Sarah Kay and The Power Of Poetry: A Look At Her Work

Today we are celebrating spoken word poet and author Sarah Kay and looking at some of her amazing work!

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In the summer of 2020, I participated in a one-week-long creative writing workshop over zoom and one thing the instructor did still sticks with me. During a session dedicated to poetry, he pulled up a Ted Talk by Sarah Kay in which she read and discussed her poem “If I Should Have a Daughter.”

The wheels in my mind began spinning faster than ever before. This was one of the first poems that made me want to seriously try writing poetry myself. I owe some of my love of this art form to this specific poem. Still, Sarah Kay has so many great works and accomplishments. Let’s take a little bit of a deeper dive. 

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Who Is Sarah Kay?

Sarah Kay was born on June 19th, 1988 and is most well-known as an American spoken word poet. She began poetry performances at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York at only age 14! From there, she went on to be the youngest person to perform at the National Poetry Slam of 2006. Kay performed at many iconic venues and events since such as Lincoln Center, the Tribeca Film Festival, the United Nations, and multiple Ted Talks.

She received an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Grinnell College in 2013. Kay published 4 books, her first book entitled B. Amazon ranked B the #1 Poetry Book at the time of publication. She founded Project VOICE, which she is also the co-director of with another poet, Phil Kaye. The project brings innovative workshops to educational settings, hosts poetry shows, and inspires students and educators. Kay also hosts a podcast called Sincerely, X, produced by TedTalks and Audible.

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Poetry by Sarah Kay

“If I Should Have a Daughter”

First, let’s look at some of my favorite lines from Kay’s most popular poem “If I Should Have a Daughter.” This poem received millions of views online! I’m going to discuss just a few of my favorite lines, but the entire text of the poem can be viewed here.

In the poem, Kay uses metaphorical language to describe what she would teach her hypothetical daughter about the world. 

The poem opens with these lines: 

“Instead of “Mom”, she’s gonna call me “Point B.” Because that way, she knows that no matter what happens, at least she can always find her way to me. And I’m going to paint the solar system on the back of her hands so that she has to learn the entire universe before she can say “Oh, I know that like the back of my hand.”

I love the imagery of the mother painting the solar system on the daughter’s hands. It’s visual and it’s familiar but it gives a specific example of the more extensive topic of a mother guiding a child through life. 

Kay goes on to say: 

“There is hurt, here, that cannot be fixed by band-aids or poetry, so the first time she realizes that Wonder-woman isn’t coming, I’ll make sure she knows she doesn’t have to wear the cape all by herself. Because no matter how wide you stretch your fingers, your hands will always be too small to catch all the pain you want to heal. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

I enjoy the almost breaking the fourth wall of saying the word “poetry” in your poetry. These lines acknowledge that art cannot fix everything, but is still important. I like the addition of “believe me, I’ve tried” after imparting words of wisdom. It tells us that there’s a backstory there and gives a bit of ethos to the speaker. And with these eloquent words, we do believe her. 

“That there’ll be days like this…when you step out of the phone booth and try to fly and the very people you wanna save are the ones standing on your cape. When your boots will fill with rain and you’ll be up to your knees in disappointment and those are the very days you have all the more reason to say “thank you,” ‘cause there is nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline no matter how many times it’s sent away.”

These lines are everything I adore about poetry all at once. Subverting expectations, the almost tangible imagery, and turning the bad into good through a genius metaphor – I just can’t get enough. 

And the ending: 

“When they finally hand you heartbreak, slip hatred and war under your doorstep and hand you hand-outs on street corners of cynicism and defeat, you tell them that they really ought to meet your mother.”

If there’s one thing I learned while trying to write poetry, it’s that it’s damn hard to write an ending that’s clever, sounds good, and wraps up the general message of the poem. This ending does just that.

*chef’s kiss*

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“A Bird Made Out of Birds”

Next, let’s discuss Sarah Kay’s poem “A Bird Made Out of Birds.” To fully understand this poem and the context surrounding it, I suggest watching the clip of her performing it during a Ted Talk, which you can find here.

In this poem, Kay speaks about the desire to create something new and unique to offer the universe, but the universe often beats you to your seemingly unique ideas. 

This is best summarized by the repeated phrase, which is actually a quote from her friend and fellow poet Kaveh Akbar:

“the Universe has already written the poem you were planning on writing”.

She then goes on to talk about how these universal coincidences seem to make sense after you look at them for a while: 

“Of course, a fig becomes possible when a lady wasp lays her eggs inside a flower dies and decomposes the fruit evidence of her transformation.”

This amazing, unexpected science fact screams to be put in to a poem like this. I am obsessed with using facts, such as the one above, as metaphors and analogies in pieces of writing.  

Kay then connects this fact to herself as she closes out the poem:

“I am dying here. Inside this flower. It is OK. It is what I was put here to do, take this fruit, it is what I have to offer. It may not be first or ever best, but it is the only way to be sure that I lived at all.”

These lines are comforting, scary, and wild all at once. These words say you are enough, even if it seems like your version of enough is just your best copy of someone else’s. What you have to offer is special, it is wanted. If that’s not beautiful to you, then maybe you just don’t like hopeful poetry. 

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While I cannot examine every poem, here are some more of Sarah Kay’s poems to check out:

“Dreaming Boy” explores gender and sexuality in a beautifully interesting way

“Private Parts” explores the meaning of love and intimacy

“Worst Poetry” discusses why being ‘happy’ can make being a poet difficult

If it wasn’t obvious enough yet, I love poetry: writing poetry, watching poetry performances, and of course, reading poetry. If you also like reading poetry, here are a bunch of poetry recommendations from Bookstr!

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