Poet Sarah Kay on How We Measure Creative Success, Being a Working Artist in Today’s World, and the Only Antidote to Our Endemic Fear of Missing Out
By Maria Popova
Some years ago, at a small community event far out on Manhattan’s West Side, I saw a poet named Sarah Kay perform and speak about her inspiring work with Project VOICE — the nonprofit she co-founded, which uses the power of spoken-word poetry to foster literacy, enlarge empathy, and empower young people from difficult backgrounds.
I had three thoughts: She’s so young. She’s so kind. She’s so brilliant.
About a year later, the fine folks at TED must have had at least the third thought, too, for they invited her to perform and speak about her work at TED. Her talk remains one of the most powerful I’ve seen and exploded the audience into one of the most enthusiastic standing ovations I’ve ever witnessed.
To celebrate the release of Sarah’s most recent illustrated book-length poem, The Type (public library), I sat down with her for a wide-ranging and enlivening conversation about poetry, what it means to be a working artist in the world today, how we measure creative success as individuals and as a culture, and the only real antidote to the endemic fear of missing out that is robbing our lives of livingness. Please enjoy.
MP: How did it all begin, your life and living as a poet, and how did this most recent book come about?
SK: This book started with B, the illustrated poem with which I opened the TED talk. The reason that became a book is that after I gave the TED talk, Seth Godin sent me an email through my website. It said, “Hi. I need to publish the poem you did in your TED talk. Let me know how that can happen.” I had no idea who he was — just a stranger emailing me through my website. So I wrote back, saying, “Oh, thank you, that’s very sweet…” I was also kind of snobby… “You know, that poem was really written for performance and it’s not really meant to be on paper and I’m not really interested at this time, but thank you very much.”
He wrote back, saying. “No, you don’t understand. I need to publish this poem. Meet me on Friday at this restaurant at 5pm.” I was like, “Who is this guy?!”
I looked him up and thought, okay, I guess I’ll take the meeting. So I met with him and he was his very charming, effusive self, and he convinced me — and the way he convinced me was by saying that it’s all well and good if I wanted to be in performance, but there is something different between sending somebody a link to a video and handing somebody an object, and this is the kind of poem people will want to give as a gift.
It was a pretty convincing argument, but I said that if I did it, I didn’t want it to be just the words — I wanted the object to be special in and of itself. I wanted for my oldest friend in the world, Sophia Janowitz, to illustrate it.
The story of our friendship is that when we were three months old, our mothers had us both in strollers and they were in the park and they walked past each other and said, “You’ve got a baby. I’ve got a baby. We should be friends.” And we’ve been friends ever since. When we were kids, our whole dynamic was I would make up stories and she would make visual art to them. That’s always been our thing, so I agreed to let Seth do this book, but only if Sophia could illustrate it. He said I could do whatever the heck I wanted, gave me a deadline, and said he’d publish whatever I gave him by then.
He published it, then Hachette liked it and asked to republish it as the first in a series of three. The Type became the second.
MP: You see, it’s tempting in our culture — which has a growing incapacity for nuance — to interpret this as a fairy godmother (or, in this case, fairy godfather) moment. Unmerited grace that falls into your lap and transforms your life. But I’m inclined to believe that the reason fairy godfather Seth Godin showed up was because you had already been doing whatever the heck you wanted to be doing creatively, standing by it, and offering it up as a gift to the world. He just came to put a pretty bow on it and help it travel better. (Which is, of course, an enormously important part of the creative ecosystem, too.) How do you see the interplay between these two forces, choice and chance?
SK: Well, it’s both. I graduated from college in 2010 and gave the TED talk in 2011, not even a year later. So I hadn’t even started a life yet — I had really just decided that I would graduate and spend a year trying to perform and teach poetry, and see how it works, and maybe I could do it for a little while until I figure out what the real world brings. And, in that year, I got asked to give this TED talk.
