Persephone Pioneers: Poet and Educator Sarah Kay

I happened to open up my TED app one morning and saw a talk called “If I should have a daughter.” I clicked on it, thinking it might be interesting and twenty minutes, two spoken word performances, and one life story later, I was a sobbing mess who had a new idol: Sarah Kay.

Sarah Kay. Photo courtesy http://kaysarahsera.com

A spoken word performer and a frequenter of The Bowery Poetry Club since age 14, Sarah is also the founder and co-director of Project V.O.I.C.E., which “encourages young people to engage with the world around them and use Spoken Word Poetry as an instrument through which they can explore and better understand their culture, their society, and ultimately themselves.” You might also recognize her from a recent Samsung tablet commercial. Sarah took some time out of her busy schedule (seriously… just this summer she’s been all over the northeast US and Central America and earlier this year to Singapore and Australia) to answer some questions for us.

Persephone Magazine: You’ve been performing since you could speak, practically, but what was the point that you realized that this was a vocation rather than a hobby?

Sarah Kay: Hm. I definitely was not a performer when I was little. I’ve been writing poetry since before I could write. When I was a toddler, I ran around the house yelling, “Poem!” and waited for my mother to come write it down for me while I dictated. And then, when I learned how to write on my own, I wrote a lot of poems, but they were all journal poems. I never performed my poetry. I never wanted to perform anything. Being in the spotlight terrified me. I didn’t discover spoken word poetry until I was fourteen. And performing still terrified me, but spoken word poetry fascinated me. The joy started to outweigh the terror. The terror didn’t disappear; it just didn’t hold the trump card anymore.
In respect to the vocation vs. hobby question, I think of poetry as something I love to do and perhaps something I need to do in order to help me navigate the inside of my heart and head. I also love sharing this art form whenever possible. That’s what Project V.O.I.C.E. is all about. There was never a morning I woke up and thought, “I’m going to be a professional poet!” I have just always made room in my life for poetry. Sometimes it was only a little bit of room, because I was in school or working on other things. Right now that amount of room happens to be pretty large. Sometimes I get paid for performing poetry or teaching it, which is awesome and an enormous blessing. But sometimes I don’t. Even if I never got paid for it, I’d still be doing it in some way or another, but maybe it would be compartmentalized slightly differently. Either way, I’m very lucky to get to do what I do.

PM: Why did you start Project V.O.I.C.E. and what challenges/resistance did you meet along the way – either starting it initially or revamping it in college?

SK: When I was in high school, I noticed that a lot of my friends seemed frustrated and had pent-up emotions. I was so fortunate to have the Bowery Poetry Club and the poets who helped teach me that my voice was necessary and relevant. A lot of teenagers never get that message. I wanted to share the experience of spoken word poetry with my friends, so I started Project V.O.I.C.E. as a very simple plan: bring spoken word poetry to my high school. This ended up being easier said than done. I had to convince faculty who had never even heard of such a thing, that this art form was worth letting me disrupt normal programming. Around this time, I was lucky to be included in a girl’s leadership conference at Mount Holyoke College. They understood that young people are full of exciting ideas, but have none of the skills necessary to execute them. So in a few days, I learned how to write a project proposal, how to make an oral presentation pitch, how to outline a budget, how to regroup when forced to take one step backwards after taking two steps forward. And after a long time of continual paperwork, compromise, negotiation and chutzpah, I was able to create what I called Project V.O.I.C.E. (Vocal Outreach Into Creative Expression). The project had three steps. Step one was an assembly for the entire high school that showcased different examples of spoken word poetry. For this, I wrote a bunch of poems and forced my friends to learn them and perform them with me, to make it look like this was already a popular art form. So yes, I had to use a little bit of subterfuge. But I think it was for a worthy cause. Step two was a guest poet who I brought to the school to teach workshops. Step three was our school’s first open mic event which I organized and hosted. I’m happy to say that open mic is now an institution at the high school and an annual event. The project was a great success and provided me with the important understanding of how much hard work is required to get anything worthwhile done. It was a good lesson to learn early, because when Phil and I decided to “revamp” Project V.O.I.C.E. later, I was ready to hit the ground running. I knew how much work it was going to take.

PM: What is your writing process? Do you sit and think through every word of every stanza or do you just write freely and allow the words to flow? How do the words and the rhythm and the movements come together?

SK: Here’s what I like to tell people: Poetry is like pooping. If there’s a poem in you, it has to come out. Sometimes it comes out easily, sometimes it takes a great deal of effort and takes longer than you want it to. But it needs to come out. And you can quote me on that.

PM: One thing that really resonates with me in your work is when you realized that you didn’t need to be indignant to be a spoken word performer and the inherent positivity in your work. That’s not really a question, just something I wanted to say to you.

SK: I think that poetry is always a celebration. Even sad poetry or angry poetry. When I’m writing a poem, I am rejoicing in the language, the emotion, the memory. If that comes off as positivity, then I guess that’s neat. It kind of surprises me to hear that, actually. A lot of the poems I write strike me as melancholy. Or at least, they stemmed from melancholy or nostalgia. But perhaps my stubborn optimism leaks through even when I don’t plan it.

PM: Between college, Project VOICE, and performing, your schedule is packed. What is an average day like for you (if such a thing exists)?

