On Rupi Kaur’s insta-poetry

Two writers discuss accessibility, universality, and allegations of plagiarism in Kaur's work

On Rupi Kaur’s insta-poetry

In October, Rupi Kaur’s The Sun and Her Flowers was ranked second on The New York Times Bestsellers List. Kaur’s first book, Milk and Honey, hit number one earlier this year, has sold two million copies, and has been translated into more than 30 languages.

Kaur’s work has not only achieved commercial success, but has been lauded in the media. In a Huffington Post article from 2015 titled “Rupi Kaur: The Poet Every Woman Needs to Read,” Erin Spencer wrote, “Milk and Honey is the poetry collection every woman needs on her nightstand or coffee table.” This kind of attention, combined with Kaur’s massive following on Instagram — about 1.7 million strong — has assured her rapid rise. Yet Kaur’s overly simplistic, accessible poetry has provoked a discussion in both the literary world and her more mainstream audience as to whether or not her work even qualifies as poetry or constitutes ‘real literature.’

Accessible ‘poetry’

In 2016, Kaur told The Guardian that she felt that the global market did not have room to include a Punjabi-Sikh-Canadian woman’s experience with love, healing, and trauma. After achieving little success in publishing her work in traditional literary mediums like anthologies and journals, Kaur took to self-publishing her manuscript, a growing alternative to traditional publishing though still somewhat stigmatized and dismissed in the literary world. Her work to self-publish Milk and Honey in this context is indeed admirable.

The themes which Kaur explores in her work are both relatable and important. Her experiences are valid and worth sharing, and many women have been able to connect and heal from their own traumas through Kaur’s work.

Yet, despite her ability to connect with readers, I cannot shake the annoyance and frustration I have with her works being labelled ‘poetry.’ Perhaps my reaction to her notoriety is a result of my love of the poetic canon, but I also have a love for literature outside of that elite literary circle.

Rupi Kaur’s works are sentences

broken into fragments

that lack basic poetic devices

and this is where my

frustration stems from.

Literary forms and genres should be challenged. They should evolve and be made accessible to contemporary audiences — but in a way that follows at least some structural elements of its traditional form. Poetry should certainly be thought provoking, and should elicit feelings and connection. But accessibility does not mean eliminating poetic devices from the genre.

The beauty of poetry is that the poet can evoke a feeling without requiring the reader to understand the work’s message immediately. Petrarch’s sonnets may not be accessible to everyone, but they are written elegantly, filled with countless poetic devices. His poetry shows, while Kaur’s tells.

— Carol Eugene Park

Allegations of plagiarism

Despite Kaur’s success, both in terms of book sales and social media following, her work has not escaped criticism. Allegations of plagiarism and lack of originality have arisen, particularly in relation to her work’s similarities to Salt, a book by the poet Nayyirah Waheed.

Having been familiar with Waheed’s work prior to reading either Milk and Honey or The Sun and Her Flowers, I do see the similarities and I don’t think the allegations of plagiarism are completely unfounded. Thematic similarities arise in both authors’ works, like the motif of honey used as a metaphor for kindness or cooperation. Both writers also frequently draw connections between womanhood and the sea.

However, I don’t think it’s fair to assert that this alone constitutes plagiarism. These elements have a connotation that many are at least familiar with. Drawing on shared understanding is part and parcel of many genres of literature — authors use words or notions that they believe will draw on a common understanding in order to communicate their ideas.

It may not be fair to say that Kaur outright plagiarized, but there seems to be evidence of hyper similarity and even paraphrasing. Perhaps most interesting is that although Waheed reached out to Kaur both privately and publicly for a comment on the allegations of plagiarism, Kaur did not respond.

One would think that when an author is accused of plagiarism, they would refute such allegations, justify the similarities, or at least engage in a conversation. While Kaur has cited Waheed as an inspiration several times, she has never responded to the allegations of plagiarism against her. One must wonder when inspiration ends and plagiarism begins.

