“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
Sarah Kay: The universe has already written the poem you were planning on writing and this is why you can do nothing but point at the flock of starlings whose bodies rise and fall in inherited choreography, swarming the sky in a sweeping curtain that for one blistering moment forms the unmistakable shape of a giant bird flapping against the sky. It is why your mouth forms an oh. That is not a gasp, but rather the beginning of oh, of course, as in of course, the heart of a blue whale is as large as a house with chambers tall enough to fit a person standing.
Of course, a fig is only possible when a lady wasp lays her eggs inside a flower, dies and decomposes the fruit, evidence of her transformation. Sometimes the poem is so bright your silly language will not stick to it. Sometimes the poem is so true nobody will believe you. I am a bird made of birds, my blue heart a house you can stand up inside of. I am dying here, inside this flower. It is okay. It is what I was put here to do. Take this fruit. It is what I have to offer. It may not be first or ever best, but it is the only way to be sure I lived at all.
Curtis: This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman from designobserver.com. For 14 years now Debbie moment has been talking with designers and other creative people about what they do, how they got to be who they are and what they're thinking about and working on. On this episode Debbie talks to performance poet Sarah: Kay about teaching people to write.
Sarah: People should be less afraid of writing bad poems.
Curtis: Here's Debbie.
Debbie Millman: Sarah Kay used to spend a lot of time hanging out at the Bowery Poetry Club, the premier of spoken word venue in New York City. She listened and she learned. When she was 14 years old she started performing her own poetry and eventually joined the Bowery Poetry Club Slam Team. In the years since she has performed in major venues and published several books including B, which was ranked the number one selling poetry book on Amazon. She also founded Project Voice, an organization that uses spoken word poetry as a tool for literacy and youth empowerment. Sarah Kay, welcome to Design Matters.
Debbie: Sarah, we just had you read a poem as our cold open of the show today. Tell us a little bit about what you read.
Sarah: I have a friend named Kaveh Akbar, who is also my co-author of a column that three of us write for the Paris Review online. One time Kaveh posted this photo that he had found on the internet, which was that scientists had dissected the heart of a blue whale and hung it from the ceiling and when they did that, it's how they figured out that the heart of a blue whale is so big that each chamber of the heart is big enough for a human to stand up inside of. And when Kaveh shared this photo he shared it with the caption, "This is just a reminder that the universe has already written the poem you were planning on writing."
And at the time I was like, "Oh no, I'm out here trying to be original. I'm trying to invent new stuff. What do you mean the universe has already thought of everything? This is terrible." And it really got under my skin, but then not too long after that I saw this video that was making the rounds online that maybe you saw, where there are these birds called starlings that fly in big formations called murmurations, and it's like a cloud of birds and they usually move in amorphous shapes, but someone had happened to catch a video of these birds and all at the same time the birds moved and formed the shape of a starling in the sky.
Debbie: Oh, wow, I did not see that.
Sarah: When I saw this video the first thought I had was, the universe has already written the fall of you were planning on writing. And for some reason in that moment it no longer upset me and instead I thought, "Well, maybe it's not my job to invent something new with each poem. Maybe it just means that it's my turn to hold something to the light for a moment and consider it for whatever time I have."
Debbie: Do you think that it is still possible, though, to create original art?
Sarah: I don't know and I also think that maybe thinking about it too much prevents me from making any art at all. So not to say I don't care, but I try not to worry about it too much.
Debbie: I mean, I think it's so interesting that the notes that we use to make music or the letters that we use to make words and then sentences and then paragraphs and stories and poems or the ingredients that we use to make food, they're all pretty fixed at this point. You know, not too many people are inventing a new ingredient. We're all creating the same things from the same things and yet, there are unique voices and I do believe that you are one of them.
Sarah: Well, thanks.
Debbie: Now, I understand that you are a smoothie expert.
Sarah: Yes, wow, expert is a strong claim. But sure, yeah, I'll take it.
Debbie: What does that mean, to be a smoothie expert?
Sarah: It just means I really love ... This is a funny place to start. I really love fruit juice and fruit in general. My mom's family are all Southern California growers of produce and mainly strawberries, but also green beans and other crops as well. And so I grew up with a lot of berries in my life and I just love a good smoothie. And there's like secrets. People always think they should use like orange juice as a base, but orange juice has a really strong wrong flavor. So it really tampers with the overall smoothie. We could really talk about this for a full hour.