SK: It doesn’t. On any given day I’m either in class, teaching a class, packing a suitcase, unpacking a suitcase, on my way to an airport, in an airport, on an airplane, on a train, performing, preparing for an upcoming event, or navigating Project V.O.I.C.E. logistics. Although there are also days when I am just chained to my laptop for hours at a time. Sometimes it feels like my full time job is answering emails and everything else is just side work. Certainly the hardest thing for me is to find enough time to write. I need so much quiet to sort through my own head. It is a constant struggle to make time for writing.

PM: Who are some of your favorite writers and why?

SK: Oh man. This list could go on for years. For fun, I’m going to give you a list in no order of preference or genre. Rumi, Tina Fey, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Shakespeare, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, Stephen Sondheim, Carole King, Jeffrey McDaniel, Sara Ruhl, Rives, Harper Lee, Dar Williams, Aaron Sorkin, Billy Collins, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Karam, Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie, e. e. cummings, Paul Simon, Bob Hicok, Jules Feiffer. The list goes on.
Why? Because in the moments when I can’t find the right words, they find them for me. I’m so grateful for that.

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PM: You’re a self-professed musical theatre geek and occasionally slip original songs into your performances. Have you thought about writing a musical? Because I would see that.

SK: Funny you should ask. I wrote a full-length two-act musical with my close friend Drew Nobile when I was in college. (Check out the “Other Projects” page on my website.) It was about the trials and tribulations of being a fifteen-year-old boy. It was a lot of fun and pretty close to my heart. I love writing musical numbers. It’s one of my life goals to write a musical that makes it to a big stage. One of my role models is Lin Manuel Miranda, creator of In the Heights. I used to go see him perform with the group “Freestyle Love Supreme” when I was in high school. I watched In the Heights move from staged reading workshop to Off Broadway to Broadway. It was a wonderful journey to watch and cheer from the sidelines.

PM: What’s the most amazing place you’ve been able to visit and what kind of inspiration do you draw from your travels?

SK: The most amazing? I don’t know if I can pick one. I do seem to wind up on a lot of rooftops, though.
I will tell you this: Once in Delhi, I had the best meal of my entire life. It was at a tiny restaurant down a back alley in the Muslim Quarter near the Jama Masjid. The meal was so good that I returned a week later to have the exact same thing, just to make sure I hadn’t been dreaming. The meal was equally perfect. I travel by my stomach, mainly.
I learn so much when I am traveling. My senses are heightened and I pay attention to details in a different way. That can be overwhelming and exhausting, but it is also where some of my most visceral work comes from.

PM: Your parents seem amazingly supportive and encouraging of your passion for poetry. Do you have any advice for kids whose parents aren’t so supportive of their own passions?

SK: Find room in your life to do the thing you love. It doesn’t have to be the thing you make money doing. It doesn’t have to be your career or what pays your rent. You just need to have it. If it is what you get paid for, that’s awesome too. But you can be an amazing poet who also has a day job. Plenty do. It doesn’t take anything away from your art or the joy that you get from doing it. In some places in the Middle East, they acknowledge that everyone is (or could be) a poet. Your plumber is a poet, the school teacher, the fireman down the street. I like this immensely. It doesn’t make being a poet less special, it makes it more relevant.

PM: What’s the next brilliant thing we can look forward to from you?

SK: Brilliant? Yikes. I made a pretty brilliant corn chowder from scratch yesterday. Does that count? [Interviewer’s Note: Heck yes, it does!] I’m working on a lot of things. I’m pretty proud of the book that I published this past November with my oldest friend Sophia Janowitz. (Oldest meaning we’ve been friends the longest, not that she is old.) That was a lot of work, but I love playing with Sophia and I’m so grateful that she did this with me. I just started a new project called “Tributaries” where I showcase some of the wonderful projects folks have sent me that they created in tandem with my poetry. It’s really exciting to see where poetry can lead. Tattoos, dances, music, speed painting, fan fiction… I love knowing that my poetry doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I am gearing up for a lot of travel in the upcoming months. When I’m on the move, I try to do a consistent job of posting things up on the “Macaronics and Cheese” section of my website when I can. It helps me keep track of where I am and what I’m doing. I suppose that’s where you could peek at what the inside of my head looks like day to day.

PM: Last but not least, posing the question you pose to the groups you work with in Project VOICE: What are three things you know to be true right now?

SK: 1) Today, as soon as I finish answering these questions, I will finally unpack the suitcase that I have been living out of. It will be glorious. And then I will have to do a lot of laundry, which will be less glorious.
2) Don’t ever play the party game “celebrity” against my little brother and me. Seriously. If you put both of us on the same team, you’re a goner. He once pulled out the name “Oscar de la Renta” from the bowl, which was a name he didn’t recognize. (Give him a break, he was fourteen.) He still got me to guess it in under ten seconds by going through “Oscar de la Hoya.” The other players didn’t stand a chance.
3) I’m a sucker for grammar and punctuation. (Not that I claim to be a beacon of perfection, mind you.) I just appreciate it immensely. You know the difference between a hyphen, en dash, and em dash? I’m like putty in your hands.

Thank you so much, Sarah. I definitely second her recommendation to pick up the hardcover copy of “B” with illustrations by Sophia Janowitz… it’s a work of art in itself. You can see and read more from Sarah Kay at her website, http://www.kaysarahsera.com/

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Crystal Coleman

Florida girl living on the west coast. During the day, I consult in social media and community management. I have a really cute puppy (Elphaba) and a British husband (I keep him for his accent) as well as an unhealthy relationship with parentheses. http://thatgirlcrystal.com

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