Interview: Sarah Kay

Sarah KaySarah Kay is an American poet. Known for her spoken word poetry, Kay is the founder and co-director of Project V.O.I.C.E., founded in 2004, a group dedicated to using spoken word as an educational and inspirational tool. She began performing poetry at the Bowery Poetry Club in the East Village at the age of 14, joining their Slam Team in 2006. That year, she was the youngest person competing in the National Poetry Slam in Austin, Texas. In 2007, Kay made her television debut, performing the poem “Hands” on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. On March 3, 2011, she performed at the TED conference in Long Beach, California as part of a series entitled “Beauty, Imagination, Enchantment.” Along with a talk about her upbringing, she performed the poems “B” and”Hiroshima.” In March 2014, No Matter The Wreckage, a collection of poetry from the first decade of her career, was published by Write Bloody Publishing, featuring illustrations by Sophie Janowitz.

TCJWW: How does it feel to have a published collection of your work after years of live performance?

Kay: It feels like a big relief and a huge joy. For a long time I wasn’t interested in doing a book, because the part of spoken word poetry that I loved so much was the sharing of it out loud and the ability to connect with people in person. I thought that with a book, a person’s connection with the work would happen elsewhere (where I couldn’t participate in it directly), and that felt like a loss to me. Plus, I was a bit of a snob and claimed that my spoken word poetry was written to be performed, not read. But when I was approached about putting together a book for Write Bloody, I realized that I have a lot of poems I have never performed (that I wrote specifically for the page, that nobody ever gets to see). The opportunity to share those was appealing, and the challenge of trying to convert spoken word poetry into text also ended up winning me over. It was certainly a terrific and terrible challenge to try and get both “page” and “stage” poems to exist in the same manuscript. I guess that’s why it feels like a relief now that it is done. And I’m so joyful that I did it. Ever since I was little, I’ve loved making hand-made cards and presents and arts & crafts for people. The book gives me a similar experience. I love being able to hold this object in my hands and say, “This is mine. I made this. It is a gift for you.” I love that feeling. Especially since this particular object contains ten years worth of my poems. Plus, as opposed to my previous fears, the existence of the book hasn’t negated the personal connection I get to have with people at live shows, but it allows my work to reach farther and farther. It’s exciting to know that there are people who may interact with my work in its book-form before seeing a video of me performing, and that’s lovely and new. Also, I love so many of the other poets who are published by Write Bloody, many of whom I grew up with as heroes, and it is a private victory that my work gets to sit on bookshelves next to them. It’s a genuine honor.

TCJWW: Some of your pieces were first performed live before they ended up in this written collection. The dynamic of written vs performed poetry can be quite different. Do you think readers unfamiliar with your work will read these pieces differently compared to how they’re experienced watching you live?

Kay: I love this question! And I have no way of knowing the answer. But it sounds like a science experiment: We would have to find someone who has only read the book and never seen me perform, and then ask them to read the poem out loud to see if their oral interpretation resembles the way I sound when I perform it. I would assume it would be different. But when I was trying to figure out how to put spoken word poetry onto the page, I definitely made decisions about line breaks and stanzas based on the way the poem sounds in my head or when I say it out loud. So I certainly leave clues in the text, which folks who are reading may possibly pick up on. But I like the opportunity for new and different readings or interpretations. I have had a lot of high school students ask permission to perform my poems in speech and forensics competitions, and I always tell them they can certainly perform my work, but they should perform it as themselves, not as me. Don’t perform the poem the way I do it, perform the poem the way you would do it, if the words were yours. Because for that time, they are.

TCJWW: Each section is preempted by a series of illustrations. So not only is your poetry performative, and now also readable, but it fuses another level of art with it. How did you decide to organize these sections and attribute artistic icons to the poems?

Kay: The illustrator of No Matter the Wreckage is my oldest friend in the world, Sophia Janowitz. Sophia and I have known each other since we were three months old. When we were little, Sophia and I would make up stories, and she would make art to go with them. So not only does she know my poetry possibly better than anyone else on the planet, but she has also been making art in tandem with my words since we were babies. She was the illustrator for my first book B (which was a fully-illustrated, single-poem volume) and I knew I wanted her to create illustrations for No Matter the Wreckage as well. I divided the sections up thematically so that there is a loose narrative arc that a reader can follow through the book from beginning to end, should you choose to read it that way. Once we figured out which poems would be in which section, Sophia collected and created images from poems in that section. It’s almost like a secret code. If you know what you’re looking for, the illustrations might give you a tip about what is coming in that section. But it takes a lot of study and familiarity with the work for anyone to really “decode” it, and there are also images that are just thematically important, and not necessarily pointing to specific poems, so mainly it was just a fun puzzle for ourselves. I don’t know if I am explaining it well. I guess it’s like this: when words become a poem, it makes sense to me, but I don’t know how to explain to someone why the words are the way they are. It’s just the logic of the poem to me. For me and Sophia, her drawings make sense to us in their own language. Here’s a fun piece of illustration trivia for you: On the illustration page for Section Five (V), the watch is an actual watch that was found in Hiroshima (In the poem, I reference “a wristwatch”). Sophia found a photograph of it and drew it exactly.

