Catch me with some flash fiction in the latest from The Temz Review out of London, Ontario. Read it here.
Here I am reading my poem, “Oh, Just Browsing”, as part of untethered magazine’s Past Contributor Reading Series. The poem is included in my prose collection, The New Frontiers of Conceptual Art, which is available through the ‘Shop’ tab above.
Today in PCRS, Trevor Abes reading his poem “Oh, Just Browsing” from untethered vol. 2.1
Trevor Abes is an artist from Toronto with a fondness for writing essays and poetry. He was part of the winning ensemble at the 2015 SLAMtario Spoken Word Festival, and competed in both the National Poetry Slam and the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word as part of the Toronto Poetry Slam team. His work has appeared in Torontoist, (parenthetical), untethered, Sewer Lid, Spacing Magazine, Descant Magazine, The Rusty Toque, The Theatre Reader, Mooney on Theatre, The Toronto Review of Books, Hart House Review, and Sequential: Canadian Comics News & Culture, among others. His first full-length collection of prose, The New Frontiers Of Conceptual Art, is available through trevorabes.com. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @TrevorAbes
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My book of fictional ekphrases, The New Frontiers Of Conceptual Art, is now available as a digital copy.
It’s inspired by the people I met while working at the gift shop in Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital.
In case the term is unfamiliar, an ekphrasis is a literary description of or commentary on a work of art. In the case of NFCA, the artists and artworks are fictional but based on real people.
You can read sample pieces and grab your copy here.
Swim Team introduces us to an Iranian all-women swim team as they train in a town with no pool. The play—produced by Nowadays Theatre in collaboration with Alma Matters Productions—is an act of worship to the imagination and the barriers it can remove. It’s also a stirring metaphor about gender inequality for presenting a world where women’s rights can fall into the fantastical territory of make-believe.
The cast are on a whole other level of play here. Think about the imaginative demands placed on their characters. They swim by acting out the motions on a dusty patch of land, using towels and wringing out wet hair to keep up the suspension of disbelief. It’s enough to make you feel young again, when limitations on what might exist weren’t really an obstacle.
But at the same time, having to occupy a space of make-believe just to participate in a sport is a powerful metaphor, one that seeks justice for oppressed women by imbuing their struggle with absurdity. As in, it’s absurd for the team to have to disavow their humanity and fictionalize their own existence to jump into some water. As in, it’s absurd that women need to strive to make something from nothing in a country where they’re already second-class citizens. The team doesn’t mention state-enforced ideology much at all, which made it harder for me to ignore its shadow in the background.
Roya (Banafsheh Taherian), the swim coach, carries the memory of students drowning on her watch with palpable anxiety. It makes for good fuel to drive her to whip her current team into shape but feels too high-octane for the task. The excess energy she could be using to forgive herself for losing the students is piled onto her new ones, generating an imbalance where something has to give, and I was on board to find out what did.
Roya and her three-person team occupy a hierarchy of strength, such that she seems tougher than Nary (Tina Bararian), who seems tougher than Katy (Mahsa Ershadifar), who seems tougher than Lili (Aylin Oyan Salahshoor). This is interesting for a number of reasons. For one, it lends a sense of order to the story, one that speaks to the regimented country they live in, the geometry of the imaginary pool they swim in, and just makes things that much tighter symbolically. It’s also a strategy that offers many chances for disruption, such that characters often change rankings. Sharing how would just spoil the story.
The details surrounding the team’s imaginary swims had me laughing the hardest. Stuff like drying off a diving board, taking deep breaths after each stroke, or making sound effects with a tub of water to mimic a toe in the pool. It’s such a roundabout way to participate in the sport, it’s as if I was watching a living Rube Goldberg Machine. I was also laughing because I couldn’t recall the last time I tried anything without filtering it through some sense of what could and could not be.
Playwright Jaber Ramezani plants little nuggets throughout to further comment on fantasy’s relationship with reality, and on his characters’ ability to imagine the lives they want into existence. For one, I became familiar with characters’ motivations as they interacted during practices, but they actually share very little about their personal histories. This combo adds up to intimacy that is somehow both authentic and fabricated. I was left thinking that we are the stories we tell ourselves, as well as solely responsible for how good we get at believing in them.
There is also Lili’s unacknowledged arm pain, which might seem disjointed but fits into the same line of thinking. Her pain is not worthy of belief as far as her coach and teammates are concerned; therefore it’s as if it doesn’t exist. Lili goes along with this erasure, replacing her pain with the truth that best serves her, that there is water in the pool. This malleability of self has a revolutionary kick to it. Lili and her team assert their autonomy and go about their business by playing God, picking and choosing the sensations and situations that deserve a life of their own.
What ties it all together for me is how even the difficulties of friendship contribute to the team’s air of refuge. In spite of how annoyed Lili gets by Nary’s teasing, she misses her when she’s not around. And even though Lili calls her names, Nary returns to her side. Regardless of the dispute, they stick together, tight as confidants, extending each other the benefit of not having to self-censor to explore who they are. By the end, this bond borders on the sacred.
Swim Team is a bountiful offering of child-like wonder that speaks to the realities of Iranian women without overt politicization. I was combing through the layers of its deceptively simple story long after the curtain fell.
