Sarah Kay's Way with Words
Sarah Kay is a spoken word poet and founder/co-director of Project V.O.I.C.E. She's the author of B.
June 13, 2013
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: We can make our words more connective, says Sarah Kay — especially in an age that is technological, but still as human as ever before. She is a spoken-word poet in her 20s, who’s become a role model for teenagers, girls especially, around the world.
Millions of people, young and old, have viewed her TED talk, where she shared the main stage with figures like Bill Gates and Jamie Oliver. As she tells it, poetry is an old way to tell our truths and a new one at the same time: It’s Homer, it’s Shakespeare, it’s Regina Spektor, it’s Jay-Z. Sarah Kay teaches that listening is the better part of speaking. And that depending on how we do it, finding our voices enlivens us and the world. She started to become passionate about this in classrooms with teenagers while she was a college student.
MS. KAY: A lot of what I was doing in schools had been trying to convince teenagers that it was OK to be affected by emotion. It’s OK to be scared. It’s OK to be impressed. It’s OK to have these things that shake your world up a little bit. And then turn that around and tell me about it and put it into words so that other people know what it feels like to have this experience that has moved you in some way. And so I was really working at trying to get people to rediscover wonder.
MS. TIPPETT: “Sarah Kay’s Way with Words.” I’m Krista Tippett. This is On Beingfrom APM, American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Sarah Kay went to the United Nations International High School in New York and graduated from Brown University in 2010. I spoke with her in 2012. While she was still a high school student, she founded Project V.O.I.C.E., Vocal Outreach Into Creative Expression. She now runs it with her friend and fellow poet Phil Kaye. I interviewed her in the spring, around Passover and Easter, and she’d just been performing and teaching in Australia. Sarah Kay grew up in New York City, the daughter of an artist mother and a photographer father.
MS. TIPPETT: I’ve seen you describe yourself as half-Japanese and half-Brooklynese [laugh], and that Brooklynese part of you is Jewish. And I’m curious if you think about as you were growing up, you know, do you think about those identities merging or overlapping or coexisting?
MS. KAY: Well, it’s funny that you ask me that today since I just got back from my family’s Passover, Easter, Seder dinner, which was wonderful wherein we had matzo ball soup filled with Japanese noodles and all kinds of great Japanese additions. So perfect timing.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah [laugh].
MS. KAY: My mother is Japanese-American, so the Japanese side is pretty far back. I’m third or fourth generation. So more than the Japanese culture, it’s more the Japanese-American culture, which is definitely its own thing. But that was certainly present. My grandmother on my mom’s side was interned during World War II, and my father’s family is Jewish. I was bat mitzvahed. I was baptized in the Episcopal Church.
MS. TIPPETT: Was that the Japanese side, the Episcopalian?
MS. KAY: That’s the Japanese side, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Interesting.
MS. KAY: And I’ve since had my sins washed away in the Buddhist Temple. You know, all I need to do is make a pilgrimage to Mecca and I’ve got my bases covered.
MS. TIPPETT: You’re complete [laugh], OK. And it sounds like poetry was there in your childhood.
MS. KAY: Yeah. My favorite story to tell is that when I was a kid from kindergarten all the way through fourth grade, I brought my lunch to school with me every day. And either my mother or my father would write a poem on a little piece of paper and fold it up and put it in my lunchbox so that when I got to school, when it was lunchtime, I would open it up and have a new poem waiting for me. I have most of them all in various notebooks that I pasted together when I was a kid. They were very short and often silly sort of Dr. Suessy or Shel Silversteiny, and they made it so that my association with poetry from a very early age was a surprise to look forward to, a gift, you know, something I could unwrap. And that really affected the way that I feel about poetry to this day.
MS. TIPPETT: It was also associated with being cared for with love.
MS. KAY: Absolutely, absolutely.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I just love that. It’s such a beautiful thing and I’m so happy to hear the story and it also makes me wish I could go back and do it for my children. I bet a lot of people have that experience when they hear you tell the story.
MS. KAY: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think I realized — I mean, I know I didn’t realize at the time that it was not something that everybody did [laugh].