Debbie: Well just tell me what would be your recommended base.
Sarah: Well, it depends what you're in the mood for, but pear juice is a much softer, harder to find obviously, but has a much softer taste and doesn't affect the overall smoothie taste as much as orange juice does.
Debbie: Interesting. You grew up in New York City.
Debbie: Where there are lots of places to buy smoothies. You're the daughter of a Japanese-American Taoist mother and a Jewish-American father. How did your parents meet?
Sarah: My father's family business was a camera equipment and supply store for professionals and my mother was at the time working as someone who did a large-scale prints for professional photographers. And so she walked into the shop one day and my dad said, "Who's that pretty girl?" Although, she asked him out on the first date.
Debbie: Oh, really?
Debbie: Very progressive. I love that. I understand that when you were growing up because there were so many photographers in your life, your grandfather was a Navy photographer in World War II. You thought that everyone had a dark room in their house. So you wondered why your friends didn't, their parents didn't.
Sarah: Yeah, I mean my mother when she was a bachelorette had a loft apartment in which it was mainly just her bed and her dark room and when I got a little bit older we spent some time in that apartment and it seemed very normal to me.
Debbie: Did you ever consider becoming a photographer yourself?
Sarah: I love taking photographs. I actually think the biggest impact is that I write poems the way my dad takes photographs.
Debbie: In what way?
Sarah: My father's guiding principle in photography is follow the light or be aware of where the light is, where it's coming from, where it's heading. And I think that as a mantra, follow the light, is something that he repeated a lot to me as a kid. I mean, the first thing I said today was the way that I think about poems as holding something up to the light to consider it. And also a lot of times people want to call my work optimistic or hopeful which sometimes it is, but I also find it melancholy sometimes.
Debbie: I think it's interesting because I'm really attracted most to your darkest piece. All the poems I picked for you today are definitely on the darker side of the spectrum.
Sarah: Sure, but I guess I what I mean ... The reason I brought that up was to say I do think that something that is true is that when I write poems I do try to follow the light as well, even when writing about darker things.
Debbie: You always loved writing and you liked poetry, but you didn't think there was such a thing as a professional poet. I understand that you aspired to be first a princess ballerina astronaut.
Debbie: And then later a detective.
Sarah: Oh, yes.
Debbie: And then you've said that in some ways being a poet is like being a detective and I'm wondering how you equate those two.
Sarah: Well, there's a couple ways that it's like being a detective. One is I approach poetry with an obsession, with structure. So I think that the poems that I love most and the poems I'm most proud of writing are ones where there's a reveal of meaning that blossoms at a very specific moment. And the only reason that the moment blossoms when it does is because there has been very careful layering of language and metaphor on top of it so that it's buried under the right amount of layers and when you hit the right moment, the whole thing sort of reveals itself to you.
In some ways that's not so dissimilar from the way you construct a great suspense novel or mystery, is that you have the answer and then you hide clues backward to the beginning so that someone starting to embark on this mystery can be led to the answer in a satisfactory way. I think the way that I think about poems sometimes is not so far away from the way that I think about mysteries and being a detective.
Debbie: I understand that up until the fourth grade your mother or father would send you off to school every day with a poem in your lunch box on a post-it note.
Debbie: And I love this on so many levels. I mean, talk about layers. I just love that your parents would do something like that for you to show you every day how much you were loved, but also to be exposing you to something as beautiful and also as complicated as poetry. Later you go home and you curate them in notebooks, which I also love. So I want to know, I have a couple questions about this.
Debbie: What kind of poems were they sending you? Is that when you first fell in love with words? And do you still have those little curated notebooks?
Sarah: I definitely still have the notebooks for sure and I've always loved playing with words, even before I knew how to write. I used to chase my mom around the house and then stomp my feet and yell poem and make her write it down for me because I was a brat. So the playing with words I don't think came from the notes, but I think because I loved Words and language is why they took the care to do that. What I really love about it is it absolutely did sort of set up my relationship to poetry in that poetry became something I could depend on, something that was a gift, something that was a surprise, something that was intimate and between people that loved each other and it was new every day.