Poster provided by the company.
After only three performances, a new storytelling series is packing them in at the Free Times Cafe. It’s called But That’s Another Story and it gives space to a wide cross-section of genres, including fables, comic essays, and more contemporary works. Its producer-hosts, Briane Nasimok and Christel Bartelse, are two well-established voices in the Canadian performing arts. Nasimok is a Canadian Comedy Award winner who appeared in classic 1980s films like Gas and The Funny Farm. Bartelse is a Canadian Comedy Award nominee known for her internationally-acclaimed one-woman shows.
Read my full review on Mooney on Theatre.
Dancers of Damelahamid’s new work, Mînowin, is a mesmerizing session of song and dance about reconnecting with ancestral Indigenous knowledge, easing the struggles of Indigenous people, and exploring how progress is a continuous process of imbalance and renewal. Staged in the cozy Harbourfront Centre Theatre, this DanceWorks production flirts with epic themes in the most intimate of spaces.
Mînowin translates to ‘the act of clarifying direction’, which is right in line with the company’s reason for being. According to Margaret Grenier, Executive and Artistic Director for the Dancers of Damelahamid, “I treasure dance as the most significant inheritance I have from my ancestors. For myself, dance, song, and story have provided a protective environment to address the limitations placed on our Indigenous peoples and to create a healing space”. In other words, the company’s articulated direction, the best way to go about its life, is to continue their peoples’ long lineage of reflecting experience and tradition through art.
Dancers of Damelahamid have been restoring traditional Indigenous songs and dances for over 50 years. That history continues here with a series of dances based on teachings from the Gitxsan people, a matrilineal society from the Northwest coast of British Columbia, from which the company also hails. Gitxsan translates to ‘people of the river of mist’.
Mînowin’s most resonant example of connecting to the past, in my estimation, is the dance that centres on orcas, a Gitxsan symbol going back thousands of years. Five of the seven dancers swim through air onto a dark stage. Four of them wear fins, while the fifth holds an orca puppet, each rigged with bright lights the blue of pristine coastal water. Their calming glow, coupled with the repetitive nature of the choreography—which builds on a single rhythm and a small number of steps—left room for nothing else in my attention. The wonder of it was a bedtime story brought to life.
Margaret Grenier’s choreography achieves this entrancing effect pretty well throughout. It’s what speaks most of healing to me, how each dancer seemed so effortlessly lost in music and movement to the point of forgetting hardship, if only for a while. The more I watched, the more I felt some of that medicine was transferred to me.
The themes of imbalance and renewal come about in dances built around related images, each distinctive in their own way. In one, a dancer drops dead and somehow returns to life, the tension of it thick enough to slice. In another more symbolic example, dancers lie on the floor and balance on their stomachs like compasses in need of calibration.
Praise must go to set and visual designer, Andrew Grenier, projection and lighting designer, Andy Moro, head of interactive new media, Sammy Chien, and dancer and head of regalia, Rebecca Baker-Grenier. They have created a living, breathing world for Mînowin to exist in. I was thoroughly swept away by all the multimedia magic, including a giant multi-coloured lightning bolt, and huge white wolves and a stampede of horses running across the background. The same goes for the costumes and their lively patterns and lush primary colours. The ever-present rustling of tassels on the garments was soothing like waves reaching shore.
My guest, Erika, pointed out the challenge of maintaining the authenticity of the songs and dances against the risk of their repetitive nature growing tedious for modern audiences. We agreed that Dancers of Damelahamid faced the challenge head on. They employ technology and solid production to lend a digitally dazzling perspective to their traditional artistry.
At its root, Mînowin is an act of survival, a bid to preserve Indigenous culture by reinterpreting it for the present moment. I, for one, won’t be forgetting it any time soon.
Photo of Mînowin provided by the company.
Sourced from Mooney on Theatre.
Colleen Osborn’s The Apologist , a Cleen Theatre production, is a two-hander comedy/thriller that follows a unique premise: what if it was socially acceptable to pay someone to apologize for you? What would the consequences of existing in such a world be? Set in the Imperial Pub’s back room, we are treated to a considered meditation on these ideas that manages to be both hilarious and legitimately tense.
Evan Walsh plays Cliff Manners, a.k.a. The Apologist, a professional apologizer who will express sympathy on behalf of anyone unwilling to do it themselves. The character Walsh has given form to is commendable for his warped sense of vulnerability. Since Manners is well-practiced and able to perform being sorry so well, the kick in the gut that comes from fessing up to a mistake no longer holds sway with him. Because he cannot have shame in his line of work, having to show regret for everything from white lies, to infidelity, to crimes against humanity, there’s no morality to reign in his behaviour. He comes off like a livewire, charming on the surface, but cocksure on the edge of causing irreparable harm under the impression of just doing his job. We meet him delivering an apology to a woman from the people who recently ran her dog over.
Carmen Kruk plays that woman’s roommate, Marsha, whose quirky, fragile exterior evolves very slowly into the fanaticism of Stephen King’s Misery. What Kruk does so well is emote, allowing facial expressions to do the heavy lifting, lending a sense of care and craft to her performance. What those expressions capture feels like a split personality, where psychosis intermittently overcomes Marsha’s kind and generous mind like a TV finding and losing reception. Kruk’s enunciation work is another point in favour of craft. There’s virtuoso flair to how she derives a laugh or a chill from stretching a word out or emphasizing the wrong syllable.
