When I first tried to describe Rupi Kaur’s book Milk and Honey to someone, there was a bit of a misunderstanding.
“So she’s a poet. Her book was a New York Times best seller.”
“Wait, so it’s not a poetry book?”
“What? No, of course it’s a poetry book! It’s a poetry book and a New York Times bestseller.”
Yes, it’s almost an oxymoron. A poetry book that is a huge, massive commercial success. So how did Kaur do it? I was surprised as anyone when I saw one book of poetry move from the small shelf hidden in back of bookstores that’s usually reserved for poetry to the front of the store, with the James Patterson, John Grisham and other best seller books. I was happy, but I wanted to know, how did this woman do it? If I figured out what lead to her success, could I figure out what kind of future poetry had? I’m sure many publishers were looking at the same numbers and trying to make their own, greedy calculations about the very same thing, but I’m looking for more than money here. I’m looking for a future where something I love is less irrelevant.
The thing is, it’s silly to talk about Kaur’s path to success like it’s some secret to crack. While she first started writing for her own private needs to heal from a traumatic experience, one you can witness yourself in Milk and Honey. She writes very earnestly about healing after a sexual assault, and people found her words and accompanying line drawings really spoke to them.
You can see her work, and the many people discussing how it speaks to them, on her various social media accounts, though Instagram is probably the platform where she became the most famous, as a part of a movement of poets using visual elements in presenting their work on line. Lang Leav and Tyler Knott Gregson, among others, have also found success, including their own book deals through this route. Their widespread success shows that the power of a vast, quickly created network through social media definitely shows the first step to success in a modern poetry landscape. Rupi Kaur’s book, though, has gone beyond the popularity of that realm even,with just this month marking a million of her books being sold. What other factors, then, are making her work excel?
We live in a fiery age for identity politics. I’m talking about the politics surrounding someone’s race, gender, orientation, that sort of thing. As a woman of color herself, and one that writes to capture a traumatic experience that and reclaim her identity as a woman who can have relationships, sexual and romantic, without fear. This book speaks to people because of how well she captures an experience that has touched far too many lonely lives, yes, but also because she is speaking about things that people are finally ready and willing to bring out into the open; intersectional feminism, misogyny and sexuality. When I see such honest work like Kaur’s, it makes me pretty glad that we do live in this age.
Milk and Honey is only Rupi Kaur’s first book, and with her popularity, I doubt we’ve heard the last of her. I hope poetry continues to capture readers’ imagination and grow in popularity. With Milk and Honey very likely being an essential piece in that process, I’d be silly not to honor it on National Poetry Month.