Disingenuous attempts at universality

Another often-criticized aspect of Kaur’s work is her attempt to be both personal and universal by generalizing her own personal confessions. Her work involves issues of rape, abuse, misogyny, violence, femininity, and body shaming, much of it related to her background as a Punjabi and Sikh woman.

In her writing, Kaur claims to represent generations of trauma, generalizing her personal opinions on these issues on behalf of the greater Punjabi and Sikh communities. This is particularly problematic because she doesn’t differentiate between herself, an educated, Indian-Canadian, Western woman, and her ancestors, or even the modern women who currently live in her ancestral hometown.

Kaur’s work suggests that all South Asian women have the same experience, and doesn’t acknowledge her own privileges or the simple fact that historical differences do exist. It’s disingenuous for her to claim that her experience is the same as that of a colonized woman, and for her to derive material benefit from claiming generations of trauma that she may or may not have personally experienced.

Discussing the accusations of plagiarism that have been levelled against Kaur raise interesting questions of originality and ownership in this digital age, where both information and art can be disseminated widely and rapidly. The criticism of her work as claiming a false universality also brings up issues of postcolonial writing and positionality. We must wonder how Western postcolonial writers can position themselves in a modern context while their writing is historically influenced, and how they can write about historical experience while ensuring they do not claim it as their own.

— Farida Abdelmeguied

Coming clean at the Dirty Laundry Poetry Series

U of T student Zak Jones is responsible for the project that mixes poetry with laundromats

Coming clean at the Dirty Laundry Poetry Series

It was a Saturday night in Roncesvalles. Not many would expect to find themselves in a laundromat. Yet, many were there at the Banner Coin Laundromat on Dundas Street West. They weren’t there to wash their clothes. Instead, this eclectic group of art lovers posted up on washers and the wall of dryers. The hot and sweaty space tested the audience’s endurance. It held up. Everyone stayed for one purpose: to hear poetry.

Just like clothes sticking to bodies, the venue made for a unique experience that connected the audience to one another. The poets of the night, Lydia Pawlowsky, Vincent Pagé, and Vincent Calistro, decided that tonight was the night they would air their dirty laundry. As they each bared their souls, their words became intimate confessions of love, moments of laughter. Sitting there, fanning myself with my own notebook, I began to think how love, laughter, and a need to do laundry are things we all share. A collective love of poetry may have brought us to the laundromat, but a deep need to air out our own dirty laundry is what we left with.

The Dirty Laundry Poetry Series is the brainchild of University of Toronto student Zak Jones. I sat down with him to see what inspired him to start the series. The next Dirty Laundry Poetry event will take place at the end of this month.


 

The Varsity: What inspires you about a laundromat?

Zak Jones: I was in the U.S. army. And we had a laundry room, which is almost identical to something that looks exactly as this. And I spent so many hours, ‘cause you always have to have clean uniforms. Clean bed sheets, clean everything, all the time. Which is almost impossible, ‘cause you’re always fucking dirty. And that’s when I would do most of my writing. And this particular event, I was actually doing a reading at the Belljar Cafe and jokingly into the microphone, I said “Hey, catch me at the laundromat next door after for the secret reading.” And people were coming up to me after like, “Are you really doing a reading at the laundromat?” and I was like, “Dude, I should!”

TV: You said you wanted a lot of artists who just really love poetry to come here to showcase their work.

ZJ: It’s not about the place that they want to come to. I want them to come to me or for themselves, to open up their eyes to this type of venue that’s not a venue, where it shouldn’t be… and I don’t know how deep you are into the Toronto poetry culture, but it’s always at The Central or something like that… They have to read over coffee being made, and people drinking beer, people talking; people are just there to be there kind of thing, and I wanted to eliminate that part of it and make it more egalitarian. So whether you are a poet or an artist yourself, or someone who hopes to appreciate it and doesn’t necessarily, you haven’t dipped your toes into the political asinine horseshit that is poetry in Toronto right now. Then there is no problem for you to come. You know?

TV: Yeah, totally.