MS. TIPPETT: You thought everybody was getting poetry out of their lunchbox, right?
MS. KAY: Right, right. I also thought that everybody had a darkroom in their house when they were growing up [laugh].
MS. TIPPETT: Right. You know, in your official biographies, they will often very close to the beginning say that you began performing poetry in the Bowery Poetry Club when you were 14. But somewhere I also read that you tell a story about being mysteriously entered in a poetry contest. Was that before you entered the Bowery Poetry Club?
MS. KAY: Yes. That’s how I entered the Bowery Poetry Club. When I was 14 years old, I was visiting a friend’s house and there was a video playing on her TV and the video was a movie called “SlamNation.” It’s a film about the National Poetry Slam, and I never heard of a poetry slam or spoken-word poetry before in my life.
MS. TIPPETT: And a slam is a competition, right?
MS. KAY: Yes, yes. The slam is the competitive side of it, and that’s what this film was about, but it showed clips of various spoken-word poets performing. I thought that this was really neat. It was really exciting. It was poetry and theater combined into this crazy art form, and it really made me curious, but that was about it. And then a month later, I got a letter in the mail and this is how you know I was 14 because this was pre-email [laugh]. I got a letter in the mail and the letter said, “Congratulations. You have been registered to compete in the New York City Teen Poetry Slam.”
MS. TIPPETT: And you don’t know you got — you had not registered?
MS. KAY: I have no idea. I call it divine intervention [laugh]. My parents had never heard of it before, my teachers didn’t know anything about it, none of my friends had ever heard of it. Nobody knew anything about it and still no one has ever owned up to being the person to register me. The timing just worked and I thought, “Oh, sure, I’ll try this one time. It’ll be fun.” I went and it just so happened that, for this event, they had rented out the Bowery Poetry Club for this teenage poetry slam. I walked in and the place was absolutely crawling with teenagers, and I immediately regretted my decision [laugh]. I was absolutely terrified. I had written one poem for this event, what I thought was a “slam poem,” and it was based entirely off of the three-minute clip of this movie that I had seen.
In the movie, the clip I had seen was very male and aggressive and indignant. It was about the injustice of being viewed as unfeminine. Keep in mind that I was 14 years old at the time [laugh]. So I got there and I did this poem, and the experience was pretty transformative. As a result, I decided that I would come back to the Bowery Poetry Club as often as possible. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that this particular night was a very special event for teenagers, but every other night of the year, the Bowery Poetry Club was a bar, a real bar for grown-ups [laugh]. And that’s where my introduction to the adult spoken-word poetry community started was I kept showing up, and I was this 14-year-old in a room full of grown-ups.
MS. TIPPETT: So if I ask you to kind of cast your mind back, you know, you said it was transformative. What is your memory of what you discovered there that you hadn’t known before? What had awakened in you or did to you?
MS. KAY: Oh, a lot of things from very small, little lessons on a daily basis to larger life lessons that have led me forward. Perhaps on the smaller level, one of the things I learned was that, as a girl, it was OK to be silly, which doesn’t sound like a terribly important lesson, but at the time, being a girl, for me, was a whole lot of pressure. There was a whole lot of things I thought I needed to do in order to be a girl, to be a successful girl.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, like as captured in that poem of yours about the injustice of being considered unfeminine.
MS. KAY: Absolutely, totally, absolutely. So that was perhaps a smaller lesson. Then I suppose the biggest lesson I learned was I think that the Bowery Poetry Club taught me that it is equally important to listen as it is to speak. I don’t think I understood that beforehand, and I think that now that’s one of the founding principles upon which I operate.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s interesting that you couple that message about it being as important to listen as to speak even as you are really, you know, not only putting your voice out there, but talking about how difficult that is and helping other young people in particular put their voices out there, their poetic voices.