Originally, Kelly Stoetzel, TED’s content director, asked me just to do one of those short performance pieces they often have artists do — not an 18-minute talk-talk, where artists discuss their work, but just a performance or presentation of the work. Their theme that year was The Rediscovery of Wonder, and I said that it sounded to me just like my job description — at the time, I was working a lot with high school students who had spent a long time being told what they could and could not be, and were very hardened to the world, understandably. A big part of what I was doing was trying to remind them that they were allowed to be vulnerable and they were allowed to experience the world and then create art, create wonder from that. I was very passionate about this work and could’ve blabbered on, but Kelly stopped me and said, “I’ve changed my mind. I want you to give a full talk.” And I said, “But what about the poem? I feel much more prepared to do that!” But I agreed.
MP: You have, in fact, a beautiful older poem from No Matter the Wreckage about this very question of preparedness — about how the best things in life often come unbidden. We can’t prepare for them — in fact, they might even require us to meet them unprepared. Would you be so kind as to read that poem?
MP: It’s an interesting thing, listening to poetry being read today, bringing us in a strange full circle to how poetry originally existed. And yet so much has changed in the past few centuries, especially with the rise of capitalism in the twentieth century. There’s an interesting statistic I picked up from the poet Donald Hall, from his wonderful prose book Essays After Eighty, in which he writes:
“In 2013 there were 7,427 poetry readings in April, many on a Thursday. For anyone born in 1928 who pays attention to poetry, the numerousness is astonishing. In April of 1948, there were 15 readings in the United States, 12 by Robert Frost.”
So, in a way, it seems much more hopeful to be a working poet today than it did in the middle of the twentieth century. Hall also writes:
“Back then, other famous poets read aloud only two or three times a year. If they were alive now, probably they could make a better living saying their poems than they did as an editor at Faber and Faber, or an obstetrician, or an insurance company executive, or a Brooklyn librarian.”
And this brings us back to Seth Godin, who said in an interview that same spring of 2013: “Other than Sarah Kay, no one is making a living from poetry today.”
I don’t know if that’s actually, factually true — but part of Seth’s genius is that he uses hyperbole to deliver his points, points of significance beyond the statistical specifics. He said this in the context of a larger conversation about the fear and resistance creative people often have to becoming “artists” — the people who have their day-jobs to pay rent and aren’t making art full-time because, the rationale goes, they wouldn’t be able to pay rent and so they don’t think of themselves as artists until they can make a living from their art. Seth’s point was that for the vast majority of history, one made a living and then one had a creative life — the two didn’t have to be the same. Only recently did we come to believe that what legitimizes one as an “artist” is making art full-time and having that art also make one a living. The insidious implication of that belief is that the art made by people with day-jobs is somehow less valid, less legitimate. Which, of course, isn’t the case. It is indeed a rare thing for a creative life and a living to be one and the same. So how does one get to that point — how did you get to that point?
SK: It’s tricky, for a number of reasons. For one, it’s certainly an immense privilege to be able to take the kind of risks involved in order to be a full-time artist — there are plenty of people who have families to provide for, who come from a background where they can’t take a financial risk, where this very well might not work. I’m lucky in that I started doing this when I was young, when I didn’t have a mortgage to pay and a family to provide for yet. I also have parents who were artists themselves, to a certain degree — they’re not professional artists, but they were willing to say, “If this fails, that’s okay — you’ll figure something else out.”
At the same time, it’s nuanced — it’s complex. I did come from a family that values higher education, that was able to afford higher education, and I was able to be around people where the possibility of being an artist was an option that was modeled. (Although, being a professional poet — not modeled.) But I also actively work very, very hard to get to do what I do and to get to do it full-time.
Still, I also know poets who are immensely talented artists, who are immensely brave artists — it’s not a matter of fear that they work a 9-to-5, but they just have to in order to do what they need to do, and it doesn’t make their art less valid or less important, which I think is what Seth was touching on. It doesn’t have to be the thing that brings your income in order to be a legitimate artist.
MP: So if the option of being a professional poet wasn’t modeled, how did it come into your scope of possibilities?