The Apologist is funnier than work this creepy tends to be, and it’s creepier than work this funny tends to be. Osborn’s writing chops offer her actors all the necessary tools to make this happen, including puns, made up words, snappy turns of phrase, and lots of emotional reversals that served to pull the rug from under my expectations at every turn. She also backs up the play’s name by getting philosophical about the nature of apologies. The characters spend a lot of time discussing what merits an apology, the importance of who delivers it, and what authenticity means in a world where mistaken tones in text messages can have life-changing consequences. Their back-and-forths are fruitful in that they leave arguments in the air to stew unresolved, pointing to the play’s unspoken but ever-present truth: an apology can only be validated by the person who receives it.
Director Chelsea Dab Hilke works wonders with such a small space. The set is built around two chairs and a chest in the center that delineate a round race track of sorts, one the actors take full advantage of to enhance a line. Sometimes it’s to create distance from and a barrier between each other to sharpen a show of emotion. At others, there’s a threat of violence and the desperate need to flee. Their dynamism is evidence of some first-class blocking work. The chairs’ proximity carries airs of a therapy session, of a level of intimacy we aren’t usually privy to beyond our own. I was unsettled by this, the possibility of some grand secret always seemingly about to drop. I also found the symbol of circularity a complementary choice, signalling that characters like these are destined to keep running into each other—Manners, who doesn’t differentiate between a real apology and an impeccably performed one, and Marsha, who is perhaps unstable enough to no longer be able to tell the difference.
Where the play gets a little careless is its run time. The second half drags on because the twists and revelations happen too early, such that the plot doesn’t have much juice left to propel the story to the end. Kruk and Walsh fill in the gap with plenty of passion though. I was too caught up in their characters’ concerns to notice. When it comes down to it, The Apologist is an entertaining, substantive endeavor that blends genres into art greater than the sum of its parts.
Poster of Evan Walsh provided by the company.
New review in Mooney on Theatre. Had a lot of fun dancing my way through this one. On til Oct 13. Read it here.
Photo by Erin Brubacher.
My latest review for Mooney on Theatre.
Non Gratas, A Latinx Comedy Show With a Lot of Melodrama, is an improv comedy show that does its name proud. Produced by Alma Matters, and staged at Bad Dog Theatre Company, it’s loosely built around two young Latin American women who become friends after immigrating to Canada. As they struggle to connect with a new culture, they highlight the gap between two stereotypes—Canadian humility and Latinx passion—with jokes that kill but also let me into their devastating longing for home.
Marta (Mariela Pabón Navedo) is a newcomer from Puerto Rico, hungry for love and friendship, who’s been having a rough time connecting with everyone she meets. That is, until she runs into Maria (Patricia Tab), an Argentinian experienced with the culture shock of new arrival. Maria not only finds a friend and roommate in Marta, but also someone to save from the pains of finding your footing as a foreigner.
Each woman sees herself reflected in the other, the first time they recognize themselves in another person since arriving in Canada. Here, they feel like personae non gratae, both unwelcome and misunderstood. They explore this notion not so much through a plot, but by developing their relationship through different improv scenarios.
One recurring segment is a simple back and forth, where Marta and Maria trade off lines built on a central theme. It’s kind of like stand-up comedy with the added jolt of improv. The first of these segments explains how showing emotion is a daily part of Latinx life. The duo conveys this through sweet, poetic exaggerations that perfectly encapsulate the issue. Selected gems include how, in Puerto Rico, it’s normal to get your heart broken on a daily basis, and how, on any given morning, Argentinians may fall in love with someone they saw at a bus stop.
On another back and forth, contrast is exploited to maximum hilarity. Marta has a breakdown and deciphers a lover’s text out loud in front of co-workers during a business presentation. Juxtapose her hysterics with Maria, who quietly poses grand philosophical questions about feeling like parts of her are missing when friends and lovers move on. My favourite is the surreal, “Where do trees go when they want to leave?”
At one point, it turns out the duo have been dating the same Kyle. This leads to them riffing on being Canadian and our well-known typecasting as somewhat dull, polite, and self-effacing apologists. They find nuance in this overplayed subject by concentrating it in Kyle’s love for fishing, and their exasperation at how anyone could find something so boring so interesting. Maria sums up the Canadian-Latinx divide when she asks, rather memorably, “Why it is so hard for men to understand that, sometimes, I just need to argue with someone?”
Non Gratas also includes a number of karaoke performances. It’s another avenue for Tab and Pabón Navedo to depict Latinx effusiveness, this time as a way to exorcise your frustrations by letting them out on stage. The performances are moments of abandon and disinhibition. Open invitations to join in a glorious cacophony of bad singing and dance my troubles away.
Marta’s unrushed, deadpan delivery and Maria’s fretful, anxious musings play off one another from moment one. The dynamic adds a backbone of sharpness to material. It goes a long way to making up for the occasional weak line, or moment of dead silence, which comes with the improv territory if you ask me.
