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Canadian poet Rupi Kaur pens a new verse in poetry

Thanks to Instagram, Rupi Kaur is the leader of poetry's resurgence and is standing up to the literary genre's old guard.

Rupi Kaur has spawned a new generation of online poets.

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Rupi Kaur has spawned a new generation of online poets.

Last month, the Toronto poet Rupi Kaur was at New York Fashion Week, at a Prabal Gurung show, seated next to none other than Gloria Steinem. “It was absolutely incredible,” she said.

“She was telling me it was her first ever fashion show. I was like, ‘Well, me too.’” Kaur adds with a laugh: “Then I was like, ‘We’re doing a pretty OK job. We’re here, we’re front row and we look great!’”

The trendy Nepalese-American designer had closed a show last fall with a black suit emblazoned with one of Kaur’s lines — “our backs tell stories no books have the spine to carry” — and the pair had kept in touch as Kaur’s fame exploded. These days, it’s not out of the ordinary for Kaur to be an honoured guest at a glitzy pop culture event or to find herself hobnobbing with feminist icons. All of this is emblematic of a new generation of online poets, of which the 25-year-old is at the forefront.

Indeed, the “InstaPoet” phenomenon arguably originated with Kaur, whose 2014 debut Milk and Honey spent a staggering 70 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, was translated into 30 languages and sold in excess of two million copies, her publisher confirmed. According to BookNet Canada, poetry sales in Canada jumped 79 per cent in 2016 and this can “almost entirely be attributed” to Kaur. Her second collection, The Sun and Her Flowers, was released this week to much fanfare.

Kaur’s streamlined feminist offerings tackle subjects such as loss, trauma, violence and sexual abuse. The line drawings that accompany her poems are raw, evocative and utterly striking.

Add to that, her trajectory is nothing short of remarkable. Kaur was born in India to a Punjabi-Sikh family and moved to Canada at the age of four. Drawn to poetry as a child, a community open mic night eventually introduced her to performing, which she did for several years before realizing the medium was called spoken word.

Several years ago, Kaur — then a design student — condensed her poems, paired them with drawings, took them online and swiftly became an Instagram sensation. (At press time, she had 1.6 million followers.) Kaur initially self-published Milk and Honey; it did so well it was picked up by Andrews McMeel Publishing and Simon & Schuster Canada.

Still, in spite of overwhelming fame and fortune, the Brampton, Ont., native says she battles self-doubt. “There’s so much love,” she reflects. “Why am I sometimes only focusing on that one per cent that’s not that much love?”

In fact, this tension — between social media celebrity and a sometimes chilly reception from the literary establishment — is at the heart of the Instagram poetry trend.

“There’s these two different worlds and they don’t really understand one another,” Kaur says. “Now people like me, and so many other artists across the world, are bridging these two things and not worrying about the gatekeepers of either form. That’s confusing for a lot of people.”

“There’s nothing wrong with your art being accessible,” she continues. “For so long, literature was only meant for a certain class of people.... To try to keep it there is not OK for me. I have to think about the kinds of communities I come from ... I would hope that anyone who wanted to get their hands on (my art) could get their hands on it.”

Several years ago, the B.C.-born poet known as Atticus found himself in France, where he met by chance the actor Michael Madsen, of Reservoir Dogs fame. They became friendly and Madsen, who’d published a volume of poems, confided how much poetry meant to him.

“He’s one of those classic American badasses, a whisky-drinking, motorcycle-riding, really, really interesting guy,” Atticus says, reached on the phone in Victoria. “He told me a lot about his struggles with fame and alcohol problems, and how poetry in a lot of ways saved his life. For me, that was really eye-opening. Because I’d come from a world where I’d never, ever thought I would consider poetry as something that would interest me.”

In Paris, he started typing out tentative lines on his phone — and Atticus was born. Fast forward to 2017 and he’s an Instagram star with 464,000 followers, celebrity supporters including supermodel Karlie Kloss and actress Emma Roberts, and a new a volume of poetry, Love Her Wild.

If you find yourself wondering how a millennial Canuck ends up meeting, let alone befriending, a jet-set Hollywood star, join the club. It’s all part of the mystery that is Atticus. He prefers not to reveal where in B.C. he grew up or how old he is; he’s been wearing a mask at book signings on his tour.

“I didn’t want it to ever be about me,” he says. “I just wanted it to be about the words.”

Atticus’s poems are best described as pithy emotional odes to love. They look fantastic in a stylized font, set on a stark white background. They say things like “we are made of all those who have built and broken us,” or “poetry is a lifelong war waged against ineffable beauty.”

As with Kaur, the establishment has not always been kind to Atticus. Texas poet Thom Young, for instance, recently attracted much media attention with his satirical Instagram account, which includes verses such as: “love made/her wild.” In an interview with PBS, Young admitted he’d posted trite verses to illustrate how easy it was to gain fans. He amassed thousands of followers; he’s now using the platform to instruct fans on the merits of traditional poetry.

This points to an interesting element of the phenomenon. There’s no denying that Instagram has created a surge of interest in poetry and many — inside and outside literary circles — see that as a good thing. In a genre notorious for its slim readership and insanely broke authors, there’s now a publishing apparatus throwing its weight behind young talent, hoping to discover the next Rupi Kaur. And a whole new generation is getting introduced to the art form.

That’s certainly how Atticus sees it. He likens Instagram poetry to a “gateway drug,” noting that his own foray into online verse eventually led to him take a poetry class at Oxford. “The bottom line is that it’s incredible to see poetry having a resurgence in our generation,” he says.

Dina Del Bucchia, a Vancouver poet and instructor in the University of British Columbia’s creative writing department, agrees. She’s an editor-in-chief at Poetry is Dead magazine, a co-host of the podcast Can’t Lit and also works in a bookstore — and she says she still can’t keep up with all the new poets out there.

She says the internet has dramatically widened the scope of voices in poetry, once a bastion of straight white males. Rupi Kaur’s example, in particular, has inspired a whole lot of new people to explore poetry, publish chapbooks and start reading series.

“Rupi Kaur is a bestselling poet,” she says. “When was the last time anyone could say that?”

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