Sarah Kay: Stage to page

Spoken word poet Sarah Kay discusses writing, listening and the freedom to give poetry a try.
By Megan Kaplon | Published: March 21, 2014


Photo by Emily Julian

Photo by Emily Julian

This spring marks the release of spoken word poet Sarah Kay’s first poetry collection. No Matter the Wreckage features her spoken word poetry, including “Private Parts” and “Toothbrush to the Bicycle Tire,” the performances of which have collected more than 500,000 views each on YouTube. The collection also features poems written solely for the page and never before published.

The poet, whose career blossomed on the stage of the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City, reached stardom status, as much as any modern poet can hope to, when she gave a TED Talk in 2011, which more than 3 million viewers have watched. In it, she performs her most famous poem “B” (which was made into a short illustrated book that year) and introduces her audience to Project V.O.I.C.E., the organization she founded and operates with fellow Brown University alum Phil Kaye. Project V.O.I.C.E. brings spoken word to young people nationally and internationally with the goal of inspiring creativity, letting students know that their opinions and ideas matter and, of course, searching for the next generation of spoken word prodigies such as Kay. Her philosophy about being a prodigy? We all have stories and thoughts and ideas worthy of being made into poetry.

When we spoke, she was in the midst of a month-long tour of California schools, and she talked about writing, listening and the freedom to give poetry a try.

How did you decide which poems to include in the book?

Originally, the publisher wanted to publish a manuscript of what he called “the greatest hits,” the spoken word poems that people have really liked. At first I [thought] most of those poems were written for performance so I don’t know if they’ll hold up on paper. I was thinking about saying no, but then I thought, well actually, there are all these other poems that I wrote that I’ve never performed because they weren’t written for performance, they were written for the page. They’ve just been sitting around, and the book would be an opportunity to share those. But I realized if I was going to do my first book and have it only be page poems and have there be none of the spoken word poems people would recognize, then folks who are fans would buy the book and be like, “Wait a second, what is all this? These are not the poems I know and love.” I realized it had to be a collaboration between page poems and stage poems.

How does your writing process change when working on a page poem versus a stage poem?

It’s certainly not a science. There are definitely times when I think I know what I’m doing, and I prove myself wrong. I’ll think I’m writing a page poem and then afterwards look at it and think this might really work in performance. Or the other way around: I write a poem that I think I’m going to be performing, and I look at it again and say, you know what, I actually just want to leave this on a piece of paper. But when I’m planning on something being a piece that I would like to perform, I approach that with a set of tools that are different from the tools that I use if I’m approaching a poem for the page. In the same way that a poet who’s writing for the page would consider things like line breaks and stanza lengths and the way a poem looks visually on a piece of paper and the way a reader’s eyes move across the page, when I’m creating a poem that I know I want to be performed, I’m thinking about what elements of performance I can use in the creation of this poem that are going to bring more meaning to my words than if they were written down. That can sometimes be something I do with my facial expression, something I do with my voice, some gesture that I make, the tone that I speak with.

When you add those movements or facial expressions, do you make notes on your page like you would in a screenplay?

I don’t. But that’s because a lot of the process for me is saying [the poem] out loud over and over again so that I learn it almost more by hearing it than I do by seeing it. When I started working on this book, I actually had to write down a lot of the spoken word poems for the first time because they had only existed in my voice and body and mind.

Wow. That’s impressive.

Whenever people ask about memorizing, I always ask them if they have a favorite song. Everybody has a song that they know all the lyrics to, and usually they don’t know the lyrics on purpose. It’s not like they sat down and said, I’m going to learn all these lyrics. By virtue of hearing the song over and over again, you learn the rhythm and it makes you feel good to sing it and hear it on the radio. It’s sort of the same way with spoken word poems in that there’s a rhythm to it, and there’s a musicality of the words that I learn.

Do you have a couple poems brewing in your mind at one time?

I would love to be able to work on several poems at the same time, but I had a teacher once who said you’re always writing what you’re writing. Even when you think you’re writing seven different poems, there’s probably a good chance that there’s actually just one thing you’re trying to figure out and all seven of those poems are you trying to tackle it from different angles.

Where do you find the inspiration for your poems?

I write poems when I have something I’m trying to figure out. It really is a problem-solving process for me. When there’s something that I’m having a hard time understanding, or I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around or coming to terms with, that is when I feel moved to sit down and write a poem. When I get to the end of a poem sometimes I’ve resolved it, and I can say, oh, I see, this is what I was trying to understand in this work. And sometimes I get to the end of the poem and I still haven’t found clarity, but at least I’ve created new work
as a result.

How would you describe the style of your poetry?

I love stories, so stories fit very strongly into my work. I don’t have a whole lot of abstract poems. Usually there’s some narrative. A poet recently was looking at a poem I had written and said, “This is a hard poem, softly written.” I really liked that description. I don’t know if all of my poems accomplish that, but I think that that’s often something that I am looking for.

You mentioned musicality. Do you have a background in music?

I do. I’ve studied music my whole life. I’m a singer, although ironically, singing is something that makes me way more nervous than performing poetry. One of my secret dreams, although it’s probably not so secret anymore, is getting to write for musical theater.

How do you think your musical background plays into your poetry writing?

One of the reasons we listen to music is because it’s lovely to hear. The sounds are lovely to hear, and I like creating poetry that is full of sounds that are lovely to hear. The way words sound is a really important part of my writing process. Another thing is that a musician might play 100 shows a year and play the same song over and over and over again, and every time they get on stage, that song is a little different. It might go a little faster; it might go a little slower. They might decide to do a little improv riff in the middle of the chorus in a way that they don’t usually do. One night they might ask the audience to sing along. There’s a huge element of what parts are subject to change based on the room, the people that are in the room, the mood of the artist, the mood of the audience. All of those things are flexible, and I really like that about spoken word poetry as well. I can shape a performance based on where I am and who I’m with.

