18:29
TED2011

Sarah Kay: If I should have a daughter ...

Filmed:

"If I should have a daughter, instead of Mom, she's gonna call me Point B ... " began spoken word poet Sarah Kay, in a talk that inspired two standing ovations at TED2011. She tells the story of her metamorphosis -- from a wide-eyed teenager soaking in verse at New York's Bowery Poetry Club to a teacher connecting kids with the power of self-expression through Project V.O.I.C.E. -- and gives two breathtaking performances of "B" and "Hiroshima."

- Poet
A performing poet since she was 14 years old, Sarah Kay is the founder of Project VOICE, an organization that uses spoken word poetry as a literacy and empowerment tool. Full bio

If I should have a daughter,
00:15
instead of "Mom,"
00:18
she's gonna call me "Point B,"
00:20
because that way she knows that no matter what happens,
00:23
at least she can always find her way to me.
00:26
And I'm going to paint solar systems on the backs of her hands
00:29
so she has to learn the entire universe
00:32
before she can say, "Oh, I know that like the back of my hand."
00:35
And she's going to learn
00:38
that this life will hit you hard in the face,
00:40
wait for you to get back up just so it can kick you in the stomach.
00:43
But getting the wind knocked out of you
00:46
is the only way to remind your lungs
00:48
how much they like the taste of air.
00:50
There is hurt, here,
00:52
that cannot be fixed by Band-Aids or poetry.
00:54
So the first time she realizes
00:56
that Wonder Woman isn't coming,
00:58
I'll make sure she knows
01:00
she doesn't have to wear the cape all by herself
01:02
because no matter how wide you stretch your fingers,
01:04
your hands will always be too small
01:06
to catch all the pain you want to heal.
01:08
Believe me, I've tried.
01:10
"And, baby," I'll tell her,
01:12
don't keep your nose up in the air like that.
01:14
I know that trick; I've done it a million times.
01:16
You're just smelling for smoke
01:18
so you can follow the trail back to a burning house,
01:20
so you can find the boy who lost everything in the fire
01:23
to see if you can save him.
01:25
Or else find the boy who lit the fire in the first place,
01:27
to see if you can change him."
01:31
But I know she will anyway,
01:33
so instead I'll always keep an extra supply
01:35
of chocolate and rain boots nearby,
01:37
because there is no heartbreak that chocolate can't fix.
01:39
Okay, there's a few heartbreaks that chocolate can't fix.
01:43
But that's what the rain boots are for,
01:45
because rain will wash away everything, if you let it.
01:47
I want her to look at the world
01:51
through the underside of a glass-bottom boat,
01:53
to look through a microscope
01:55
at the galaxies that exist
01:57
on the pinpoint of a human mind,
01:59
because that's the way my mom taught me.
02:01
That there'll be days like this.
02:03
♫ There'll be days like this, my momma said. ♫
02:05
When you open your hands to catch
02:08
and wind up with only blisters and bruises;
02:10
when you step out of the phone booth and try to fly
02:12
and the very people you want to save
02:15
are the ones standing on your cape;
02:17
when your boots will fill with rain,
02:19
and you'll be up to your knees in disappointment.
02:21
And those are the very days you have all the more reason to say thank you.
02:23
Because there's nothing more beautiful
02:26
than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline,
02:28
no matter how many times it's sent away.
02:31
You will put the wind in winsome, lose some.
02:34
You will put the star
02:37
in starting over, and over.
02:39
And no matter how many land mines erupt in a minute,
02:41
be sure your mind lands
02:44
on the beauty of this funny place called life.
02:46
And yes, on a scale from one to over-trusting,
02:48
I am pretty damn naive.
02:51
But I want her to know that this world is made out of sugar.
02:53
It can crumble so easily,
02:56
but don't be afraid to stick your tongue out and taste it.
02:58
"Baby," I'll tell her, "remember, your momma is a worrier,
03:01
and your poppa is a warrior,
03:04
and you are the girl with small hands and big eyes
03:06
who never stops asking for more."
03:08
Remember that good things come in threes
03:10
and so do bad things.
03:12
And always apologize when you've done something wrong,
03:14
but don't you ever apologize
03:16
for the way your eyes refuse to stop shining.
03:18
Your voice is small, but don't ever stop singing.
