With one look around the room, Sarah Kay declared that the quality of a performance can be determined by the number of attendees likely to die in a fire hazard. True to her words, the spoken word poet delivered funny yet powerful verses to an audience of over 70 last week in Piano Row’s Multipurpose Room.
Emerson’s Asian Students for Intercultural Awareness, or ASIA, invited Sarah Kay, 27, to perform at their final event for Heritage Month. Kay, who was born to a Japanese American mother and Jewish American father, founded Project VOICE, an organization that uses spoken word poetry as tool to promote literacy and empowerment around the world. In honor of the group, Kay said she made sure to include a poem about Asia in her performance, which turned out to be one about the bombing of Hiroshima.
“It’s cool that [ASIA] has invited me to this because I don’t often get to identify as an Asian American writer or human,” Kay said. “So it’s nice to be able to identify as such.”
Kay, a New York native, is best known for her 2011 TED Talk , titled “If I Should Have a Daughter...”
The poem she performed, “B,” which reassures her child of future heartbreaks and rejection from the perspective of a mother figure, received two standing ovations.
Isabella Waltz, a freshman visual and media arts major, went to see Kay speak. Waltz said Kay’s TED talk pulled her into the world of spoken word poetry.
“It became a big thing for me and my friends, who had a fan club for her,” Waltz said. “She has led me down this rabbit hole, and [her poetry] just makes me want to go out there and change something about the world.”
At the event, Kay asked the audience to make some noise if they believe that they are or have ever been in love. The crowd mumbled in response. Kay said the question helps her determine what age group she is performing for. The poet said that she also likes how it makes people uncomfortable.
“That’s good because you need to be made uncomfortable to remember that you are alive,” Kay said.
The first love poem Kay performed at the event was a letter from a toothbrush to a bicycle tire. Her performance was filled with quirky puns like “full of hot air” and “vicious cycle.”
Kay carried a conversational tone throughout the show, slipping a few jokes in between heavy-hearted performances. When asked if she ever gets writer’s block, Kay said that poetry is a lot like pooping.
“Because if you have a poem inside you, it has to come out,” Kay said. “Sometimes, it can be very difficult and takes a lot longer than you would like for it to. Other times, it can be very easy and happen very fast. Either way, it is important and you would feel so much better once it’s done.”
Kay, who travels outside of the country and works with a lot of youth, said she feels it’s helpful to make a few poop jokes once in awhile.
“I have encountered a lot of young people who tells me that poetry is not for them, which makes me sad because I think poetry is a house with enough room for everyone,” Kay said. “But when people feel that way, it just goes to show that they have not been made to feel welcomed.”
Kay recalled attending an event on homophobia and heteronormativity during her freshman year of college. The attendees were asked to write a letter “coming out” to the person who they respected the most.
“For people who are cisgender and heterosexual, they are able to navigate the world without having to explain themselves in that way because it is the norm,” Kay said. “To make that privilege visible is so powerful.”
Kay, who identifies as cisgender, said that while she never had to explain her identity, there are still parts of her gender and sexuality that she wants to explore. To do so, she wrote “Dreaming Boy,” a piece about imagining herself as someone who identifies as a man.
Senior performing arts major Jez Insalaco said the event marked her second time seeing Kay perform. She said she first saw the spoken word poet at the opening event for her 2014 book, No Matter the Wreckage, at the Oberon in Cambridge.
“The way she writes is so evocative and visceral,” Insalaco said. “It feels like she’s writing about my life. It’s nice to know that there is someone out there in the world who understands what I am going through.”
Kay ended the event with her poem, “The Type,” a piece she wrote for her best friend, who was in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend. According to the poet, she kept the poem private for almost a year before she started sharing it.
“There is nothing wrong with writing a poem that you need to write, and then putting it in a drawer for a long time,” Kay said. “You don’t have an obligation to anyone but yourself about what you share with the world and when you do so. There is always later.”
According to Kay, being emotionally raw is not a must when it comes to spoken word performance. She said that there is a difference between personal and private.
“A lot of amazing performers write about their deepest trauma, but I believe the really good ones have gotten a distance from that trauma, where they can speak about it without retraumatizing themselves,” Kay said. “If you are putting yourself in emotional danger, that is no good for anybody. I tell myself that I have to write about everything that I need to write about, but the writing is for me.”