And I think that like all of those things are still how I feel about poetry, certainly set up by my parents in that very sweet gesture. They the other thing that I love about it is that they would never consider themselves poets. Neither of them looked at this exercise as a way to flex their literary chops, but they certainly came up with some real gems. One of the notes I keep on the bulletin board of my childhood bedroom, my mother wrote it and it is, "A lion is brave. A mouse can be too. Courage depends on what you have to do."
Debbie: How wonderful.
Debbie: You went to the United Nations International School and earned an international diploma. I've heard tales about how intense that UN International School's curriculum can be. Was it really difficult?
Sarah: Yes, it was. I went there from kindergarten through 12th grade. So I spent 13 years inside the same building and I actually just went back to perform there for the first time in years and I was so much more scared of that performance than I think I've been of any other performance lately.
Sarah: It's sort of like I took all of my teenage angst and anxiety and self-consciousness and I locked it in a box and I placed that box in a very specific place and then recently I like walked up to the box, unlocked it and stepped inside. It was just still holding all of those feelings of 13 years, but it was also home for 13 years and I worked really hard and that was the first stage I ever performed on and there was a lot tied up in it.
Debbie: I read that when you were I think a freshman in high school you described yourself as a live wire of nervous hormones and underdeveloped and overexcitable.
Sarah: Oh, wow.
Debbie: Did you experience all of those emotions again?
Debbie: Is that what it was?
Sarah: Yes, exactly.
Debbie: I love that quote of yours. So one afternoon after school you went over to a friend's house and watched the documentary Slam Nation. You said this about watching slam poetry for the first time, "I felt my two secret loves, poetry and theater had come together, had a baby, a baby I needed to get to know." So why were these loves secret?
Sarah: It's a great question. It's different now for sure, but I think the world that I was a 13-year-old in was one in which we didn't have YouTube for starters and I had never seen anybody that looked anything like me on a stage before or really on TV. So the idea of being a performer or an actress or anything that involved being in the spotlight did not appear to be possible or an option. I don't even think I could articulate that. I know I couldn't articulate that then, but I do think that that had something to do that.
So to risk saying out loud that that was a dream or a possibility seemed just absolutely absurd and I would have been laughed out of the building. I'm sure that was mainly in my head, but it certainly felt that way and I also didn't know that poetry could be performed until that moment, and poems at the time where things I wrote in secret in a notebook that nobody ever saw. So that's why both theater and poetry felt like secret loves.
Debbie: You were writing these poems on your own in your journals and then out of the blue, you received a letter informing you that someone had registered you for the New York City Teen Poetry Slam. To this day I believe you have no idea who signed you up.
Debbie: What did you think?
Sarah: I didn't think much of other than I love poems. It sounds like there will be other kids there who also love poems. Oh, I remember vaguely that documentary I saw a little clip of. I remember this is a thing. So I guess I could try it one time. I think something that doesn't always get included in the narrative of this is that I grew up very close to ground zero and September 11th happened when I was 13 and in the time period following all of the adults around me were very busy trying to keep the world from falling apart.
Debbie: Your mom had broken her leg or her ankle.
Sarah: My mom had broken her ankle. Just everyone teachers, parents. Everyone was really ...
Debbie: Your brother didn't speak for a month.
Sarah: Yeah, so there was a lot happening and as a result, I didn't want to burden anyone with whatever my 13-year-old thoughts and feelings and worries were. And to be 13 and try to wrap your head around terrorism was really hard for me. And so the only way that I understood it at the time was that someone had tried to communicate, "There is no room for you here." Which I understand is a very over simplified way of reckoning an act of terrorism, but that's it made sense to a 13-year-old. And my parents were thrilled that there was something that I was vaguely curious about and wanted to go try because it meant a little bit of joy in what was otherwise kind of a dark time.
Then the reason I think that it captured me so tremendously was that it was the first time as a 14-year-old girl that I felt like a room full of people were listening to me and saw me and I was allowed to talk about these fears and flaws and joys and doubts in a way that I hadn't before, and in some ways it felt like the whole room was communicating, "There is room for you here." And I don't think I've ever forgotten that and I think over and over again, any time I'm in a room where people have come to listen to me speak, I never take for granted what a gift that is and what it means that people communicate to me that there is room for me here.
