In the middle of her set on Saturday, Dec. 1, the spoken word poet Sarah Kay began a piece she described as a love poem: “In most of the dreams that I remember from childhood, I am a boy, rescuing a maiden from a tower, or not rescuing anyone in particular, but definitely a boy.” Her poem went on to subvert common understandings of gender to tell a personal story of finding and accepting love.
Kay’s set headlined “A Night of Spoken Word,” hosted by Kenyon Magnetic Voices (KMV) and the Black Student Union. Student poets opened for Kay with spoken word performances of their own. The event was a continuation of KMV’s recent efforts to bring prominent spoken word poets to campus. Marc Delucchi ’20, the primary organizer of KMV events, said that Kay — whose performances have earned upwards of 5 million views on YouTube — would be likely to encourage attendance from members of the community beyond KMV.
“I think she’s someone who has a lot of crossover appeal with both spoken word and traditional poetry,” Delucchi said. “We thought she would be a perfect person to try to sort of pull over for that crossover appeal, to bring people who aren’t necessarily normally looking at spoken word.”
A large crowd gathered in Pierce Pub for the event. “I think at one point we had 160 people in the Pub,” Delucchi said.
From the moment Kay walked on stage until the end of her hour-long set, she spoke in a light, warm voice about innocence and goodness framed within the challenges of life.
Much of Kay’s performance concerned the process of coping with pain and finding agency in small truths. She often adapted a tone similar to that of an inspirational speaker, a role that aligns with her career as a TED Talk keynote speaker and as the co-director of Project VOICE, a group of spoken word poets dedicated to using the art of performance to enrich education.
Toward the end of her set, Kay provided words of encouragement to those feeling that they have lost their place in the world. “You have always been the place,” she said. “You are the woman who can build it yourself. You were born to build.”
Kay’s almost constant smile and reassuring declarations lent an inherent degree of positivity to the night, yet she spent much of her time delving into her personal struggles. Kay’s stories contain an ever-present loneliness: “Most of the time in my life I have found that the right words are not there when I need them,” Kay said, “and sometimes I wonder if maybe the right words do not even exist yet in our language.”
Frequently, humor served to underscore the most painful moments of her poems. In her recount of a breakup that took place inside of a Whole Foods Market, Kay explained her feelings of desperation and frustration through a series of increasingly ridiculous grocery-related puns, which culminated with the exclamation, “I feel so beet-trayed by you!”
Later, Kay detailed her feelings of weakness in what she described as “an open letter to whoever broke into my rental car and stole my vibrator.” Kay paused, then smiled as she said, “I wonder if you use it. I wonder what it means if you do.”
Kay ended her set with a portrait of her elementary school principal, a woman who gave all of her students individual attention, excited to talk about their education and inspiration. As she reached the end of the poem, titled “Mrs. Ribeiro,” Kay spoke of her own experience as a teacher while using this approach with her own students. “Show me how many colors you know how to draw with,” she said. “Show me how proud you are of what you’ve learned. And I promise, I will do the same.”
Kay also spoke about her experience as a child in New York City after 9/11 searching for a place in which she could feel at home. She found this home in a spoken word performance.
“Every time people have gathered together like this,” she said, “I think it is an important and powerful refusal of the powers that are trying to suggest that there is no room for you here, because we insist that there is.”