An interview with Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye, spoken word poets

Back in March, SAS hosted two talented guest speakers, Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye. In addition to delivering TED talks (view some of Sarah’s and Phil’s work) and performing all over the world, they coordinate Project V.O.I.C.E. which aims to empower people through the art form of spoken word poetry. The Eye interviewed Sarah and Phil to find out what it’s like to be professional poets, how their high school experiences shaped them, and why so many people think they’re siblings.

Phil Kaye and Sarah Kay performed on March 6 in the high school library. (Photo by Bob Helmer)
Phil Kaye and Sarah Kay performed on March 6 in the high school library. Photo by Bob Helmer

The Eye: First, I think we’d all like to say thank you for your performance. Everyone who attended had great things to say about it! I guess we’ll start off with a general question: What advice do you have for young writers?

Sarah: We often tell people to stop being afraid of writing bad poetry, or bad anything. I think that a lot of times, when people claim that they have writer’s block, or that they get stuck, it’s just because they’re scared of writing bad things. Or they are writing, and bad poems are happening. For some reason there’s this myth that creativity – [especially] in terms of creative writing – is a gift you either have, or you don’t. So when people first start writing, if they write something that’s not very good, or if they try and it’s difficult, they go, “Oh, I guess I don’t have it.” That doesn’t seem very fair, and it’s unlike most other things in the world, where we say of course you’re not going to be good at it at first, you have to try and you have to work at it. If we get scared of one bad poem and quit, that’s not doing anybody any good.

Phil: I would also say one thing I love about creative writing is that you can just do it. And I think some people get caught up in “what class should I take”, or “what novel should I read first”, or “what poems should I watch on YouTube first” – all that is great. But they’re no excuse for just going out there and starting to write, seeing what happens and just having fun with it.

The Eye: That’s actually a nice transition to our next question. We were wondering what it’s actually like to write for a living and teach about writing for a living. Could you perhaps explain what your day-to-day life is like?

Sarah: Oh my. [laughs] Our day-to-day lives are pretty chaotic. On any given day, we’re either en route to a show, coming from a show, going to a school, going to an airport, going to a train station…basically on the road for most of the year. Any day we could be in a different state or country. So in terms of the writing part of it, you have to get pretty disciplined about finding quiet moments and making sure you’re making time for the art side, on top of all the time-consuming business side.

The Eye: Still on the question of writing, I’ve always wondered how you guys collaborate on your joint poems and performances. Like “An Origin Story,” for example. How does the process of writing work? I’m sure you guys have different styles or different tastes. How do you put these together?

Phil: I think it often begins with lots of general conversations about a topic and then realizing, hey, this is something we might want to write a poem about. And then the writing process is similar to writing on your own. Trying stuff out, seeing what works and what doesn’t, throwing out a whole bunch of ideas without judging them too much, and then getting to look at them and say okay, what do we like, what do we not like, how can we expand on this idea a little bit more.

Sarah: It’s very similar to when musicians get together and jam. You’ll say, “Do you know these chords”, and “why don’t you play base line, try this” and I’ll go “that’s good, do that part again, let’s try that.” So it’s very similar to that. You try stuff out and you see what’s working in the way you want it to work.

The Eye: Sarah, one of the most recognizable aspects of your poetry is that it’s inherently hopeful. We were just wondering how you manage to keep articulating that hope, even when you’re not writing about things that are happy at surface level?

Photo by Bea Basilio.
Photo by Bea Basili

Sarah: Hm. I think that poetry is an act of celebration, that anytime you’re writing a poem, it means that you’re celebrating something, even if it’s a sad poem, if it’s an angry poem, a political poem or anything at all. The fact that you’re taking the time and energy to pick up this thing and hold it to the light, and say, “Let’s take some time to consider this,” means that you’ve deemed it worthy enough to spend time on – which, in my opinion, is celebrating. So I think that because of that, oftentimes that celebration aspect is what people interpret as optimism, or hopefulness, which I like. I wouldn’t categorize my poems that way, but I take it as a compliment that people do.

The Eye: This is a question for Phil. I read in your bio that you used to work for a program called SPACE, essentially poetry workshops in prisons. How did that impact you, and do you have any stories to share from your experience working with that program?

Sarah: No stories.

Phil: Pretty run-of-the-mill stuff.

[laughter]

Phil: I think…it really gave me a reverence for poetry from unexpected places. There’s a lot of folks now that feel like you have to be a legitimate poet, gone to this certain school, or gotten a degree from this program, read with this person. Over and over again I saw this amazing poetry from gentlemen – I was working with all guys – who had no background in poetry, or who hadn’t finished high school, or who had gone to college and then never done poetry again. It made, for me, a direct connection between passion and authenticity and honesty in your work.

