L'Officiel Art

Rupi Kaur on Why She Considers Herself a Performance Artist First

The author of The Sun and Her Flowers and poet of a generation takes a break from touring to let us in on her creative process and how she arrived at her second best-seller.
Reading time 15 minutes

 

WD Tell me how it feels to be on tour for your second book, The Sun and Her Flowers.


RK I didn’t think it would get as fun as it has. I'm used to being more excited the first time around, but it’s never been more exciting or more fun to be up on stage. I think the reason for that is because I’ve been doing this for long. When I first started there was always this anxiety, being on stage performing for an hour and a half, there's so much room for error, but with this tour and this book I've really let that go and decided there are no mistakes. Once I completely wrapped my head around that idea, it's just been nothing but fun.


WD What does a typical night look like on tour?


RK Usually it's in a performance venue, a church or something, we play around with lighting a lot, and it changes with the mood of the show through the different acts. I walk out, I always read 3-4 opening poems, I read those, put the book down, then I welcome everybody—I thank them for being there, and I walk people through what to expect. I feel like I am not a typical author because I occupy a few different worlds. Yes, I’m an author, but I’m also a poet and I also perform poetry and these shows are storytelling, jokes, all of that and I let them know that I’m going to read a little bit, and that I’m going to perform with music and then I’m going to read a little bit again. I tell the public to completely ignore the surroundings and just have fun. That they can read as much stories as they want to. What helps me with my performance is when I’m interacting and I have that moment with the readers while I am up on stage, it pushes my performance further. So automatically, when I start reading chapter one, I can hear people laughing, shouting things at me, and depending on how they are that’s how I will get as well. It’s like a comedy show but for poetry. Once people come to the show they’re like “I did not expect that at all.”


WD Did you follow a similar format for Milk and Honey?


RK I did, but it was just less refined. I would just open with spoken word, read a couple of pages from chapter one, but for that, I hadn’t produced music for each of the pieces. Now, the show is getting super tight because it’s a musical piece, it gets tighter especially when we’re in venues now that are just getting better and better with the acoustics and the lightning—we’ve been able to add that much more drama into it.


WD You say you produce the music for each spoken word action?


RK I have a producer that I work with that I've known for a long time, so he and I just get together and work out the music for the show. We started a couple of weeks before the launch of The Sun and Her Flowers.

WD So you feel more confortable this time around, like you can control all the different
elements?


RK For sure. I know that a lot of people know me through the book and the poetry, but I started as a performer and that’s how I feel always my most powerful. I started performing back in 2009 and I’ve been doing it for years and like way before I got on any form of social media. That’s what a lot of people don’t know. When you see me perform, I think the words are taken to a whole different level, because for me it’s a full body experience. If you see me performing, there are a lot of things going on and it’s always been that way, it’s not something that I learned to do. From the first day I got up on stage it’s like my body dances with the words and I always make jokes about it but if you tied my hands behind my back, I would forget all my lines because the poetry seems to be memorized in different pockets of the body.

 

WD When did you first start performing?


RK I believe I was sixteen. Getting up on that stage at the age of sixteen was the opposite of what everyone expected me to do. I am super introverted, super shy. In elementary school I couldn’t speak at all, I completely avoided conversation. It was very embarrassing, but it was confortable and I didn’t really want to change that, but I was going through a really rough time in high school (like so many of us do) and I was sick of it. One day, I realized that I needed to change my life, I couldn’t live like this anymore. I started to do things that I would have otherwise said no to. I was scrolling online and I saw a post about an open act and I thought, “That’s cool I should do that,” and I convinced a friend and we wrote a poem. We showed up at the theatre—it was a community center—and I thought, “Why did I come here?” because it’s already so hard for me to be visible. But the people that was were in that space were so incredible, I had never experienced that before. They are times where you forget that you’re on stage and everyone is cheering you on hard. It’s the support and love I received after such a long time. After all that love I got from those people, I think that marked something in me. I was like, "I want to do this all the time, everywhere!" and then it started and that’s what I did for years. The reason why I transferred my work and started publishing my work online is because my friends told me, “You know you’re performing locally and across Canada and your audience is growing, like 400 people to 700 people. We think more people need to read this.”

WD What was it like when you started to have this online dialogue with people? Were you reading how people were responding to it? How does it differ from the environment of a live performance?

RK I think the early communities spaces I was involved in brought me so much love and support. Online spaces were too but since it was online I think it was more of an honest conversation. But earlier, in 2013, it would give me validation to write about the things I wanted to write about because I felt a little bit insecure at that age. I remember I had so much love and support in the community and some dudes were like “She’s so weird, she only talks about sexual abuse, she has so many issues” which can be so horrible for a girl who is 16-17 years old who is trying to be accepted. There were moments when I thought I should just stop writing and I should go do something more appealing. But these online audiences would leave such warm comments and it made me realize, this is what I want to write about, I have to keep going because if not then who else is going to write it? I remember there was a woman who’s now my friend, she left a comment saying, “Wow I never felt more like a woman than I have while reading your work” and that helped me so much because so many things that I’ve gone through in my life have been simply because I’m a woman and I realized how crucial that identity was to me and that helped to ground my ideals and stand by them.