TCJWW: There are pervading themes found in your poetry: young love, New York, your brother, simile. These speak vividly of your own personal style. Could you talk a bit about your writing process and how your pieces come together?

Kay: I say this so often that I worry folks will think it’s just lip service, but I promise it’s the truth: I write poetry to figure things out. Any time I’m trying to wrap my head around something, poetry is like a puzzle-solving strategy for me. I like to poem my way through tricky questions and ideas. That’s about the only consistent thread through my poem-creation process. Sometimes I am puzzling over something for months and months and the poem gets created in small bursts and rewritten a hundred times, and chopped up and put back together, etc. Occasionally, though rarely, a poem just plops out of my head fully-formed. But always it is a blueprint of what my brain is trying to navigate at that moment. I write about love and family a lot, because I’m always trying to figure those things out. At different points in my life, just when I think I’ve finished writing about it, the dynamics shift, and then I have a whole new set of questions and worries and misunderstandings to wrestle with. I also fell in love with poetry through storytelling, so my poetry tends to be fairly narrative. I like characters, I like having a beginning, middle, and ending, though not necessarily in that order (hat tip to Jean Luc-Godard). One thing that I believe is that every time I write something, I am taking the time to celebrate. Even if I am writing a sad story or an angry poem, I am still giving those stories my time and attention. I am honoring that sadness or consecrating that anger. Every moment I choose to write about is one I have deemed important enough to dwell inside of and share with others. I am holding this moment up to the light and saying, “Wow, will you look at that?” Thinking about writing as an act of celebration is sometimes a helpful framework for me. It allows me to prioritize what I want to call attention to and what I want others to know about me. It makes me ask: What is worth celebrating?

TCJWW: What’s your best writing advice that you typically share with your students? How do you get them to open up to poetry?

Kay: Poetry makes people nervous. Especially in schools, I often get questions like, “How long should it take to write a poem?” or “What happens if you get stuck with writer’s block?” So I usually tell people that “Poetry is like pooping. If there is a poem inside of you, it has to come out. Sometimes it can be really difficult and take longer than you’d like (it may even be painful), but other times it can be really easy and happen much faster than you expected. But either way—it is important, and it feels so much better when it’s done.” This explanation is a real hit with middle school boys. And yes, it’s certainly silly and perhaps even a little vulgar, and although I usually mean it in mild jest, it is also pretty helpful for me. Whenever I travel to schools and colleges to perform and teach poetry, I always meet people who tell me, “Oh, I don’t like poetry,” or “I don’t get poetry,” or “Poetry isn’t for me.” They have been led to believe that poetry can only be written by certain types of people, for certain types of people, about select subjects. Part of what I try to do in schools is take poetry off of a pedestal and make it a little more accessible and approachable. Nothing is as universal as some good scatalogical humor. I try to shift the frame in which people think about poetry from being distant or “sacred” to being more human, because then I think it becomes easier to feel like poetry belongs to us, is for us, is from us. Even if it means having to be a little silly or cheeky, I think it is worth it. I want to welcome folks to poetry, especially those who may have previously felt unwelcome; I want to celebrate everyone who is trying to make sense of this world through poetry the way I try to.

TCJWW: Project VOICE is a refreshing organization that the world needs to see more of. Where is your vision headed from here? Where can we see more of you?

Kay: I’m so proud of the work Project VOICE has done, and I’m so excited about the work we are doing more of. What started as such a small seed has grown to incredible heights. Over the past ten years, we have visited hundreds of schools in over fifteen countries, and reached tens of thousands of students directly from Kindergarten to University level. Schools are noticing the difference our work makes: I have been invited to present and lead professional development workshops at education conferences around the world. We are changing the conversations around literacy, empowerment, inclusion, and creativity in education. One really exciting development is that we just added a new poet to our roster, Franny Choi. Franny is a Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize Finalist, a Pushcart Prize Nominee, a celebrated writer and performer, as well as an experienced educator and activist. I’m so thrilled to have her join me and Phil Kaye, and now we have even more poet-power to bring spoken word poetry into classrooms and communities. One of my highest priorities as an educator is to be as inclusive as possible. A challenge we have come up against is the difficulty of visiting schools that don’t have funding for the arts. We often get requests from teachers who are eager and enthusiastic about bringing poetry into their classrooms, but don’t have resources to sponsor a Project VOICE visit. We want to tackle that head-on, in a few different ways. First, I am thrilled to share the news that we have gained the attention and support of the amazing folks at Virgin Unite, who have helped us set up a fundraising page, and absolutely all of the money raised through this initiative will go directly to scholarships that will bring Project VOICE and spoken word poetry to underfunded schools and communities. We also have a brand new website, at that is slowly expanding to become a space for educators and young poets to find resources on poetry and education, in addition to information about Project VOICE’s specific work. Other than my Project VOICE work, you can always see what I’m up to and where I’ll be performing next by checking out my Facebook page or website. I’ve also started trying out Twitter, but I’m new to it, so I’m still figuring it out.

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