The Poem is Political: Sarah Kay on performance poetry

New Delhi Oct 1 :Lately I’ve been living with spiders/ but as roommates go, they haven’t been so bad… I guess all those car engines and hairsprays finally caught up with us/ because the pollution here is so bad…

American spoken word poet Sarah Kay deftly hops from spiders and pollution in India to a 19-year-old boy, Ravi, who begs Kay to help him write a love letter for Neha, the girl he is in love with. It is a forbidden love — his parents will choose someone else for him from his caste in the village he belongs to. These are just some of the vignettes which made their way into one of Kay’s earliest performative pieces, titled Peacocks, after her first trip abroad, to India, in 2008.

“I’m trying to use language not as a weapon but as a way of inviting people in,” she says, after her performance at the ninth Mountain Echoes literary festival last month, in Bhutan. Kay, who hails from New York City, says that, “When I have something in my life I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around, I poem my way through it.”

Kay’s foray into spoken word poetry, at the age of 14, was by chance. “I just got a letter one day that I had been registered to compete in the New York City Team Poetry Slam. I had never heard of a poetry slam or seen one, this was also the pre-YouTube era. The only thing I knew was that I did love poems and there would be others who also liked poems, so, I went,” she says.

The experience was transformative and all Kay wanted to do was go back and express all that she had within her. “Never in my 14-year-old life did I have a room full of people listening to me in that way. Most adults were too busy for the drama of a 14-year-old. So, to have them hear what I had to say was immensely powerful,” says Kay. Since then, Kay has spent a lot of time at New York’s Bowery Poetry Club, performing. Speaking about her experiences at the Bowery club, the 30-year-old Kay says, “It was much more about the live experience of poetry than it was about reading it. My love for poetry was not on the page; it was in the room.”

Everything about being on stage and hosting a room, Kay says, she learned by watching freestyle rap shows by Freestyle Love Supreme, an improv group, as a teenager. “What they do is completely different from what I do, but I learned how they worked so hard to make sure that the people in the room felt seen, and part of what was happening,” she says.

The first physical “book” that she published, B (The Domino Project, 2011) had a single poem illustrated in a hard-cover book. “That poem was written to be performed, not to be on paper,” she says. But, when the publisher approached her and said that it was a poem one would want to offer to the person they love — that they can’t just put a link to a video for it — Kay found it to be a convincing enough argument. “Now, I really enjoy the challenge of putting language on paper, so that when you read it, in your head, it sounds as close to how I hope it sounds when I say it out aloud,” she says. Since 2011, Kay has published a number of books containing her past work — No Matter the Wreckage (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014), All Our Wild Wonder (Hachette, 2018), and The Type (Hachette, 2016) .

For Kay, every poem is political. “I think love poems are political, poems on flowers are political. Any poem is political depending on who is writing it and who is reading it. It’s impossible to have an apolitical poem,” she says. Kay mentions one of her heroes and friends — Hanif Abdurraqib, a 35-year-old African-American poet — who has a series of poems called ‘How can Black People Write about Flowers at a Time like This’. “It is a political act for him to be a black man in America and write poems about flowers, and say that this is also worthy of his time — that he is allowed to write about nature, even though him and his people face oppression,” Kay says.

Acknowledging further the subtle ways in which poetry is political to her, Kay says, “Women writing poetry is political; women of colour writing poetry is political; a member of a marginalised group who says my language counts as literature and my family’s story counts as history, even if it isn’t celebrated in mainstream art spaces… it is all an immensely political move to me.”

Kay co-founded Project V.O.I.C.E with a fellow classmate from Brown University, Phil Kaye, in 2004, to encourage spoken word poetry in education spaces “as a way to entertain, educate and inspire” school students through performances and workshops. “I want to offer a different tool to students that can allow them to better articulate their life experiences and share it with other people,” she says.

When Project V.O.I.C.E was invited a couple of years ago to hold a workshop at a private Catholic school in southern California, it made the group nervous — none of the teachers or students of the school had ever heard of the art form before. After a successful show, they got invited the following year. “One thing we do at a school is that we ask if they have a poem they want to share. The first time we went, nobody volunteered. The second year, I asked again, and this little boy ran up to the stage. He said he wrote a poem the day after we left last year, and had been waiting all year to share it with us,” she says.

Kay’s advice to aspiring spoken word poets is to not be afraid of writing bad poems. “Poetry, like anything else, is a craft that requires time and work… Everyone writes bad poems, even the best poets write bad poems. It is only by writing bad poems that you write mediocre poems and then you write better than mediocre poems, and, eventually, you write great poems. Even when you’re writing great poems, in fact, you’re still writing bad poems,” she says.