I noticed that you use a lot of personification in your poetry. Why do you enjoy that particular literary tool?

When I was a kid, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that I had to choose anything. I really thought that the way life worked was you got to do everything; you just had to figure out when you were going to do all those things. I really thought at some point I was going to be able to experience being a boy or being a princess or being a mermaid. It wasn’t a question of: What if I were these things? It was: When I get to be a boy, this is what I’m going to do. Or when I get to be the president, this is what I’m going to do. It was a total guarantee that I was definitely going to get to do all these things. It was only upon growing older and probably embarrassingly late, to be honest, that I figured out that’s not exactly the way it works. I realized that I actually only get to be me. That made me very miserable, so one of the ways that I tried to chip away at that was by finding opportunities to escape and find other windows to look through. Something as silly as looking through the eyes of a toothbrush made me happy because I thought, OK, well, I’m never going to get to be a toothbrush but at least here’s an opportunity for me to try it on for a couple minutes.

SAM_2640_Ujjwala MaharjanI saw a couple of your performances with your Project V.O.I.C.E. partner Phil Kaye, and I assume that you wrote those poems together. What is it like to write with someone?

With Project V.O.I.C.E., a lot of what I do is work on making poetry exciting and accessible to young people. There are a lot of weird stereotypes that people have about poetry. People think that poetry is boring. They think that poetry is dense and that it’s not for them, regardless of who they are. A lot of people think that it’s a very isolated art form. Especially young people think that the kids who write poems are the kids who sit alone in their house and cry and write poems. Certainly that can be true, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve definitely written my share of sit alone and cry poems, but I think that an important side of poetry that not a lot of people know about is that poetry can be incredibly social and incredibly fun. The great thing about writing a poem with somebody else is that it’s hanging out with somebody else, and not only is it just hanging out but it’s riffing with someone the same way that you would jam with someone on guitars. You say, what if we talk a little about this and what about this and maybe this would work. You could say that and I could say this and then we could say this part together. It really is an exciting, collaborative creative process that I have a lot of fun with.

What strategies do you use in Project V.O.I.C.E. to attract young people to the idea of poetry?

A big part of it is trying to make poetry approachable, trying to reassure people that poetry doesn’t have to be about fixed concepts. A lot of people think poetry is only about love or politics or the meaning of life or “deep” topics, and for some people those are not realistic to what they’re interacting with on a daily basis, especially if you’re like a 5th-grade boy. You’re not sitting around musing on your philosophies on the meaning of life and love and so on. Or maybe you are, maybe you’re that 5th-grade boy, but most of them aren’t. Therefore we are trying to show them that poetry can be about the things that they care about and make it as relevant to them as, for example, songs they hear on the radio. Also, we do a lot of listening. I think a model that is pretty common in schools is that a teacher holds the knowledge and the students don’t, and the teacher gives the students what they don’t have. We want to say, you already have so many stories and so many ideas and so many thoughts and experiences and opinions, and I want to listen to them. Just that shifting of the model is really helpful because it is a validation of their ideas and their thoughts and it gives them an opportunity to celebrate what they already have.

What advice would you give to a writer looking to give poetry a try?

You don’t need to handle poetry with gloves on. A lot of people worry that poetry is a sacred format and that it can only be approached by certain types of people or certain types of minds, and if you’re not already a poet that you aren’t welcome into the club. And that is both untrue and also unfair. I think that it is way more important for people who don’t consider themselves poets or haven’t written poetry before to experiment and bring what they know from other forms into that world. I would love to see someone who is traditionally a science writer start writing poetry. Or I would love to see what happens when a historian writes poetry. That’s how the art form grows and breathes and expands and makes room for what else is possible.

Megan Kaplon, a graduate of Emerson College, is an editorial assistant at this magazine.

Sarah Kay’s Top Ten Poems

  • “Living in Sin” by Adrienne Rich
  • “my man johnnie” by Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie
  • “A Poem Not About the Brooklyn Bridge” by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
  • “Untitled Poem (aka Last Love)” by Rachel McKibbens
  • “Baptism” by Anis Mojgani
  • “Won’t Be But a Minute” by Patricia Smith
  • “Gentrification” by Sherman Alexie
  • “A Primer” by Bob Hicok
  • “The Quiet World” by Jeffrey McDaniel
  • “40 Love Letters” by Jeanann Verlee

“The Toothbrush to the Bicycle Tire”

They told me that I was meant for the cleaner life;
that you would drag me through the mud.

They said that you would tread all over me,
that they could see right through you,

that you were full of hot air;
that I would always be chasing,

always watching you disappear after sleeker models—
that it would be a vicious cycle.

But I know better. I know about your rough edges
and I have seen your perfect curves.

I will fit into whatever spaces you let me.
If loving you means getting dirty, bring on the grime.

I will leave this porcelain home behind. I’m used to
twice-a-day relationships, but with you I’ll take all the time.

And I know we live in different worlds, and we’re always really busy,
but in my dreams you spin around me so fast, I always wake up dizzy.

So maybe one day you’ll grow tired of the road,
and roll on back to me.

And when I blink my eyes into morning,
your smile will be the only one I see.

“No Matter the Wreckage” reprinted with permission from Write Bloody. Copyright © 2014 Sarah Kay