feel seen. It’s what I want growing up. And so that’s why I think the poetry works
so well. JEFFREY BROWN: Kaur’s poems are typically
short, even just a few lines, with simple, unadorned language and spare punctuation. They’re often accompanied by her drawings. In them, she writes of everyday occurrences,
like starting relationships, or ending them. RUPI KAUR: You ask if we can still be friends. I explain how a honeybee does not dream kissing
the mouth of a flower and then settle for its leaves. I don’t need more friends. JEFFREY BROWN: But she also tackles raw issues
of sexual violence and trauma and how to heal. RUPI KAUR: The books are not 100 percent,
like, autobiographical. There are — the emotions of it, yes, perhaps,
but they’re also stories that my sisters or my cousins or my mom or my aunt experience
every single day. And so I have had the ability and the privilege
to go and write poems about their experiences. JEFFREY BROWN: Kaur was born in Punjab, India,
and emigrated to Canada at the age of 4. Her father is a truck driver, work that takes
him as far away as California, her mother a stay-at-home mom. At home, they speak only Punjabi. RUPI KAUR: The rule was kind of like, you
know, you’re going to speak English 90 percent of your day, you know, out and about, no matter
where you go in the world. This house is like where you’re going to speak
Punjabi. JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, Kaur didn’t learn
to speak English until the fourth grade. And she says it was through writing and performance
that she found her voice. RUPI KAUR: I think I just fell in love with
the way the mic picks up my voice, and it like boomed throughout the entire space. And for someone that felt voiceless for so
long, that was so refreshing. For me, poetry is like holding up a mirror
and seeing myself, and it gives words to these very complex emotions and these feelings that
I had as a child, and not being able to put words to them. JEFFREY BROWN: She continued to write, posting
work online, but it wasn’t until 2015 that she captured national attention, after the
social media site Instagram twice removed a photo for an art project showing her with
what looked like menstrual blood on her sweatpants. Kaur responded: “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 OK with a small leak.” The response generated an outpouring of support
online, and that same year, a major publisher picked up her first book. Since then, she’s cultivated a massive online
presence. Nearly two million people follow her Instagram
page. A lot of lovers of poetry would think that
poetry and social media just don’t go together, right? RUPI KAUR: Yes. JEFFREY BROWN: Social media’s this ephemeral,
surface-type thing. RUPI KAUR: The gatekeepers of these two worlds
are so confused. But, in my mind, it also seems so very natural
that these two things would come together, because — because of technology and because
of social media, so many things are changing, and social media has become a platform for
so many different industries. Why can’t poetry do the same? JEFFREY BROWN: But social media can also bite
back. Kaur’s poetry has been the subject of frequent
parody online, while some critics have questioned its literary merits. And the title of Instagram poet, she says,
comes with baggage. RUPI KAUR: To be completely honest, I’m not
OK with it. A lot of the readers are young women who are
experiencing really real things, and they’re not able to talk about it with maybe family
or other friends, and so they go to this type of poetry to sort of feel understood and to
have these conversations. And so, when you use that term, you invalidate
this space that they use to heal and to feel closer to one another. And I think that’s when it becomes unfair. JEFFREY BROWN: Does it hurt you when the poetry
is being critiqued as more therapeutic or more emotional, rather than real poetry? RUPI KAUR: No, not really. And it’s because I never really intended to
get into the literary world. This is actually not for you. This is for that, like, 17-year-old brown
woman in Brampton who is not even thinking about that space, who is just trying to live,
survive, get through her day. JEFFREY BROWN: Kaur says social media, the
thing that first connected her work to the world, can also be a cause of the pain that
so many young people feel today. RUPI KAUR: What happens when you’re so connected
with other people through these things, you become so disconnected with yourself, and
we find it so difficult to just sit with ourselves and just be alone. JEFFREY BROWN: And the poet who’s followed
by so many on Instagram follows no one. RUPI KAUR: What it teaches you is to put up
your boundaries and really figure out, OK, this tool is so great, and it’s brought me
so many great things, but I also need to protect myself if I want to continue to do what I’m
doing. JEFFREY BROWN: Self-preservation. RUPI KAUR: Oh, yes. Yes. And it’s like, I’m here to like be around
for the long haul. Like, I’m not going anywhere. I want to be around until I’m 80. And so I need to start some practices now,
so that I can sort of continue on for the next sort of 50 years. (LAUGHTER) JEFFREY BROWN: Kaur just wrapped up a North
American tour. The next stops, India and Europe. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown
in Brampton, Ontario. JUDY WOODRUFF: And on the “NewsHour” online,
you can listen to Rupi Kaur read more of her poems about womanhood, love, loss, and trauma.

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