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The Carletonian

“The Art of Storytelling in a Digital World” Poet Sarah Kay Delivers Convocation

<oken word poet Sarah Kay hails from New York City, a fact not lost on her chapel audience when she called for Minnesota “to get its act together” in comparing Northfield’s thick snow to the seventy-degree days of the Northeast. As the founder of Project V.O.I.C.E. (Vocal Outreach Into Creative Expression), an organization that encourages young adults and children to use spoken word as a means of growth and self-expression, Kay delivered her talk as if it were a spoken poem: with dynamic rhythm, passion, and accompanying gestures.

She rejected the stage podium in order to more directly connect with the crowd, and her voice would have easily filled the entire chapel even without a microphone. In her presentation titled “The Art of Storytelling in a Digital World,” Kay outlined her own twenty-four years of life and how they led her to becoming a spoken poet.

She detailed five personal “breakthroughs” that she described as “major shifts” in the way she viewed and thought about the world. Kay illustrated how normally, these breakthroughs are considered “an epiphany; an accidental revelation that you cannot prepare for; others understand ‘the hard work breakthrough’ that requires sustained effort to bring about.”

For her, the first breakthrough came as a “letter of divine intervention” when she was fourteen; soon after watching the documentary Slam Nation, a letter informing Kay of her successful registration at a local slam poetry competition appeared in her mailbox. She wrote a poem, and mustered the courage to speak about “what it meant to be a fourteen year old.” The resounding applause was exciting for Kay, as well as the remarks from another teenage competitor “who was about nine hundred times cooler than me: ‘Hey, I felt that.’”

From this point onwards, Kay became hooked on spoken poetry, and for months worked hard to finally create Project V.O.I.C.E. at her own high school in New York, where she and others could organize spoken word competitions, teach poetry composition, and help others use the expressive medium. This second breakthrough fueled Kay throughout the remainder of her high school career, showing her just how liberating and inspiring spoken word could be in conveying her emotions and vulnerabilities.

Her third breakthrough came hurtling at her after she became an undergraduate at Brown University, and decided to present a spoken poem “about what it means to be a teenager in America” to a nearby public school. Coming from a privileged background with a solid education from an international school, Kay realized she had stepped into a completely different world “when I saw that three girls in my audience were cradling their own children.” Embarrassed by her own naiveté in thinking that she could be the voice of an American teenager, Kay set out to revitalize the efforts of Project V.O.I.C.E. — something she thought would end in high school — to give back to the community what she was truly thankful for having.

During her professional career, which has consisted of receiving a professional degree in education, teaching children spoken word, and giving workshops and talks around the world, Kay experienced her fourth breakthrough at a spoken word conference, where she felt that the other poets “were completely out of my league.” Though overcoming the anxiety with her performances, she was reminded from the experience of why she set out to become a spoken poet.

Her final breakthrough focused on another strand of giving back to the community, and Kay emphasized the importance of having and appreciating personal mentors. The countless children she teaches, her supportive parents, and her fellow spoken poets all continue to sustain Kay’s tireless commitment to “creating a population that can find the words to articulate themselves.”

In closing, Kay performed a spoken poem dedicated to the principal of a local in India, transporting her audience to the school corridors to the other side of the world. Sharing these breakthroughs, Kay needlessly reaffirmed her capacity as compelling performer and empathetic storyteller.

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