ZJ: So that’s what I want… And then for, you know, artists themselves, I want them to look deep into their soul and say, “Do I want to be a poet or do I want to tell people I’m a poet?” And then this is the difference. So just reading in general regardless of where you are and just expressing the fruits of your given labour at any given time should be what qualifies you as a poet. People who write on their Tumblr, not necessarily. I think it needs to be shared. It should be a shared visceral human experience. And there is nothing more human or equal than clean clothes. Even dirty people go in there. You know? I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it happens.

The story of the ‘One Dollar Poem Guy’

We’ve all passed by Shawn DeSouza-Coelho at some point, but who is the budget poet, really?

The story of the ‘One Dollar Poem Guy’

An interesting addition to the northeast corner of St. George and Harbord has recently set up shop, and it’s not a food truck. Nestled between the neatly lined trees and the red mailbox sits a poet. Taking a brief break from scribbling in his journal, Shawn DeSouza-Coelho quietly observes the campus’ activity throughout the day. For a loonie, he’ll write you a poem about anything. All proceeds go to the Daily Bread Food Bank. He is the ‘One Dollar Poem Guy.’

The One Dollar Poem Guy at Robarts. Lisa Power/THE VARSITY

The One Dollar Poem Guy at Robarts. Lisa Power/THE VARSITY

But DeSouza-Coelho is so much more than that: poet, actor, entertainer, writer, and above all, artist. When he’s not at his poetry stand, he works as a magician specializing in mind reading. He has written the novel MetaMagic: An Introduction and has another book on the way.

In April, DeSouza-Coelho will be hosting a TEDx Talk before gearing up to travel around southern Ontario with a theatre production. Originally from Toronto, he attended the University of Waterloo for his undergrad. Initially, he was to complete his graduate studies at U of T but instead opted to return to his alma mater. Now, he finds himself back at U of T and situated at the epicentre of the campus and offering words of inspiration during exam season.

The poetry stand

“I’ve been doing it since May of last year… I started off doing it on campus at Waterloo while I was doing my Master’s there. And from there I decided to take it to Toronto… I started at Robarts [in the] beginning of February… and one of the reasons I decided to do that was because I was trying to figure out a place in Toronto where there was still a lot of foot traffic in the winter… I’ve read about it in a book called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg… in that book she talks about practicing letting go of writing… basically the idea behind the poetry stand is that you write a little blurb and then you give it out to the world and then let it go… Because normally when we write something we hold onto it… our internal sense or our editor sort of goes into overdrive and we… don’t want to put it out into the world because we don’t think it’s finished… but it’ll never be finished.”

What DeSouza-Coelho writes about

“I initially started doing the stand to practice my prose but then 95 per cent of people started asking for poetry. So I quickly kind of fell into writing poetry… sometimes they’ll suggest things and sometimes I ask them if they want to suggest some thing…. it’s really just a matter of whatever hits me on the spot… I have a general idea of what I want my poems to be; a general image of what I think poetry should do and… it really amounts to taking or creating a space and then filling it with language, right? That’s what I try to do with all my poems… I try to create a space. Doesn’t matter what space it is. It could be on the patio at Starbucks. It could be on the moon, it could be on Pluto, wherever… it’s just about the practice of getting something out there or getting something on the page… when I did it at Waterloo I did it at a place called The Davis Centre. And that whole building is designed to look like a microchip. A lot of people got the juxtaposition of a person writing poetry inside of this technological vestige at the University of Waterloo.”

This interview has been condensed for clarity.   

And he doesn’t even know it

With a bit of reconstructive surgery, we turned Donald Trump’s tweets into poems

And he doesn’t even know it

Donald J. Trump is many things: entrepreneur, real-estate developer, television personality, and frontrunner for the American Republican Party. But did you know that he’s also a poet? Despite his aversion to all things politically correct, perhaps underneath his tasteless antics and deplorable public persona lies a sensitive, imaginative man. With a little re-arranging, we converted his twitter account into a poet’s journal, searching for deeper meaning while discovering some truly exquisite social commentary.

