Sarah Kay: A Lifelong Passion For The Arts

Sarah Kay, an accomplished spoken word performer, grew up in a family of artists. Both of her parents are photographers, but they fostered in her a love for all of the fine arts. Growing up, Sarah was infused with the jazz music her father was passionate about, and her mother modeled for her a deep love of books and literature. When Sarah was in elementary school, each day she would open her lunch box to discover a poem her mother or father had written on a colored Post-It note. “They made poetry something to look forward to,” says Sarah about this daily ritual.

Sarah Kay

Sarah’s romance with spoken word began at age fourteen, when she visited a friend’s house and viewed the documentary SlamNation, and realized that the slam genre was the perfect marriage of her two favorite art forms: poetry and theater. Although she was intrigued, it wasn’t until a mysterious event occurred that Sarah imagined a place for herself within the world of slam performance.

“A few weeks later,” says Sarah, “I received a letter informing me I had been registered for a teen poetry slam. I still don’t have any explanation for that letter and nobody has ever owned up for it. The timing was right, and I decided to give it a try. I wrote what I thought was a ‘slam poem’ and somehow managed to get onstage and perform it. The performance itself was fairly terrifying, but there was a moment after that first performance when an older, bigger girl from the audience tapped me on the shoulder and told me, ‘Thank you. I really felt that.’ And that was the moment of transformation.”

Sarah Kay performing at TED

In the years since that first day on stage, Sarah has built her life around a career of poetry performance that has taken her to every corner of the globe. “I have been so lucky to be able to do what I love and travel all over the world. Over and over I am struck, not by the differences, but by the similarities. Countries, cultures– these can be vastly different places and environments, but everywhere I have been, there are people who share a love, or discover a love of listening to and sharing stories. It’s really remarkable that spoken word, which is just a new(er) incarnation of a very old art form of oral tradition, is being ‘rediscovered’ in an age when technology is connecting everyone.”

Perhaps an outgrowth of her interaction with so many people and cultures, Sarah feels passionately about the need to strike a balance in life between speaking and listening. “Some people only want to speak and hear their own voices, but then they don’t learn from others; they don’t learn compassion or empathy. Then there are other people who are scared to speak and are too willing to let others speak for them. This is dangerous because they sacrifice their individual story— one that nobody else can authentically tell. The key is balance. Be brave enough to speak, be open enough to listen.”

What does Sarah have to say to young artists and performers? “Don’t ever think that having a passion or having a talent is enough. It takes hard work. Constant hard work. And that’s ok. That’s good. That is what pushes you and forces you to grow and learn.”

Sarah is looking forward to participating in the Adobe Youth Voices Aspire Awards, where she will contribute her expertise as a judge for the Poetry / Experimental category. “I am looking forward to hearing and seeing students’ words and stories. Sort of like my lunch box poems. I love being surprised and not knowing what the next poem might be.”

Watch Sarah’s performance at TED in Long Beach, CA, in March 2011: