Who does that?
Who posts pictures of a woman having her period, a menstruating woman bleeding all over the place? Who dared allow the curse out of the darkness, out of our bedrooms and bathrooms, onto Instagram and Tumblr and then Facebook for all to see and censor, celebrate and revile?
Rupi Kaur, that’s who.
2015 was donned the year of the period for several reasons, including Kaur’s posting of her visual rhetoric project created for a course she was taking as an undergraduate at Waterloo University. The assignment required students to challenge a societal norm. Kaur chose menstruation since hers causes great physical pain, and, flagged as something shameful and to suffer in silence, this stubborn taboo screamed to be challenged. Taking it further, Kaur decided to post her photo series on several social media platforms, eliciting a range of reactions from genuine appreciation to extreme misogyny.
When Instagram pulled her photos down, Rupi Kaur reposted. Pulled again, she went to Facebook and had something to say about that. Here’s part of her response to Instagram:
Thank you Instagram for providing me with the exact response my work was created to critique. You deleted my photo twice stating that it goes against community guidelines. 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 okay with a small leak. When your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified, pornified. and treated less than human. thank you.
As a part of my final project for my visual rhetoric course I created this image along with a full set which you can view at www.rupikaur.com to demystify the period and make something that is innate “normal” again cause rape categories in porn are okay. objectification and sexualisation is okay. people getting off on naked underage women. bondage. torture. humiliation. abuse is okay but this makes them uncomfortable. that’s what this work is supposed to do. make you as uncomfortable as you should feel when you watch others get abused and objectified.
Their patriarchy is leaking.
Their misogyny is leaking.
We will not be censored.
Kaur’s posts went viral and she became a celebrity almost overnight.
Before all of this hullabaloo, Kaur was a writer, poet and illustrator. She had self-published her first book of poetry, milk and honey, and managed an impressive online presence of 35, 000 followers. Within days of posting her period. project, her followers ballooned to over 185,000, and is now said to be over 3.1 million. Her self-published book of poetry was picked up by a publisher and sold 2.5 million copies (Winters 38).
Rupi Kaur, an Indian-born Canadian, was well positioned to profit from her bold move. In 2017, her second book of poetry, the sun and her flowers, was published and with her notoriety and buzzing platform, sold over 3 million copies.
Who sells over 3 million books of poetry? This is far from the norm, but Kaur is one of a rather new breed of “personality poets”, “Instagram poets,” or “insta-poets,” those ‘democratizing’ poetry, perhaps still the most elite and elusive of all the arts.
How dare they? They dare.
Many, especially other poets and writers, have railed against this newest brand of poetry, short and easily digestible, and the way it’s peddled, but none more strongly than British poet Rebecca Watts. Her article “The Cult of the Noble Amateur” practically went viral itself, the old-fashioned way.
Watts goes to great lengths to expose not only the negative impact of the personality poets and their so-called poetry, but all those in the industry who support them, their editors, publishers, broadcasters. She blasts this ilk of poems, “What good is a flourishing poetry market, if what we read in poetry books renders us more confused, less appreciative of nuance, less able to engage with ideas, more indignant about the things that annoy us, and more resentful of others who appear to be different from us?”(14).
Watts’s concludes, “If we are to foster the kind of intelligent critical culture required to combat the effects of populism in politics, we must stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry”(17).
Watt’s has a point. We desperately need an “intelligent critical culture,” but I wonder how trashing today’s popular poetry moves us closer to that? Clearly millions like it, want it and will continue to consume it.
Maybe, just maybe, there’s a way for more traditional poets to capitalize on this trend? Good poets are probably the most creative, hardworking folks around. I wonder if they can find a way to ride this wave, to bring their more potent wares into broader view. Maybe insta-poets and literary poets could…learn something from each other?
