Talking the Art of Spoken Word Poetry with Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye

Poets and spoken word performers Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye. (Photo courtesy of Project VOICE)

By : Nico Novito | on 9:37 AM January 19, 2016
Category : Life & Style, Arts & Culture

Jakarta. The convergence of two talents who share starkly similar features, physical and otherwise, rarely occurs. But that was what happened with Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye many years ago when they first met backstage during a talent show in their college.

As the American poets reminisce in their popular piece, "The Origin Story," each of them has a Jewish father and a Japanese mother, share an almost interchangeable last name and, most importantly, fosters a predilection for the magical art form of spoken word poetry.

Kay, 27, and Kaye, 28, are now actively performing in spoken word gigs, giving workshops for everyone from kindergarteners to university students and have published several poetry books. They are constantly on the move across the globe and also co-founded Project VOICE, a movement that encourages young people to express themselves through spoken word poetry.

Most recently, the duo visited Jakarta to hold their first show in the city last Saturday night. Not long after their exhilarating performance at Goethe-Institut in Central Jakarta — which garnered a standing ovation from the audience — both poets sat down with the Jakarta Globe to talk about their creative process and the role of spoken word poetry in education.

Q: What an amazing performance from both of you tonight. Why did you decide to make a stop in Jakarta this time?

Sarah: The work that we do at Project VOICE is focused on how we use spoken word poetry in education spaces. Our main goal is to get into schools around the world, and we are often contacted by international schools. We were contacted by the Jakarta Intercultural School so we started working on a program with them. When it was clear that we're going to be able to make it to Jakarta, we were thinking of putting together a show for the public here.

Because the average citizen of Jakarta cannot show up at a school show, we made sure to put together an event that anybody can come to. We contacted some lovely local poets to help us organize this venue, and we got the thing on the road.

You've met some local poets here during your visit, and you also saw how the crowd was very enthusiastic tonight. From what you've observed, what are your thoughts on the poetry scene here?

Phil: I think something that is really critical to a poetry community is a sense of camaraderie and trust, as well as a support network. The sense that we get is, even though the community is small, there is a whole lot of those elements here. [The local poetry community here] celebrates each others work and has a desire to put Jakarta on the map, which I think counts for a whole lot. All the poets I've met are such wonderful people.

Sarah: And really generous with their time.

Could you tell us about Project VOICE and the importance of spoken word poetry in education?

Sarah: This is our life's work, it is our life's joy. We've seen spoken word poetry bridge across a lot of different boundaries, including geographical boundaries, identity boundaries, language barriers. It is an art form that a lot of people can connect over — it's incredibly accessible, regardless of your education level or background. Everyone can gather in a room to share, listen and experience this piece of art together, which I think is rare in this day and age when everything has become increasingly digital. The idea that people are still excited about gathering in a room together is pretty amazing.

In education spaces especially, we think there is an opportunity to use spoken word poetry as a way to teach a lot of life lessons that are incredibly helpful for students, regardless of what they end up doing. Even if they don't end up being professional poets, a lot of what we teach with spoken word poetry is helpful to any kind of person — we talk about writing, creativity, collaboration, giving and receiving feedback, presentation performance. All of those elements are life skills that we can teach using spoken word poetry, and we found that we are able to do it in lots of different communities around the world.

During the show earlier, you asked the audience if this was the first time they watched a spoken word poetry performance live, and some hands were raised. What is one misconception about poetry that you would like to dispel?

Sarah: It depends on where you are, right? Everyone arrives with their own preconceived notions. Sometimes people have seen a video clip online of a really aggressive poetry slam, and they think poetry can only be angry, political or loud. Or sometimes people only associate poetry with boring, very dry readings, so they're going to think it's super boring. We made a joke about it tonight, but some people think that it's going to be like rap music or an actor's monologue.

The cool thing is, it can be all of those things, depending on the poet, the performance, the night.

Phil: And all of those things can be done really well.

Sarah: Or not so well. [laughs]

Phil: Something I love about poetry is that it's an art form that is so up for interpretation and individualization. People wear it differently depending on where they are. Thus, you see so many different poets and so many different styles.

Sarah: I often say that I believe that poetry is a house with enough rooms for everyone. For people who have previously felt unwelcome in the house of poetry, it's really nice to be part of an art form that tries to make poetry feel accessible and make it in the language of the people — as opposed to highfalutin, academic language that's maybe harder for them to access.

A big part of our work is trying to make poetry feel comfortable and safe so that anybody can enter our space and enjoy poetry with us.

Phil: And part of why it's exciting for us to travel to new places is you get to see those different flavors of poetry in different styles and interpretations.

How would you describe your process in writing poems, as you will eventually perform them onstage?

Sarah: There is no right or wrong way to write poetry — everyone is going to do it their own way. For us, because we are on the road a lot of the time, a huge part of our process isn't in the physical writing but actually the record-keeping. When we are traveling and there are moments that are inspiring, anger-inducing or making us have a reaction, our job is to keep track of it. We would write a little note to ourselves — nothing to do with poetry — just so we don't forget about it.

When we make time to actually write, we would have this archive of moments that were genuinely inspiring, so we can revisit them and try to write about that. We find it a lot more helpful than just sitting down and waiting for inspiration to come. We are very diligent about keeping track of the things that we find exciting and also making time to sit down and do the work of writing.

Phl: Something I wish someone had told me early on is that writing is really hard.

Sarah: It can be.

Phil: It can be really hard. For me, most of the time you're struggling and not coming up with any good ideas, and you're wondering if any of your ideas were any good. But that's all part of the process. Showing up, doing the work and trying are, a lot of times, half the battle.

I think it's easy to get discouraged the first time you sit down and you're not having any good ideas. Now I'm used to that — I know that is part of the whole process.

What piece of advice would you give to aspiring poets and spoken word performers?

Sarah: If you’re in Jakarta, one of the best things you can do is to find other poets also working on their crafts and a community that you can be a part of and work together with — we know there is the Unmasked poetry open-mic community here. By joining an existing community, you’ll have other artists who will give you feedback on your work, you’ll get to watch other artists and observe and learn what is working for them and what might work for you. That’s a huge part of it — finding a community and other people to work with.

Another piece of advice is to just stop being afraid of writing bad poems. You have to write bad poems. What Phil was saying, poetry can be really hard, and if it is, don’t let that stop you. Write really sh*tty poems, and then write slightly mediocre poems and then write slightly better ones until eventually you get to a place where you’re like, "Hey, I’m actually writing some stuff I actually feel pretty good about!" Don’t use writing sh*tty poems as an excuse to stop.

Phil: Don’t let your first bad poem...

Sarah: the last poem you write.

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