In a recent profile, Rupi Kaur (the Instagram poet, author of Milk and Honey and now The Sun and Her Flowers) describes a writing exercise she gave students in the classes she taught while herself a student: list poetry.
“It’s basically just a list of stuff,” Kaur explains. “I would ask them to write a list of things that they wish they were born with, and write the first thing that comes to mind. And then folks would write a list of 20 things, from physical things to abstract things, and it was super cool because then you would go around and you’d read them out loud and everybody had different answers. And the best part was they’d walk away, like, oh, I can do this, I’m a poet. I’m like, yeah, you are.”
The exercise is so simple. The entry point is so low. It’s nothing like the creative-writing class I took in university, where we wrote mostly poetry and a bit of fiction.
We wrote roundels and villanelles and sonnets and sestinas. I agonized over those poems, trying to fit what I wanted the poem to be about into the structure I was required to follow. I could start off the poem with idea, an image, a metaphor, but to finish the poem I had to shoehorn the rest of the words to fit the frame. It made me feel like a terrible poet.
Not one poem came out the way I intended it to. Come to think of it, nothing I write seems to.
I first found about about Rupi Kaur in a bookstore when I saw Milk and Honey turned face out on a shelf. It was odd to see contemporary poetry I’d never heard of so prominently displayed.
I flipped through the book, wondering how on earth it got published. Something about it appealed to me, but it was confusing. Is poetry like this marketable again, casually typewritten with doodles? Is this what teenagers are reading now?
I learned some time later about the Instagram connection and it began to make sense. Rupi Kaur writes about heartbreak and loss, about feminism and womanhood. She writes these tiny doses of big emotion in Times New Roman.
Maybe this isn’t your type of poetry. It isn’t mine, although there are nuggets of treasure amongst the images and ideas that don’t connect with me. Kazim Ali has many excellent suggestions of poets to read alongside or instead. But if Rupi Kaur has a superpower, it’s that she can make us all feel like poets. Any one of us could be a poet. Or, at least, she leads us to a place where we can begin.
I tried to write a list of 20 things I wish I’d been born with, but all I could think of was a $500,000 trust fund that I would only have access to when I turn 35.
I thought of physical traits, but I like what I have. (That is, I would dislike anything I don’t have as much as I already do what I do have.) I thought of character traits, but I figure my childhood and adolescence would obliterate most of them, so the wish would be useless.
Everything else I could want feels like something I could get or have or be, if I really wanted it badly enough.
What about you?