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Spoken word poet Sarah Kay performs at Ohio State, bestows advice

Alexandria Chapin / Lantern photographer


Sarah Kay has been writing poems since before she could use a pen.

“Before I could physically write, I would chase my mom around the house and yell ‘Poem!’ And I would make her sit down and write it down for me,” Kay said.

When she was 14, Kay took her poetry to the stage for the first time when she signed up for a poetry slam. Since then, she has become known around the world for her spoken word poetry.  

Kay visited Ohio State Monday night to perform some of her poetry and talk about her life and work as a poet.

The Ohio Union Activities Board-sponsored event “An Evening with Sarah Kay, Spoken Word Poet” began at 7:30 p.m. in the Archie M. Griffin West Ballroom in the Ohio Union. The event was free for OSU students with a valid BuckID.

Kay said spoken word poetry is very different from written form poetry.

“There’s something about that poem that would not give you the same meaning on a piece of paper as it does in a live performance,” Kay said. “There’s all of these things that you have to work with in performance that you don’t have when you’re just working with a piece of paper.” 

Kay performed about 10 of her poems at the event, which were a mix of some of her most well-known works and some that she said were new.

Between her spoken word performances, Kay talked about a wide variety of personal topics including her family, her work as a poet and the travels on which her work has taken her. These stories served as transitions between her performances and gave context for the audience to better understand and appreciate her poetry. 

Kay also told the audience about her work with Project VOICE, an organization she co-founded in 2004 that, according to its website, “celebrates and inspires youth self-expression through spoken word poetry.”

Kay said her work with Project VOICE has taken her all over the globe.

“I’ve gotten to go to a lot of very special places and share this art form and learn from people and teach them as well,” Kay said. 

At the end of the event, Kay opened up the floor to the audience for a short Q-and-A session, during which she answered several questions from students and offered advice to the budding poets and writers in attendance. 

“What advice do I have for someone who wants to start writing or get back into writing? Stop being scared of yourself,” Kay said. “It’s OK to write bad poems.”

Some audience members like Raybecca Elder, a second-year in English, appreciated hearing advice from such a well-known and respected poet.

“One of my favorite things that she said was that you shouldn’t be afraid to write crappy poems, and not to be afraid of yourself,” Elder said. “I’ve heard that before, but I always think it’s good to hear that again.”  

MacGregor Obergfell, the lectures chair for OUAB and one of the event’s organizers, said in an email before the event that students might know Kay from her TED talk. The talk, from March 2011, has more than 2 million views on TED.com. 

TED talks are short presentations based on “ideas worth spreading.”

Obergfell said that the popularity of her TED talk and of TED talks in general was one motivation for OUAB to bring Kay to campus.

“This is an opportunity for OUAB to have an event that we really have never done before. With the success of TED talks on campus and off, plus a chance to showcase an art form we don’t often focus on, the decision to bring Sarah to campus was a fairly easy one,” Obergfell said.

Elder said that she had seen Kay’s TED talk, but that she was glad she had the opportunity to see Kay perform live instead of on a computer screen.

“I think it was really interesting to actually see her in person, and all the little commentary in between was really interesting,” Elder said.

Before the event, Obergfell said he thought the way Kay would combine her performances with her speaking portions in between would add another element to the event.

“The performance will be a great entertainment component, and the lecture elements will add an academic piece,” Obergfell said.    

An OUAB representative declined to comment on the cost of the event.

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