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Sarah Kay thrives in poetry on and off the stage—and here, she discusses the immense power of the craft. 

“I like words,” Sarah Kay told On Being. “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.”

Language can be a cold, dead thing. Brittle. Dry.

But there are certain people with the unique gift of imbuing it with life—they add flesh to bone; meaning to moment. Sarah Kay is one of those people—writer as interpreter, picking up the scent of the wind, absorbing its lessons and then offering them back to us with emotion, with subjectivity and objectivity, with voice, with discovery.

For Kay, the path to the power of words began with the power of story.

As a kid, she couldn’t fathom that she had only one life to live—as she described in a now-famous TED Talk, she knew somewhere within her that she would get to experience what it felt like to be a young boy in the Dust Bowl era, or, say, a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. But then she discovered that our bounds could in fact be broken; through books, she could live other lives. And she could share her own life as a young girl growing up in New York City.

Though her parents were both photographers, Kay was perhaps accidentally raised to become a poet. For years her mother and father would send her off to school with simple poems they’d written on Post-it Notes and stashed in her lunchbox, thus framing the craft as a gift in her mind.

But Kay never knew it could be one’s future. She attended the United Nations International School, and penned poems in journals that she kept secret. And then one day she saw the slam poetry documentary SlamNation at a friend’s house, and was in awe of the synthesis of poetry and theater. She craved to know more, to witness.

To her shock, a letter showed up in the mailbox. Someone had signed her up for the New York City Teen Poetry Slam. She would eventually take the stage and perform a piece she has described as being about “the injustice of being seen as unfeminine.” And after, a girl approached her from the crowd.

“She was maybe eight feet tall and looked like she could beat me up with one hand, but instead she just nodded at me and said, ‘Hey, I really felt that. Thanks.’ And lightning struck. I was hooked.”

Kay’s parents began escorting her around the city to open mics. She’d hide under the bar at the Bowery Poetry Club and absorb performances. Meanwhile, an amazing thing was happening: She was discovering the meditative power of the craft; it enabled her to begin to process the seeming chaos of the world around her, a world that had just suffered the wound of 9/11 a few blocks from her home in Manhattan.

Kay attended Brown University and earned a master’s in the Art of Teaching Secondary English—and though she performed on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam her freshman year, she was denied entry into Brown’s high-level poetry workshops. Undeterred, as she worked toward her degree, she and fellow student Phil Kaye taught poetry workshops under the moniker Project VOICE. In real time, Kay witnessed what it was like when others discovered the raw joy of poetry.

She loved it. So rather than diving headfirst into a “proper” career of one sort or another upon graduation, she elected to take a year off to teach the artform.

And she hasn’t stopped.

Kay found success and an audience almost immediately, delivering a TED Talk in 2011 that was an infusion of spoken-word poetry and reflections on craft, life and teaching, regarded as one of the series’ best.

She performed and taught around the world, believing that poetry off the page offers an immediacy, an intimacy—as she told Dumbo Feather, “the advantage that spoken word poetry has is that the artist is sharing the exact same breath and space as their audience, which I think is a particularly powerful thing.” Her words resonated, and spread.

To Kay, poetry is healing. She has said it’s the only way she knows how to work through issues in her life. And in an age of grating political disarray and societal polarization, it is that revelation that she offers anyone willing to listen via her workshops.

Kay tweaks and evolves her poems in real time, adapting her performances to the spaces where she’s delivering them. Occasionally, she captures them like photographs and prints them in books—All Our Wild Wonder; B; No Matter the Wreckage; The Type.

One wonders about the hidden details of her process, how the world strikes a thought like a match in her mind that evolves into a word on a page, a sentence, a paragraph, a wide-eyed delivery to a rapt audience.

But the gift is enough: There is power in story.

And yet writing and performing is not a panacea. And Kay embraces this. As she said in her TED Talk, “There is hurt, here, that cannot be fixed by Band-Aids or poetry.”

And in that, there’s reason to be fully present and live the single story we’ve been given, on and off the page.

—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief


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