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Sarah Kay: Spoken Word as More than Just Poetry


Sarah Kay is a 25-year old spoken word poet; a native New Yorker who avidly supports the practice of spoken word. Spoken word poetry can be described as poetry that is written to be performed; in some ways, its rhythmic qualities resemble rap music. Sarah Kay’s first book of poetry, B, was ranked number one for bestselling poetry book on Amazon. When Kay’s second book of poetry, No Matter the Wreckage (Write Bloody Publishing) was released, it held the number two spot on the bestselling American poetry book list on Amazon. Sarah Kay’s mission to bring spoken word poetry to youth across the world is facilitated through her development of Project VOICE (Vocal Outreach Into Creative Expression). Kay created VOICE when she was in high school, and has since tailored it, along with co-director Phil Kaye, to “educate, entertain, and inspire,” motivating youth across the world to use spoken word as a way to engage their culture, society, and themselves.

In 2011, Kay was a speaker at a TED conference where she performed two of her poems, admitted that she still gets nervous in front of crowds, and received two standing ovations from the audience. The online video of Kay’s presentation has been viewed over six million times. During her presentation at TED, Kay shared that she writes poetry as a way to work through things she doesn’t understand, and she wants her students to use spoken word to “rediscover wonder, to fight their instincts to be cool and unfazed.”

Kay isn’t the only advocate of utilizing spoken word in education to allow youth to connect and critically think about a variety of topics, in fact, many are realizing the academic and social benefits of incorporating spoken word into traditional curricula. In a recent article published in Education Week, we hear from James Catterall, a retired professor at the graduate school of education and information studies at UCLA who says that teaching children about creating spoken-word “is more than just memorizing or understanding. It’s asking kids to think critically.” Catterall believes that incorporating spoken word gives greater educational depth to lessons by allowing students to create something of their own. In the same article Peter Kahn, a spoken word educator who is currently training teachers of spoken word at the University of London, noted the “transformative effect” of spoken word, especially on students who were otherwise disinterested in class due to problems outside the classroom. Kahn says spoken word “improves students as readers and writers, their critical thinking and analysis, their self-confidence, their literacy skills.” But why? What makes the medium of performance poetry so much different from other artistic outlets?

The applicable themes found in spoken word poetry allow ideas to flow in a way that is mutually inspiring for the performer and the audience. In a recent article from Journal of Popular Culture, Jeff Kass, teacher in Ann Arbor and spoken word performer sets up the reason why spoken word is so effective: “At base, we humans want to connect with each other.” Spoken word provides a strong connection between the audience and performer, through its prevalent themes of social commentary, and other culturally relevant topics that are to be understood both on an individual and collective level.

Kay’s mission is felt by many, but few have gone to the extent she has in taking action. Kay has travelled across the world, performing and spreading Project VOICE in India, UK, the Czech Republic, the United Arab Emirates, France, Singapore, Australia, Mexico, the British Virgin Islands, South Africa, Ghana, Sweden, Spain, Nepal, and India. As Kay has said, she uses poetry to work through what she doesn’t understand, but she shows up to each new poem with a “backpack full” of everywhere else she has been. According to the article from Education Week, Project VOICE operates partially from grants, but also from fees charged per school visit. When Sarah Kay leads VOICE spoken word workshops for students she begins by asking participants to write a list of “ten things you know to be true.” She believes that great stories come from the intersections of topics from various students’ lists. Also, the lists serve to illustrate the idea that students can have original ideas which set them apart from other classmates, as well as similar ideas which connect them to their classmates in different ways.

While most kids will at some point encounter traditional poetry in their classrooms, spoken word pedagogy is a fairly new idea. We learn in the article from The Journal of Popular Culture that this genre is directly linked to the beat of rap from the 1950s, and distantly connected to roots in “Greece, Japan, Africa, and Spain, and to the blues and the Baptist faith.” By considering the rich history of spoken word poetry, we can see it gives performers and viewers something more than just poetry; the rhythmic nature of the beats embodies a style that actively inspires youth to speak out about topics such as culture and politics in a way that they might not do otherwise.

