Illustration by Ruby Aitken.

Sarah Kay is a poet and educator from New York. I was introduced to her poems through YouTube. On that platform, Kay has dozens of captivating performances—including a TED talk and Def Jam Poetry performance—that inspired me to reach out to her. When she’s not performing, Kay is working at Project VOICE, the poetry and education organization she founded.

I spoke to Sarah about her work, poetry in the digital age, and writing to understand the world around us.

ALYSON ZETTA: Did you always know you wanted to be involved in literature/writing? What did you used to say you wanted to be when you grew up?

SARAH KAY: I have always loved writing, ever since I was very little. I didn’t think there was such a thing as a “professional” poet though, so that wasn’t a dream of mine. (By which I mean, it wasn’t even on my radar or in the realm of possibility, as far as I knew.) Poetry was just something I liked, just as there were lots of other activities I liked. As a very young person I wanted to be a Princessballerinaastronaut, and when I got older I wanted to be a playwright (specifically of musical theater) and a director (of plays and films). I also wanted to be a detective. I still do. In some ways I think being a poet is being a kind of detective.

At what point and why did you decide to commit to writing and [performing?] poetry?

I don’t think there was a moment I committed in the way I think you mean it. I didn’t wake up one day and go, “Ah ha! I will be a professional poet!” Forget all that other stuff I was considering! Because I really didn’t know that was a feasible life path. But I started teaching after-school high school poetry workshops when I was in college, and it was the happiest part of my week. I loved working with high school students and watching them fall in love with poetry the way I had; I loved getting to be a small part of their discovery of the art form, to help them strengthen and sharpen their voices. When I was getting ready to graduate college, I looked around at my friends heading off to graduate schools and committing to careers, and I realized that the only thing I knew for sure was that I definitely wanted to spend as much time as possible in a space like the one I had found in my workshops: with young people and poetry. I decided to spend a year trying to perform and teach, until I figured out what “real job” to do next. Seven years later, I’m still at it, due in equal parts to good luck, good people, and hard work. I help run a small business that facilitates bringing poetry into education spaces, and I’ve been thrilled to have some super talented poet educators join the team at Project VOICE to help me do this work.

What is the importance of spoken and printed work in an age that is decidedly digital?

The digital space is good for fast communication with others. Poetry is good for slow (thoughtful/mindful) communication with your own heart and head. In terms of the value of spoken and printed poetry in the digital age, I think the digital landscape is one that allows for an ease of communication but doesn’t require authenticity. It is also a space in which intimacy and vulnerability are difficult, and exclusion and isolation occur frequently. As a result, I think a lot of folks are hungry for authenticity. I think we crave the intimacy, vulnerability, and inclusiveness that is hard (though not impossible) to find online. Good poetry (both written and spoken) and the sharing of it, supplies language and facilitates experiences for some of those absences. I can see and sense more and more people reaching for poetry as the world around them makes less and less sense.

But I also think it’s important to say that I don’t think the digital age is at odds with spoken or printed poetry. I think in a lot of ways it fuels it. When people were first able to have television sets in their houses, a lot of folks thought it would mean the death of the movie theater or live theater, because now you could be saved the trouble of going out, since entertainment would be right in your living room. But watching TV isn’t a substitute for going to the movies or to the theater and neither of those art forms died. They are entirely different art forms and experiences altogether. Similarly, a neat thing about the art form of spoken or performed poetry is that the experience of going to see it live is remarkable and can be healing, revolutionary, empowering, moving, etc etc, depending on who you are and who you’re seeing. Watching a YouTube video of a poem performance gives you a little bit of an idea of what it would be like to be in the room, and certainly makes it easier to “share” that poem with someone else via link, but the video doesn’t fully do justice or replace the experience of sharing space, breath, time, and vulnerability with a room full of people all participating in art together. For a poet like me, putting videos online doesn’t mean people stop coming out to see me share poems. It’s actually the opposite. In another era, spoken word poetry was regionally limited. It was whoever happened to be performing at your local venue. But now I can step off the plane on the other side of the world, in a country I’ve never been to before, and find people who are excited to come see me perform live because they have already found my work online. Technology makes it easier and faster for us to find and share the things that move us, and the things that move us perhaps move us even more when they provide a reprieve from the inundation of technology and its less desirable side effects.

