We had the honor of sitting down with the phenomenal spoken word poet, writer and teacher, Sarah Kay. We got to spend an hour getting to know the woman behind the words.
WS: First of all, thank you so much for taking some time out to chat with us. We really appreciate it!
SK: Of course, it's my pleasure!
WS: What was the first poem that you remember writing or performing?
SK: I don't remember the first poem that I wrote because I've been creating poems since I was around 2 or 3. I don't have any memory of that but my mom has written evidence of it. I've always liked playing with words so when I was younger it had a lot more to do with rhyme and sounds. The first spoken word poem I ever wrote was when I was 14 and I wrote it because I was accidentally signed up for a teen poetry slam. Because I loved poetry I said that I'd try it out. The only thing I had learned about spoken word up until then was based on a tiny clip of a movie of angry men that I had seen . So for my first spoken word poem I thought Okay I have to write something that resembles that...angry men. When I was 14, I had a lot of body image anxiety and to combat that I wore really baggy clothes so that no one could see my body...think over-sized Knicks jerseys and UFO pants. Because I wore those baggy clothes I started assuming the role of tomboy. I was possibly the world's worst tomboy but it was a lot easier to try to own that identity and make it correspond with what I was physically showing the world.
So my first performance poem was about how sometimes I was teased for being manly, or a tomboy or whatever. It was saying how just because I looked a certain way and displayed myself a certain way didn't mean that I wasn't also a feminine human...a woman if you will. But I was 14 at the time and I really thought the poem needed to be extremely aggressive. My mother refers to it as the first and last angry poem I ever wrote...which is not exactly true but it definitely had a fire behind it. It was interesting the messaging that I had had, I needed to use language like a fighting tool. Now I try to use it for different things than when I first started.
WS: I really appreciate how a lot of your poetry is, in its very own way, very empowering to women and it gives a positive message. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit on that.
SK: Thanks! I take that as a very big compliment. I've always identified as female so I've always written from that place but I don't think that I was conscious of that element until much more recently. Now when I write, my awareness of gender plays in a lot more than it used to. I have always thought of poetry as an act of celebration. Just by nature of writing a poem you are taking the time to dwell on whatever it is that you're writing about...you can be celebrating anger, you can be celebrating sorrow... you are spending the time to focus and observe and try to understand the various parts of being human. So I do like celebrating women, I do like celebrating different lifestyles and choices and people and it makes me happy when others find my work empowering. I never sit down and think How do I write an empowering poem? because that would be very difficult to tackle, but I do celebrate whenever I can.
WS: Sometimes it's very hard for artists to just be artists and survive doing what they really love. When did you decide to take spoken word from a hobby to a profession?
SK: That's an interesting question. I don't think I ever had a morning where I woke up and said I'm going to be a professional poet. I know I've always loved poetry, I've always loved writing poetry and I've always loved sharing poetry. I've also always known that I wanted that to somehow be a very large part of my life and I'm very fortunate that it's such a large part of my life right now. It hasn't always been and it might not always be but I'm okay with that, as long as it's still there. When there was a time that I was having to do things other than poetry, I sometimes would only have enough time to spend five minutes on a poem...every week...but that was still valid and very important to me.
I think it's so unfair when people think that you're not a "real artist" unless you're getting paid for it....I personally know so many poets that work a 9 to 5 in a cubicle and come home and write poetry. Their poetry is just as powerful and moving as anything that I've ever written, if not more. It doesn't make them any less valid or their work any less amazing. So I don't think it's about art being a career but it's about making sure that if art is something that you love, something that brings you joy, you have a duty to find time in your life for the thing that brings you joy...even if it can only be a small amount.
I work really hard to get to do what I do, I love it and I'm very grateful for it but I also won't be surprised if it doesn't end up being this way for always...but that doesn't mean I'm going to give up on it.
WS: What is one of your most impactful trips that you've gone on for your poetry?
SK: I got to spend some time in Nepal in December of 2012 and that was a really important trip for me. I got to work and perform with a bunch of young, passionate poets in Kathmandu. I led three intensive workshops with them about writing, performing and teaching and after a few days I went to local high schools and middle schools to perform and teach. Each time I went, I would bring some of them with me to have that experience.
Nepali children could see them perform and watch a spoken word poet with a Nepali accent or in Nepali, which was really important for them. Shortly after I left Kathmandu and went northwest to the Kopila Valley Children's School, started by a phenomenal woman named Maggie Doyne whose story is unbelievable. A lot of the children there have extreme trauma in their background and come from immense poverty but they are in an environment that is full of love, celebration, joy and community. That was a really valuable experience for me to learn, how to teach in a completely different context than I've ever taught in before.
I had connected the two groups of poets, the Word Warriors from Kathmandu and the Kopila Valley kids and they started talking back and forth. Several months later, 4 of the kids got funding to fly out from Kathmandu and lead spoken word poetry workshops in seven different schools in the area! They had an inter-school poetry slam where all of the kids could see each others work. I continue to be so proud and impressed with the way that they've taken the tiny seeds I've planted and made them grow in a tremendous way!
