In 2018, I taught creative writing at a summer program for middle schoolers. One student—a quiet, thoughtful incoming ninth grader—particularly impressed me with her poetry. When, one morning, I asked her what she liked to read, she mentioned Rupi Kaur. “She talks about hard subjects that I don’t always get to see written in relatable ways,” she said.
As a young poet myself, infatuated with the literary circles I’d discovered in college and on my way to grad school, I’d scoffed at Kaur’s earnest and straightforward style along with my other literature-major friends. The encounter with my student reminded me of the authors that had shaped me as a young, avid reader, looking for words to describe the difficulties I was just becoming aware of: domestic, intergenerational and sexual trauma, and the journey to understand and work through them.
Like it or not, Rupi Kaur’s unflinching lyric exploration of her own trauma has seen a new generation of young writers birthed in real time.
“Around 2017, I did a show in Kansas City,” Kaur recalls over email, “and this young group of girls came to the show and had a poetry slam in the lobby of the venue when the doors opened. I thought that was so, so beautiful.”
This sparked an inspiration for the current North American leg of her world tour (which arrives in San Jose this Tuesday): Kaur and her team would pick local writers from each tour stop to open for her set and represent their city.
At the California Theatre, visual artist and filmmaker Uli Golub and singer/songwriter Aarti Bhatnagar will open for Kaur. Both are Oakland-based artists who recently expanded their creative practices into poetry. Golub, who uses poems and lyrics as an element in her films, connects with Kaur’s experience as an immigrant in her work.
“I’m originally from Ukraine and English is my second language,” Golub explains. “Rupi’s poetry is simple, minimalistic, relatable. After reading her poems I have a strong desire to create, to write.”
Bhatnagar, who grew up in the Bay Area, was inspired by a speed-writing prompt on “identity” at a local slam.
“To open for one of the most iconic Punjabi women is an absolute pinch-me moment,” Bhatnagar writes, referencing the cultural identity she shares with the poet.
Kaur left Punjab, India, with her mother at age three, following her father who had already emigrated to escape persecution of Sikh men. The family settled in Brampton, Ontario, a city in the Greater Toronto Area with a large South Asian community. Kaur—who uses the last-name-honorific for Sikh women as her nom de plume—credits her culture of origin for artistic and life inspiration.
“In Sikh tradition, protest is normal […] human rights were always a regular dinner table conversation,” Kaur says. “We are taught to question everything, to stand up for ourselves and any oppressed group. That has been our history. Human rights are at the core of the faith and it plays a big part naturally in my work. I also grew up reading Punjabi poetry and I was always touched by how within Sikh poetry so much is said with such little words.”
Kaur developed her storytelling at poetry slams before self-publishing her first collection milk and honey in 2014, which would be re-released two years later after Kaur’s rise to fame via social media. She quickly followed up with the sun and her flowers in 2017, which she describes as a book-length poem. Kaur’s world tour sees the post-pandemic celebration of 2020’s fittingly titled home body, although the poet performs work from all corners of her journey, “underscored by my original music and stage design.”
Amidst the tornado of praise, criticism, and even attempts at censorship (milk and honey was removed from some schools in Texas over its mentions of sexual assault) Kaur keeps this lineage of resilience in perspective.
“I always go back to my roots. I come from over 500 years of Sikh history, with three genocides. There was a point in the 1700s when over 50% of my people were slaughtered. Anytime I feel down, anytime anybody tries to tell me I shouldn’t be doing this, I just think about what we survived to get here today. It gives me all the strength I need.”
Tue, 8pm, $39+
California Theatre, San Jose