I hardly watch any YouTube at all, but your videos and talks absolutely captivate me. Do you feel as though you are captivating while on stage? What is going through your mind?

Well, first of all, thank you, that’s an incredibly kind compliment. No, I don’t think I’m being captivating, in as much as I don’t ever think to myself, oh good, I’m being captivating right now. That would be strange, I think. But I do consciously try very hard to be present in the room that I am performing in. That’s why you could see me perform the same poem for two different audiences on two different days and the poem would seem utterly different. If I’m doing my job well, when I’m performing a poem, the story I’m telling feels right for the room, the performance is tailored for that room, the poem is being shared with as much honesty and presence as possible. When I’m writing, I focus on the most effective and beautiful way to communicate with language. When I’m performing, I focus on the most effective and beautiful way to communicate that language using my body and voice. It is a joy and an honor to have a group of people who want to listen to me. It is a responsibility I never take for granted. In any performance, I’m aware of who is there, and of the fact that they took time out of their life to come share this with me. So, I’m sharing myself fully and trying to give them a performance that is the best version of the poem that I can give.

The processes of writers is an often talked about subject. Do you have any rituals that seem to work when you’re on the verge of a great idea?

[Laughs] I don’t think I ever know I’m on the verge of a great idea. I have to write it out first and play with it and try it on and run it by some trusted humans and see how it works on the page and/or in front of an audience and then maybe based on people’s responses I can figure out that it has resonated, at which point perhaps if asked, I would say, “Oh in retrospect, that turned out to be a great idea.” But that’s not a helpful answer to your question. Process tactics that help me: I read a lot—of poetry, but also essays and novels and scripts and comics and tweets as much as possible. A lot of times, reading someone else’s writing provides a key that unlocks a poem I’ve been trying to get into. A fun fact: the word stanza, which refers to the different sections of a poem, is from the Italian word for room. My friend (and fellow poet) Elizabeth Acevedo and I once talked about how a poem, therefore, has a lot of rooms, and our job as the poet is to figure out which room has the door that lets us enter the poem. Sometimes its the front door, and you walk right in. But sometimes it is a back door or a basement one, or sometimes you have to shimmy up a drainpipe to let yourself in through the attic window. I am always looking for keys that let me into my own poems. I also carry around a notebook that I fill with notes and reminders to myself of things that strike me, so I don’t forget them. It’s a notebook of absolutely no poems, but rather tiny fragments, so that when I finally sit down to get some writing done, they are like puzzle pieces I can lay out on the table and look at and move around until they fit. It’s hard to sit in front of a blank screen and go, “OK world, inspire me now.” It’s much easier when I have left myself a trail of breadcrumbs that I can follow back to moments of genuine inspiration. In other words, I leave myself clues about what has captured my heart and mind, and then later look at all the clues to figure out the poem. Like a detective!

A lot of your work is reflective but told in a way that allows people to learn and causes them to reflect on their own place in the world as it is right now. Why do you think this theme recurs in your writing?

I say this in most interviews, but it doesn’t make it any less true: I write poems to figure things out. I think of “poem” as a verb, as in: to poem my way through something. When I started writing consistently I was fourteen, and I had the limited world experience of a 14-year-old. So instead of trying to write about things I didn’t know or care about that might make me sound more impressive to an imagined audience, I wrote honestly about what I was trying to figure out as a 14-year-old. The poems weren’t necessarily great poems, but I like to think of them as small landmarks that I built for myself, that honor what it was I was trying to figure out at that moment. And that’s what I’ve continued to do. I try to be honest and vulnerable when I write, and I try to use language as an inclusive tool that invites people into a story instead of an exclusionary weapon that makes someone feel unworthy of poetry. Turns out, most of what I think of as being weird or lonely experiences aren’t terribly unique, and turns out, other folks are often trying to figure out much of the same stuff I am. Which is great news for me, though ultimately not the reason I write. I write to figure out myself and the world around me, and the fact that others find something in it that helps them understand their own position in the world is perhaps less of a testament to my writing specifically, and more of a testament to being willing to be vulnerable and honest with what we struggle to understand, and how much more we humans have in common than we tend to suspect. ♦