Debbie: I believe that there was a woman that was in the audience that you described as eight feet tall having a very specific reaction that really encouraged you. Can you share that story?
Sarah: Yeah. I mean, the first time that I ever got on stage, I shared a poem and I came off and it was the first time I'd really performed like that in front of anyone and I was so nervous and everyone else in the room was older and cooler, but there was one girl who came and found me and tapped me on the shoulder and when I turned around she said, "Hey, I really felt that." And to know that something that I had made had had an effect on another person, let alone someone so much older and cooler was like a lightning bolt.
Debbie: You mentioned that you grew up in lower Manhattan near the World Trade Center and you were 13 living in New York City on 9/11 where you experienced the tragedy. You've written about it quite beautifully. You've written quite a heartbreaking and beautiful essay. And you've also written some really extraordinary poetry about some of the terrorism that we've experienced more recently. And there's a poem titled The Places We Are Not, which I'm wondering if you might be able to read today.
Sarah: Sure. A man plows his truck through the crowd, celebrating on the Nice boardwalk where my once love once insisted we could make it all the way through a triple-layer chocolate mousse until we were both so full we could not even bear to lick our spoons. I text a friend, "Where are you?" Which is code for, please tell me these new deaths are not yours this time. If I scroll up I will see the same text I sent her back when Paris was exploding a few moments or weeks ago. Farther up, the same text she sent me when I was in lockdown in Jakarta as the man across town pulled the pin from his grenade.
Not yours this time, is a song that plays so often I cannot help but know the words. Are you okay, is the hook. Are you okay, is code for we are not okay, but please remind me you are breathing. Back home the black men and women I love look into mirrors and wonder if they are lost teeth in the mouth of an impatient god. Are you okay? I text impotent. Please remind me you are breathing. I am scared is not a good enough reason to not get out of bed. The world is falling apart is not a good enough one either.
I ask my mother if growing older means one wound piled upon another until we are just a collection of hurt and she insists no, sometimes somebody gets married or has a baby. Someone teach me a new song, please. Bring me a spoon and a mouth to lean across the table for. This time, this time I am a jaw of loose teeth. I am a collection of string. I am a snow globe of worry. I am a Rolodex of fear. They are placing body bags over children on the sidewalk where I once pushed a bowl away laughing. I cannot possibly have any more love. I'm already full.
Debbie: Sarah Kay, The Places We Are Not. Sarah, you described your parents as bewildered by your love of performing poetry. Why would they be bewildered? They were both artists. Were they both worried that it was not a secure enough future for you?
Sarah: Oh, not at all. My mom always wants me to be a songwriter, which is like maybe a less secure option. No, I think they were just bewildered because I had not up until that point expressed any interest outwardly about being a performer. So it kind of came out of left field for them. But they were very supportive. They let me show up at a dive bar every week to listen to poems. Not every parent would be so open-minded. They also came to the dive bar. They did not let me go by myself as a 14-year-old, but they would sit on the other side of the room and not speak to me. So I wasn't to be embarrassed.
Debbie: You'd hide under the bar and watch the city's best poets perform. Is that correct?
Debbie: Why were you hiding? Was it because you were illegal or underage?
Sarah: No, no. I think after the first couple times I started showing up no one really even blinked an eye at my being there because I became a regular, but I sat under the bar because it was the best seat in the house. It was straight down the aisle of the center, no one was blocking my view and I was small enough to fit under there and people's legs would hang down and there was a little bit of gum I had to avoid, but for the most part it was the best seat in the house.
Debbie: You were asking people some advice about writing and they told you to write about being 14. How did that change the way you saw your work or approached your work?
Sarah: I think that a lot of people, when they first start falling in love with poetry, have to escape a lot of notions of what they think poetry is supposed to be and who's allowed to write poetry and what poetry can or cannot be about.
Debbie: Tell me a little bit more about that in terms of who's allowed to or what it can be or can't be about.
Sarah: Well, I think many people are introduced to poetry through a textbook or through a exam in class. Therefore, the people that they identify as poets are either folks who are dead or folks that come from a very academic background and the topic of the poems, I think people often think poems are supposed to be about love or poems are supposed to be about politics are poems have to be in a specific form to count or they rhyme or everyone sort of shows up with whatever notions they've been given up until that point.