The Eye: What are your thoughts of spoken word poetry and poetry on the page? Do you think there’s a certain type of poem that translates well into spoken word, or could any type of poem serve that purpose?

Phil: I think it’s both. One way we like to talk about it sometimes is like a toolbox you’re working with. Depending on what type of art form you’re working with, that toolbox is different. So when you are writing a spoken word poem, the tools you’re working with are your voice, your body, how it’s going to look on stage, how it’s going to sound to someone when you’re saying it out loud.

Which is different from when you’re writing it on the page. That toolbox becomes how does this look visually on the page, how does this read among pages, how is this in relation to poems that are before it or after it. I don’t think one is better or more successful than the other. You’ve just gotta think about “what are the tools I’m using, and how are they most effective in this form?”

Sarah: I also think you certainly can perform any poem. But what I believe is that the best examples of spoken word poetry I’ve ever seen, are spoken word poems that, when you see them, you’re aware of the fact they need to be performed. That there’s something about that poem that you would not be able to understand if you were just reading it on a piece of paper. Some element of the performance that brings more meaning to the words. And sometimes it’s just one tiny moment, and sometimes it’s the entire poem.

For example, Phil has a persona poem from the perspective of the Geico Gecko, which is the mascot of an insurance company in the US. And when Phil does his poem, he’s doing the whole thing in character. So he has the accent, he’s physicalizing it in a specific way. And when you see that poem your brain goes aha! Because if you read the words on paper, you might get it, but you also would be missing a huge element of what makes that poem so powerful. Especially because there’s a moment in the poem where he swaps out of it, and then comes back in, and it’s very jarring and very effective. It’s an intentional choice that he made, so when people watch that poem, even if it’s not conscious, there’s a tiny little part of their brain that’s like oh wow, I’m so glad I get to see this, instead of just reading it.

Another way to think about it is that…nobody looks at a Picasso painting and says, “Oh that’s a great painting, but I kind of wish it was a photograph.” It has to be the form that it’s in. That’s part of the art. And I think that the best example of spoken word poetry I know, are ones that have to be performed – that’s what makes it really, really work well.

The Eye: Who are your writing heroes?

Sarah: In poetry or across the board?

The Eye: Across the board.

Phil: There’s a guy…um. William Shakespeare.

Sarah: Billy, actually.

Phil: Yeah, I call him Bill. But I think his pen name is William.

I mean, there’s a ton. In the poetry world…there’s a poet named Franny Choi who is amazing, and certainly worth checking out. There’s [another] poet named Anis Mojgani. Those are two folks in poetry world. In the non-poetry world, I really love Don DeLillo, and he’s certainly not unknown, but someone I really love to read.

Sarah: My writing hero is a guy named Lin-Manuel Miranda. He’s a lyricist, composer of musical theater. He wrote In the Heights and also one called Hamilton which is up right now and moving to Broadway in the summer. His work is really, really amazing and I follow his career, because I love everything he does.

The Eye: Where do you draw the most inspiration from?

Sarah and Phil: [draw deep breaths and laugh]

Phil: We spoke about it a little on stage here, but I really do think it comes from day-to-day life. I think there’s things that pique our interest – not necessarily aha! moments – but things that just kinda make you raise your eyebrows. And those are often the moments that are the seeds of inspiration. Sometimes they’re in a great conversation with friends, sometimes they’re things you see live, something you read, a movie trailer you watch… I think inspiration is kind of laid out there. One thing we have to practice is recognizing when it happens, and recording that moment so we can come back to it.

Sarah: I say this in a lot of interviews, but it’s true – I write poetry to figure things out. It’s what I use as a navigating tool in my life, so when there’s something that I just can’t understand, I have to “poem” my way through it. For that reason I write a lot about family, because my family confuses me and I’m always trying to figure them out. I write a lot about love, because love is continually confusing in all of its many glorious aspects. I write about trying to figure out what it means to be a woman, and how we do that – or what it means to be a man, how people try to figure that out. Things that I have a hard time being able to fully grasp, sometimes writing the poem helps me work through it. Or I get to the end of the poem and I still haven’t figured anything out, but at least I have a new poem out of it.

Photo by Bea Basilio.
Photo by Bea Basilio.

 The Eye: How has Project VOICE impacted your own poetry?

