The 2021 Paul K. Bergan Poetry Festival continued on Wednesday when we were introduced to visiting poet Sarah Kay who captivated and enchanted the entire community with dramatic readings of her poems and stories of how they came into being.
Sarah Kay grew up in Manhattan, knowing only city life until one summer when she left the city for the first time to visit cousins in California. While there, she was constantly teased for being “too young” or too “New York.” That story led her to the first poem she shared, “Raccoon,”
where she depicts encountering a raccoon for the first time while in California. She thought it was a magic cat and wanted to keep it. However, her family knew otherwise and teased her for it.
Ms. Kay then introduced us to a few love poems that were filled with “punniness.” She explained that her love for language and her silliness equal puns. She then walked us through a dream in which she was attending a CosPlay Parade. In her dream, she wore a white t-shirt with a handwritten trigonometry equation. In her dream, the answer to that equation was “cos (X),” but the t-shirt just said “_____(X)” and it tickled her. She made her dream come true by creating that t-shirt, donning a black leather jacket, and going as “A Rebel Without a Cos” for Halloween. Get it? Punniness!
Before sharing her next poem, Ms. Kay revealed that as a poet she tries to find the “right” words to describe every situation. Once she has found the “right” words then she can write the best poem. She went on to explain that, “We need language to name things... But sometimes the “right” words can’t be found all the time. Language is not perfect and we may not have found the words to describe the feelings yet.”
Also, we must note that in between every poem she performed, she paused and took a dramatic sip from her water bottle to let us know she was finished. She mentions this, asking if we noticed, explaining that she prefers “dramatic emotions over the simple things.” She describes herself as having “A brain that is always looking for meaning.” She then says “it feels like a joy but every 100 days, it feels like a burden.” This introduced us to her next piece, “Useless Bay.”
Inserts *dramatic water sip*
The New York Times
has a team of researchers that looks through its own archives to find gems to do specific projects and write-ups on. One team noticed a long tradition at the NYT of women being filed under their husband's names; like Frida Khalo — to find all of her works you would have to look under Diego Rivera. Same for Marilyn Monroe. You would have to look under Joe DiMaggio. NYT wanted to remedy this phenomenon and asked Sarah Kay to write a poem about society erasing a woman’s history when she is called by her husband’s name. She named it "Mrs."
Next, she told the story of meeting her best friend. They met in college and Ms. Kay described her as the smartest, bravest, coolest person ever. To her dismay, her friend started dating someone that became abusive. As Ms. Kay studied poetry by Richard Pushkin, she leaned in with a listening ear when he said “Everyone needs a place and it shouldn’t be in someone else.” This inspired her to write a poem to her friend. She titled this poem "The Type."
There is an addendum to this poem. Before this poem was published in a book, it was just in the form of a video of her performing it. A “Tumblr Teenager” typed the words out but misheard a few lines. In this poem, she says “Sometimes it is not you, they are reaching for. It's a bottle, a door, a sandwich, a Pulitzer, another woman. The “Tumblr Teenager wrote, “Sometimes it is not you, they are reaching for. It's a bottle, a door, a sandwich, a pole dancer, another woman.” She loved it and this version is still floating on the internet today. Years later a woman approached her at a Vegas show. She had choreographed a pole dancing routine to that piece of poetry that the “Tumblr Teenager” prophesied.
The epilogue to this story is that while performing that piece and talking about the “Tumbler Teenager” at one of her last live shows, a young man and a young woman approached her afterward about it. The young man said excitingly “she has something to tell you,” and nervously, the young lady confessed that she was the “Tumblr Teenager” who accidentally changed the poem. Though the “Tumblr Teenager” was much older now, and embarrassed about her mistake, Ms. Kay was so honored to meet her.
During the question and answer portion of the presentation, students asked a series of questions.
One student asked, “How do you filter through your ideas to choose one for a poem?” Ms. Kay explained that whenever there is a moment that captures her mind, she tries to write it down for record-keeping, not for poetry. They are little notes to herself that work as breadcrumbs. When she is ready to sit down and write, she reviews her notes until she finds something “particularly juicy.” She mentions that in her designated writing time, she asks herself, “which of these Lego blocks will help me build a Lego house for my city today?” or “What is my brain working on? What is my brain trying to Rubix Cube and put together?”
Another student asked, “How many times do you revisit a poem before it is done?” She replied, “It totally depends on the poem.” Ms. Kay shared her process explaining that she writes as much as possible because she is typically in a particular mental and emotional state when she feels something is poem-worthy. So she will write out all her emotions while she is in that place at that moment. She then will let it sit for a second (a day, a week, etc.) and review it, condense it, and make sure she is saying what she wants to say with the right words. She will then attempt to read it out loud, share it with her peers, share it with an audience, and maybe make another round of edits before she deems it complete. She says, “For some poems, it takes a year to write and another year to perform.”
Another asked, “Was there a specific poem that inspired you to make this your career?” To which Ms. Kay replied, “No.” When she was a “younger person,” she was not aware that you could be a professional poet. She liked sharing poems and later discovered she liked teaching about poetry which turned into her career. She says she was “lucky” to perform at TED and did not realize she made a career out of her love until she heard someone else announce her as “Poet, Sarah Kay”.
She then shared with all participants that “If you have a love of art, your responsibility is to carve out time to make it a priority. Make room for the art in your life that brings you joy!”