WS: You have an insanely busy schedule... when you have time to step back and relax, what do you find yourself doing?
SK: Laughs. When I get some, I'll let you know! I love when I get a chance to read for fun...it's an enormous luxury and I've started to become really strict with making sure that get to in a way that I didn't used to. I love that. I would also go out in search of a delicious food. It's really hard for me to remember all of the places that I've been but I can remember all of the delicious meals that I've ever eaten. I love traveling by way or stomach... and finding quiet time.
WS: When was the first time that you felt "Wow, my work actually has an impact on someone else?"
SK: The first time I ever performed when I was 14. The actual experience of the performance wasn't particularly a positive one. I had terrible stage fright, never performed anything before, I was sick so I sounded like a pre-pubescent boy on three packs a day...it wasn't sexy. Either way I was extremely nervous but immediately afterwards, I was standing in the audience listening to other people's poetry and a girl who was significantly older and cooler than I was tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around thinking she was going to yell at me or something and she goes Hey, I really felt that poem. And that is the moment that hooked me. It wasn't the actual experience of the performance but it was the understanding that something I had created had spoken to another person. Something that I had said made sense to her and connected with her life and that was deeply profound to me, especially at age 14. It was the first time that I had felt that I had contributed anything to the world and that's what kept me coming back. It's also the reason why when I see people doing work that I appreciate, I really make an effort in telling them so. Feeling it is one thing but sometimes people don't know that you're feeling it unless you express it to them. I'm very grateful for that particular girl and also grateful to anyone who communicates when they feel like they've connected with something.
WS: Who inspires you? In the literary sense and in your day-to-day life?
"She was the first woman poet who taught me that it was okay to be a woman, a poet and a goofball all at one time" - On Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz
SK: So many people! I could give you about a million names! Outside of spoken word poetry, I love books that create worlds for me that I don't want to leave. I recently lost my entire life to Haruki Murakami - 1Q84. I tell people that book ruined my life in the best possible way. I couldn't think of anything else for weeks after I read it. I also just read Chad Harbach's - Art of Fielding, which is a completely different type of book but also a really awesome type of fiction. There is a poet by the name of Kevin Young and his book Dear Darkness is really incredible, amazing poetry. It's the type of book that I feel like in another life, I would have loved to write it. I also love people that write in completely different mediums... Tina Fey's work, Aaron Sorkin, Stephen Sondheim, a lot of that, believe it or not informs the way that I write.
In terms of life inspiration, a ton of people as well! There is a poet by the name of Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, who I cite all the time as being an inspiration to me for a number of reasons. She was the first woman poet who taught me that it was okay to be a woman, a poet and a goofball all at one time, which not a lot of other people told me was okay to be. She is also amazing at being generous with resources which a lot of people don't realize. You can be an artist, work hard for your work and also share while trying to create community with other artists.
There is a poet by the name of Derrick Brown who owns the Write Bloody Publishing Company, an independent publishing press for poetry which is really amazing. Lin Manuel Miranda who wrote In The Heights. He is an incredible writer and also manages to be in a lot of different projects at the same time. He is also in an improv freestyle rap group that I love, musical theater, television, he works on his own music and other people's projects as well. I aspire to be able to work on lots of different creative projects that I feel great about in the way that he does. Anthony Veneziale has been extremely important to me in showing that you can again...be a generous artist and creative human while also spending time with your family and making time for the people who are close to you. That's really important to me especially because I travel as much as I do. My brother is also a huge inspiration to me. Those are some good ones.
"You can be an artist, work hard for your work and also share while trying to create community with other artists."
WS: So my last question for you is...when do you feel your wildest?
SK: Thats a great question...when do I feel wild?! I work at a lot of different schools, with all different ages and a lot of different backgrounds. Sometimes I get asked questions that resemble How long does it take to write a poem or what happens if you start a poem and get stuck or get writers block? So I started giving people this answer. Poetry is like pooping. If there is a poem inside of you, it has to come out. Sometimes it can take longer than you'd like and be really difficult, maybe even painful but other times it can be really easy and much faster than you expected it to be. Ultimately, it's always important. It's obviously a silly tongue-in-cheek answer but its also not too far from what I actually mean. It's a real hit with middle school boys, lemme tell you. When I'm performing for an auditorium full of students and someone asks me that question and I decide to give that answer, it feels silly but it also feels awesome. A room full of young minds get a chance to see a bi-racial young woman who is pursuing art and things that she loves [that are not obvious or easy] and is also able to talk about poop on stage in front of God and everyone...that feels kind of wild to me and really exciting in a weird way and that makes me really happy.
WS: Thank you so much for letting us have the opportunity to chat with you!
SK: Of course, glad I could help out!
Be sure to watch Sarah's TED Talk and spoken word performance with Phil Kaye.