Before we go any further, you deserve a taste of Kaur’s poetry if you’ve never read any. Here’s one from her first book, milk and honey. I selected this poem because a co-worker who likes Kaur and her work, especially this first book of poetry and sketches, says it’s her favorite because it’s the first time she’s ever read anything that so readily and aptly describes how she often feels:
i don’t know what living a balanced life feels like
when I am sad
i don’t cry I pour
when I am happy
i don’t smile I glow
when I am angry
i don’t yell I burn
the good thing about feeling in extremes is
when I love I give them wings
but perhaps that isn’t
such a good thing cause
they always tend to leave
and you should see me
when my heart is broken
i don’t grieve
i shatter (109)
Honestly, a reader can devour a book of Kaur’s poetry in one sitting. The poems are remarkably accessible and make the reader feel understood, not alone, better about herself, inspired. Do they say things that have never been said? Not really. Do they amaze with their form, their word choice, their imagery? Not often. But they do something. They mean something to some people and that’s not nothing.
Here’s a poem from the sun and her flowers:
i made change after change
on the road to perfection
but when I finally felt beautiful enough
their definition of beauty
what if there is no finish line
and in an attempt to keep up
i lose the gifts I was born with
for a beauty so insecure
it can’t commit to itself
–the lies they sell (222)
Thank you for that! I would have liked to have read that poem in my twenties. I might have slept with it under my pillow. Oh wait. Am I not suppose to like this?
More than ever, I am for building bridges and one bridge might be between the insta-poets and those more committed to the “technical and intellectual” (Watts 17) approach to poetry. I get something from each, maybe more from one than the other, but what’s of value to me I cannot insist upon for another.
It was a relief to stumble upon Emma Winters, Joseph O’Hare Fellow with America Media, who seems a bit of a bridge-builder here. In her article Questions for Instagram Poets, she asks fair questions and presents a less brutal conclusion than others. Winters gives a little more credit to Kaur than some other the other Instagram poets, saying she has “strong moments, but she can also be over-reliant on her illustrations and fall into cliché.”
Winter’s final paragraph even offers some advice that perhaps an insta-poet or two may heed:
“Most Instagram poetry, whether on social media or republished in a book, seems unrefined – not uncultured, necessarily, but as if it has not been filtered and edited to excise unnecessary words, to build concrete images and to choose meaningful line breaks. Not every interesting phrase or idea is suddenly a poem. Most good poetry is not written in one pass. Often, it takes a few drafts (or 30) to have a really good poem. When I read most Instagram poetry, I do not think it is without merit: It just reads like a first draft”(40).
But some readers prefer the raw stuff, feeling it speaks to them in an authentic way. Others prefer more polish, trained to value the crafted piece, the originality and spun-gold of real poetry, that “linguistic precision” (Watts 14) that truly wows.
Ironically, the period is the only punctuation Kaur uses and she does not capitalize, which she explains on her website:
“although i can read and understand my mother tongue (punjabi) i do not have the skillset to write poetry in it. to write punjabi means to use gurmukhi script. and within this script there are no uppercase or lowercase letters. all letters are treated the same. i enjoy how simple that is. how symmetrical and how absolutely straightforward. i also feel there is a level of equality this visuality brings to the work. a visual representation of what i want to see more of within the world: equalness. and the only punctuation that exists within gurmukhi script is a period.”
Who knows what we’ll see next from Kaur, but as she says in a Huffpost interview with Mallika Rao, “I understand that anything I create after this might not cause such a stir, but I feel good about the fact that I’ve gotten so much attention and I’ve grown an audience and I can share my work. ”
Keep daring to share, Rupi Kaur, for the thousands of women who find home and empowerment in your work, in all its mediums. Rupi Kaur is a #NastyWomanWriter and Artist.
©Maria Dintino 2019
Kaur, Rupi. milk and honey. Kansas City, Missouri: Andrew McMeel Publishing, 2015.
Kaur, Rupi. the sun and her flowers. Kansas City, Missouri: Andrew McMeel Publishing, 2017.
Rao, Mallika. “About That Period Photo That Broke the Internet.” Huffpost, 6 Dec 2017.
Watts, Rebecca. “The Cult of the Noble Amateur.” PN Review 239, Jan – Feb 2018.
Winters, Emma. “Questions for Instagram Poets.” AmericaMagazine.org, Spr 2019.