03:21
And when they finally hand you heartache,
03:24
when they slip war and hatred under your door
03:26
and offer you handouts on street-corners
03:29
of cynicism and defeat,
03:31
you tell them that they really ought to meet your mother.
03:33
Thank you. Thank you.
03:39
(Applause)
03:43
Thank you.
03:45
(Applause)
03:47
Thanks.
03:50
(Applause)
03:52
Thank you.
03:54
(Applause)
03:56
All right, so I want you to take a moment,
04:00
and I want you to think of three things
04:03
that you know to be true.
04:05
They can be about whatever you want --
04:07
technology, entertainment, design,
04:09
your family, what you had for breakfast.
04:11
The only rule is don't think too hard.
04:13
Okay, ready? Go.
04:16
Okay.
04:24
So here are three things I know to be true.
04:26
I know that Jean-Luc Godard was right
04:28
when he said that, "a good story
04:30
has a beginning, a middle and an end,
04:32
although not necessarily in that order."
04:34
I know that I'm incredibly nervous and excited to be up here,
04:37
which is greatly inhibiting my ability to keep it cool.
04:40
(Laughter)
04:42
And I know
04:44
that I have been waiting all week to tell this joke.
04:46
(Laughter)
04:48
Why was the scarecrow invited to TED?
04:50
Because he was out standing in his field.
04:53
(Laughter)
04:56
I'm sorry.
04:59
Okay, so these are three things I know to be true.
05:02
But there are plenty of things I have trouble understanding.
05:05
So I write poems to figure things out.
05:08
Sometimes the only way I know how to work through something
05:12
is by writing a poem.
05:14
And sometimes I get to the end of the poem
05:16
and look back and go, "Oh, that's what this is all about,"
05:18
and sometimes I get to the end of the poem
05:20
and haven't solved anything,
05:22
but at least I have a new poem out of it.
05:24
Spoken word poetry is the art of performance poetry.
05:26
I tell people it involves creating poetry
05:29
that doesn't just want to sit on paper,
05:31
that something about it demands it be heard out loud
05:33
or witnessed in person.
05:36
When I was a freshman in high school,
05:38
I was a live wire of nervous hormones.
05:40
And I was underdeveloped
05:44
and over-excitable.
05:46
And despite my fear
05:48
of ever being looked at for too long,
05:50
I was fascinated by the idea of spoken word poetry.
05:52
I felt that my two secret loves, poetry and theatre,
05:55
had come together, had a baby,
05:58
a baby I needed to get to know.
06:01
So I decided to give it a try.
06:03
My first spoken word poem,
06:05
packed with all the wisdom of a 14-year-old,
06:07
was about the injustice
06:11
of being seen as unfeminine.
06:13
The poem was very indignant,
06:15
and mainly exaggerated,
06:17
but the only spoken word poetry that I had seen up until that point
06:19
was mainly indignant,
06:22
so I thought that that's what was expected of me.
06:24
The first time that I performed,
06:26
the audience of teenagers hooted and hollered their sympathy,
06:28
and when I came off the stage I was shaking.
06:31
I felt this tap on my shoulder,
06:34
and I turned around to see
06:36
this giant girl in a hoodie sweatshirt emerge from the crowd.
06:38
She was maybe eight feet tall
06:40
and looked like she could beat me up with one hand,
06:42
but instead she just nodded at me
06:44
and said, "Hey, I really felt that. Thanks."
06:46
And lightning struck.
06:49
I was hooked.
06:51
I discovered this bar on Manhattan's Lower East Side
06:53
that hosted a weekly poetry open mic,
06:56
and my bewildered, but supportive, parents took me
06:59
to soak in every ounce of spoken word that I could.
07:02
I was the youngest by at least a decade,
07:05
but somehow the poets at the Bowery Poetry Club
07:08
didn't seem bothered by the 14-year-old wandering about --
07:11
if fact, they welcomed me.
07:14
And it was here, listening to these poets share their stories,
07:16
that I learned that spoken word poetry didn't have to be indignant,
07:18
it could be fun or painful
07:21
or serious or silly.
07:24
The Bowery Poetry Club became my classroom and my home,
07:26
and the poets who performed
07:29
encouraged me to share my stories as well.
07:31
Never mind the fact that I was 14 --
07:33
they told me, "Write about being 14."
07:35
So I did and stood amazed every week
07:38
when these brilliant, grown-up poets
07:40
laughed with me and groaned their sympathy
07:43
and clapped and told me, "Hey, I really felt that too."
07:45