SK: When people say, “Oh, this must be a dream come true for you,” that doesn’t seem valid to me because it was no dream of mine. But what I did know was that I loved poetry, that I always wrote poetry, that I would continue to write poetry, that I loved sharing it, that it was always going to be a part of me, having nothing to do with a career — it was just part of the fabric that made me up.
But the real question before I came out of college was what I was going to do with my time “professionally.” And when I was in college, I was volunteering to teach spoken-word poetry after-school classes at a nearby public high school. Meanwhile, all of my friends when I was a senior were getting ready to go to medical school, business school, or become consultants — and none of that seemed appealing to me or very reasonable.
I came out of that spoken-word poetry class one day and realized this was the happiest I’d been all week. When I’m in the classroom with those kids and they’re getting excited about poetry and they’re exploring themselves and the world around them and they’re wrestling with identity and they’re wrestling with what adults are throwing at them — all of that makes me the most charged up, and I wondered how I could possibly find a way to do that more often and to spend more of my time in that space, in that challenge. So my real choice when I was graduating college wasn’t between becoming a consultant or giving being a professional poet a shot — it was about giving, basically, being an arts educator a shot.
MP: It sounds to me like it was above all about being a steward of poetry and its potency to enlarge the human spirit, and that stewardship aspect is very powerful.
SK: Yes. My father is a wonderful, brilliant photographer. He is also not an educated man — he barely graduated from high school, he’s extremely dyslexic, almost to the point of having trouble with literacy. He somehow managed to be a very successful businessman for all his life, but he’s not well-read. And when I first started writing poetry, something that was immensely important to me was that I not write poetry that alienated my father. I did not want to write poetry that made my dad feel stupid — I wanted to write poetry that made him laugh or made him cry or that he was otherwise able to engage with. And that desire — to make poetry that had an access point for someone who was not necessarily in the same education space that I was — was really important to me.
That led me to always want to open more doors for people to enter into poetry — I think that for too long, poetry has been thought of as an elite art form and you needed to be invited in by the elite or academia or the Ivory Tower. This does the art form such a disservice because it keeps out the diversity of voices that belong there and can enrich the art form.
MP: Muriel Rukeyser has written beautifully about the root of our resistance to poetry, and she summarized the cultural bias at the heart of the resistance as the misconception that poetry is “intellectual and obscure and confused and sexually suspect.” This, she argued, was the product of “the corruption of consciousness.” I find this to be such a visceral and perfect way to capture what you’re describing with young people being told who they can and cannot be, because that’s the ultimate “corruption of consciousness.”
SK: Yes, especially since my introduction to poetry wasn’t really in the classroom — or at least my falling in love with poetry wasn’t. It was in a dive bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where the derelicts of New York would show up to share their work. It was not a high-strung, academic scenario — it was all types of people dragging themselves into this bar after their 9-to-5 and finding a space in which they could connect with other people. It was much more an act of community than it was about the removal of access.
MP: And this brings us back to the legitimacy question — if making a living isn’t the metric of success in creative work, if academic credentials aren’t it, then what is? What is your internal barometer for your own legitimacy?
SK: Oof, that’s a big question.
I think my work, from a broad perspective — by this I mean my work as a writer, teacher, organizer, human — is about trying to invite people in and create spaces where people feel welcome and comfortable with poetry, but are still creatively challenged. When that’s happening, that feels like success to me.
In terms of assessing the work itself — individual poems — that’s a lot harder. There’s a fable I like to tell, which I think is originally with a boy but I tell it with a girl. A girl walks up to a construction site and asks the first man she sees, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” And he says, “Oh, can’t you see I’m laying bricks?” She then walks up to the second man she sees, who is doing the exact same thing the first one was doing, and says, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” And he says, “Oh, can’t you see I’m building a wall?” And then she reaches the third man, who is doing the same thing as the previous two, and she says, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” And he says, “Oh, can’t you see I’m building a temple?”
I think of that fable a lot, because it’s not so much about what kind of a man you are — it’s about how you look at the work you’re doing. And I don’t think it’s a judgment on any particular way of looking at the world — in fact, I think we all probably contain all three of those, and we shift in and out depending on where we are in our lives, or even in our day.
