Poets Sarah Kay ’10 MAT’12 and Phil Kaye ’10 met at a first-year talent show at the University.
“I was getting ready to go on, … and they said, ‘Oh, you’re Sarah’s brother,’” Kaye said, remembering his performance at the talent show during first-year orientation.
Kaye was confused. Then he overheard a conversation backstage and realized another performer’s name was Sarah, and that her last name was also Kay. After chatting, the duo found that both of their mothers were Japanese, and their fathers Jewish. “So, we look vaguely similar to each other, which is a weird thing. And we’re the only two people doing spoken word poetry at the talent show,” Kaye concluded, summing up the string of coincidences culminating in their meeting.
On Oct. 18, Kay and Kaye will return to Providence to perform at the Columbus Theater in a spoken word performance presented by Project VOICE, an educational poetry organization that Kay and Kaye co-direct. The two still remember the night they met, which was only a glimpse of collaborations to come.
Sarah Kay: Finding a VOICE
Kay’s lifelong love affair with words can be traced back to her high school years. “I fell in love with poetry in school, when I was 14,” she said. “It became a huge part of my identity. … At some point, around my sophomore year of high school, I realized that the other kids I knew felt a lot of frustration and anger about not being heard,” she said. As a spoken word poet, Kay had the opportunity to stand up and speak to a crowd of adults every week, so she did not share those feelings.
She was determined to share this with others.
She wrote a collection of poems and convinced her friends to perform them with her at her school — all so that poetry would seem like a popular art form.
“Which was definitely not the case,” she laughed. “But they went along with the ruse. And we did a performance that everyone in high school could see.” Then she brought professional poets to teach workshops and organized her school’s first open mic night for students. “That was the original version of Project VOICE.”
Kay founded Project VOICE — the same program which brings Kaye and Kay back to Providence this week — in 2004 to educate and empower students through poetry. Still, she was not set on pursuing poetry as a career.
She came to the University as a chemistry major, before ultimately switching to modern culture and media.
“My original plan was, I would take a year off in between college and film school. And in that year, I would perform and teach at anywhere that would have me,” she said. “And then, eventually get a grown-up real job.”
Remembering how poetry was just another one of her many extracurriculars, Kay reflected on finding her career while at the University. “A lot of times, you know, kids that go to Brown are arriving, hoping that by the time they graduate, they have a clear vision and cause and passion. And sometimes it works out that way. ... Four years is somehow both a ton of time and not nearly enough time.” Kay emphasized that her path was never set in stone, but resulted from her changing aspirations that stayed true to her passions.
At the University, Kay explored her affection for verse, which allowed her to “use poetry as like a puzzle solving strategy. I think of poem as a verb,” she said. She taught poetry workshops after hours at Hope High School and joined the University’s spoken-word poetry group WORD! with Kaye.
Fellow poet Franny Choi ’11, a former member of WORD! and Project VOICE teaching artist, attested to the long-lasting friendships formed within the group. “In my junior year, a fellow student who I was very close to passed away suddenly. I remember that Sarah came over with a big book of poems by Rumi,” Choi wrote in an email to The Herald. “I held onto that book pretty fiercely as a source of healing and strength. ... I’m grateful to be able to count (Sarah) as a friend for so many years,” Choi added. “She was in many ways, my first link to a larger community of poets.”
Phil Kaye: Writing for joy
Kaye spent his time at the University also exploring diverse interests, ultimately graduating with a concentration in urban studies. “The open curriculum really allowed me, at a young age, to ask myself what I was drawn to and to create that intellectual path.”
Kaye, too, did not intend to pursue poetry professionally, despite nurturing his fascination with crafting and performing poems throughout his young-adult life.
At WORD!, Kaye found a community of like-minded individuals who pushed each other artistically and emotionally. “Poetry is such a personal, vulnerable act that it can be a hard one to get feedback on.” He found a solution to that challenge in Sarah and in the WORD! cohort.
“I had fallen in love with spoken word poetry already before Brown but didn’t realize when I came into it that there was already this thriving poetry community,” Kaye said. “It gave us permission to explore ourselves, and explore our voice, and develop it together as a community.”
Kaye also worked with Space in Prison for Arts and Creative Expression (SPACE), a group in which he facilitated poetry workshops with his friend, Tomas Landes ’11.5. SPACE is “a program out of the Swearer Center that focused on giving art workshops to inmates in Rhode Island’s female and male detention facilities,” Landes wrote in an email to the Herald. “We spent a lot of time together talking about workshops, working with inmates and our unique experience seeing the insides of the criminal justice system,” he added.
At its baseline, Kaye regards poetry as a humbling art form. “I think being a human is hard. ... I want people to leave our poetry feeling at least a little bit more empathetic,” Kaye said. “I’m constantly learning new definitions of what poetry can be and how it can operate.”
Kaye offered advice: “Write as much as possible,” he said. “This is the easiest time to write... You have the least pressure. And you just get to write what’s on your mind and see what happens,” he continued. “Write when it brings you joy.”
Finally, he urged students to “find a community of writers, and Brown in particular is an amazing place to do it.”
In their second year at the University, Kaye and Kay began working together on poetry workshops and performances. At that point, both considered bringing poetry to others through careers in education. It wasn’t until their final year that Kaye and Kay both decided to pursue poetry as a profession. “It was hard at first,” Kaye said. “I think that the huge break was Sarah spoke at TED in 2011,” he said, referring to Kay’s viral performance of her poem, “If I should have a daughter.”
Kay began her talk by reciting these lines: “If I should have a daughter, instead of mom, she’s going to call me Point B / because that way she knows that no matter what happens / at least she can always find her way to me.” Kay captivated her audience with a fascination that lasted long after her final words rung out around the auditorium. The video now has 5.6 million views on YouTube. Opportunities began to flood in after Kay’s TED performance.
In another one of their collaborations, Kaye and Kay recall their fateful meeting: “And we swear, we’re not related, and we’ve never dated, and we’re never, ever going to,” they state in “An Origin Story.” The poem was written at the University, on the eve of a show that the two had organized and invited a community of poets to speak at. They still recall being nervous about the show, and eventually deciding to put together a small piece to open it.
Now, while performing, the pair takes care to shape their shows to their audience, performing the poems they think will be well received. “So as I’m performing poems, I’m learning about where an audience is at. Are they in the mood to laugh? Are they being thoughtful and quiet? Are they jittery and you know, scattered?” Kay explained. On Friday night, they will do this in Providence.
“Providence and Brown has meant a great deal to both of us in our friendship and working relationship, and also just as individuals,” Kaye says. “It’s always held a special place in my heart.”
Kay also fondly recalls her time in Providence — remembering trips to Bagel Gourmet and savoring Meeting Street Cookies. While at the University, she wrote a song about Providence, which can still be found online. “There’s a very embarrassing video of me singing it, which I somewhat am horrified by, but also, specifically Brown kids will love,” she said.
Both poets are excited to take the Columbus Theater stage on Friday at 8:00 p.m., performing in Providence together for the first time since their undergraduate careers.