Montauk, Mothers, and Morale: Sarah Kay Vocalizes Personal Stories in Spoken-Word Poetry

With a melodic, rhythmic voice, Sarah Kay gestured passionately as her poem, “The Type,” resonated throughout Kemper Auditorium. Her quiet, yet powerful voice created the illusion that the audience was having a personal conversation with Kay, developing a sense of intimacy in the room as the poem culminated in Kay clenching her hands into fists and trailing her voice off into silence. Kay had performed this poem on request of Alex Ma ’17 as an encore performance after a Q&A session.

“I requested ‘The Type’ because it has held a really special meaning to me and it has encouraged me to be confident and positive. It’s honestly my favorite piece of literature ever. Hearing her perform it live just gave it so much more meaning and power, especially because it felt like she performed it just for me,” said Ma.

Born and raised in New York City, Kay began spoken word poetry after a friend signed her up for a poetry slam at the age of 14. As a mixed race poet, Kay has often seen her racial and ethnic identities come into play in her poetry.

“I don’t always get identified as a mixed race poet, so it’s cool that that’s the space that I was brought in for. There are certain things that come with being of mixed heritage that lend itself towards shaping the way you navigate the world. For example, I’m used to the concept that there are multiple ways that you can exist in the world because my parents come from two different ones. So that allows me to have room for different people’s narratives and different ways of existing in space whereas perhaps that’s not as obvious to someone where the people around them and in the family all exist in the same way,” said Kay, in an interview with The Phillipian.

“A lot of times when two different cultures come together, some of the currency that allows them to find similarities is storytelling. You share parts of your culture with the person that you love. That act of sharing is something that comes pretty naturally in a mixed race household. Not all the time, but certainly in my mixed race household. It definitely influences my work in various way in addition just the actual influence of the heritage itself,” said Kay.

To kick off her performance, Kay performed “Montauk,” a poem describing her childhood summers spent in Montauk, N.Y. The poem took the audience on a journey from her very first summer spent at Montauk as a seven year old to her summers spent at Montauk as an adult, documenting Kay’s maturation and growth.

“[The performance] was absolutely amazing, from the very first poem. She was just talking about spending summers in Long Island and it was just a conversation with the audience but then, all of a sudden, it went into the poem so seamlessly, and I leaned to the person next to me and asked, ‘Wait, is this a poem?’ and she was like, ‘Yeah,’ and I was like, ‘When did this start to become a poem?’ That’s how the entire night was where she would be talking to us and then she’d say, ‘Now, this reminds me of a poem I wrote…’ and then she’d delve into this beautiful poem,” said Pettaway.

Kay also performed “B,” a poem that she wrote at college to her future daughter. The poem described the motherly love that Kay constantly felt from her own mother, which she touched on during her talk. In 2011, Kay performed this poem during a TED talk which subsequently went viral, garnering over ten million views.

“It’s funny because [the popularity of my TED talk] happened gradually over time. It wasn’t like one day it blew up. It was a slow, slow incline, so it has been a gradual realization over time that it’s been seen a lot, which is a funny way to figure out how to navigate the world. Sometimes, when people have things happen that ‘blows up,’ then they can mark a stark difference between this is what it’s used to be, and now it’s this. Because this happened slowly over time, it’s a little bit more subtle in my life. I’m very flattered and continually surprised that people respond so positively to it. It says a lot about the TED platform that that many people get to see it, and it’s something that I’m grateful for,” said Kay.

For many, Kay’s poetry is distinct from others in that she is still able to write beautiful poems while writing about positive, genuine personal stories.

“I have found that in a lot of the poetry I read and deem as good is the poetry that is very tragic. Even if the topic of the poem isn’t very tragic, I’m finding more and more that poetry tends to be rather dismal and bleak. However, Sarah Kay managed to tell an honest story, that had moments of humor as well as seriousness, with joy and compassion. She did not seek out the tragic, she shared a part of her life, in an exuberant and honest way. Her poem felt real, and that was refreshing,” said Lydia Paris ’17, an audience member.