Monica Garrido, member of Sketch Comedy Extravaganza Eleganza, warmed us up with stand-up that showcased her confident, goofy style. She told stories of growing up religious in Mexico as a closeted lesbian and how that compares to a more diverse but no less skewed Canadian existence. One where, she notes, Mexican people are considered brown, whereas in Mexico, they’re just Mexican. Her writing is concise, her timing surgical, and her dance moves during the karaoke segments unrivaled in terms of funkiness.
My guest, Jonah, thought Non Gratas did justice to the strength it takes anyone to bridge two cultures. Though the show brims with laughs, they are often a coping response to how hard it is to make a life far from home. The characters open the tap to that feeling and never turn it off. “I couldn’t help but wish them well,” he said. His one note, given the show’s 45-minute run-time, was that some scenarios would benefit from greater length.
Tab and Pabón Navedo—who perform as a duo under the name Non Gratas—keep the electricity of uncertainty in the air. The show truly feels like it’s being created as they go, minus all the stops and starts you’d expect if that were actually the case. A lot of this has to do with their fearlessness in the face of “yes, and”. But it’s also tied to how the show’s big-picture subject, our need for community, boils down to winging it, introducing yourself to a stranger, and seeing what happens.
Photo of Mariela Pabón Navedo and Patricia Tab provided by Alma Matters Productions.
This outdoor adaptation of The Winter’s Tale – produced by Shakespeare in the Ruff – is playing at the bottom of a little hill in beautiful Withrow Park. It boasts a superlative cast, comedy with improv’s unpredictability, and monologues that will run your heart through the emotional gamut, then give it back refreshed for the real world.
The play tells of a king’s jealousy getting the best of him, how it leads him to lose his wife and children. And how finally, the universe conspires to grant him one final chance to atone for his paranoid, authoritarian ways.
Director, Dramaturg, and Choreographer, Sarah Kitz never let us slip into fairy tale comfort. This is because, though brimming with laughs, family trauma is at the heart of The Winter’s Tale. And it never quite dislodged enough from my short-term memory to let me believe everything was okay. She gets across how the play is Shakespeare’s tragedy masquerading as a comedy. She offers us a world where life can only have joy if there is sorrow to recognize itself against.
When Leontes, King of Sicily, gives in to paranoia and accuses his wife, Hermione, of being unfaithful with his best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, he unwittingly sentences himself to a devastating fate. He doesn’t know that it will be 16 long years of shame and isolation before he gets to see his then-infant daughter, Perdita, again. She is betrothed to Polixenes’ son, Florizell, and they are giving the whole family thing one more go.
Kitz keeps her cast on point by emphasizing fundamentals. They project voices and exaggerate gestures, so the performance reaches the farthest row back. That way, passers-by crossing my line of sight were less likely to pull me out of the story.
Maddie Bautista’s music and lyrics combined with Kitz’s choreography are crowd-pleasers. This offsets the effort of parsing through the dialogue, which is delivered for the most part in its original Elizabethan English.
Richard Lee plays King Leontes and the son of the Old Shepherd who raises baby Perdita after she’s abandoned in the forest. Lee’s charisma and non-stop energy are a delight to behold. A gifted comic actor, he brings a “yes, and” mindset to the stage, completely open to anything unexpected that might happen in the open-air environment. At one point, as the Shepherd’s son, he accidentally nudges baby Perdita in her carrier. His split-second decision to apologize to her with a quick, “sorry, baby!”, sent a roar of laughter through the audience, filling us with excitement for what might come next.
On the dramatic side of things, Lee portrays Leontes’ jealousy with a hint of dictator’s delusion. It’s the kind you catch from living in an echo chamber of yes-men and from thinking your blood is godly. Leontes is captivating because he is unsteady. He believes any idea that pops into his head, supported by a heartbreaker of a monologue, unfettered and arresting in its intensity. As the play’s program proclaims, this is the 17th-century version of a telenovela.
Tiffany Martin plays Leontes’ wife, Hermione, as well as Autolycus, a Bohemian pickpocket who finds a heart when Florizell and Perdita need him most. Martin does so with the kind of gusto reserved for one’s most cherished activities. Every line is savoured, gifted to us as opposed to merely delivered. Highlights include Hermione’s final monologue and the scene where Autolycus imitates royalty. The first is an absolute showstopper. It is brash and eloquent and fearless in its vulnerability, all of it amplified by stage lights catching the tears streaming down her face. The second is an exaggeration, executed to perfection, that finds humour in but also questions how we carry ourselves according to how we want to be seen.
Eponine Lee plays Leontes’ son, Mamillius, with a sadness beyond her years. Her rendition of the bear that chases Leontes’ aid, Antigonus, off stage after he abandons baby Perdita in the forest is a mix of whimsy and terror that disarms with every growl. This is indeed the subject of Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
Jani Lauzon is exceptional as the Old Shepherd, Perdita’s adopted parent. She brings the slapstick every chance she gets, relishing the space to ham it up with a funny walk, or a triple take when something shocking happens. The warmth with which Lauzon shares the Shepherd’s hyperactivity made me feel like a kid at a birthday party with the best clown money could buy.