Now I can divide my spoken word journey
07:49
into three steps.
07:52
Step one was the moment I said,
07:54
"I can. I can do this."
07:56
And that was thanks to a girl in a hoodie.
07:58
Step two was the moment I said,
08:00
"I will. I will continue.
08:02
I love spoken word. I will keep coming back week after week."
08:04
And step three began
08:07
when I realized that I didn't have to write poems that were indignant,
08:09
if that's not what I was.
08:11
There were things that were specific to me,
08:13
and the more that I focused on those things,
08:15
the weirder my poetry got,
08:18
but the more that it felt like mine.
08:20
It's not just the adage "write what you know."
08:22
It's about gathering up all of the knowledge and experience
08:25
you've collected up to now
08:28
to help you dive into the things you don't know.
08:30
I use poetry to help me work through what I don't understand,
08:33
but I show up to each new poem
08:35
with a backpack full
08:37
of everywhere else that I've been.
08:39
When I got to university, I met a fellow poet
08:41
who shared my belief in the magic of spoken word poetry.
08:44
And actually, Phil Kaye and I
08:47
coincidentally also share the same last name.
08:49
When I was in high school I had created Project V.O.I.C.E.
08:52
as a way to encourage my friends to do spoken word with me.
08:55
But Phil and I decided to reinvent Project V.O.I.C.E. --
08:58
this time changing the mission
09:01
to using spoken word poetry as a way to entertain,
09:03
educate and inspire.
09:06
We stayed full-time students, but in between we traveled,
09:08
performing and teaching
09:10
nine-year-olds to MFA candidates,
09:12
from California to Indiana to India
09:15
to a public high school just up the street from campus.
09:18
And we saw over and over
09:21
the way that spoken word poetry
09:23
cracks open locks.
09:25
But it turns out sometimes,
09:27
poetry can be really scary.
09:29
Turns out sometimes,
09:31
you have to trick teenagers into writing poetry.
09:33
So I came up with lists. Everyone can write lists.
09:36
And the first list that I assign
09:39
is "10 Things I Know to be True."
09:41
And here's what happens, and here's what you would discover too
09:44
if we all started sharing our lists out loud.
09:47
At a certain point, you would realize
09:49
that someone has the exact same thing,
09:51
or one thing very similar,
09:54
to something on your list.
09:56
And then someone else
09:58
has something the complete opposite of yours.
10:00
Third, someone has something you've never even heard of before.
10:03
And fourth, someone has something you thought you knew everything about,
10:06
but they're introducing a new angle of looking at it.
10:09
And I tell people that this is where great stories start from --
10:12
these four intersections
10:15
of what you're passionate about
10:17
and what others might be invested in.
10:19
And most people respond really well to this exercise.
10:21
But one of my students, a freshman named Charlotte,
10:24
was not convinced.
10:27
Charlotte was very good at writing lists, but she refused to write any poems.
10:29
"Miss," she'd say, "I'm just not interesting.
10:32
I don't have anything interesting to say."
10:35
So I assigned her list after list,
10:38
and one day I assigned the list
10:40
"10 Things I Should Have Learned by Now."
10:42
Number three on Charlotte's list was,
10:44
"I should have learned not to crush on guys
10:46
three times my age."
10:48
I asked her what that meant,
10:50
and she said, "Miss, it's kind of a long story."
10:52
And I said, "Charlotte, it sounds pretty interesting to me."
10:54
And so she wrote her first poem,
10:57
a love poem unlike any I had ever heard before.
10:59
And the poem began,
11:02
"Anderson Cooper is a gorgeous man."
11:05
(Laughter)
11:07
"Did you see him on 60 Minutes,
11:09
racing Michael Phelps in a pool --
11:11
nothing but swim trunks on --
11:13
diving in the water, determined to beat this swimming champion?
11:15
After the race, he tossed his wet, cloud-white hair
11:17
and said, 'You're a god.'
11:20
No, Anderson, you're the god."
11:22
(Laughter)
11:24
(Applause)
11:26
Now I know that the number one rule to being cool
11:30
is to seem unfazed,
11:33
to never admit that anything scares you
11:35
or impresses you or excites you.
11:38
Somebody once told me
11:40
it's like walking through life like this.
11:42
You protect yourself
11:44
from all the unexpected miseries or hurt that might show up.
