Interview: Across Asia, Sarah Kay Is Dynamic Ambassador for Spoken Word

"And no matter how many land mines erupt in a minute, be sure your mind lands on the beauty of this funny place called life."
Sarah Kay, If I Should Have A Daughter

Creativity was a thread tightly woven into Sarah Kay's life from the very beginning. Her photographer father and artist mother created the perfect atmosphere for creative expression, which publicly manifested from the moment she first took the stage at Bowery Poetry Club in New York at the early age of 14. Her talent was allowed to flourish under the roof of this distinguished performance space, where she spent countless nights of her teenage years immersed in the words of the most established and colorful New York poets.

Throughout her education, Kay threw herself fully into the endeavor, joining slam teams and taking part in nationwide competitions. At the age of 16, she founded Project V.O.I.C.E. to encourage the growth of personal expression among students from elementary to university levels. Since then, the program has grown with the addition of co-director and fellow poet Phil Kaye.

Her poetry is reflective, deliberate, and accessible, and has duly gained momentum: Kay has been featured on On Being, CNN, and in the Washington Post, and she has performed at Lincoln Center, the Tribeca Film Festival, and the United Nations. Kay has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to education, authoring an anthology as well as holding workshops with students from all corners of the world. She strives to use spoken word poetry to inspire "passion, patience, and compassion in people," regardless of external circumstance. Through a collaborative commitment to promoting international consciousness, she continues to enrich both herself and the people around her.

We reached out to Sarah Kay through email to find out what impact she hopes to have by engaging with the world through spoken word.

To mark Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we'll be running Q&As with noteworthy Asian Americans throughout May and beyond. Read them all here.

You have stated that your upbringing is shaped more by Japanese-American culture than by Japanese culture, which you define as two distinctly separate entities. Was negotiating your sense of self-identity ever a struggle growing up, and has this identity changed during, or been changed by, your growth as a spoken word poet?

I do believe that Japanese-American culture is different from Japanese culture. I traveled with my three eldest cousins to Japan after I graduated from high school and was aware of how new that culture was to me. My great-grandparents immigrated from Japan and my grandmother was born in Los Angeles. This trans-Pacific journey initiated a different cultural identity. My grandmother’s entire family was interned during World War II, and that has always been an important part of my family's narrative. There is a legacy of stoicism and "gaman” that they inherited from Japan, which was incorporated into their desire and ambition to be recognized by others as Americans. The courage to be confident in your status as an American citizen in the face of political and social ostracism was a huge part of the Japanese-American identity in that era. I was aware of this courage in my grandmother. She only went to Japan a few times in her entire life, but her Japanese-American values and experiences were always present.

In terms of my own ethnic identity, I have always identified as being biracial. In my family we call it “hapa,” which is a Hawaiian term that we adopted. I was very lucky to grow up in New York City, because it meant that I was surrounded by all kinds of people. Being biracial didn’t feel alien or weird. I also attended an international school from kindergarten through twelfth grade; my classmates were from every corner of the globe.

Sarah Kay performing at the Blue Frog in Mumbai, India on March 21, 2013. (Anavrin Sankhe and Anirudh Bhate)

In addition to touring all over the nation, you've spent a considerable amount of time internationally, most recently in India, Nepal, and Singapore. Could you elaborate on the activities you were involved with in each location?

The first time I went to India, it was through an organization called Students of the World (SOW). SOW organizes trips for students to use new media to help build visibility for international organizations that are doing good work but need more material. I was specifically working on making short documentary videos about a project called Lighting a Billion Lives, which provides solar lanterns to people who live off the electrical grid. Along with a small team of other students, I traveled throughout northern India with a backpack and a video camera. The trip was extremely formative and was the inspiration for my poem “Peacocks.” 

The second time I was in India I was also working on documentary projects, this time via an AT&T New Media Fellowship through the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. I focused on creating documentary photography and video of two different organizations: the Pragati School and the Delhi Commonwealth Women’s Association (DCWA). Pragati is a volunteer organization that provides education for underprivileged children in Gurgaon. It is an impressive example of the government, corporate, and non-profit sectors working together to improve education opportunities in the area. The DCWA is a social service organization that strives to improve the lives of the underprivileged in Delhi and the surrounding areas.

The Gurgaon Chapter of the DCWA uses an ambulance and a mobile hospital unit to provide healthcare to the slum areas of Gurgaon. This visit to India was a completely different experience from my first trip. I was living in one place instead of traveling around, and I was working entirely alone on the documentary work instead of with a team. I learned just as much as I had on my first trip, although I was a bit lonelier. On this trip, I also had the opportunity to make a quick trip to Pune, where I performed and taught workshops on spoken word poetry with students at the Symbiosis International School as well as the Open Space Organization. It was my first time teaching spoken word poetry in India, and I was thrilled that the response was extremely positive.