My guest, Ricky, found the actors’ commitment to the material incredibly engaging. It didn’t matter that people were walking their dogs or having picnics all around you. He also considered the pre-show land acknowledgement an effective way to both raise consciousness and get people in the mood to listen to poetic language.
The cast as a whole is the epitome of professionalism, staying loose with precision and intention as this classic story unfolds. There’s no recitation by rote to be had here, and little in the way of suspending disbelief. Toronto is no Sicily, but the performances fooled me. That each actor plays multiple characters only speaks higher of their skill.
A more than honourable final mention to the Young Ruffians, members of Shakespeare in the Ruff’s theatre creation apprenticeship program, for warming up the crowd before the show with ice cream and peanut butter themed Shakespeare improv. The evening would not have been nearly as enjoyable without them.
Photo of Richard Lee and Eponine Lee by Dahlia Katz.
Read on at Mooney on Theatre
Let’s evaluate Rupi Kaur’s work against her self-ascribed purpose as an author, that of a confessional self-help poet, which redefines the traditional understanding of poetic excellence as a mix of subtlety, complexity, and innovation of form and content to being one almost exclusively centred on content. This seems the most fruitful route of analysis given that most of her critics read her through the traditional understanding, even though it has little to do with why she writes.
Kaur was born in Punjab, India, and moved at four to a Southeast Asian community in Brampton, Ontario, Canada. Her poems, initially shared through Tumblr, became famous on Instagram in 2015 after she posted an art photograph of herself with menstrual blood on her sweatpants. The network took it down twice, citing a breach of their Community Guidelines, before uploading it again and apologizing, in large part because of Kaur’s impassioned Facebook post on the matter. The sparring resulted in international media coverage, attention she parlayed into a multiplying fan base and an offer from Andrews McMeel Publishing to re-release her first book, milk and honey, which she self published in 2014. Having sold in the vicinity of five million copies to date, Kaur has her throne reserved in the history of Canadian literature. She regularly shares new verse with 3.3 million Instagram followers, and performs to audiences the world over, notably to 900 people at a launch for her second effort, the sun and her flowers, in New York City.
Her poetry is minimalist and direct. It centres on a wide variety of subjects, including physical and emotional abuse, racism, sexism, feminism, family roots, emotional intelligence, her sense of cultural inbetweenness as an immigrant, and a great deal of love and heartbreak. A poem may be deeply personal and step into a vast and complex topic. For example,
this place makes me
the kind of exhausted that has
nothing to do with sleep
and everything to do with
the people around me.
Or often a poem may simply delineate a feeling or hokey slice of wisdom and allow it to hang in the air. These captured feelings carry vestiges of Neruda writing about an onion, harboring a hope to catalogue the contents of the earth. Except Kaur’s focus is on building a mental toolkit to deal with how to coexist in society as a responsible adult. Such is her remedy to the violence and injustice she confronts in her writing, which we’ll speak on later.
it takes grace
to remain kind
in cruel situations.(2)
Any seasoned reader of poetry would realize that Kaur’s approach to the genre is more about what she says than how she says it. She spoke to Rolling Stone’s Shannon Carlin about distancing herself from poetry dense enough to need its meaning coaxed from it.
“Kaur…doesn’t want readers to agonize over each and every word like she did when learning poetry in school. “I would have to pull out the list of literary devices my teacher gave me and my 10 colorful pens,” she says, her big, almond eyes getting wider. “It was like doing surgery on the damn thing.””(3)
Those who enjoy flare in their poetry have plenty to site when they dismiss Kaur outright. Take the poem about introversion above. She revisits a thought that anyone who has thought about introversion has had a version of. That would seem to exclude all of those people from the intended audience of the poem, leaving only those who haven’t had much contact with the condition. Kaur’s interest in self-help begins to show here in the attention she tends to pay to readers who are novices in what she’s writing about. She tailors the poem to them, happy to state it flatly to maximize understanding, never threatening to outgrow its minimalist husk. She does not attempt to arrange words such that readers might discover new angles through which to understand introversion. As is the case in virtually all of her work, characterization, imagery, and metaphor follow suit with this spoon-fed flatness by keeping paper-thin and overly friendly with cliches.
Even the shapes of her poems, though they might resemble rich, dense language from afar, turn out to be riddled with line breaks of chopped up prose. Their thoughtless, unpretentious structure is given more importance than the chance at experimenting with structure in the name of expanding poetic meaning, and self-help shows up as a priority once more. Kaur chooses digestibility over aesthetics, dispelling would-be poetry readers’ preconceived notions about having to be learned to understand the genre at all.
Similarly, Kaur’s lack of punctuation and exclusive use of lower-case letters convey grace, humility, and the appearance of innovation, but ultimately feel like resorting to surface changes to mask rather than support ideas left hollow. The same goes for her playfully ethereal drawings, which add little to the purposes of a given poem by being overly literal. In the case below, the drawing risks transforming the poem’s counterintuitive, and for that reason, fascinating comparison, into a belabored point. It takes up space traditionally reserved for a reader’s imaginative freedom when they sit down to meet a text halfway.
