Going to Rupi Kaur’s (Milk and Honey) pop up spoken word session at the Auckland Writers Festival felt like going to a party for women. There was snapping of fingers when something particularly profound was said – which was often. Kaur oozed confidence with beautifully punching poetry rolling from her lips.
If you don’t know Kaur, she initially posted her poetry and art on Instagram and quickly became an internet sensation. Her first book, Milk and Honey which was originally self-published, is a collection of poems. It’s become a New York Times international bestseller. She now tours all over the world performing her spoken word poetry and her performances sell out in minutes. She’s a poetry idol.
The night began with the words, “the shawl is off which means we are going to get real.”
I was admittedly a bit wary going into this session that it would be a bit too woman-y. Now, I’m all for equality. But I’ve never called myself a feminist. I think it’s because that word has so many different connotations for different people. The topic is so heated. But listening to Kaur made me appreciate being a woman all over again. I couldn’t get enough. None of us could. I was snapping my fingers with all the rest.
Learning to shrink
Her poems about how she viewed herself as a child struck a chord with so many women in the room. I could tangibly feel the agreement; the air was thick like honey. One of her poems, on growing up as a woman in a traditional Indian family, was particularly powerful. The lines,
emptying out of my mother’s belly was my first act of disappearance
learning to shrink for a family who likes their daughters invisible was the second
These words were hard to hear. She described to us that the perfect Indian daughter always says yes to everything, and how she was the very opposite of that growing up. She questioned everything. Jokingly, she told us that her mom used to say, “How are we going to marry you off? You are a mother in law’s worst nightmare”. Apparently, the only reason her mom doesn’t scream at her for being so loud and rebellious now is because she’s a published author.
Kaur spoke poetry about her struggle to comprehend the limiting world she found herself in. She read poems about how she’d told her mother about boys staring and taunting her. Her mother told her that she “could avoid all this trouble if [she] just learned to act like a lady”, that she should “sit with [her] legs closed like a woman oughta”. It all sounded very familiar. When she read,
you told me to quieten down because my opinions make me less beautiful
but i was not made with a fire in my belly so I could be put out
I felt like she had seen inside my soul. I can certainly relate to feeling like my strong opinions make me seem less beautiful. I used to argue and debate passionately at the dinner table with my family, and then be the sweetest, quietest girl at school. I was scared I didn’t have the weight to back up my strong opinions. That I wasn’t beautiful enough to pull it off. That people would like me less.
Being highly emotional
She described herself as a highly emotional person and she reiterated this with her poem “I don’t know what living a balanced life feels like”. The title alone hooked me.
when i am angry
i don’t yell i burn
and you should see me when my heart is broken
i don’t grieve
I know exactly what it’s like to feel everything in extremes. When she said that she likes to have a good cry to “Someone Like You” by Adele, I knew we would be friends if we ever casually met at a mutual friend’s place.
She shared some of her experience of a significant breakup. She recited her poem "to do list (after the break up)” in which I wholeheartedly (and whole-stomachedly) agreed with number 6 of the to do list,
find the closest ice cream shop and treat yourself to two scoops of mint chocolate chip. the mint will calm your heart. you deserve the chocolate.
Amongst her readings of break up poems, she dropped this little profundity: “The worst part of losing a partner is feeling like you’ve lost yourself and thinking that all the ways you were when you were with them was because of them. You think you can’t be your best self anymore. But not only are you the person you were before them – you’re so much more.”
I love this. I think it’s half the reason I have often stayed with partners who aren’t right for me longer than I should have.
Reclaiming her body
Some of her poetry was heartbreaking. Part of Milk and Honey delves into the trauma of her being sexually abused as a child. She described the writing as being about how her body was taken from her, with a focus on the body as a cause of grief. She read aloud that,
the first boy that kissed me
held my shoulders down
like the handlebars of
the first bicycle
he ever rode
i was five
This is contrasted with her poems on owning and reclaiming her body, with a focus on the body as a source of pleasure. We heard an example of this in the poem “foreplay” when she read,
you wrap your fingers
around my hair
is how you make
music out of me
Kaur even said, half jokingly, that she wants to publish a book of poems that “are just hot and spicy poems”.
One of the things I enjoyed most about Kaur was her absolute comfort in her own skin. I could tell she loved herself from how she carried herself and moved her hands despite having broken her hand recently (BUT had gotten a signature stamp made just for the event), and how she spoke about herself. I could hear it in her poetry when she said,
i was not made with a lightness on my tongue so i could be easy to swallow i was made heavy half blade and half silk difficult to forget and not easy for the mind to follow
Hearing her words made me feel free, like I could be allowed to think that I’m incredible. She was so comfortable with her ethnicity and her background that it was contagious.
When she read from one of her more well known poems, the snapping and cheering were cacophonous.
i want to apologize to all the women i have called pretty
before i’ve called them intelligent or brave i am sorry i made it sound as though something as simple as what you’re born with is the most you have to be proud of when your spirit has crushed mountains
She was empowering us.
I left on a total high. Nothing can explain Rupi Kaur’s poetry better than Rupi Kaur.
Needless to say, get your hands on Milk and Honey, follow Kaur on Instagram where she’s always posting poems and pieces of her art, and keep your eyes peeled for a new book due out later this year!
All photo credits go to Auckland Writers Festival