Poet Sarah Kay performs two fiery spoken-word pieces, “B” and “Hiroshima.” In between, she talks about courage and terror; about finding her voice apart from public expectation; about shedding the armor of cool and hip, and walking through life with open hands; about her inspiring work with students in Project VOICE; and about the power of spoken-word poetry to open doors inside us, to forge connections, and to reawaken us to wonder:
Since I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately — about how it’s more fluid and expansive than the boxes of race, gender, and culture that we’re always trying to stuff ourselves into — Kay’s take on it caught my attention. I’d always thought that performers of spoken-word, which seems to emphasize adamant “self-expression,” ironically limit their imagination and self-conception to what they personally feel and experience: the black poet speaks as a black, the female poet speaks as a woman, and so on. Of course such perspectives are immensely valuable and should be heard, but the risk is in defining ourselves according to those perspectives — in letting race, gender, class, and other social markers calcify into hardened categories that dictate Who We Are and what we’re allowed to imagine.
But we’re capable of imagining beyond such boundaries. Kazuo Ishiguro — who writes novels about being Japanese as well as novels that have nothing to do with it — and Jennifer Egan — who has said that she’s “drawn to writing about men (and as a man) because I’m most excited by material that feels the furthest from my own life” — are just two examples of writers proving that we can imagine, and write, beyond the “identities” that are handed to us.
Sarah Kay’s own interpretation of identity seems wise to me. We begin, of course, with ourselves — with the particularities of our circumstances. But it’s not a stopping point; it’s a launching pad, from which we leap into the wider world. It’s a pathway not to a stagnant certainty, but to curiosity: “It’s not just the adage ‘Write what you know.’ It’s about gathering up all the knowledge and experience you’ve collected up to now to help you dive into the things you don’t know.”
And while “step one” of spoken-word is the realization that one can declare oneself, eventually one comes to “step three” — the realization that Who We Are changes, and grows, and expands: “Infus[e] the work you’re doing with the specific things that make you you even while those things are always changing. Because step three never ends.”