Whose Words These Are (9): Sarah Kay

In anticipation of the 2009 Massachusetts Poetry Festival, the question has been: where does poetry come from these days? And where is it going?

Before she could write, spoken word poet Sarah Kay began dictating poems to her mother. Today, at 21, Sarah has become a successful, artful practitioner of spoken word. Sarah’s poem “Hands,” rocketed her to 18-year-old fame when it, and she, were featured on the HBO series Def Poetry Jam. Sarah is a senior at Brown now, a teacher of spoken-work poetry at Hope High School in Providence, and a coach of students of all ages. She founded Project V.O.I.C.E. to encourage teenagers toward creative self-expression. She tell us how her own voice is the product of a Japanese American mother, a Brooklynese photographer father, of New York City and the influence of “page poets” ranging from William Carlos Williams and Adrienne Rich to Rumi.

Q: What were the poems that made you want to write poetry, and told you you could, or had to?

A: In the page world: William Carlos Williams, Rumi, Wislawa Szymborska, Adrienne Rich, Billy Collins — all over the map, really.

In the spoken world: Taylor Mali, Buddy Wakefield, Rives, Anis Mojgani, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz.

Q: Which talent would you like to have that you don’t, yet?

A: A thicker skin. I don’t know if that counts as a talent. I would love to be athletic, which I am utterly not.

Q: Who’s your favorite character of all time in fiction?

A: Does Winnie the Pooh count? My favorite book, my favorite piece of fiction is 100 Years of Solitude. That’s the only book that I have memorized the first line of the book:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Q: Who do you think of as fellow travelers in other mediums?

A: My father is a photographer; he and I share a love of finding the moment and trying to capture it. He does it visually, I do it with words.

I love Renee Magritte. I think that his work is very playful and often dark, but also he’s very concrete. He uses things that I can see and recognize and feel, and that’s something I try to do.

There’s a filmmaker named Wong Kar-wai, from Hong Kong, who made the film In the Mood for Love, and 2046.

Q: What’s the keynote of your character as a poet?

A: There’s a saying which is “write what you know” and I was taught “don’t write what you know, write what you don’t know and are trying to figure out.” For that reason, it comes from a very personal place.

Q: What quality do you look for and love in a poem?

A: I love a good ending — if you have a killer last line, that’s really something.

Q: What’s your motto?

A: “Say Thank You.”

Hear more of Sarah Kay’s poetry here.

Related Content


  • Jorge

    Professor Bloom would be ashamed you.

    Spoken word poetry = Bad poetry

  • nother

    Sooo delightful to hear such a earnest, merry, and soothing voice. After listening to Sarah I wish it to be mandated that all grade school children be provided a poem a day in their lunch box – a truly balanced meal!

    Thank you, Sarah for your generosity in this hour and for giving us a part of your life that you will never get back again.

    btw, Sarah was right on on the first line of Solitude – I happen to have the book right next to my computer.

    Here is one of my favorite spoken word poets (before I was introduced to Sarah).

    Mayda de Valle

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EBkUX2g_mM&feature=related

  • Ellis
  • She has the maturity and depth to know not to take herself seriously, the self-awareness to value fragility and humility, the openmindedness to let others speak to her.

    Listening to her words while on the bus was dangerous. Even here, people aren’t used to seeing a grown man with tears in his eyes, for no apparent reason.

  • rick benjamin

    What a fine way to spend 45 minutes of my day, in the presence of the warm & wise Sarah Kay. Her words & wisdom beyond years thrummed up-spine in a way that made me particularly receptive & alert. She combines the best of spoken word with other, older elements. The reaction is alchemical, transcendent.

  • George Mathew

    I just listened to online clip of Sarah’s “Jellyfish” and am still quite overcome by her “one that got away”. IT would already be stunning if she were delivering poetry by someone else. But this is a bit like listening to a young Anais Nin or Brahms delivering music warm from the heat of the oven.

    Sarah’s poems surge and throb with music for music. These are songs waiting to be shaken loose of their wax moulds. Listening with bated breath for more

  • I also just listened to Jellyfish and of course had to listen to Providence.

    Thank you so for lifting my spirits on a deary Friday afternoon.

    And thank you, Chris, for sharing with me.

  • Kay mentioned Taylor Mali as an influence. Here’s a well-known piece by Mali:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxsOVK4syxU

    It’s been making the rounds in teaching circles.