MS. KAY: Yeah. I think there are people in the world who are too interested in hearing themselves talk. And we’re all guilty of it in various moments, myself included. But when you’re too eager to hear yourself talk, you don’t listen to anybody else and that’s a problem. Then there are people who are scared of talking and are scared of telling the world their story and speaking up. The problem with that is, when they don’t speak, they allow other people to speak for them. Oftentimes, those people can’t do it justice. You know, no one can tell your story like you can, and I really love hearing someone tell their story. There’s nothing like it. So I think striking that balance is really important.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s something interesting in what you said too. I mean, yes, there are so many people who are just really happy to hear the sound of their own voices. But on the other hand, we’re trained when we’re vocal to be that way. It’s not about listening; it is about expressing opinions and pushing opinions. It’s almost like just in this particular example you gave about listening. It’s learning from that, that listening is as important as telling. It’s kind of rediscovering poetry as a bit of an antidote to some bad habits we’ve gotten into culturally.
MS. KAY: Totally. I don’t know. The people that I have learned the most from are often people who listen the best and only speak when they have something important to say. It’s a real skill. It’s a real talent to be that kind of person. It’s something I admire very, very much and aspire to.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with spoken-word poet Sarah Kay.
MS. TIPPETT: So I want to talk about what you’ve learned, you know, what you know and are learning about what stories and poetry work in us as human beings. One thing that strikes me, you’re talking about the importance of people telling their story in the way that only they can tell it. So I want to ask you about what you’ve come to understand about this capacity of telling a particular story, in fact, the more particular and vivid it is, to actually then open up and be completely accessible to other people in all their particularity. You know what I’m talking about?
SARAH KAY: Absolutely. I think that — how do I phrase this? Here’s how I explain it to my students when I’m teaching.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
SARAH KAY: I spend a lot of time talking about how young poets especially, but all poets really, sometimes get nervous about poetry. And they think that poetry has to be about love or a poem has to be about time or has to be about life or basically anything that was a name of a magazine at one point, or politics or something really big and abstract because poetry is supposed to be lofty and universal. The problem with that is that those are all topics that human beings have been trying to figure out since we first crawled out of the bogs. You shouldn’t have to tackle all of it in one poem. Instead, what is easier for a reader or an audience member to understand is something that they can experience with their five senses.
So something that I can smell, something that I can taste, something that I can touch, something that I can hear, something I can see — that is what I can relate to. So even if you’re talking about an experience that I haven’t had before, if you’re telling me about it in a way that you invoke my sensory memory and my sensory understanding of the world, we’re talking about the same universe and I can understand what you’re saying. That makes sense to me in a way that abstract terms sometimes don’t. So even if I hear a story about somebody’s experience that I could never have imagined, if they’re explaining it using these very concrete and real sensory details, I have an access point and I am enthralled with that story.
[Sound bite of Ms. Kay singing]
MS. TIPPETT: The setting of Sarah Kay’s poem “Tshotsholoza” is District Six. This Cape Town residential area became infamous during Apartheid when that regime forcibly removed 60,000 people. She performed this poem at the Acumen Fund in New York City.
[Sound bite of Ms. Kay singing]
SARAH KAY: “Noor Ebrahim had 50 homing pigeons. He lived in District Six at the center of Cape Town. Noor Ebrahim lived in District Six at the center of Cape Town where there were 12 schools and Holy Cross Church, and Aspling Street mosque and the Jews on Harrington Street, with the Indians and the Malayas, the natives and the immigrants, the blacks and the coloreds. Noor Ebrahim lived in District Six at the center of Cape Town where there was Beckenstat Bookstore and Parker’s Corner Shop where you could buy paraffin for the stove, fish oil, bull’s eyes and almond rock, where you could walk down to the public bath, pay a tickey, get a 15-minute shower and find yourself in between the businessmen and the gangsters bathing side by side right there at the corner of Clifton and Hanover streets. Noor Ebrahim lived in District Six at the center of Cape Town with 50 pigeons and his family. Now take a city…”
MS. TIPPETT: You told a story about Noor Ebrahim in Cape Town. I found myself asking is that a true story? You know, is this someone you knew? Is this someone real? But that also then led me to think about what kind of truths we’re dealing with in a poem like that, in a story like that.
SARAH KAY: let’s see. So one of my favorite poets is a poet by the name of Rives, and he has a poem that is about mockingbirds and letting mockingbirds loose and having mockingbirds quote back to him about all the different sound bites that they hear from different people. And it’s this fantastical, imaginary world of mockingbirds flying around and stealing sound bites from everyone and it’s a brilliant poem.