But the way that I was introduced to poetry was in a community space with the messaging that we make room for everybody here and poets can be of any age, they can be of any background, they can be of any education level. What your poem looks like on a piece of paper is not the first and foremost thing we're concerned with in this space. That doesn't mean it's not important, but it's just not the first priority. Whether you've been published isn't what we care about here. What we care about is if what you are saying is authentic, beautiful, well-crafted, thoughtful and moves others. And that's the type of poetry that I fell in love with and that's the type of poetry I was challenged to try and create.
Debbie: After high school, you went to Brown University where your grandmother was once the first Japanese-American woman to enroll and you eventually graduated from the school's master's program in the Art of Teaching Secondary English. I was surprised by that. What made you decide to do that and not poetry or creative writing?
Sarah: Not to put Brown University on blast because I love them very much, but I actually was rejected from every upper-level poetry class that I applied to when I was an undergrad, which at the time actually didn't surprise me.
Sarah: Because as I said, I had not fallen in love with poetry through academia or in a text book. The poetry that I loved and the poetry I was making was poetry specifically geared for a live audience and a community space and I don't know, something about it made sense. Okay, this is not where my poems belong been at the time. I didn't feel like I needed academia's stamp of approval to keep writing poems. So studying poetry in college was not an option for me. But what I did do while I was an undergrad was I fell in love with teaching, spoken word poetry as an after-school class at a local high school that was up the street from campus.
And around the time that I was a senior I walked out of my weekly workshop with those kids and I stood on the sidewalk and thought, "That is the happiest I am all week, when I am watching those young people discover themselves and fall in love with poetry and I wish I could do more of that and how can I do more of that?" And originally the dream was to just spend a year writing and performing poems with my pal Phil Kaye and we would take a year to clear our heads from undergrad and then apply to proper grad school programs and join the rest of society, except during that year is when I was asked to give a TED Talk and that TED Talk went viral in a way that we were not expecting.
And what started as a very small effort to bring poetry into schools became a very, very large demand for this kind of work in schools. And I realized basically we were running an education program and it was important to me that if I was going to be running an education program that I knew what I was doing and that what we were doing in school spaces was not going to be disruptive or dismantle the work that these teachers were trying to accomplish, but rather be something that would be helpful to them and their curriculum. So I went back to grad school to get a better sense of pedagogy and the history of education in this country and see how I could best make Project Voice fit into the spaces we were entering.
Debbie: And again, not to slam Brown in any way.
Sarah: Oh no, someone's going to get ahold of this and I'm gonna get in a lot of trouble.
Debbie: No, no, no. I just find it ever so slightly satisfying that they now teach your work in their classes. And so there. I said it, you didn't. Is it hard to teach poetry? Do you find people resistant? Is it easier to teach kids that don't have as much of a socialization against academia?
Sarah: Every group has its own challenges. There's a million challenges and also a million ... What's the opposite of challenges, assistance maybe? So it depends absolutely on a lot of factors like age and geography and education level and experience level and just where people are. People arrive to poetry at different moments in their life and one of the things that I like about this art form, is that a very, very basic level what it is, is asking people to write and think about the things that they love, the issues they struggle with, the parts themselves that are vulnerable, their hopes, their dreams, their fears, et cetera.
Find language that allows them to speak about those things in a thoughtful, artful, craftful way and then find the confidence that allows them to speak those words into existence in a way that is authentic to them and hopefully moves a room full of people. And while all of those things I just listed are specific to this and poetry, there are also things that I think a lot of people would like to be able to do regardless of whether it ends up in the form of a poem or not.
And I also think a lot of people are already really good storytellers and already have a lot that they want to say and if nothing else, this work asks them to slow down a little bit and be more intentional with their language and intentional with their presentation and it involves a lot of listening, which I think is also another skill everyone could use. So I think teaching it is hard, but also a lot of people already have a lot of the skills they need to do this work. They just maybe have never equated this work with what they have.