For starters, it’s pretty obvious that Trump draws a lot of inspiration from fellow Republican nominee Ted Cruz. One could say Cruz is his muse. In the following tweet, he accuses Cruz of lying — something he often does. Beneath the surface, however, a sadder image emerges: one of betrayal, loss, and loneliness. Trump expertly summarizes Shakespearian tragedy by having Cruz resemble Hamlet. Here’s how we interpreted the tweet:

Original tweet: “Wow, just saw an ad — Cruz is lying on so many levels. There is nobody more against ObamaCare than me, will repeal & replace. He lies!”

Found poem: Lying. He lies! Repeal & replace. There is nobody.

Original tweet: “We will stop heroin and other drugs from coming into New Hampshire from our open southern border. We will build a WALL and have security.”

Found poem: Heroin will build security, a WALL, and border. We will open. Stop drugs.

Original tweet: “Ted Cruz is a cheater! He holds the Bible high and then lies and misrepresents the facts!”

Found poem: A cheater lies. He holds the facts high!

Original tweet: “Anybody who watched all of Ted Cruz’s far too long, rambling, overly flamboyant speech last nite [sic] would say that was his Howard Dean moment!”

Found poem: Watched; far too long; rambling; flamboyant. Last nite. His moment.

George Elliott Clarke named Canada’s poet laureate

U of T professor on race, political inspiration, and upcoming initiatives

George Elliott Clarke named Canada’s poet laureate

George Elliott Clarke, University of Toronto professor, has been appointed the new Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate.

The acclaimed poet became the seventh person and the first African-Canadian to hold the position in its 14-year history. “This is a great honour, a great privilege,” Clarke told The Varsity. “There are 35 million Canadians and counting; and now, I have a special role… to try to encapsulate the collective dreams and ideals and hopes of 35 million Canadians.”

Clarke adds, “I know we’re not supposed to think of it as… representing the people in some way, but I do.”

The selection was made by a committee, based on the recommendation of parliamentary librarian Sonia L’Heureux and others. A public statement by Geoff Regan, the Speaker of the House of Commons, and George Furrey, the Speaker of the Senate, announced the new poet laureate on January 5.

Previously, the 55-year old Clarke served as Toronto’s poet laureate since his appointment in 2012.  His successor, author Anne Michaels, was announced last December.

According to the Library of Parliament, the role of the parliamentary poet laureate is to “encourage and promote the importance of literature, culture, and language in Canadian society.” The position was created to “draw Canadians’ attention to poetry, both spoken and written, and its role in our lives.”

“George Elliott Clarke has been a true ambassador of the work of Canadian poets,” said Furey in a public statement. “His contribution to Canada’s cultural fabric is exceptional.”

“His talent as poet, playwright, and literary critic is undeniable,” said Regan. “He is an immensely versatile and engaging writer and will bring great honour to the position.”

Biography

From Windsor, Nova Scotia, Clarke is a seventh-generation Canadian of African-American and Mi’kmaq Amerindian heritage. His lineage traces back to a group of Chesapeake Bay slaves, freed by the British during the war of 1812 and sought refuge in Nova Scotia.

Clarke received his bachelors of arts in English from the University of Waterloo in 1984, his master of arts from Dalhousie in 1989, and his PhD from Queen’s University in 1993. He went on to teach English and Canadian studies at Duke University from 1994 to 1999. He was also the visiting Seagrams chair in Canadian studies at McGill from 1998 to 1999.

Clarke worked as a parliamentary aide at the House of Commons for MP and civil rights activist Howard McCurdy from 1987 to 1991. He was also a social worker and legislative researcher at Queen’s Park between 1982 and 1983. He was appointed as the inaugural E.J. Pratt professor of Canadian literature at U of T in 2003, where he taught Canadian and African diasporic literature. 

Poetic Past

Clarke’s work delves into many topics, including race, social justice, and governance. He writes poetry, prose fiction, and opera.

“As a black youth in the 1960s and 1970s in Halifax, I was very aware of lots of movements of various peoples to get more equality and get more justice and that had a huge impact on me,” Clarke said.

He coined the term ‘Africadian’ to refer to black culture from the maritimes. Clarke believes the difference between black culture in Atlantic Canada and the rest of the country is the “long history of distinct settlement” that has brought a culture that is “distinct and unique.”