Author Cynthia Biggs-El examines the relevance of using spoken word as education in her article published in Western Journal Of Black Studies. Biggs-El explores the idea that traditional curriculum is not always relevant to students, particularly students of African and African-American descent; instead, the public school system tends to “deconstruct racial and cultural identities” through its generic, detached methods. The use of spoken word and rap as a pedagogical tool can break this track record, fostering an avenue for creativity that is important because of its connection both to culture and to present society. In her article, Biggs-El includes an excerpt of an interview with poet and rapper Tupac Shakur: “There should be a class on drugs…There should be a class on apartheid. There should be a class on racism in America. There should be a class on why people are hungry.” Tupac believed that schools were teaching students about things which had no effect on their daily lives, and were thus failing to help students learn to navigate the world around them. Poets like Cynthia Biggs-El, Tupac, and Sarah Kay believe that spoken word poetry provides students with the exact medium they need to express individual and cultural concerns, because spoken word is primarily shaped through personal experience. Biggs-El says that spoken word gives students “the moment in which they publicly claim their permanent place in history, for no one can preach, teach, and relay their life stories as they can.” It is the immediacy and intensely personal aspects of spoken word poetry that set it apart from other related forms.

Sarah Kay picks up this same theme as she considers the difference between spoken word and standard poetry. In her 2011 TED talk Kay defined spoken word as “poetry that doesn’t just want to sit on paper.” It is poetry that is not only performed, but also evokes an active response within listeners. An article from Black Issues Book Reviewconsiders the difference between spoken word poetry and typical literary poetic traditions. According to T’ai Freedom Ford, a New York City slam poet, spoken word can be defined as “the bastard child of poetry and centuries of griot tradition, fusing creative wordplay with shiny performance.” Ford identifies the definite storytelling element of spoken word that readers don’t get to experience when reading a poem off the page, and this is perhaps the major difference.

But just because these poets are passionate about spoken word, don’t think they’ve left the written word behind; on the contrary, Kay’s new book, No Matter the Wreckage, is evidence of her love of poems in print. In her interview with The Writer magazine, Kay expresses her uncertainty over including spoken word poems in her book, and her realization that she should include both “page poems and stage poems.” In part, readers can tell the difference between her two types of poems simply by looking at how they are laid out on the page. Kay’s famous spoken word poem, “B” is included in the book, and when I read the poem I was not focusing on the line breaks or the aesthetics of the stanzas, rather I was imagining Kay’s voice carrying out the poem on TED, and how her tone of voice and excellent expressions turned the words from a standard poem into a complete performance.

Despite the support spoken word pedagogy has garnered in recent years, there still remain skeptics. In the article from The Western Journal of Black Studies we read that some people believe spoken word is too “emotionally volatile,” so they discredit it, saying that “ethnic-specific forms of expression are often considered devoid of intellectual and critical content because of its passionate emotional temperament.” However, the same article goes on to challenge this theory by drawing attention to the thoughtfulness that goes into the construction of spoken word poetry and rap music, disproving the idea that these mediums are simply a product of overheated emotions. For example, Tupac Shakur’s work was greatly influenced by writers of great merit and literary respect such as Sun Tzu, Maya Angelou, and even Niccolo Machiavelli.
Proponents of spoken word pedagogy such as Sarah Kay have realized the value of this medium, and they work hard to spread the word. The project VOICE website gives us an inside look at what Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye (her co-director) typically do when they lead workshops at schools. First, they like to give a live spoken word performance for students, because many are still unfamiliar with the genre. The purpose of this is “to generate curiosity and enthusiasm about Spoken Word, and present this form of expression as a relevant means of communication.” As a part of their workshops, Sarah and Phil incorporate individual instruction and hands on participation, which can be modified to fit any age range or group size.

From Sarah Kay’s presentation on TED, we learn that Kay believes great poetry starts when students acknowledge the differences and similarities within their classmates’ writing, connecting with ideas that intersect with theirs, and learning from ideas that diverge from theirs. In this way, Kay tells us “spoken word poetry cracks open locks,” creating bridges where previously only gaps existed.

Looking at how spoken word can bridge the gaps in traditional schooling, Cynthia Biggs-El looks closely at the extent to which some people value spoken word pedagogy and other mediums of teaching which fit under the umbrella of “critical pedagogy.” Biggs-El’s article defines critical pedagogy as a tool which seeks to “un-oppress the oppressed and unite people,” and also fights to “contest the legitimizing norms of mainstream social life and to render problematic the common discursive frames and regimes within which ‘proper’ behavior, comportment, and social interactions are premised.” In this sense, critical pedagogy questions the rules and traditions of standard schooling, in effort to create a curriculum that is relevant to students right now. Biggs-El also identifies a religious element associated with critical pedagogy, as faith is incorporated into schooling, along with other beliefs. She notes that, similar to religious groups, spoken word artists and rappers consider themselves to be “spreading good news” of performance poetry.