11:46
But I try to walk through life like this.
11:49
And yes, that means catching all of those miseries and hurt,
11:51
but it also means that when beautiful, amazing things
11:54
just fall out of the sky,
11:57
I'm ready to catch them.
11:59
I use spoken word to help my students
12:01
rediscover wonder,
12:03
to fight their instincts to be cool and unfazed
12:05
and, instead, actively pursue being engaged with what goes on around them,
12:08
so that they can reinterpret and create something from it.
12:11
It's not that I think that spoken word poetry
12:14
is the ideal art form.
12:16
I'm always trying to find the best way to tell each story.
12:18
I write musicals; I make short films alongside my poems.
12:21
But I teach spoken word poetry
12:24
because it's accessible.
12:26
Not everyone can read music
12:28
or owns a camera,
12:30
but everyone can communicate in some way,
12:32
and everyone has stories
12:34
that the rest of us can learn from.
12:36
Plus, spoken word poetry allows for immediate connections.
12:38
It's not uncommon for people to feel like they're alone
12:41
or that nobody understands them,
12:43
but spoken word teaches
12:45
that if you have the ability to express yourself
12:47
and the courage to present those stories and opinions,
12:50
you could be rewarded
12:52
with a room full of your peers,
12:54
or your community, who will listen.
12:56
And maybe even a giant girl in a hoodie
12:58
will connect with what you've shared.
13:00
And that is an amazing realization to have,
13:02
especially when you're 14.
13:05
Plus, now with YouTube,
13:07
that connection's not even limited to the room we're in.
13:09
I'm so lucky that there's this archive of performances
13:11
that I can share with my students.
13:14
It allows for even more opportunities
13:16
for them to find a poet or a poem
13:18
that they connect to.
13:21
It is tempting -- once you've figured this out --
13:23
it is tempting to keep writing the same poem,
13:25
or keep telling the same story, over and over,
13:27
once you've figured out that it will gain you applause.
13:30
It's not enough to just teach that you can express yourself.
13:32
You have to grow and explore
13:35
and take risks and challenge yourself.
13:37
And that is step three:
13:39
infusing the work you're doing
13:42
with the specific things that make you you,
13:44
even while those things are always changing.
13:46
Because step three never ends.
13:48
But you don't get to start on step three,
13:51
until you take step one first: I can.
13:53
I travel a lot while I'm teaching,
13:56
and I don't always get to watch all of my students reach their step three,
13:58
but I was very lucky with Charlotte,
14:01
that I got to watch her journey unfold the way it did.
14:03
I watched her realize
14:06
that, by putting the things that she knows to be true into the work she's doing,
14:08
she can create poems that only Charlotte can write --
14:11
about eyeballs and elevators and Dora the Explorer.
14:14
And I'm trying to tell stories only I can tell --
14:17
like this story.
14:19
I spent a lot of time thinking about the best way to tell this story,
14:21
and I wondered if the best way
14:24
was going to be a PowerPoint or a short film --
14:26
and where exactly was the beginning or the middle or the end?
14:28
And I wondered whether I'd get to the end of this talk
14:30
and finally have figured it all out, or not.
14:33
And I always thought that my beginning was at the Bowery Poetry Club,
14:36
but it's possible that it was much earlier.
14:38
In preparing for TED,
14:41
I discovered this diary page in an old journal.
14:43
I think December 54th was probably supposed to be 24th.
14:45
It's clear that when I was a child,
14:49
I definitely walked through life like this.
14:51
I think that we all did.
14:53
I would like to help others rediscover that wonder --
14:55
to want to engage with it, to want to learn,
14:58
to want to share what they've learned,
15:00
what they've figured out to be true
15:02
and what they're still figuring out.
15:04
So I'd like to close with this poem.
15:06
When they bombed Hiroshima,
15:09
the explosion formed a mini-supernova
15:12
so every living animal, human or plant
15:15
that received direct contact
15:18
with the rays from that sun
15:20
was instantly turned to ash.
15:22
And what was left of the city soon followed.
15:24
The long-lasting damage of nuclear radiation
15:26
caused an entire city and its population
15:28