Debbie: You've said that not all poetry wants to be storytelling and not all storytelling wants to be poetry. The great storytellers and great poet share something in common. They had something to say and did. And I loved reading about a response you gave to some kids that were questioning the validity of what they could write about. And you said, "You could even write a poem about your laundry." I was wondering if you can share a little bit about why that's okay. Is it something about the commonality of it? Is it something about it being so mundane and yet so spiritual in some ways? Can you talk a little bit about that notion?
Sarah: Sure. I also have no idea where that quote is from. So I have no memory of saying that, but great. Good. I guess I did sometime. In terms of writing about laundry, again, I think the point is just to help people escape their anxieties about what they think poetry is allowed to be. I wish I could shake people by the shoulders and say, "The most exciting poetry I have ever encountered is the poetry that is weird and is the poetry that is surprising and is the poetry that I didn't realize poems could be about."
And when people release themselves of the pressure to be impressive or to be what they think deep is or I don't know, any of the other things that we carry around, when they release some of that pressure on themselves I think their natural genuine curiosity and wonder and anger and joy can bubble forth and that's exactly what I want you to explore in your poetry. I'm so much more interested in what people explore on their own devices than what people think they're supposed to show the world.
Debbie: The most common writing advice seems to be write what you know. And in response you've said it's about gathering up all of the knowledge and experience you've collected up to now to help you dive into the things you don't know. So for someone that is just starting to write poetry or wants to experiment, what advice would you give them about how to go about diving into the things you don't know?
Sarah: I think that advice is so tricky because what I don't believe is that you should be out here getting reckless, writing into spaces that you really know nothing about. That's not what I think is the goal, but I do think that people should be less afraid of writing bad poems.
Debbie: You have to write a lot of bad poetry, right?
Debbie: To get to something decent.
Sarah: Yes. I think there is a myth that surrounds creativity, which is that you either have it or you don't, but most other things don't work this way. If you want to be a great athlete the first time you attempt the sport you don't expect to be excellent at it, you show up to practice and you do the drills and you do the exercises and you work hard and sometimes you play great and sometimes you play bad and hopefully you get better and no one expects you to be brilliant the first day.
But with poetry, a lot of people try writing a poem and it's hard or they try writing a poem and it's bad and they think, "Oh, well, I guess I just I'm not good at this" And they quit. And that doesn't make much sense to me. So for people who are starting out my advice is often, don't be afraid of writing bad poems. At Project Voice we say that a lot.
Debbie: You use poeming as a verb to describe how you use the art form to work through things. How do you go about poeming?
Sarah: I think of poem as a verb and the reason I think of it that way is because to me, though it may be somewhat unromantic, poems are the way that my brain makes sense of the world. And so when I have something that I am having trouble understanding or I'm having trouble wrapping my head around, the only way that I can move through it is by poeming, which really means just trying to write through it in poem form. And sometimes the act of that helps me figure out my feelings and thoughts.
Debbie: Do you think in poetry? Do you dream in poetry?
Sarah: Only a few times in my life have I woken up and had to grab a piece of paper to write something down and usually the next morning it's pretty bad and in my dream it was really great and in real life, it is not. I do think that thinking in poetry has more to do with being observant and being open to the world. Sometimes I can get bogged down and not be paying attention to the poetry around me and it does take a reminder to myself to keep my eyes on the lookout for poetry.
Debbie: Sarah, would you read another poem for us please? I've actually chosen this particular poem because it's my favorite poem of yours and it's called Something We Don't Talk About, Part II. Would you mind?
Sarah: Sure. How many times I said yes. How many times I said yes, and yes, and yes, because it was what you wanted to hear, and what I wanted you to hear, and what I wanted to want. And every time the walls stayed above my head instead of falling down upon me, upon us, because if it was going to stop, then it would have to be me who said no. The walls were not going to help and I didn't say no. I didn't. I never did. It was never your fault. Never yours. Never mine. Only the walls that didn't tumble when they should have, when they should have known, they should have been able to tell when was the right time to fall.
Debbie: Magnificent. I was, as you know, interested in you opening the show with this and there was a concern it might be too dark. I actually think that it is extraordinarily open and reveals what we as humans can sometimes do to each other and yes, that is very dark, but it also is so aware. Is there any backstory to this that you'd want to share?
