Self-publishing has a taboo surrounding it, so how have you faced that as a writer?
Oh, I totally agree. There was a taboo with my first book—like, “Nobody picked you. You didn’t cut, so is your work really that good?” It’s one of the reasons I’ve been told not to self-publish, but either way, I’ll face the stigma around self-publishing or never being published. At the end of the day, who is going to post the poetry of a 21-year-old brown Sikh girl? Nobody. On the flip side of that, the success of my book becoming a bestseller was a matter of becoming too popular. Because the traditional literary community would say, “Well, your work isn’t literature because you’re so approachable.” So I’ve learned a lot about that over the past eight years, and I think I’ve come to accept that you’re not going to please everyone.
Some of the most famous poets highly regarded in the literary world are mostly white. Even so, there are many notable poets of color such as Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, and Audre Lorde. For you, do you hope your work continues to challenge the way we define poets?
In my community, everyone is a poet; everyone is allowed to share. There’s no question about whether to publish a book’s hardcover or paperback first to appeal to a specific audience. Poetry happens on the ground. It’s with mothers, fathers and kids — it’s between generations. For me, poetry has always been something that was and should be accessible to everyone. It is the language of human emotions. So I came from that world, trying to fit into a very traditional publishing world, and there was a clash. It’s constant, “But why should I prove myself to you?” And I finally got to a place where I didn’t feel the need to do it anymore. I don’t have to excuse myself or think I’m doing things the “wrong” way. There is no right way to write poetry or a single image of what a poet can become. After eight years and three books, I’m now at that point where I finally feel the most confident and powerful I’ve ever felt.
Speaking of personal strong feelings, did it take you time to get to that point as a writer? There’s pressure about you “having” to write poetry, so how can you detach yourself from seeing your work and step into your potential as a writer?
I think it helped me never want to be a writer. It’s not something I grew up thinking I wanted to work on. I started doing it because I loved it. When I started practicing speaking, I didn’t even consider it to be poetry. I call it storytelling. It’s about connecting with the audience. So when I finally started to write poetry, it was in these condensed and abridged versions that I called the pit dug. The poems you see on my Instagram or in my book are these short 10-word stanzas that are the antithesis of traditional poetry. And when I became famous, a lot of people said, “This is not poetry,” or they thought it was easy to write these short poems. But what people don’t know is that they start at 100 to 500 words, and like carving a peach, I remove the fluff, skin, and flesh around it until I can present it to my audience. just the size of a peach. Can I make your stomach turn with just a few words? That has always been the goal for me. I never felt the need to leave that because it was an homage to the writing business I grew up in. Long before I became an author, I grew up reading these short, succinct poems where authors are very particular about the words they use, and no words go to waste. The poems I read in high school never spoke to me, while my father and I could spend hours discussing and dissecting a sentence that was only five words long. I thought that was really beautiful.