WD Is there anything you’re afraid to write about now?


RK My writing process is very much like journaling. I write constantly. I’m not afraid to write, but to share, yes. There are some pieces in The Sun and Her Flowers and Milk and Honey where I’m being very bold about my sensuality; I was very afraid of sharing those because I come from a culture and a community where we never talk about sex. And then from the other side, when you get viewed as a certain type of writer then you feel like you can’t also be this other type of writer. People are like, “Oh, you’re the feminist writer, you write about violence, it’s so great,” and they don’t expect me to write a piece about just having this guy go down on me. So breaking down those complexities was a fear of mine, but now I’m just getting a lot more comfortable.

WD And I think it's that juxtaposition that sets your work apart. It's the milk and the honey: different consistencies that don't necessarily blend, but compliment each other.

RK Yeah! I think we are all just so complex and emotional, and if I show that to people, they might be like, "Okay, I’m like that too." It’s funny because sometimes I meet and I work with people and they have this idea that I am a super proper artist and when they meet me and I'm making jokes, all of a sudden they’ll freeze up. The reason behind the storytelling and the jokes and letting people see that part of me which I have protected for such a long time is that when you’re on stage and you’re performing such heavy work, I have to balanced that out in some way. I’m sharing stories, and all the stories aren’t autobiographical, but some of them are quite personal, and to balance that out to myself it’s about making jokes and sharing funny stories that would just made the public laugh. And I also believe in having a good time, and I want people that come here to feel home. I want everyone to enjoy themselves and be happy because I think that’s what people deserve and I always try to create the show in that way.


WD For the pieces that aren’t autobiographical, where do those stories come from?


RK All of my work is inspired by conversations or by stories that I know that have happened to women in my community for generations, and I wanted to document that. For example in chapter three in The Sun and Her Flowers, there is a piece about my mom. I wanted to document my family experiences, but then I was like, “No who wants to read about that.” But then right before writing the book I realized, this is insane to me, because my mom and I are both immigrants, we both left this country, and we are both experiencing being separated across worlds—and this is only going to happen this once. Sure, it might happen for future generations of my family but not the same way. I realized that had to document this and talk about this for my community. So chapter three became about immigration. And being in America where that's such an important issue right now, I could feel the anxiety slip right into my work. That was interesting to see how the book changed so much within four months just by me being here.


WD Were you surprised by how it all turned out then?


RK I was! I had my idea of what I wanted it to look like. I thought, "Okay, it’s going to be a two part series, with a sort of yin and yang kind of a thing” and that the plot would be the experience of someone going through an unhealthy relationship, and then the opposite: the second chapter would be something that is completely healthy. I really wanted to focus on the bridge between those two because going from unhealthy to healthy for me was one of the biggest challenges. When unbalanced becomes your norm, that is how you define love, and if someone super healthy comes along and they want to treat you right you’re like, "No this isn’t love because anger is supposed to be love" and so to prove you’re in love you have to be angry. I think it takes a long time to correct that and that’s what I wanted to focus on with The Sun and Her Flowers. Then my publisher was like, “Great we love it let’s do this!" But then when I started writing chapter three, there was this poem [about my family] that started coming to me and I was horrified because I thought, "I have to write these other pieces, I'm going to miss my deadline." But all these other poems kept coming to me, the poems that ended up making chapter three. I struggled to find the recipe that made Milk and Honey successful for so long, but what I eventually realized was that it worked because I was honest. So why would I not be honest with The Sun and Her Flowers? My heart and my mind were presenting me these things, so why am I going to hide them? So I wanted to find a way to blend them all together and create a narrative with these stories that works and that’s when the “Lifecycle of the Plant” kind of started to appear in front of my eyes with going back to your roots and ancestry and family and all that.


WD Does it add to the pressure that you're talked about as essentially bringing back a genre of literature?


RK No, that doesn’t because for me my art isn’t specifically poetry, my art is expression. When I was five years old my dream was to be a painter, and I painted and I drew for over 15 years and it’s so funny because nobody has seen that work. And I feel that I'll move to other genres. I love fashion and film. All of it fulfills me. 


WD Have you thought about sharing any of that work you've done in other formats, aside from drawing and poetry?


RK I have, but I think everything comes at its time, there is no reason to rush. I have my entire life.

WD Definitely. Well thank you for taking the time to chat. I really love that we started this conversation with you saying that you grew up afraid of conversation, and later you pointed out that it is now the inspiration for much of your work. Did you realize that?

RK Wow. No, I hadn't. Very full circle. Thank you for pointing that out.

 

The Sun and Her Flowers is out now from Andrews McMeel. All photos courtesy of Carlota Guerrero / Rupi Kaur.

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