Sarah: Yeah, I mean, I think I have a tendency to rely on the universe a lot. My mom likes to say, "Trust the universe", which I like but what that also leads me to do sometimes is to remove my own responsibility and agency because I think I can give it to the universe instead and that's really what this poem was trying to explore, is the moments where I gave up agency because I kept hoping that the tough job could be given to the universe instead.
Debbie: I was having a conversation with somebody very dear to me about this poem and the notion of falling and there was something very empowering about the idea of being vulnerable enough to fall into something. You have discussed how people find poetry when they need it and you go on to detail house spoken word poetry has roots in marginalized communities where it has long been used as a crucial outlet for expression and you've stated this.
Some of the best spoken word poets that I know of are women of color and women of color are historically and continuously marginalized and erased from mainstream narratives and patriarchal history, because in doing so they demand their place and their important role in the world the space for their narratives to be included. They also make room for someone coming behind them to have representation and to have a model of a path that is possible for them. So they're both speaking into existence their own narrative and their own future and then also actively participating in changing the landscape of who can come after them.
It's quite revolutionary, Sarah, and I'm wondering if you feel that the world of poetry might be finally getting more diverse.
Sarah: I think every couple of years somebody writes an article that's like, is poetry dead?
Sarah: Yeah. Or guess what, poetry is not dead and every time one of those articles comes out everyone that I know is in varying degrees from flummoxed to infuriated. And to me, that just is evidence that too many people are looking in the old places and they should be looking in new places for their poetry because poetry is so very much alive, and there's a mentor friend of mine named Tommy Kail.
Debbie: Tommy Kail, the director and co-creator of Hamilton. He's been on Design Matters and is one of my all-time favorite interviews.
Sarah: So Tommy has a phrase that he says, which is, "Just turn up people's mics." It's not that people aren't telling their own stories. It's not that we need to speak for them. It's that we need to turn their mics up.
Debbie: Part of your mission is to make poetry more accessible and you're doing that quite beautifully with Project Voice. Talk a little bit about what your goals are with Project Voice.
Sarah: Simply put when I was a young person a lot of people made room for me in the house of poetry and gave me the gift of poetry and also, the gift of feeling like I could be a poet too. And I am interested in paying that gift forward and trying to get as many people to feel welcome in the house of poetry as possible, especially people who have previously not been made to feel welcome there. So Project Voice is a team of poet educators that go to schools of all ages, all backgrounds and all corners of the world. We do performances of poetry and then also teach workshops to anyone from kindergarteners to senior citizens and everybody in between.
Debbie: In 2014 you released a book of poems from your first decade of Performing titled No Matter The Wreckage. Talk about the title if you can.
Sarah: Sure. The title comes from a poem called the Ghost Ship, which is towards the end of the collection and it's a poem for my brother and the line in the poem is, "No matter your wreckage, there will be someone to find you beautiful despite the cruddy metal. Your ruin is not to be hidden behind paint and canvas. Let them see the cracks." And I changed no matter your wreckage in that poem, which is specifically directed to my brother, to No Matter The Wreckage because I think I don't know, it reflects a little bit of a mantra without it being a mantra but as I mentioned, at all times I'm trying to follow the light or find the light at least and know where it is. So No Matter The Wreckage. That's the one I'm doing.
Debbie: You collaborate quite a lot with Sophia Janowitz, the illustrator and she has, I believe, illustrated all of your books. How did you first meet and what is the collaboration process like with her?
Sarah: Oh, I love the opportunity to talk about Sophia. Sophia and I were three months old and my mother had me in a little snuggly in a bodega in the neighborhood and Sofia's mother walked in and peeked into the snuggly and said, "How old is that baby?" And my mom said, "Three months old." And Sophia's mom said, "I have a baby who's three months old. Let's have a play date." And so Sofia and I met at three months old and have been-
Debbie: So you've been friends for 30 years?
Sarah: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Debbie: That's incredible.
Sarah: I know. And when we were little our favorite game was that I would tell her stories and she would draw what I was saying. So nobody on this planet has spent more time trying to figure out how to put what is in my brain into images on the paper as Sofia has, and her patience is boundless.
Debbie: Is it an effortless collaboration? Do you challenge each other?