And he has another poem which is about having a first-night romance with a woman and then waking up the next morning and building her a kite out of brown paper packages and wire hangers and so on. He says that people always ask him, who is that woman? Are you still with her? Does she still have the kite? You know, are you still in love? Nobody ever asks him if the mockingbird poem is true. He says — and I respect this very much — that part of the job of a poet is soul-baring, but that’s not the entire job of the poet. The job of the poet is also entertaining and is also education.
So sometimes I think people want everything a poet writes to be autobiographical and that would be exhausting and probably not terribly interesting all the time. You know, there are days when my autobiography consists of just doing a whole lot of laundry. I guess I could write a poem about that too, but the specific poem you’re asking about, which is called “Tshotsholoza,” I traveled to Cape Town when I was a freshman in college and I went to District Six and there is now a small museum there, which is the District Six Museum, I suppose. They have all these artifacts from this era and from this story of District Six. I have a real affinity for things that have been abandoned or things that were once alive and are no longer: ghost towns. I have another poem about Hiroshima. You know, this for some reason is a pattern that appears in my life and has become important to me. I grew up very near the World Trade Center.
So I was in this museum and I was incredibly shaken up by what I was seeing. And there were a lot of artifacts and a lot of things. And on one of the walls in the museum was a photograph and the photograph was of pigeons. Under the photograph was a little plaque, and the plaque had a very brief paragraph explaining that these pigeons belonged to Noor Ebrahim and that these pigeons were homing pigeons and that, after they had left District Six, after he had been forced to leave, the pigeons would return to the plot of land where his house no longer was. For some reason, that singular, visual moment to me encapsulated everything that I was feeling about this entire place. So I had done all of this research about other things about District Six, and so I incorporated all of that information and all of that research into building that story beyond more than the paragraph it was.
MS. TIPPETT: Here’s how Sarah Kay’s poem ends, after Noor Ebrahim has been forced to leave District Six.
SARAH KAY: “After three months, the droppings at the bottom of the bird cages had become three layers thick and Noor Ebrahim decided it was time to let the birds fly free, fly free so they could learn to fly back, and he knew that not all of those birds would return that night and he knew that the next morning some of those cages might not be as full, but he also knew that sometimes gravity can become a little bit too comfortable. So that morning, he opened the doors on the cages and the winds that swept through Cape Town swept through and lifted all 50 pigeons up into the air into a cloud of feathers as if to say, it does not matter how long you have kept us in cages. It does not matter how strong your gravity is. We were always meant to fly.
“That night, Noor Ebrahim returned from work, turned off the car, went around to the back of the house and cried out in pain because there in front of him were the empty bird cages lined with droppings and feathers, but no pigeons because not a single one had returned back to him. And the man who had watched them level his house to the ground without shedding a single tear suddenly felt his mind grow fuzzy and his rib cage felt empty as the ones the birds had abandoned. So he got back into the car to take a drive to try and clear his mind.
“And as he drove over the long streets of Cape Town, the wheel moved beneath his hands and he found himself on the abandoned roads of District Six. And as he reached Calodon Street, he slowed to a stop because there on the empty plot of land where his house once stood were pigeons, all 50 of them, sitting amongst the dust and the dirt and the broken glass looking up at him as if to say, ‘Where is our home?’ South Africa. We sing a song of strength, we go on like a rolling train forever, we never let gravity become too familiar because we were always meant to fly.”
[Sound bite of Ms. Kay singing]
MS. TIPPETT: Watch and listen to Sarah Kay performing “Tshotsholoza” and other poems. Find links at onbeing.org.
Coming up, Sarah Kay on words that make the impossible connection between people possible. Also, more of her poetry.
I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, “Sarah Kay’s Way with Words.” She’s a spoken-word poet who’s become a role model for teenagers around the world. She takes poetry and song and story to classrooms and gatherings, and she teaches others to find poetry and song and stories in themselves.
Her TED talk has been viewed by millions. Sarah Kay is half Japanese-American. And she traveled to Japan for the first time, with her cousins, after she graduated from high school. She spent a lot of time there, as she tells it, thinking about what we mean when we say we want to leave an impact on the world.