The heavy handedness and redundancy continue with the summations preceded by a dash that end many of the poems. In the example below, repeating the word ‘representation’ in an otherwise stirring rallying cry for the voiceless, once in the text, and again after the dash, causes an unnecessary pause that distracts from the speaker’s demand for space.
is not the time
to be quiet
or make room for you
when we have had no room at all
is our time
to be mouthy
get as loud as we need
to be heard
otherwise the butterfly
surrounded by a group of moths
unable to see itself
will keep trying to become the moth
It is also notable how vague the poem is when it comes to who exactly it’s meant to encourage. There is a blending of experiences of voicelessness inviting readers who’ve been silenced to imagine each other’s lives regardless of beliefs and background. This merging of selves is a major theme in milk and honey and the sun and her flowers, as the ‘I’ that speaks in the poems not only imagines an introvert but also an escaped refugee on an overcrowded boat(6), an alcoholic parent(7), an idealist about love(8), victims of racism and verbal and sexual abuse(9), and a number of other experiences Kaur clarifies later on in this essay to belong to many different sources. She sees the potential empathy and community-building to be gained from poetically putting herself in other people’s shoes as invalidating the notion that authentic stories can only be told by those who have lived them. For her, the determining factor between writing and not writing about someone else’s trauma is whether or not subject, reader, and writer come out of the process seeing themselves and each other with greater humanity. Kaur has been called disingenuous for her appropriative practice, but I will commend her for it later on when we discuss Chinua Achebe’s concept of imaginative identification.
All this is not to say that Kaur is a bad writer, just an underdeveloped one. It isn’t often that she executes a concept and every word feels essential. But when they do, it’s a respite from the onslaught of sentimentalism, a mirage that turns out to be solid.
i went for my words
the i can’ts. i won’ts. i am not good enoughs.
i lined them up and shot them dead.
then i went for my thoughts
invisible and everywhere
there was no time to gather them one by one
i had to wash them out
i wove a linen cloth out of my hair
soaked it in a bowl of mint and lemon water
carried it in my mouth as i climbed
up my braid to the back of my head
down on my knees i began to wipe my mind clean
it took twenty-one days
my knees bruised but
i did not care
i was not given the breath
in my lungs to choke it out
i would scrub the self-hate off the bone
til it exposed love
-self love (10)
Here we have a melding of form and content, one that builds something new out of experience instead of merely accurately sharing it. The images, visceral and sensory, induce you to speed-read toward the poem’s affirmational ending, concentrating the speaker’s shared interest in getting there as soon as possible. You can feel a presence behind the poem, a beneficent hand redirecting violence inward to the roots of inherited beliefs that do not serve the speaker. This is the extent of Kaur’s occasional sense for composition before returning to a plain-spoken diary style. Which, as we’ve seen, pre-removes husks from their kernels, and often accompanies them by realistic drawings of those kernels just so everything’s completely clear. There are no multiple possible meanings to mull over or novel rhythms to be dazzled by. The stage is always relatively free of any sense of linguistic flourishes, which most might view as a disadvantage, something keeping her from standing out and finding a readership, but not for Kaur. Instead of worrying about writing tight, sensory poems like the one above, she has framed her work’s absence of ‘surgeries’ as a path for her lessons to reach her readers. Since nuanced writing carries so little weight in her work, it is clear content or message that makes up the writer-reader exchange. Kaur spoke to PBS News Hour’s Jeffrey Brown about what exactly she’s trying to get across.
“Brown: Does it hurt you when the poetry is being critiqued as more therapeutic or emotional than real poetry?
Kaur: Not really, because I never intended to get into the literary world; this is actually not for you. This is for that 17-year-old brown woman in Brampton who is not even thinking about that space, who is trying to live, survive, get through her day.”(11)
Kaur goes on to say she favors plain, accessible language because her poetry is a space of healing, one where readers like herself, who have gone through “some really real things”—like sexism, racism, and abuse— and aren’t able to talk about it, can see their concerns reflected in the voice of another and feel heard and understood. She returns to this notion of reflection when offering her personal definition of poetry, “For me, poetry is like holding up a mirror and seeing myself.”(12) But Kaur is quick to state that only the poems’ emotions are autobiographical. The majority of the stories being based on the everyday experiences of love and violence lived by her sisters, cousins, aunts, and mother. Lacking formal writing flare, it is these experiences Kaur is responding to and reflecting back at her readers as a way of making community. That way they might rid themselves, if only for a few moments, of the anguish of suffering through trauma alone.
Kaur replaces craft with unadorned clarity so that her work may offer her readers the comfort of a village having their back. We can express how she goes about populating it into at least two steps: 1) By poetically rewriting her life, the lives of the oppressed, her idols, friends and family, the depressed, the anxious, the lovelorn, and loads of others, such that pretty much anyone can feel how it is to be them from the safety of the page. 2) By laying out a philosophy of emotional intelligence that fills in the gaps in these re-examined, often traumatized lives such that they might stay and understand themselves and each other more fully. It suggests Kaur’s historical awareness of her profession and the circular nature of time, of how people like Plato, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius wrote self-help books and were revered for them, but how nowadays giving advice is seen as lowly, heavy-handed territory for an artist. Kaur stands up for the role of education in literature, subverting the ludicrously popular idea among serious writers that providing insights into functional models of behaviour is somehow below the purview of creators of worlds.