Sarah: We certainly challenge each other. We just get each other. It's hard to navigate other humans because every human has their strange eccentricities and sensitivities, but we know each other's eccentricities and sensitivities so, so very well that we approach collaboration with a lot of kindness and patience and joy and it really feels genuinely feels like our entire lives. We've just sort of moved from one little project to the next little project and we started a conversation when we were two that is still going and there's no beginning or end to it, we're just in the middle of it forever, which I really like. So it's a really lovely way to move through collaboration I think.
Debbie: Your most recent collaboration is the last thing I want to talk to you about your latest book, All Our Wild Wonder, which is a moving tribute to your junior high school principal and I hope I pronounce her name correctly, Mrs. Rubiero.
Debbie: Ribeiro, but it's also a celebration for educators at large. So, can you tell us a bit more about Mrs. Ribeiro and what impact you had on your life and what made you decide to create this gift for her?
Sarah: So as we spoke about, I grew up in New York City and I attended an international school from kindergarten through 12th grade, which means that there were kids around me from all over the world and the teachers at the school were also from all over the world. Mrs. Ribeiro was the principal of the elementary school and she was an Indian woman and she would wear sarees and sandals to school every single day, even in the depths of New York winter. And as a young person the thing that I remember most is that she would give a five-year-old as much time in her day as she would give a 35-year-old administrator and if a student needed to speak with her they got her full attention entirely.
And she was very invested in letting students know and feel that we were worthy of her time. And also, she was very invested in creating moments of wonder and curiosity for us. And famously, a big one was that when I was in first grade she had a petting zoo come to the school and we were in Manhattan so the petting zoo had to set up in the parking lot and the students would come down and visit the petting zoo on recess time, but there was a llama in the petting zoo and she asked whether the llama was tame enough to go inside the school and the trainer's told her that he was, but that he couldn't walk upstairs. And this did not interrupt her at all and she just simply led the Llama to the elevator and waltzed the llama through the elementary school.
And we were Manhattan kids. So most of us had never seen anything more exotic than a cockroach, rat, pigeon or squirrel. And a llama really blew our minds and so the image of this woman in a saree and sandals floating through the hallways with a llama on a leash is a perfect metaphor for me of what it is I would like to also bring to the students that I engage with, which is to say color and wonder and curiosity and surprise and a gift that shows them that I feel like they are worthy of my time and love and attention.
Debbie: Sarah, before we close this show I'm wondering if you could read us one more poem?
Debbie: Thank you. This is a poem called Private Parts.
Sarah: The first love of my life never saw me naked. There was always a parent coming home in a half hour. Always a little brother in the next room. Always too much body and not enough time for me to show him. Instead, I gave him a shoulder, an elbow, the bend of my knee. I lent him my corners, my edges, the parts of me I could afford to offer, the parts I had long since given up trying to hide. He never asked for more. He gave me back his eyelashes, the back of his neck, his palms. We held each piece we were given like it was a nectarine, might bruise if we weren't careful. We collected them like we were trying to build an orchard.
And the spaces that he never saw, the ones my parents had labeled private parts when I was still small enough to fit all of myself and worries inside a bathtub, I made up for them by handing over all the private parts of me. There was no secret I didn't tell him. There was no moment we didn't share. We didn't grow up. We grew in like Ivy, rapping, molding each other into perfect Yin's and Yang's. We kissed with mouths open breathing his exhale into my inhale and back. We could have survived under water or in outer space living only off the breath we traded. We spelled love G-I-V-E.
I never wanted to hide my body from him. If I could have, I'm sure I would have given it all away with the rest of me. I did not know that it was possible to keep some things for myself. Some nights I wake up knowing he is anxious. He is across the world in another woman's arms and the years have spread us like dandelion seeds, sanding down the edges of our jigsaw parts that used to only fit each other. He drinks from the pitcher on the nightstand, checks the digital clock at his 5 AM. He tosses in sheets and tries to settle. I wait for him to sleep before tucking myself into elbows and knees, reaching for things I have long since given away.
Debbie: Sarah Kay, thank you so much for enriching our world with your magnificent words and thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.
Sarah: Thank you for having me.
Debbie: Sarah's collection of poetry is titled No Matter The Wreckage and her latest book is titled All Our Wild Wonder. You can find out more about Sarah: Kay on her website kaySarahsera.com That's K-A-Y-S-A-R-A-H, then S-E-R-A.com. This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.