And here’s the first half of her poem “Hiroshima,” performed on Nantucket Island in September 2011.
SARAH KAY: “When they bombed Hiroshima, the explosion formed a mini supernova, so every living animal, human, or plant that received direct contact with the rays from that sun was instantly turned to ash. And what was left of the city soon followed. The long-lasting damage of nuclear radiation caused an entire city and its population to slowly turn into powder. When I was born, my mom says, I looked around the whole hospital room with a stare that said, ‘This? I’ve done this before.’ She says I have old eyes. When my grandpa Genji died, I was only five years old, but I took my mom by the hand and told her, ‘Don’t worry. He’ll come back as a baby.’ And yet for someone who’s apparently done this already, I still haven’t figured anything out yet. My knees still buckle every time I get on a stage. My self-confidence can be measured out in teaspoons mixed into my poetry, and it still always tastes funny in my mouth.
“But in Hiroshima, some people were wiped clean away, leaving only a wristwatch, a diary page, the mud flap to a bicycle, so no matter that I have inhibitions to fill all my pockets. I keep trying, hoping that one day I’ll write a poem I can be proud to let sit in a museum exhibit as the only proof I existed. My parents named me Sarah, which is a biblical name. In the original story, God told Sarah that she could do something impossible and she laughed because the first Sarah, she didn’t know what to do with impossible. And me? Well, neither do I, but I see the impossible every day. Impossible is trying to connect in this world, trying to hold onto others while things are blowing up around you knowing that while you’re speaking, they aren’t just waiting for their turn to talk. They hear you. They feel exactly what you feel at the same time that you feel it. It’s what I strive for. Every time I open my mouth, that impossible connection. There’s this piece of wall in Hiroshima…”
MS. TIPPETT: When you talk about your terror and your nerves which you do, you write about that and you talk really openly about that. As I got into this, getting ready to interview you, I watched you kind of grow up, right? I watched you perform poems years ago, as it’s all now captured online. I mean, there’s clearly an evolution in life. In any life when you do something over and over again, you grow into it. But I can imagine that it’s really helpful for the young people you work with. I remember being struck by this because I watched you on stage and these lines were so beautiful: “My self-confidence can be measured out in teaspoons mixed into my poetry, but it still feels funny in my mouth.”
SARAH KAY: Yeah. It has changed, but it hasn’t gone away, that fear. I think now the difference is that I know what that fear is, so when it happens or when it appears, I can say, OK, I’m terrified of going on stage. That’s what that is. I know it and I recognize it and that’s what I’m experiencing right now. OK, great, now go on stage [laugh]. So I still get very anxious and very nervous, but at least now it’s like an old friend [laugh] that I can’t get rid of, so I might as well get used to.
MS. TIPPETT: Something I really appreciate is your care with language. I saw where you talked about, you know, one of your first guidelines for spoken-word poetry when you’re teaching it is about choosing language carefully. I kind of feel like that’s a waning art in America. I mean, the upside is we’re creative with language; the downside is we’re not careful with language. How do you think about that?
SARAH KAY: Oh, it’s a really hard question. I don’t know. I don’t know how to feel about it. I think that language is a lot more powerful than people give it credit for.
MS. TIPPETT: It can withstand our carelessness? Is that what you’re saying?
SARAH KAY: Oh, no, no, no. I mean, I think people underestimate the effect that language has. So when we’re careless with language, that’s how people are hurt, that’s how people get in trouble, that’s how people misunderstand one another, that’s how dangerous situations happen. I also think that that’s where the beauty of language lies, that instead of using this word, if you take the time to consider this other word, maybe that other word has more connotation that is going to help in what you’re trying to express. You know, it gives you more freedom in being as specific in your language as you can be, which is fantastic.
I don’t tweet. I don’t use Twitter. A lot of people that are performers do because it’s a way of connecting with a fan base, I guess, and saying, you know, I’m doing this show here, everyone come out and see me. It’s a fast communication method, but I think one of the reasons I don’t use it just on a personal level is that speed doesn’t allow me care.