Kaur gets at 1) by what Chinua Achebe calls fiction’s property of imaginative identification. As her readers, “things are then not merely happening before us; they are happening to us. We not only see; we suffer alongside the hero.”(13) Kaur takes fiction as an opportunity for “the imagination to recreate in ourselves the thoughts that must go on in the minds of others, especially those we dispossess.”(14) But beyond a mere choice, it is also a responsibility, one she assumes by channeling these minds in the service of humanization. Kaur wants to add the experiences of the people she writes about to her readers’ conceptions of what it means to be in the world. To this end, she relies on the common ethical thread of our shared nervous systems; that if she writes a person under a justifiably favorable or disparaging light, we will follow her there.
When she writes that “drowning is easier than staying”(15) for a refugee escaping persecution, that perhaps “the sea is your country…because it is the only place that will take you”(16), she is co-opting our hearts to care for people who need it. On the contrary, the position from her spoken word poetry community at large is that telling someone else’s struggle in your own voice is wrongful appropriation(17). Silencing someone for one’s own inauthentic artistic ends. Though noble on the surface, loyal as it is to everyone sticking to what they know, this position can be falsified due to how it can’t differentiate fact from fiction. Any concerns about misrepresenting refugees should be quelled by how Kaur is making up a scenario based on their treacherous journeys. Realism is the concern of realists. There is no reason to hold her, or any other romanticist, accountable to the tenet that fiction is somehow bound to replicating the world as it is. This would prevent her from portraying as undeniably human people who tend to be treated as much lesser than.
Kaur repeats the process in a poem about a girl in therapy who was sexually abused by her uncle(18). Her entire childhood seems to evaporate into maturity in the short piece. The aging process begins with when she was “the size of girls/your uncles like touching”, and ends with the last line,“fine/numb really”, its shades of world-weariness too casual and jaded to possibly refer to a child. Kaur shines a light on not feeling as a survival mechanism and hints at the day-to-day consequences it poses to basic interaction. The girl’s mood resembles anyone closed off from the world who still has to talk with you or me to get on with their life, the major difference being that people don’t go around explaining their sourness like it’s weather talk. The poem invites us to save tenderness for these brick walls and what lies behind them.
What I mean with 2) by filling in the gaps is that Kaur has assembled a narrator across both of her books whose prescription for hardship, trauma, anxiety, and depression is confronting it from the standpoint of seeing oneself as intrinsically valuable. In other words, worthy of love regardless of the tragedy and prejudice that claims you aren’t and how much anyone thinks of you.
who tricked you
was meant to complete you
when the most they can do is complement.(19)
Reading Kaur is to be reminded that you will remain whole through the salvaging of your shadow side, the redemption of the parts of your life you wished you had processed differently. Her array of prescriptions is vast and safe to mix and match. You may choose, for example, to “get flowers from your pain”(20), or to reassess pain as the sole determiner of its presence in your life(21). You may place things you can control like spirit and intelligence over ideals of beauty(22) and integrate failure as a way forward in your life-plan(23). You may broaden how you love so that it is worth giving in principle only when it is worth giving in practice(24). Then there’s relying on your community(25), periodically blocking the world out with love reserved exclusively for yourself(26), and upgrading your collection of comforts for pains that can only be fixed by letting them hurt(27). Anything you might need to find a way to reclaim experience you could only hope to ignore before.
what is stronger
than the human heart
which shatters over and over
and still lives(28)
I am a museum full of art
but you had your eyes shut(29)
it is a blessing
to be the color of the earth
do you know how often
flowers confuse me for home(30)
It is good to remember that Kaur recognizes how self-esteem is easy to forget, and how its existence is always news to somebody. And that the age of that somebody isn’t necessarily 12 or 13 if they’ve grown up being told they have no choice in how confident they can be. It seems pointless to call attention to any flaws in poems that act like assurances that one isn’t cursed and that the world won’t end. You’re probably going to get much more done in a day reading one than not. It is a revolutionary insight to be told that the devastating loneliness of a breakup isn’t actually an involuntary nightmare but a product of having a better idea of what you deserve and the wherewithal to attain it. Kaur is affording people years in terms of getting used to how maturity is choosing the pains we are willing to endure.
She goes a step further, treating awareness of one’s entitlement to love as a privilege, rallying readers blessed with it to remind those who have to deal with the prejudiced sideswiping of it that they should demand it too. Kaur’s mission for her readers is to make fair the oppressive institutions that create the need for poets like her determined to form a counterattack.
on the sacrifices
of a million women before me
what can i do
to make this mountain taller
so the women after me
can see farther
….last month i visited an orphanage of
abandoned babies left on the curbside like waste…
how can i refuse to believe
my life is anything short of a miracle
She challenges those who are loved to open pathways to self-realization for people with adverse odds at finding one. They are called to consciousness, to be selfless, and give back for the sake of the greater good. When it comes to building her literary community, Kaur requires a closeness that entails mourning when anyone is lost.
