Photo courtesy of Sarah Kay / Facebook

Women's Summit Keynote Speaker Sarah Kay Defines Empowerment

Sarah Kay is a spoken word poet from New York City and this year’s keynote speaker at BC’s Women’s Summit. Sarah has written several books, given two sensational TED talks, and is the founder of Project VOICE. She combines poetry and performance in way that not only shares personal experience, but also fosters empathy and encourages her audience to reinterpret the world. I got the chance to speak with Sarah over the phone and discuss the Summit, her latest work, and what women’s empowerment means to her. Here are some highlights:

So, to begin, can I ask you why you agreed to be the keynote speaker at the Women’s Summit (we’re really glad that you did), and what do you hope to bring to Boston College?

Well, I’m excited about the vision of the conference. [The Summit] is about wanting to empower women of all backgrounds to be able to step into their potential, connect with each other, and create a positive impact in their communities. I think that that’s also the same work that I try to do in my job, so this is just an opportunity to do it with a group of young women that I would love a chance to meet.

You said once that you believe there is a “magic” in spoken word poetry, in the way that it can can really get through to people and make them feel like what they might be going through is understood, or at least recognized. How do you think this applies to reaching and empowering a female audience?

I think that historically speaking, women and gender-nonconforming individuals have always been kind of written into the margins of dominant narratives, within pop culture, history books, and everywhere, especially women of color and gender-nonconforming folks of color. Because of that, we often experience more isolation or just less visible stories that describe our experiences, allow people like us to be protagonists, and show that people like us have agency over our lives and our situations. We just have less access to stories about and for us, and I think [with] spoken word poetry specifically, some of the best poets I have ever encountered are women of color because they are doing two things that are remarkable. First, they are writing themselves out of the margins, reclaiming their narratives, and writing themselves as figures of agency, instead of allowing someone else to dictate who and what they are. In doing that, they then create a pathway for others to come after them. They create stories that the generation behind them have the ability to see, and say “Oh, that sounds like me,” or “That sounds like my family,” or “That sounds like the way my neighborhood talks.” They are creating new paths for both themselves and for the folks that are coming behind them.

I know firsthand that writing about issues specific to women can be tricky, in that you want to be candid and unapologetic, yet at the same time digestible and approachable to a large audience, especially if the goal is to educate. I was wondering if you have any advice, as a woman of color, in regards to writing candidly about your personal experience.

I don’t know if this is the answer that you’re looking for, but I actually think that different poets and artists have different strengths and goals. So, there are certain artists and poets that are good at writing poetry that's accessible to wide audiences and feels non-confrontational and inclusive, even to the people who are perhaps unfamiliar with these stories. Then there other poets and artists who are good at writing exclusively for a specific audience, often the demographic that they are apart of, and their art is about expressing rage or grief that is unique to their community, so in some ways their art is not accessible outside that community. I think there is immense value in both of those and everybody on the spectrum in between. I don’t think everyone needs to write poetry that is accessible to everyone.

I do think that a particular part of my work that people have commented on is that they find it accessible for a pretty wide audience, and I think there are probably two reasons for that. One is kind of on an origin story level; my father is a photographer and one of the most amazing artists I know—and much of what I know about art I learned from him—but he is also deeply dyslexic and has a really hard time with the written word, despite being a successful businessman his whole life. As a result of that, he wasn’t a big reader or writer. So, when I first started writing poetry, it was really important to me that I create poetry that didn't alienate my father, and that I was creating poetry that he could still access and enjoy.

I think the fact that I fell in love with poetry in a dive bar and not in a classroom also speaks to the fact that I gravitate towards poetry that is interested in a certain level of conversationalism and community access. Both of those play into my desire to write poetry that I have a better chance of dropping to a random group of people and hoping they'll be able to find access to it, but I don’t necessarily think everyone should be aiming to write that kind of poetry. That is what is specific to me because of my origins, but I also very much love and appreciate the poetry that is written by someone facing their people that doesn't make room for others.

You’re on tour this month with the poet Phil Kaye, and you also work closely with him through Project VOICE, a group that uses spoken word poetry to entertain, educate, and inspire. Could you tell me a bit more about that?

Project Voice is an organization that uses poetry as an education tool in classrooms and communities around the world. It’s a team of poet educators that travel from school to school doing performances and teaching workshops to students of all ages, all demographics, and every type of education format you can imagine. They also work with teachers in a professional development context to help them figure out how this art form can be a useful tool in their classrooms. That means I spend most of my year traveling and performing and teaching, and it is my greatest joy and my hardest work. I’m the founder and the co-director alongside Phil, and sometimes we travel together, especially this particular tour that I’m on right now.

The official mission of the Women’s Summit is to “empower women of all backgrounds to realize their individual and collective potential to rise together and enact change.” Why do you think it's important that women have creative outlets (whether that be poetry or music or painting) to express their individuality and empower themselves this way?

I think art is a space where people of all genders can not only reflect what the world is, but also what the world could be. The only way we get closer to a world that is more just, inclusive, and beautiful is by spending time envisioning what that looks like and what it’s going to require. A lot of art can be considered a vision of that potential world.

The 2019 Women’s Summit will be held on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019 from 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Tickets are on sale here.

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