MS. TIPPETT: I sense also you talk a lot, I mean, you use the word “connection” a lot. And also in “Hiroshima,” you talk about trying to connect every day, the impossible connection, but that difficulty of connecting, and using language or using whatever we have to connect, is a very existential dilemma for human beings. But somehow it’s something you’ve really latched onto at a pretty young age. I mean, seeing that difficulty and really approaching it with great care.
SARAH KAY: Well, I think that I was — not think — I know I was incredibly blessed to find spoken-word poetry when I was 14. That could not have come at a more perfect time for me. It was a moment where I was barely out of the childhood gate, barely, and not nearly sure of what the heck adulthood was supposed to be. And yet, I hated feeling like I wasn’t important enough to contribute to that world. There was like this waiting time that I had to figure out all of these things first before I was allowed to contribute. And I think that that’s central to when I write poetry is when I’m trying to figure something out pretty much exclusively.
I write a poem when there’s something I cannot navigate without poetry. And in doing so, when I put that poem out into the world, what I’m saying is, hey, look at me trying to figure this thing out, which I haven’t yet, but this is me trying. If you’re trying to figure this out too, maybe this can help you or maybe you can help me. And then maybe together we can make something make more sense than it does right now. I think that that’s what it means to be human is to volunteer your experience in an effort to say, hey, this is what I’ve got. What do you have over there? Can we make something work here?
MS. TIPPETT: It’s such an important way to think about this too. It gets back at the power of language, the power of words, I mean, as tools in themselves because another way people might feel frustrated at 13 or 14 is what do they have to work with? What do they have to bring into the world?
SARAH KAY: Right, absolutely. Part of what I was so lucky to hear when I was that age, maybe not explicitly, but what I was able to witness and understand from the people around me was, hey, it’s OK if you don’t have anything figured out yet. That’s fine. Write about that. Write about being 14. Write about, you know, how you’re totally clueless because that’s where you’re at.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, and that’s where you’re at, that expression.
SARAH KAY: Absolutely. And that’s one of the things that I try very hard to teach is that you don’t have to be anywhere other than where you are right now, and all we’re asking is for you to share where you are right now with us so that we can try to understand it and we can learn from it because, regardless of what your age is, you’ve definitely gone through things I haven’t gone through and I want to know about it and I want to learn from it.
MS. TIPPETT: Here are the final lines of Sarah Kay’s poem “Hiroshima.”
SARAH KAY: “There’s this piece of wall in Hiroshima that was completely burnt black by the radiation, but on the front step a person who was sitting there blocked the rays from hitting the stone. The only thing left now is a permanent shadow of positive life. After the A-bomb specialist said it would take 75 years for the radiation-damaged soil of Hiroshima City to ever grow anything again, but that spring there were new buds popping up from the earth.
“When I meet you in that moment, I’m no longer a part of your future. I start quickly becoming part of your past, but in that instant, I get to share your present and you get to share mine and that is the greatest present of all. So if you tell me I can do the impossible, I’ll probably laugh at you. I don’t know if I can change the world yet because I don’t know that much about it and I don’t know that much about reincarnation either, but if you make me laugh hard enough, sometimes I forget what century I’m in. This isn’t my first time here. This isn’t my last time here. These aren’t the last words I’ll share, but just in case, I am trying my hardest to get it right this time around.”
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett with On Being. Today, “Sarah Kay’s Way with Words.”
MS. TIPPETT: The TED talk you gave, the theme for that particular gathering was the rediscovery of wonder, which is just a phrase I love. I don’t know if you have any connection to that phrase yourself, but you were part of that event. And I just wonder if that language or that idea is resonant for you and also in terms of media. You know, in terms of story and poetry and what happens online and even television and movies because you’re involved in a lot of other things.
SARAH KAY: Yeah, that — when I got the phone call about possibly being involved with the TED conference, first of all, I had about a heart attack and a half [laugh]. The phone call was simply, you know, we don’t know yet what capacity we’d like you to be involved. You know, there are these big TED talks that happen that are 18 minutes long, but there are also smaller six-minute talks that happen in between. We also bring in performers as entertainment so they don’t do talks, but they would perform for five to 10 minutes. Is that something you’d be interested in?