In December 2012 I was the recipient of a U.S. Department of State Federal Assistance Award through the American Embassy in Nepal that allowed me to lead a multi-faceted spoken word poetry education platform at nine different schools in Kathmandu. I also had the opportunity to teach and coach a talented group of young poets in the area on how they could teach spoken word poetry in schools and continue to build a community around the art form. Since I left Nepal, these “Word Warriors” (as they call themselves) have been busy leading workshops and introducing more and more young people to spoken word poetry. They even organized a citywide poetry slam, with students from several different schools coming together to share their art. I am so proud of them and continue to be impressed with how much they have been able to build.

While in Nepal, I also had the opportunity to visit my friend Maggie Doyne in Surkhet. Maggie has an amazing life story, which has led to her adopting 40 orphaned children and opening the Kopila Valley Children’s Home and Primary School. I was so lucky to get to spend time with Maggie’s children while I performed and taught workshops at her school. I instantly fell in love with the kids I met, and I was intensely affected by the devastating back stories of so many of them.

One of the stories that broke my heart was learning about a fifth grade girl in the community who had committed suicide only a month before my arrival. The event itself was traumatic, but what upset me even more was when I learned that the other children had not been shocked. [In Nepal, the leading cause of death in women ages 15-49 is suicide.] That means that having someone close to you (often a girl or woman) commit suicide is not a surprise. I was stunned by this information.

Sarah Kay teaching a spoken word poetry workshop with the students of Kopila Valley School in Surkhet, Nepal on December 5, 2012. (Benjamin Heiber)

I spend a lot of time using spoken word poetry as a way to encourage young people to engage with creative self-expression, but suddenly I felt a deep need to work with girls and young women on reclaiming their self-worth. My trip to Nepal left me with a lot to think about and process, and some of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned.

Not long after Nepal, I headed to India for my third time. This time I was accompanied by Phil Kaye (the other co-director of Project V.O.I.C.E.). We spent several days performing and teaching at the Oberoi International School and the American School of Bombay. We also performed two open-to-the-public shows, one in Mumbai and one in Pune. In Mumbai, we celebrated World Poetry Day with a show at a club called Blue Frog. 450 people showed up — the largest audience we have ever had at an open show. Hundreds of people stayed after the show to meet us and tell us over and over again that this was the first event of its kind that they had ever been to. It felt exciting to be introducing so many people to spoken word poetry and to be building an audience and community for this art form in a country that has meant so much to me.

At the end of our India trip, Phil and I hopped over to Singapore for a week. I had been to Singapore once before to deliver a keynote address at the Regional Conference of the International Baccalaureate Organization, but I had not spent much time with students. This time, Phil and I spent several days with the Stamford American International School.

At the last minute, we received an email from Raffles Girls’ School. They had just discovered we were in Singapore, and they begged us to make a visit for a performance on our last day in town. Even though the day was already packed with two performances and several workshops, we felt like we needed to make it over to Raffles. I am so grateful we did. I had no idea how important that single visit was going to be for me.

Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye with the Raffles Girls' School in Singapore on April 10, 2013. (The !nkspiration student group)

When we got there, a group of 40 young girls in school uniforms were gathered on the sidewalk. They screamed and clapped as our taxi pulled up. I was confused and overwhelmed — we had never received that kind of response before. I ran to the auditorium to hide in the darkness of the theater. An administrator informed me that the girls had no instruction on this art form, but some students had organized a club and had started working on their own spoken word poetry. Seven of these students were going to perform as “openers” for us. I sat back to watch and ended up crying through every single poem, for 20 minutes straight. It wasn’t that the poems were sad. It was that it was so moving to see these empowered young women take control of their own stories, voices, and words.

Since my time in Nepal, I am more sensitive to how important it is for young women to know their own value, that they have the right to “take up space.” I am grateful that at a young age I was taught that my voice mattered. I discovered spoken word poetry as an outlet to express my joys, sorrows, and confusions in a space that was safe for me to explore myself.

From my work in schools and with educators in Asia, I have learned that there is often much more emphasis on hard sciences, engineering, and computer programming. In many schools they are cutting literature and creative writing programs. There isn’t a lot of emphasis on creative self-expression in the way that Project V.O.I.C.E. tries to tackle it. And of course there are cultural differences that are important for us to respect and honor. As a result, it has been a challenge to convince schools that we are relevant to their students.

Yet here were bright, spectacular young women taking risks and being vulnerable. They had found the art form on YouTube and decided to pursue it on their own. They found the courage to perform their truths, and they were radiant. After the show, the girls lined up to meet us. Several students gave us drawings and gifts that they had made. At least four young women gave us letters that were long personal narratives about the importance of poetry in their lives. They each mentioned how they felt poetry had “saved” them from self-destructive behavior like self-mutilation. I have never been so moved by the power of this art form. It showed me that this work is necessary and it overwhelmed me with how much more work there is to do. I am forever grateful to those young women for showing me how strong they are. It pushes me forward.