For me, when I’m creating a poem, it feels like I’m laying bricks — it’s very logistical, a physical movement of words, putting them together, focused on the minutia of the poem. And when I’m in schools, working with young people, I’m focusing on building connections with them and for them — that feels like building a wall, creating something that’s part of something else. The temple part is a much rarer moment of being able to tap into something bigger than yourself. But what’s so wonderful about all of this is that if you focus on one of the three for too long, you lose sight of the other two — so it requires a lot of shifting and balancing in order to get anything done at all.
And in terms of success, although I spend a lot more time on the brick-laying and wall-building — I spend more time writing poems and teaching workshops — and I far less frequently get a chance to witness the visions of temple, when those visions do appear, they’re easier to identify as points of success than in those other two realms.
One vision-of-temple moment for me has come from my work with a community of poets in Katmandu and Nepal, whose work is so important to me and probably the thing I’m proudest of. When I first met them, they were a handful of young kids who were curious about spoken word but hadn’t really done it. I worked with them — I did a lot of workshops and brought them to schools — and when I left, they continued that work. They have since grown this immense spoken-word poetry community and received this huge grant from the government to do a two-year program supporting spoken-word programming in six different areas of rural Nepal, specifically working with marginalized groups like the LGBTQ community, recovering drug addicts, the physically disabled, and young women, who are deeply marginalized in that society right now.
The fact that they are using this art form to make community and allow people who are not listened to and not heard in the larger society have the opportunity to speak for themselves and be witnessed in their stories — that is the temple to me.
MP: That’s remarkable. And yet I think about how inseparable the pieces are — the minutia of art-making and of living, and the grand visions of temple. I think of Thoreau, who has this wonderful verse — “My life has been the poem I would have writ / But I could not both live and utter it.” It speaks to this tradeoff of making art and living the life from which the art will come.
I think about that a lot, not only because we’re steeped in this constant paradox of choice at every level of life, this culture of “FOMO,” the fear of missing out so common that it has been shorthanded, but because my own life in its current form — us sitting here in Brooklyn, English being my primary language of thought, Brain Pickings existing at all — is largely the function of one small, enormous, utterly impulsive decision I made when I was thirteen. So I’ve always been fascinated by and very cognizant of the strange confluence of chance and choice that composes a life. It’s so hard not to be hyperaware of these choices all the time.
The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has a magnificent short book about this titled Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, in which he argues that all the other possible lives we never got to live — because we couldn’t, because we chose not to, because chance chose for us not to — always walk with us as ghostly companions along the life-paths we did end up following. And perhaps that’s okay — we just learn to befriend the ghosts and march forward together. We have a choice — we can either bemoan the what-ifs and could’ve-beens that stand between our actual lives and the romanticized, idealized lives we never got to have, or we can see it as a kind of vitalizing awareness that so much could have gone a different way and yet here we are and this is it and isn’t that amazing.
You have a wonderful poem — my favorite poem of yours, also from No Matter the Wreckage — that deals with this. Would you read it?
SK: Absolutely. I don’t even need to read this one — I know it by heart.
When I am inside writing,
all I can think about is how I should be outside living.
When I am outside living,
all I can do is notice all there is to write about.
When I read about love, I think I should be out loving.
When I love, I think I need to read more.
I am stumbling in pursuit of grace,
I hunt patience with a vengeance.
On the mornings when my brother’s tired muscles
held to the pillow, my father used to tell him,
For every moment you aren’t playing basketball,
someone else is on the court practicing.
I spend most of my time wondering
if I should be somewhere else.
So I have learned to shape the words thank you
with my first breath each morning, my last breath every night.
When the last breath comes, at least I will know I was thankful
for all the places I was so sure I was not supposed to be.
All those places I made it to,
all the loves I held, all the words I wrote.
And even if it is just for one moment,
I will be exactly where I am supposed to be.
For a discourse in a similar spirit, see my conversation with Amanda Palmer about art as non-ownable nourishment.
Published March 7, 2016