I said, “Absolutely. I will hold your towels if need be. Anything you want, I will do to be in that space and get to see those people tell their stories.” Then she said, well, the topic of this year’s conference is the rediscovery of wonder. What does that mean to you? And I said, well, it kind of sounds like my job description [laugh]. A lot of what I was doing in schools as of late had been trying to convince teenagers that it was OK to be affected by things, affected by emotion, and that it was their job to turn that effect into something new and original and authentic to them.
There was so much resistance to admitting that anything got to them in any way. There was so much like nothing is impressive, nothing is scary, nothing intimidates me, nothing is moving, because it’s really scary to be vulnerable ever, but especially when you’re a teenager. That’s just the worst is to admit to being vulnerable for them. So much of what I was doing was trying to say, listen, it’s OK. It’s OK to be scared, it’s OK to be impressed, it’s OK to be amused, it’s OK to have these things that shake your world up a little bit, and then turn that around and tell me about it and put it into words so that other people know what it feels like to have this experience that has moved you in some way. So I was really working at trying to get people to rediscover wonder. It’s a really exciting time to be looking around and seeing and learning and taking in culture in all different forms.
MS. TIPPETT: Why is there a definition of the word “flux” on your web page, on the home page?
SARAH KAY: I like words. I really love words. I love strange words. I love words in other languages. I love words that sound funny and taste funny and make me think. I love words that mean exactly what I need them to mean. That’s the best when you have a word that’s so specific to one moment or one emotion and you go, yes, that’s exactly what I need it to mean. Because it doesn’t happen all the time. There are plenty of times it’s kind of this and it’s not really that. You know, it’s a little bit of this word, but not entirely. So the few times when it fits like a glove, it’s just such a great feeling.
The word “flux,” when I found that word, I just loved it. I loved the way it sounded. It was fluffy, but it was sharp. It was fun to say. It was hard to rhyme. It was just everything that I wanted. And also, my life is just eternally in flux, and it always has been and probably always will be, which is amazing. I choose to recognize it and embrace it rather than be scared of it.
MS. TIPPETT: One of the interesting things you did in your TED talk, you performed a poem and then you talked a little bit before you performed again. You gave the audience an exercise that you wanted them spontaneously without thinking too hard about it to think about three things they knew to be true. Is that an exercise you do with students?
SARAH KAY: Absolutely.
MS. TIPPETT: Why do you do that?
SARAH KAY: Oh, I do it for a lot of reasons. When I do it in a classroom, I usually say that I want you to write five things you know to be true, and they be about anything you want. It can be about science, history, what you had for breakfast, your family, your favorite sports team, the boy you have a crush on, whatever you want it to be. There’s only two rules. The first rule is don’t think too hard and the second rule is each answer you give, try to give it a little bit more meat than just one line.
So for example, instead of saying I know my name is Sarah, which is sort of boring, I would say I know my name is Sarah because my parents named me after my grandfather, Stewart, which is weird because that’s a boy’s name, but it made sense to them. So just that little bit more cushion to every answer. Then I give them about six and a half minutes and they have to go. Part of the reason that I only give people a shorter amount of time than they need is because, if I gave people 20 minutes to do it, then they would spend the time going, OK, what is going to make me sound the smartest or what’s going to make me look really good in front of this room full of people, what’s going to make me look deep. And that’s not the point.
MS. TIPPETT: You would edit.
SARAH KAY: Yeah, absolutely and that’s not the point.
MS. TIPPETT: What — what is the point? What does it do?
SARAH KAY: What it does is it makes people put down on paper what is already bubbling around in their head. Oftentimes, when people say, oh, I don’t know what to write. I can’t write. I don’t have anything to write. Or I sit down and I look at a blank screen, I look at a blank page, and I freak out, because I don’t know how to start from scratch. Well, the truth of the matter is you’re never starting from scratch. You’re full of a hundred million thoughts and ideas and feelings and emotions and reactions. But most of the time, you disregard them as being unimportant and unpoetic. But when you force yourself to put them down on paper and just look at them for a second and go, hey, you know what? I could totally write a poem about how much laundry I have to do today. I could totally write a poem about, you know, how that phone call with my cousin was weird last week, whatever it is.
