“you ask if we can still be friends”
Not a second after these two lines tumble out of Rupi Kaur’s mouth, the crowd explodes into cheers.
On Oct. 19, the 880-seat Aratani Theatre was packed as far as the eye could see with avid fans clutching a copy of Kaur’s new poetry collection, The Sun and Her Flowers ($16.99, Andrews McMeel Publishing). Kaur wore a loose dress with giant flowers on it, a nod to her new book’s title, theme and artwork. That a poet can fill out such a huge space and still somehow make it feel like a slumber party should be surprise enough; we found out later in the night, though, that Kaur has a stylist. Her Instagram photo says the floral dress is Gucci.
Kaur doesn’t fit the typical mold of a poet. She's made Instagram her medium, much to the chagrin of many writers and critics. Many articles describe her as an “Instagram poet,” an important distinction from just a regular, more serious poet. A recent profile makes her seem aloof and nearly vapid.
Writer Chiara Giovanni argued in a lengthy BuzzFeed article that Kaur’s poetry “claims to be documenting a specifically South Asian experience that never materializes.” Instead, Giovanni argues, Kaur plays it safe in order to read universal and appeal to a “Western audience.”
writing this book was extremely difficult for my spirit. i've never faced more self doubt than i have over these past two years. so to sit here now and read all your words of support helps transform how i see myself and my work. your kindness has brought in some radical self love. thank you. since i opened up to the craft of writing and i first took the stage to perform in 2009 i’ve always gone out of my way to work really hard and strive to make my vision come to life. but no one makes it happen on their own. since day 1 my family and best friends have always taught me to speak up and speak clearly. the activists and teachers that i did community work with helped build the ideals i stand by today. my team holds me down on tour. at the office. in spirit. 365 days a year. my agent and the publishers who trust my vision no matter how ridiculous it may sound have such a big part to play. and you all. your love of the art gives me the strength to continue to write and share through the most difficult times. someone once told me "the centre of the wheel spins because of all its surrounding parts" and it's true. this journey is possible because it goes beyond me. the wheel turns with support. this has become a movement because we are standing together. and i am just deeply thankful for all of it.
But here are the facts: Kaur filled a huge theater with young people who left with books in hand. She had fans screaming at the uttering of a few words — a testament to the power of the written word in a digital time. She covered breakups, body hair, immigration, sex, all while swaying in front of the microphone, often with a hand out in front of her.
Whether you praise or question Kaur’s authenticity, what proves more interesting is the crowd at her Little Tokyo reading. One fan pulls down her shirt slightly, showing off a tattoo. They are lines from one of Kaur’s poems, she says. A fan nearby asks if she can take a picture.
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At one point, two fans get called onto the stage. One of them wears a floral dress and Kaur compliments her on it. “I wore it in honor of you,” she quips. They take turns reading lines from “to do list (after the breakup)" from Milk and Honey.
At the end of the reading, the audience starts to give Kaur a standing ovation but she is gone before the last row of people gets up.
When the crowd pours out of the doors and into the brisk Little Tokyo night, the group grows loud and excited. The light to cross starts to change but the crowd charges forward, forcing cars to stop until everyone made it to the other side. It seems as if the energy might turn into a spark, then a fire. The group is riled up, almost as if ready to rip newspaper stands off their sidewalk roots while screaming obscenities against the patriarchy. A man in a button-up shirt shoulders his way through the crowd, looking confused.
It feels as if the night left so many minds buzzing: brains ready to talk about periods and body hair over bowls of ramen; to blast Beyoncé in the car on the way home; to sit down and scribble a few drawings and poems into a journal.