Sarah Kay performing and teaching at Oberoi International School in Mumbai, India on March 18, 2013. (Sarah Kay)

I learn from every school I visit. Some people are surprised that I travel so much and so far. They hear “spoken word poetry” and have their own connotations that cause them to wonder if it is a trendy U.S. fad. They ask if it is relevant in Nepal or India. But the idea of “oral poetry” is ancient and can be found all over the world. Besides, this is the only way I understand education. For 13 years I learned from people from all over the world, and I saw how much we had to teach each other, how many stories we had to trade. My work is simply an extension of that. It is a desire to encourage other people to embrace how powerful language can be; to carefully craft their own poems so that the rest of us can learn about what the world looks like from someone else’s eyes.

How have the students in Nepal, India, and Singapore responded to spoken word poetry? Have their reactions been markedly different than (or similar to) those of American students in any way?

People all over the world respond to spoken word poetry because it is amazingly accessible. Even with language barriers. Other art forms can be expensive. Musical instruments and visual art supplies cost money, but spoken word poetry relies on nothing other than you. In Nepal, India, and Singapore, what I noticed most is a hunger for more. In the U.S. it is slightly easier to point a curious newcomer to a nearby open mic in their area, depending on where they live. Not so much in other parts of the world. (Although the Word Warriors are certainly working on that in Kathmandu, and the Word Forward group is also building a great spoken word poetry community in Singapore.)

Whenever I teach, I show videos of other poets, but the majority of available material is from North American spoken word poets. I want to be able to share more spoken word poets with people in India that sound familiar, look familiar, and speak about topics relevant to their lives. People are curious. They are creative. They want to take this art form and make it their own.

Sarah Kay leading a performance workshop with the "Word Warriors" at Thames College in Kathmandu, Nepal on November 29, 2012. (Ujjwala Maharjan)

You've worked with a variety of organizations such as Acumen Fund and the BlinkNow Foundation. What value do you see in international engagement, particularly through the medium of spoken word poetry?

As I mentioned before, I grew up in a biracial family and attended an international school in a radically diverse city. A global worldview is a cornerstone of my upbringing. I love the work I do in the U.S. I believe in acting locally, but I also value the experiences and lessons learned from my work outside the country. I think it is equally important to listen as it is to speak. When I have the opportunity to travel across national borders, I get to meet and learn from people I might not otherwise have been able to find. It allows me to speak to and listen to people whose lives and perspectives are completely different from my own.

On one of my travels I was working at a school in Hawaii where I learned the word "Kuleana." It means a lot of things, but it roughly translates to the intersection of privilege and responsibility: the honor of having a responsibility. It allows me to think about what I am doing, how I am able to do it, and it allows me to be grateful for the task. I get to travel and share my art, to teach students and learn from so many. I know how rare this life is.

I am lucky that I was taught as a young person that I have value, that my voice is relevant. There are so many young people (and old people!) who are not told that. I own these privileges. I work with other young people so that they know that their voices are valid and necessary; that there are people who really do want to listen. I also try to partner with organizations that share a similar vision.

Sarah Kay meeting with students at Nava Prabhat School in Kathmandu, Nepal on November 28, 2012. (Bijay Gajmer)

In your opinion, what's most significant about spoken word poetry, and how do you hope to build upon its impact in the years to come?

Sometimes people ask, "Why poetry? Why teach students about poetry when there is so much needed in our education system in the hard sciences, in math, etc." And of course I think those are important topics to be taught. But I try to tell people that I am not concerned with creating an army of poets. I am concerned with helping to build a population of people who are capable of expressing things that are important to them, issues that they struggle with, and parts of themselves that are vulnerable. I am concerned with encouraging them to find the words that allow them to articulate those stories and poems in their own style and to present them in a way that moves others. I want to help build a population of people who have the ability to listen to someone else's experience and outlook, to bear witness to what someone else is going through, to learn empathy.

These are skills that human beings need to have regardless of what job they end up doing and regardless of where they live. These are skills that we need, and that I think are important to teach. That is why I am doing what I do. Yes, it comes from a deep love of poetry and storytelling, but it also comes from a deep hope that we can help foster this kind of passion, patience, and compassion in people. In the years to come, I want to bring spoken word poetry into as many classrooms as I can. I want to continue to introduce it into corners of the world where it has been forgotten or has not yet been experienced, then step aside and see what good can come of it.

What conversations can we start having that haven't been had before? What light can we shine into dark places? What can we learn from each other?

About the Author

Profile picture for user Sophie Feng
Sophie Feng is a contributor to Asia Blog. A native New Yorker, she studies Film and Health Sciences at Rice University.