So by giving them a short amount of time, what it does is it makes people just put down on paper whatever it is that’s in their head. And then they can take a better look at it in the light of day and say, oh, hold on a second. I could probably talk about this for a little while. If you do this long enough, instead of five things I know to be true, for example, if everyone did 50 things I know to be true and then everyone read all of them out loud, at a certain point, four things start to happen, and I have seen this happen in workshops all the time.
The first thing that happened is somebody has something on their list that another person has the exact same thing or something very similar. Then the second thing that happens is somebody has something on their list and someone else has the exact opposite. The third thing that happens is somebody has something that everyone else has never even heard of before. Like what? What are you talking about? Like explain yourself. And the fourth thing that happens is somebody has something that the rest of the room thought they knew about, but this person is introducing a new way of looking at it or a new angle to consider.
Those four moments are actually four intersections. It’s an intersection between when you’re writing about something that you are excited and want to talk about and when you’re writing about something that other people are going to be invested in as well, either because they agree with you, they disagree with you, they’re curious and they want you to explain or you’re introducing a new perspective on things that they didn’t consider before. So when you find those four intersections, one of those four intersections, that’s a dead giveaway that this is a place where a poem could start.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. So if I asked you right now what are three things you know to be true, right now as we speak, what would they be?
SARAH KAY: Oh, three things that I know to be true right now. Let’s see.
MS. TIPPETT: On that stage at TED, you just held up three fingers and you gave everybody about a second for each answer.
SARAH KAY: Yeah, no totally. I could — you know, I do this exercise weekly, and one of my favorite things is what are the things that change on a weekly basis and what are the things that I always know that never change? One thing I know to be true is that I once went on an adventure with my mother in Prague in search of a green rock from a meteor that I was convinced was Kryptonite — and she tried to explain to me was not. A second thing I know to be true is that there is a giant box of Easter egg candy Peeps and chocolate covered matzo in my house waiting for me when I get home. And the third thing I know to be true is that I have a suitcase full of clothes that I still haven’t unpacked yet, that I need to unpack when I get back.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s the thing you and I have in common [laugh].
SARAH KAY: See? I told you. It only takes three and you find it.
MS. TIPPETT: Sarah Kay is the founder and co-director, with Phil Kaye, of Project V.O.I.C.E., Vocal Outreach into Creative Expression.
Her poem “B” is published as a book.
Here in closing, Sarah Kay performs the end of that poem at the Bowery Poetry Club. It begins with the line, “If I should have a daughter.”
SARAH KAY: “But I want her to know that this world is made out of sugar. It can crumble so easily, but don’t be afraid to stick your tongue out and taste it. Baby, I’ll tell her, remember your momma is a worrier, but your poppa is a warrior and you are the girl with small hands and big eyes who never stops asking for more. Remember that good things come in threes and so do bad things and always apologize when you’ve done something wrong, but don’t you ever apologize for the way your eyes refuse to stop shining. Your voice is small, but don’t ever stop singing. And when they finally hand you heartbreak, slip hatred and war under your doorstep and hand you handouts on street corners of cynicism and defeat, you tell them that they really ought to meet your mother.”
MS. TIPPETT:Listen and watch Sarah Kay performing her poetry — “Tshotsholoza,” “Hiroshima,” and “B.” Find links at onbeing.org. You can also download this show to listen again or share with others by subscribing to our podcast. Get that on iTunes. It includes audio extras — like my unedited interviews and bonus tracks. Again, links to all this and more at onbeing.org.
By the way, since we spoke, Sarah Kay is now on Twitter and so are we. Follow the show @beingtweets. Follow me @kristatippett. Finally, I hope you’ll subscribe to our email newsletter. Each week, you get a heads-up on latest podcasts, invitations to live events, and behind-the-scenes insights and links. We just ask for your email address. Click on the newsletter link at the top of any page on our website. Again, that’s onbeing.org.
On Being on-air and online is produced by Chris Heagle. Stefni Bell is our coordinating producer.
Special thanks this week to the Nantucket Project and the Acumen Fund.