Alyson Miller teaches writing and literature at Deakin University, Melbourne. Her critical and creative work has appeared in both national and international publications, including three books of prose poetry, Dream animals, Pika-Don and Strange Creatures (forthcoming with Recent Work Press), as well as a monograph, Haunted by words: Scandalous texts.

‘Poetry’s Beyoncé’

On Rupi Kaur and the commodifying effects of instapoetics

Focusing on the controversy surrounding Rupi Kaur, and the Instapoetry of which she has become representative, this paper examines how the poet unsettles notions of genre, gender, and race in order to reveal anxieties about the imbrication of women, trauma, and power. By mobilising a fraught narrative of identity concerned with marginality, and by harnessing a multimodal platform that embraces both ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms of expression, Kaur undoubtedly troubles the borderlines, and highly successfully. Her debut self-published collection milk and honey (2014) sold over 3 million copies, remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for a consecutive 100 weeks. Marketed as a ‘social media star’ and lauded by dedicated followers, Kaur has been described as a ‘millennial publishing sensation’ and, even more impressively, ‘poetry’s Beyoncé’ (Roy 2018). Kaur as Instapoet is framed as an activist who resists and rejects authority, turning from the status quo to highlight the structural inequalities that have traditionally sought to keep the ‘other’ on the outside. Yet as this paper contends, the persona offered by Kaur is one that problematically uses the confessional mode to blur the lines between what is being offered by the poems of milk and honey, and the extra-textual discourses in which they are framed. The dichotomy effecting Instapoetry, then, is not about those impossible questions concerning what constitutes ‘good’ or valued art. Alternatively, arguments about the genre reveal a complex cultural politics through which the potential to transgress the split between self and other has been co-opted by cult-personalities such as Kaur, whose rhetoric of difference reveals only an astute act of commodification. 

Keywords: Instapoetry – Rupi Kaur – autobiography – trauma – identity