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Sarah Kay, Modern Poet


Nicholas Ng

When one talks about a poet, Sarah Kay is the type of person that comes to mind. Young and extremely passionate, she is one of the many people out there who believes that she can make the world a better place. Instead of many who just say they want to make a change, she has realised this dream and is changing lives around the world, one classroom at a time. Her work has gathered a great following and has inspired people of all ages to be the best they can be. We all have our methods, and spoken word poetry is hers.

Sarah Kay Interview

You have said that spoken word poetry are words that refuse to stay on paper. Can you elaborate a little more on spoken word poetry?

The best examples of spoken word poetry I know are poems that need to be heard out loud or witnessed in person. There is some element of the performance that is enhancing the audience’s understanding of the poem in a way that would be lost if it was just on paper. Sometimes this is because the performance involves an accent or gesture or melody that would not translate on the page. Even if it is only one small moment, it is enough for a subliminal message to enter the brain of the audience that says, “Oh, I had to see this. It would not have been the same if I had read it”. That is such a satisfying feeling to have.

Project VOICE was started by Sarah Kay, and subsequently joined by Phil Kaye. How far has this project come and what is its ultimate goal?

When I was in high school, I noticed that a lot of my friends seemed frustrated and angry. I was lucky to have discovered spoken word poetry as a way to express my concerns and feelings as I was taught 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 in high school, so I started Project VOICE. Later, when I met Phil, we decided to “revamp” Project VOICE and focus on bringing this art form into as many classrooms and education environments as we could.

Project VOICE aims to use spoken word poetry to entertain, educate and inspire students of all ages, from classrooms from Kindergarten to 12th grade as well as colleges and universities, graduate schools, teacher training programmes and adult community centres. We really believe that you are never too young or too old for poetry. We have been in classrooms of all girls, all boys, co-ed, private schools, public schools, independent schools, international schools, magnet and charter schools, day schools, boarding schools, etc.

Sometimes people do not understand why I think it is valuable to teach poetry, but I often say that I am not concerned with creating an army of poets, but to help building a population of people who are capable of expressing things that are important to them, issues that they struggle with and parts of themselves that are vulnerable. I want to encourage them to find the words that allow them to articulate those stories and poems in their own style and to present them in a way that moves others.

I want to help build a population of people who have the ability to listen to someone else’s experience and outlook, to bear witness to what someone else is going through, and to learn empathy. These are skills that human beings need to have regardless of what job they end up doing and regardless of where they live. That is why I am doing what I do. It comes from a deep love of poetry and a deep hope that we can help foster this kind of passion, patience and compassion in people.

In the years to come, I want to bring spoken word poetry into as many classrooms as I can. I want to continue to introduce it into corners of the world where it has been forgotten or has not yet been experienced, then step aside and see what good can come of it. What conversations can we start having that have not been had before? What light can we shine into dark places? What can we learn from each other?

Sarah Kay - Poetry
Sarah Kay – Poetry

What have you learned from the kids that you have taught?

I have learned that the act of being vulnerable takes immense courage. I suppose I already knew that, but I am amazed and inspired every time a student is brave enough to share a vulnerable part of themselves with me. It is not something I take for granted. I have also learned it is my job as an educator to constantly be working on ways to make classrooms feel safer, for communities to grow stronger, so that students feel comfortable taking the risks needed to go to those vulnerable places.

Who inspires you and why?

So many people! Right now I am inspired by my friends the Word Warriors, a group of young poets in Kathmandu, Nepal. They have been building a community around poetry and performance and teaching workshops in schools all over Nepal. They are bright and smart and are doing wonderful work. I am also always inspired by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz. She works harder than most people I know, and she proves that it is possible to be an artist and still be generous with resources and passionate about building and protecting a community.

What was the last book you read?

The last book of fiction I read was The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. I devoured it in a matter of days. I do not know anything about baseball (which is the main topic of the book) but it did not matter and I adored it anyway. Harbach’s craft is impeccable. I finished the book and did not want to have to leave the world he had created. The last poetry book I read was Dear Darkness by Kevin Young. It might be the poetry book I always wished I could write. It is incredible.

If there is one lesson you have learned this far in life (thus far), what would it be?

Oh my. If there is only one lesson I have learned, then I have not been paying much attention. One of the most important lessons I have learned is that there is no substitute for time. Just because you care about someone, does not mean that they know you care about them. Thinking about them is not the same thing as calling them or seeing them or making the effort to reach out and make time for them. Because I travel constantly, it is really important for me to really make sure the folks I do not get to see often know that I love them and miss them. Postcards come in handy.

Any final words for the people out there who are willing to listen?

If you love poetry or art-making of any kind, make sure you are making a bit of time for it in your life. Once a week to write a poem, once a day to doodle in your notebook. Whatever you can manage. The important thing is to not lose sight of it entirely. I am extremely lucky I get to spend a lot of my time on my art, but there have been plenty of times when I could not, and there may be times to come when I can not. It does not matter if you have a day job or if you are not getting paid to do your art. It does not make you less of an artist or your art less worthy. Your responsibility is to find the time to do the things that bring you joy.

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