“So Africadians [or] Black Nova Scotians, had no choice but to grow up or survive as a distinct culture from the rest of Nova Scotia because our communities were positioned outside of larger white villages and towns,” Clarke said. “And that was done on purpose, so that the black populations had to work for cheap wages for white employers in nearby towns.”

In 2002, he was awarded the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for his work Execution Poems. The poems are based around two of Clarke’s ancestors who were executed for murder in 1949.

He has received honorary degrees from Dalhousie, The University of Waterloo, Saint Mary’s University, the University of Windsor, the Royal Military College, and the University of New Brunswick for recognition of his work. Clarke was named the William Lyon Mackenzie King visiting professor of Canadian studies at Harvard University in 2013.

Clarke’s upcoming novel, The Motorcyclist, is based on the diary of Charles Fletcher, a Nova Scotian who went from being a janitor to becoming Harvard’s first black professor. Clarke found Fletcher’s story during his time at Harvard.

From having his poetry as part of the official Magna Carta exhibit, to writing a poem for Toronto City Hall, Clarke said of being Toronto’s poet laureate that “it was a great experience, I truly enjoyed trying to represent the people of Toronto at various events and the poems that I wrote for City Council, that I read to City Council every April, I got to address City Council.”

Race in Canada

One of the recurring themes in Clarke’s poetry is race, extending to experiences of being black in Canada. “Questions of police maltreatment in Canada have a long history, going back decades, even centuries,” Clarke said, noting the police brutality that Indigenous peoples also experience. “The continued activists and scholars who are activists, calling to attention of deficiencies in the justice apparatus of the nation is a good thing.” Students at many North American universities, including U of T have taken to the streets, holding protests on their campuses. Black students and students of colour have been protesting against institutional racism and pressuring university administration to rectify issues such as a lack of diversity training, and for a commitment to employing a diverse faculty.

“Speaking as a professor, anything that makes students feel more comfortable in fulfilling their studies… has to be a good thing,” Clarke said. “If that means more equity training, then possibly that is what it should be.”

In February of last year, Clarke publicly supported for the students of Mount Allison University, who had protested against the racial discrimination they experienced at their campus.

A multicultural Canada

One of Elliott’s heroes is Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Clarke wrote a play in 2007 called Trudeau: Long March/Shining Path, that focused on the personality of the former prime minister.

In a 2010 interview, Clarke referred to “the Trudeau who appeals to me is the person who represents multiculturalism and projects these values to Canada and the world,” adding, “we don’t see diversity as strange or unusual, or dangerous, which partly a legacy of Pierre Trudeau.” Clarke goes on to say that, “if you had the experience of traveling, as he did in 1948 and ’49, deliberately so that you can experience different cultures and different ways human beings have organized themselves to live. You can’t come away with the provincial attitude, that ‘only our way of life is the very best’ and ‘only our way of doing things count as being right and civilized and humane.’”

As the parliamentary poet laureate of Justin Trudeau’s government, Clarke emphasized the importance of Canadians supporting Canada’s multiculturalism. “I think all of us are promoting multiculturalism, including all the opposition parties,” Clarke said. “This prime minister, like all the prime ministers before him, including Mr. Harper, need to respond conditions as they are right now… regardless of the directives of the past or the ideals of the past, the past as a guide, but it cannot let it dictate solutions to current issues. In other words, the current prime minister must be free to conduct government in the best interest of Canadians and voters.”

Canada in Poems

For the next two years as parliamentary poet laureate, Clarke has a line up of initiatives for his tenure. Among his plans is the creation of a database of Canadian poetry in celebration of the 150-year anniversary of the confederation of the country.

“By July 1, 2017, I would like there to be a program to be in place, whereby Canadians will have sent to the Library of Parliament or their respected MPs, lists of poets and poems that they believe represent their particular neighbourhood, city, province,” Clarke said. “Almost any particular poet could be represented by poems in different parts of the country, which I think helps make it a national project, a national treasury of Canadian poetry in both official languages, which is what I’m looking for.”