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Rupi Kaur Brings Spoken Word to Harvard

By Charles K. Michael
By Caroline A. Tsai, Contributing Writer

Poet Rupi Kaur performed spoken word poetry and read from “Milk and Honey,” her bestselling book, for a packed lecture hall in Sever on Oct. 28. Kaur became well-known in large part through her Instagram and Tumblr accounts, where she posts original poetry and art. The event drew a large local audience and attracted many students from area universities.

At the event, Kaur was introduced by members of Speak Out Loud, Harvard’s slam poetry group. She divided her performance into four segments, each a chapter from “Milk and Honey.”

Kaur’s fans admire the simplicity and honesty of her writing, said audience member Madison C. Schmitt ’19. “I like that she’s so raw in it,” she said. “It doesn’t take her a lot of words or any sophisticated words to say what she feels.”

Kaur herself also spoke about her interest in writing candidly. “My writing is a product of how I would interact with things that have happened to me or things that have not happened to me but have happened to somebody else,” Kaur said.

Audience member Anju Okutani, a sophomore at Boston University, expressed appreciation for Kaur’s acknowledgement of her generation’s concerns. “I love Rupi’s work,” she said. “I think it’s really raw. I think it speaks to a lot of millennial anxieties and feelings. She writes about all these emotions in a really honest way.”

Because her publications are mostly presented through social media, Kaur’s poetry is accessible to a wide readership. She has sometimes been labeled an “InstaPoet”—one of a generation of writers who self-publish through social media. “I really don’t associate myself with [that label],” Kaur said. “That’s not the title I would go to add on my résumé. But… I think social media is… really cool in the sense that I don’t think that a writer like me would’ve found a readership if maybe Instagram wasn’t there. I tried to submit to publishers and anthologies and journals, but [they always said,] ‘We can’t publish this because there’s no market for it.’ But you post it on social media, and… it evens the playing field a little bit.”

The intersection of art and social media has improved users’ experience, according to Alin D. Clement, a junior from Northeastern University who attended the event. “That’s one of the coolest parts of Instagram,” she said. “There’s a lot of the more basic stuff, but that’s kind of where Instagram becomes more than just a social media platform. It’s a great way to share [not only] words, but also images and art.”

Grace Fernandez, a senior at Northeastern, agreed. “It’s really cool to have such immediate access to people who you think of as creative icons,” she said.

During one portion of the performance, Kaur asked for an audience participant to share the stage in a reading of her poem “to do list (after the breakup).” The participant was Moses Kim ’18, president of Speak Out Loud. “It just kind of happened. I really thought someone was going to raise their hand and I didn’t want to take their space, but then I thought, ‘I guess I’ll do it,’” Kim said. “I perform a lot as part of Speak Out Loud, but I’ve never felt as relaxed on that stage as I have with her. She opened the stage to make room for me. How playful she was in reading it made me feel confident.”

Kaur’s poetry focuses largely on themes of female empowerment, abuse, relationships, and cultural roots. “The topics just kind of come to me,” Kaur said. “If they are relevant, it’s because they’re happening in the world around me and it’s affecting me. Poetry is my way of dealing with it.”

Kaur, the daughter of Punjabi immigrants, concluded the performance with “Broken English,” a poem about her family’s adjustment to life in Canada. The poem resonated deeply with some audience members who identified with the immigrant narrative. “The poem about her parents being immigrants… that last poem really hits home for me,” Clement said.

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