Sarah: This is my opinion, I won’t speak for Phil. But less than the collaboration – we both collaborated with other poets before Project VOICE, so it wasn’t the first time – I think more what Project VOICE has done in terms of its effect on my work, is that I’ve become much more attuned to what works with different age groups. So I try to figure out, okay, I need a new poem for middle school audiences, or I need a new poem for elementary school, or I need a new poem for high school students. Because you’re at different points in your life, and poetry means different things to you at various stages. I think…because we get the chance to work in a lot of different communities, with people from all different backgrounds, all different age groups — we can figure out “this works with an international audience, this works with a domestic US audience, this works in a college”, you know what I mean? Because it allows us to get in front of lots of different audiences, it lets us have a better sense of what will work with various audiences.

Phil: And there’s a lot of exposure now, too, to different audiences not just with different age level but with how familiar they are with poetry. You know, we get in front of some audiences and they know spoken word really well, and they’ve heard a million poems – that’s a much different set of poems than – well, most of the time we’re in front of an audience and no one has ever heard of spoken word poetry before, you know, “Who are these people?” “Why are we not in class?” That’s really been a positive push, but something we’ve had to think through and push through.

The Eye: Going back to high school, a) what was it like, and b) how did it impact your poetry?

Phil: High school was the first time I ever saw spoken word poetry. The first place I ever performed a poem was at my school, so in some ways it was the nucleus of how it all started. So it had a big impact. I was very lucky in that I was at a school that was weird, that loved the arts, and loved people taking weird risks, and so when I was like, “I learned this new art form and I want to share it!”, and everyone was like, OK, sure, it’s not our cup of tea, but if you like it, we’ll sit and listen. And I think that was very helpful and something I lucked out with a lot. And so for me I think high school was a period of trying to figure myself out, and poetry was one of the ways I did that, and was a very helpful avenue to try to do that.

Sarah: Ever hear that expression, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”? That’s what high school was like for me. Both of those – all the time.

Phil: Bill wrote that.

Sarah: Yeah, yeah, Bill. [laughs]

I went to an international school, so I’m pretty familiar with the third culture kid phenomenon. That’s who I grew up with. And I went to international school K-12 so I spent my entire education in one building. So the school was extremely important to shaping – probably most responsible for shaping the type of educator I am now, and the way that I think about education. Because for me, education was about the exchanging of stories of our different cultures and sitting next to kids from all around the world, and having the differences between people be celebrated and shared and investigated together – which, you know, in a traditional, more homogenous high school, is not necessarily something that happens.

So I think as a result of that now in the world of Project VOICE, the way that we shape education, the way we see education, the way we try to educate others is through a very similar model. It’s about sharing stories. It’s about recognizing our differences, celebrating them and honoring them, and learning from them, and the idea of being in different parts of the world and meeting folks from all over the place, and valuing all those perspectives, all of those are, you know, that kind of vision for education certainly doesn’t exist everywhere, but I think that because I grew up with that model, that’s the model that came to shape Project VOICE now.

In terms of spoken word poetry, it was what I did to escape high school. I didn’t do any spoken word poetry in high school, for the most part. It was what I did once a week after school to leave the world of high school.

 The Eye: One last question. What is one moment, position or event in your life that has impacted or changed the way you think?

Phil: 140 characters or less, yeah?

Sarah: Just try to be profound.

Phil: The first time I ever performed spoken word poetry in front of a big crowd, it totally failed. It ended, people barely clapped…in retrospect the poem was terrible. And for a while I thought this was something I would never do again.

And then I realized that, in my 17-year-old head, that was the worst it could have been. And it wasn’t that bad – [because] from there, it could only get better. And I think that failure kind of freed me up to explore and not be afraid of failing again.

Sarah: Um… [reflective pause] I don’t know. I guess it’s a little cliche, but 9/11 changed things for me. I grew up very close to ground zero, and actually, I discovered spoken word poetry very soon thereafter. I think that a huge part of my parents being willing to let me go to a weird dive bar in New York and do spoken word poetry, had to do with the fact that it felt like the world was falling apart in so many ways. If there was a space that I could go and find joy and community, and make sense of things, they were willing to support that. They wanted me to be able to find that space.

In a weird way, my falling in love with spoken word poetry definitely came out of that time period, a time where all the adults around me were failing to supply me with any answers. Everyone was too busy dealing with things that were more important. I was pretty lost and invisible. And all of a sudden, this world opened up where I could get on stage and perform in front of my peers. People would listen to me and see me, and people would say, “That thing you created was important.” And that was so validating and necessary at that specific moment. But I have no doubt that that was a huge part of why I was so drawn to it, and continued to be drawn to it…the timing just happened to work out.

Author: Sheyna Cruz

Sheyna Cruz is a senior and Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Eye. This is her second year on staff and her third at SAS. She loves Model UN, murder mysteries, mangoes, milk tea and other things that don’t necessarily start with M. She can be contacted at cruz45489@sas.edu.sg.

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