Sarah Kay: The Word Weaver

When you watch her videos on YouTube or see her perform live on stage, you can’t help but fall in love with her. Meet her in person, and she woos you with her words, her smile, and her infectious laughter. Sarah Kay, the 26 years old spoken word poet, began performing when she was just 14 years old and now she does it with unbelievable elegance.

She even has poetry books to her name. Her first book, B, which is actually one poem with illustrations, was ranked the number one bestselling poetry book on Amazon, and her recent book, No Matter the Wreckage that came out in March 2014 is also an Amazon Bestseller in American Poetry. Around 10,000 copies have been sold so far and “for a little poetry book that’s pretty darn good,” says Sarah.

Sarah founded Project V.O.I.C.E. (Vocal Outreach Into Creative Expression) in 2004 and has been conducting workshops on Spoken Word Poetry ever since. Her work has taken her to six of the seven continents, and this is her second time in Nepal. I caught up with Sarah this past week where she answered all my questions over a steaming cup of tea. She was her smiling, laughing, and charming self, and at the end of the hour-long interview, I walked out more in love with her and her poems than ever before. Excerpts:

How has spoken word poetry changed you as a person?

Spoken word poetry has been a part of my life ever since I was 14 and the Sarah before spoken word poetry happened to her was a totally
different person. I think that spoken word poetry is responsible for much of my early formation of identity. When I was a teenager struggling to figure out who I was, what I wanted, what I liked or disliked, I had an outlet to do so with a community, out loud instead of just in my head. Not a lot of people get to experience such an early feeling of validation as I did and that’s because of spoken word poetry.

So you could say that spoken word poetry comes naturally to you?

The communicating part comes naturally. I’ve always loved telling stories and I’ve always loved playing with words. And I’ve been writing poetry since I was little. So yes, that part is definitely easy. But the performance part isn’t easy at all. It’s not something I was born with. There are many things that just come with time and experience. After doing it for 12 years, I’ve become much more comfortable on stage and I’ve learnt from other performers and mentors, but it still takes a lot of work and effort.

Do you practice before a performance?

Practice is a misleading word. Every time I go on stage, I’m practicing. I guess, that way, I practice all the time because I’m constantly performing. One thing that is really helpful is that most performers have a set audience, but because of the work I do for Project Voice in schools, I perform for literally every kind of audience you can imagine. Just before coming to Nepal, in a seven-day period, I performed for adult women in a salon, 200 people at an education conference, middle, elementary and kindergarten school kids, and at a night show. I’ve learnt a lot about performance that way. When you perform for a certain type of audience, you know what works but I’ve learnt to adapt and be comfortable on a stage without having any kind of knowledge of who’s going to be in the room with me. And that requires a certain level of comfort that can only come with practice, which in my case are my frequent performances.

You said that the communicating bit comes naturally to you. Tell us something about your writing process?

I write to figure things out and that’s the common thread. If I have something that I’m trying to understand or work my way through, that’s when I sit down to write a poem. That’s always how it is. There are definitely times when there’s the pressure of an upcoming event but even so I can’t force myself, it’s not a homework assignment. It’s still that impulse of what’s going on in my life at the moment that pretty much dictates what I write. I don’t always have brilliant ideas but I don’t sit around waiting for them, I write anyway.

Do you have writer’s block sometimes?

Writer’s block is just fear of bad writing. When writers sit down to write, many a times they are afraid that what they are writing will be bad. So the key here is to just stop being afraid of that. You have to accept that bad writing is good and important. I tell myself I have to write bad poems in order to get better. Even in a bad poem, there’s a line or an idea that will make itself into a better poem later on. Never have I regretted spending time writing something. Even if it doesn’t get used, the act of writing is processing for yourself. Sometimes you write 100 poems that are no good and just for you but the 101st poem might be the one that you needed to get to and for that you needed to write those 100 bad poems.

How do you juggle between your very busy professional life and personal life?

It’s difficult but I’m lucky to have very patient and loving people in my life who get what I do. They are plenty of people who don’t get it and if I was related to people who didn’t get it, it would be a lot harder but my family loves the fact that I love what I do. I work in education, travel, and get to meet a lot of people I might have otherwise never met. It’s definitely exhausting and it’s hard work but it’s hard work that I love and genuinely believe in and that helps. I don’t feel like a dancing monkey that has to perform. Everything I do is a choice I make.

What advice do you have for those who want to give spoken word poetry a shot?

I’d tell them to go and find the Word Warriors. One of the most helpful things you can do is find a community of other artists who are interested in working in this art form with you. You’ll have someone to read your work, and give you feedback. Also Word Warriors organizes events and workshops that you can be a part of so you aren’t alone in figuring it out. It helps to have other people at various steps in the process. You can learn from people who are more experienced than you. It’s a really great place to start. That’s how I got started. There was a community who was already doing this and I got to watch, observe, and learn.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt till now?

I’ve learnt that there is no substitute for time. The amount of time you spend on someone or something is evidence of what you value in life. Even with the crazy travel schedule I have, I know that I need to spend a considerable amount of time on the people I love so that they know they are important. I might be thinking about them all the time but they don’t know it, so I need to put in time and effort to make sure they know that and it’s completely worth it.

Your advice to a ten-year younger self?

Gratitude is first and foremost. Absolutely nothing is a given and everything you get, every moment you have is a gift and saying thank you for it is important. In my house, the first words we say when we get up are thank you and the last words we say before bed are thank you. You could think of it as a prayer but it’s not necessarily directed at anyone. It’s just an acknowledgement for yourself that you are thankful for today.

What are you looking forward to in 2015?

2014 has been a crazy year with back to back travels. The fact that I wasn’t home for Christmas [she was in Nepal] should be evidence of just how busy I’ve been. There have been months when I’ve just had three days off. So I’m looking forward to slowing down next year. I’ll still be working as much but I’ll try to move a little less. It would be nice if I could have, like, a week off every month but I don’t know if that’s possible so I’ll settle for anything more than three days a week. Also, I got offered an amazing writer’s residency which is going to be a month in July. It will be the first time I’ll have spent thirty days in a row at one place since I’ve left school. I probably haven’t even been in one place for twenty days in a row, so this is a crazy luxury and I’m going to do so much writing. I’m very, very excited about it.

No Matter the Wreckage, Sarah Kay in Kathmandu, a public performance by the spoken word poet is set to take place tomorrow at Alliance Francaise from 2-5pm. The event will also feature poets from Word Warriors, a spoken word poetry collective, based in Kathmandu. Tickets are priced at Rs. 700 each (door sales).

Publihed in The Week, Republica on Dec 26,2014

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