i am sorry this world
could not keep you safe
may your journey home
be a soft and peaceful one
—this will free you both(33)
Kaur sets her readers up to be people more willing to address negativity, injustice, and irrationality, understanding that all three are default components of the human psyche. This self-image is what makes the difference between granting pain—regardless of provenance— the right to be managed, and repressing it under mistaken religious or political assumptions that it is wrong to feel or that it will just go away. Kaur’s pain management system, her community of imaginative identification and emotional intelligence, does not in principle restrict membership, no matter how contemptible the person’s behaviour. To do so would be to deny someone their humanity—their right to heal, to be forgiven, and to work out a burden with a book like hers that helps you forgive. But that’s exactly what happens, at the expense of the ever-widening altruism responsible for unity among her fans. Ethical issues arise with observations that seem problematic without a more thorough treatment.
did you leave a door
open between my legs
were you lazy
did you forget
or did you purposely leave me unfinished
—conversations with god(34)
It is easy enough to offer the poem a charitable interpretation and say Kaur is pointing to a topic that branches out into how many women internalize subservience next to men, i.e. ‘finished’ people. But it would seem careless not to also add that the poem doesn’t contribute to minimizing the problem, nor does it completely close off the possibility that its last line carries a hint of truth. The lack of a guiding hand is glaring when we compare it with the straightforward positivity of the complete you and self-love poems above.
If you are not enough for yourself
You will never be enough
For someone else.(35)
This poem ignores myriad ways love can find you. It is common sense that people incapable of loving themselves fully constantly turn others on, and that the semantic field of ‘my everything’ has room for all. Your circumstances really have nothing to do with someone stumbling upon contentment by your side.
take the compliment
do not shy away from
another thing that belongs to you.(36)
The poem is another that asks the reader to provide a grain of salt to avoid questionable implications. Given the welcomed emergence of zero-tolerance toward sexual abuse across the world, Kaur’s advice appears too open to recontextualizing an unwanted advance instead of getting as loud as needed to be heard.
the thing about having
an alcoholic parent
is an alcoholic parent
does not exist
who could not stay sober
long enough to raise their kids(37)
Here Kaur glosses over the roots of addiction, discriminates against those suffering from one, and essentially bans them from her literary refuge. The poem bubbles with resentment, anger, and the jaded person’s tendency for fatalistic pronouncements. Its tone is one of fact, an indefensible kick on the downtrodden.
Kaur’s poetic project responds to what Achebe calls humanity’s “need to explain and alleviate [its] intolerable condition”(38), that of being “caught in a tiny glow-worm of consciousness”(39), with an ultimately inconsistent path to altruistic community. The problem has to do with inconsistently romanticized trauma, how she sometimes gets too caught up in advice and in faithfully expressing victims’ feelings to consider who her phrasing dehumanizes. Her lack of critical engagement with these feelings and their causes has the effect of normalizing them, especially when prescribing behaviour is an integral component of milk and honey and the sun and her flowers. It is the case that there are experiences so grueling that expressing them as they occurred is remarkable progress. I grant the function of externalizing caustic feelings onto the page to diminish their strength. But, as a leader, and as a healer, Kaur loses credibility by conveying that certain people cause more harm than they are worth while professing a belief that people are worth more than any harm they could ever commit. Though she tends toward the latter, her attempt to teach the oppressed with such gaps in the troubles she is willing to take on cannot but inspire suspicion.
our bodies touched
by all the wrong people
that even in a bed full of safety
we are afraid.(40)
Sometimes it is not enough to summon an injustice into existence for your audience and call it a day. Sometimes unresolved fear shared among many stops being a solution and turns into a crutch. What I’m saying is there is a price to every citizenship. Kaur’s work may be the place to replenish you from devastation, but it is up to you to protect your critical faculties from her efforts to replace them with her version of your best self.
(1): p.85, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(2): p.160, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(3): Meet Rupi Kaur, Queen of the ‘Instapoets’. Rolling Stone. December 21, 2017. <https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/meet-rupi-kaur-queen-of-the-instapoets-w514035>.
(4): Rupi Kaur, Instagram, <https://www.instagram.com/rupikaur_/>.
(5): p.238-9, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(6): p. 126-7, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(7): p.39, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(8): p.74, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015; p.182, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(9): p.15, 41, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(10): p. 105, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(11): PBS News Hour. “How poet Rupi Kaur became a hero to millions of young women”. January 2, 2018.<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QEgOmgQVG4>.
(13): p. 144, Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments.
(14): p.149, Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments.
(15): p.126-7,the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(17): “The milk and honey author’s use of unspecified collective trauma in her quest to depict the quintessential South Asian female experience feels disingenuous”. Chiara Giovanni. Buzzfeed. Agosto 4, 2017.<https://www.buzzfeed.com/chiaragiovanni/the-problem-with-rupi-kaurs-poetry?utm_term=.om89j8lN5N#.go8mQxV8q8>
(18): p.15, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(19): p.154, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(20): p. 152, 158, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(21): p.151, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(22): p.179, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(23): p.160, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(24): p.162, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(25): p.97, 146, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(26): p.107, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(27): p.193, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(28): p.109, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(29): .100, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(30): p.227, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(31): p.213, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(32): p.130, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(33): p. 125, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(34): p.65, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(35): p.197, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(36): p .240, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(37): p.39, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(38): p.143, Hopes and Impediments, Doubleday, 1989.
(39): p.141, Hopes and Impediments, Doubleday, 1989.
(40): p.36, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.