Both rap and spoken word can be used to spread this good news, and Biggs-El draws attention to the idea that rap often relies on music and lyrics that predominately tell a story. Spoken word is also no stranger to narrative elements; rather, it is a type of oral literature, meant to be performed. Sarah Kay speaks to this very same idea in the article from Education Week when she says “The powerful and important thing about spoken word is, it doesn’t matter what the words look like on paper, it’s about what it sounds like when you say it out loud.” Kay’s work is evidence of this very thing, as her poetry takes on much deeper meaning and relevance after you have seen her perform it.

Another thing to note about spoken word poets is the space they occupy. In the article from Journal of Popular Culture, author Rebecca Ingalls characterizes the spoken word poet as one who “seeks to claim space both virtual and physical.” This can happen through excellent poetry, but also through an audience that is present to listen. The best performances are mutually beneficial for both the audience and the performer because of the shared love and respect for the art form. Further, spoken word poets don’t just physically own the space they occupy, and Ingalls delves deeper into the meaning of this by pointing out the cultural mobility enjoyed by performance poets. This genre defies typical classification as either high art or popular culture, transcending the boundaries between the two, and enjoying greater social and artistic freedom because of it.

Sarah Kay is proof of this genre mobility, as her book No Matter the Wreckage resists strict classification as simply poetry, or exclusively spoken word. In one small volume she has bound both, along with a good deal of love, thought, and personal experience. Kay gives us moments of her life, transparently embracing her human-ness, and identifying with each of us in poems such as “Hiroshima” where she shares:

For someone who has apparently done this already,
I still haven’t figured anything out yet.
My knees still buckle every time I get onstage.
My self-confidence can be measured out in teaspoons,
mixed into my poetry, and it still always tastes funny in my mouth.

Kay shows, through her poetry, that there is nothing wrong with writing about weakness and personal topics. There is nothing that is off-limits to poetry. In her book, she tackles topics such as anger in her poem titled “Hand-Me-Downs,” which begins: “You have taken to wearing your father’s hand-me-down anger,” and progresses, causing the reader to identify with the “you” within the poem, envisioning that Kay speaks to us when she says:

when the time comes, who is going to be
the first to put down the needle and thread?
Who is going to be the first to remember that
their grandfather suffered just as many broken windows,
broken hearts, broken bones? And the first time
you come down to dinner, and your son is sitting at the
dining room table wearing your hatred on his shoulders,
who is going to be the first to tell him it is finally time to take it off?

Sarah Kay speaks to the effect that we can each have on others’ lives, and the extent to which that effect can be either positive or negative.

Kay’s poetry combines simple language with complex ideas; she illustrates for readers the exact idea of the necessity of spoken word poetry in a euphonious way. In her poem “B,” Kay includes the notion of looking “through a microscope at the galaxies / that exist on the pinpoint of a human mind, / because that’s the way my mom taught me.” So while we contemplate the meaning behind the words, we can also enjoy the way it sounds, and the way it looks on the page. Through poetry like Sarah Kay’s, we can understand the idea that creating something like this can encourage active critical thinking in children, leaving them with the reward of something they have produced through creativity.

Spoken word and spoken word pedagogy stand for a type of teaching and learning that is nontraditional, and is often discredited simply because it is somewhat of a novelty; however, through programs like Project VOICE, spoken word is gradually being given the consideration it deserves, even in the pedagogical world. Kay’s work is an inspiration, not because it has all the answers, but because it is not afraid to ask the right questions.

“Is there a word for that? There should be.” – Sarah Kay

Written and Compiled by

Mollie Fenby is currently an undergraduate student pursuing her BA in English with a Writing concentration at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. When she is not studying or working, Mollie can be found with her nose in a book or a pen in her hand. She would love to hear your thoughts on this article, so feel free to contact her at mollie.b.fenby@gmail.com.

Sarah Kay is a New Yorker. a poetry writer and reader. a spoken word poetry teacher. the founder and co-director of Project VOICE. a witty banter enthusiast. a postcard lover. a documentary filmmaker. a foodie. a playwright. a singer. a songwriter. a photographer. a best-selling author of the book B. the author of No Matter the Wreckage. an editor for Write Bloody Publishing. a Gemini. a mediocre driver at best. a musical theater geek. a smoothie expert. the daughter of a Taoist mother and a Brooklynese father. a hapa. less cool than her little brother. an alum of the United Nations International School and a graduate of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program. an alum of Brown University. an alum of Brown University Graduate School’s Masters Program in the Art of Teaching Secondary English. a recipient of an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Grinnell College.



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