to turn into powder.
15:31
When I was born, my mom says I looked around the whole hospital room
15:34
with a stare that said, "This? I've done this before."
15:37
She says I have old eyes.
15:41
When my Grandpa Genji died, I was only five years old,
15:43
but I took my mom by the hand and told her,
15:46
"Don't worry, he'll come back as a baby."
15:48
And yet, for someone who's apparently done this already,
15:51
I still haven't figured anything out yet.
15:54
My knees still buckle every time I get on a stage.
15:57
My self-confidence can be measured out
16:00
in teaspoons mixed into my poetry,
16:02
and it still always tastes funny in my mouth.
16:04
But in Hiroshima, some people were wiped clean away,
16:07
leaving only a wristwatch or a diary page.
16:10
So no matter that I have inhibitions to fill all my pockets,
16:13
I keep trying,
16:16
hoping that one day I'll write a poem
16:18
I can be proud to let sit in a museum exhibit
16:20
as the only proof I existed.
16:22
My parents named me Sarah,
16:24
which is a biblical name.
16:26
In the original story, God told Sarah she could do something impossible
16:28
and she laughed,
16:31
because the first Sarah,
16:34
she didn't know what to do with impossible.
16:36
And me? Well, neither do I,
16:38
but I see the impossible every day.
16:41
Impossible is trying to connect in this world,
16:43
trying to hold onto others while things are blowing up around you,
16:46
knowing that while you're speaking,
16:48
they aren't just waiting for their turn to talk -- they hear you.
16:50
They feel exactly what you feel
16:53
at the same time that you feel it.
16:55
It's what I strive for every time I open my mouth --
16:57
that impossible connection.
16:59
There's this piece of wall in Hiroshima
17:01
that was completely burnt black by the radiation.
17:04
But on the front step, a person who was sitting there
17:07
blocked the rays from hitting the stone.
17:09
The only thing left now
17:11
is a permanent shadow of positive light.
17:13
After the A-bomb,
17:15
specialists said it would take 75 years
17:17
for the radiation-damaged soil of Hiroshima City
17:19
to ever grow anything again.
17:22
But that spring, there were new buds popping up from the earth.
17:24
When I meet you, in that moment,
17:27
I'm no longer a part of your future.
17:29
I start quickly becoming part of your past.
17:31
But in that instant, I get to share your present.
17:33
And you, you get to share mine.
17:36
And that is the greatest present of all.
17:38
So if you tell me I can do the impossible,
17:40
I'll probably laugh at you.
17:42
I don't know if I can change the world yet,
17:44
because I don't know that much about it --
17:46
and I don't know that much about reincarnation either,
17:48
but if you make me laugh hard enough,
17:50
sometimes I forget what century I'm in.
17:52
This isn't my first time here. This isn't my last time here.
17:55
These aren't the last words I'll share.
17:58
But just in case, I'm trying my hardest
18:00
to get it right this time around.
18:03
Thank you.
18:06
(Applause)
18:08
Thank you.
18:12
(Applause)
18:14
Thank you.
18:16
(Applause)
18:18

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About the Speaker:

Sarah Kay - Poet
A performing poet since she was 14 years old, Sarah Kay is the founder of Project VOICE, an organization that uses spoken word poetry as a literacy and empowerment tool.

Why you should listen

Plenty of 14-year-old girls write poetry. But few hide under the bar of the famous Bowery Poetry Club in Manhattan’s East Village absorbing the talents of New York’s most exciting poets. Not only did Sarah Kay do that -- she also had the guts to take its stage and hold her own against performers at least a decade her senior. Her talent for weaving words into poignant, funny, and powerful performances paid off.

Sarah holds a Masters degree in the art of teaching from Brown University and an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Grinnell College. Her first book, B, was ranked the number one poetry book on Amazon.com. Her second book, No Matter the Wreckage, is available from Write Bloody Publishing.

Sarah also founded Project VOICE, an organization that uses spoken word poetry as a literacy and empowerment tool. Project VOICE runs performances and workshops to encourage people to engage in creative self-expression in schools and communities around the world.

More profile about the speaker
Sarah Kay | Speaker | TED.com