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Profile, pictures and video: Tony Öhberg
Show review: Conner Mckissack
“Suck it Stockholm!” The words by spoken word poet Sarah Kay were barely audible over the roaring crowd of about 400 at the Café Mascot in Helsinki’s Kallio district on a Wednesday night in early June, while the 26-year-old New Yorker was finishing her set.
Sure, Sarah has acquired a fan base of millions, about 100,000 have seen the TED video where she performs her poem B, and, yes, these things help to gather spectators, but maybe the real reason for the heartfelt appreciation was due to the way she captured her audience. Finns can be shy, but not afraid to show appreciation where it’s due. At this very poetry slam, the appreciation was, in lack of a sexier synonym: Due.
Poetry readings can be anything from depressive to uplifting, from as animated as roadkill to something breath-taking like Sarah Kay, who grabs the poem by the throat, immerses with her voice, eyes, body, heart and soul – lives every word and most importantly makes you see . . .
The set opened with a little background about Sarah’s childhood in New York City and her summer trips to New Jersey. She talked about her family, memories, and relationships that not only informed her past but also the work she currently does through a program called Project Voice, which is designed to educate, entertain, and inspire through spoken word poetry. Sarah describes herself as an educator and strikes as someone who’s using poetry less as an art form and more as a delivery system for her ideas about how to make the planet better.
[alert type=white ]“There’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it’s swept way.” An excerpt from Sarah Kay’s poem, B.[/alert]
Her words were empowering, direct and unapologetic. She talked a lot about how hard life is, not only for herself, but for those around her. She loaded her set with imagery, emotions, and stories from the past, and while the subjects became heavy at times, she almost always recovered with lighter anecdotes.
Public speakers are sometimes guilty of being too honest or pessimistic, leaving the audience with little room to imagine anything beyond what they’re saying. Other times the optimism is through the roof and the “you can change the world” stuff ventures too far from reality to take seriously even. Sarah strikes a nice balance using a combination of relatable struggles and jokes about herself. Her set touches on gender roles, diversity, compassion, and sacrifice.
After about an hour of material, and with time winding down, Sarah announced that she was considering one last poem. A voice from the back of the room shouted “Ten more!” Sarah laughed and agreed that she should do two. The enthusiasm in the bar was pretty amazing that night. Poets are passionate people but the crowd was more like a really sensitive group of football fans. Sarah finished her final piece and the crowd rose from their seats, whistling, screaming, snapping photos . . . It felt good to be amongst such a passionate group of folks after hearing about a crowd in Stockholm who was once so reserved (allegedly) that Sarah thought they hated her talk.
[alert type=white ]“I want her to know that this world is made out of sugar: it can crumble so easily, but don’t be afraid to stick your tongue out and taste it.” -Sarah Kay, B[/alert]
The following morning, while Sarah poses for the portrait in the corner of a luxurious restaurant in Helsinki centre, it looks like she is creating a poem. I have all the ingredients: ninja-like movements and an eye-catching hat.
She observes the camera with her attentive brown eyes, which are framed behind sophisticated glasses. She wears a blue-green shirt with a V-neck, and her black trousers embrace the top of her converses which have no sign of visible laces.
She doesn’t wear any noticeable make-up, perhaps an occasional habit springing from her tomboy days as a 14-year-old girl, who was more interested in the boys’ hobbies and clothes than the girly things. In fact during that time, she wrote a poem about being a tomboy and read it at her very first poetry slam at the New York’s Bowery Club in lower Manhattan after someone had signed her in. “It was scary but the way how people listened . . . a room full of people would see me and hear me . . . that was really powerful,” she says while we sit at the table for the interview.
Sarah recalls that after her performance an older girl came to her and said, “You know, I really felt that poem you did.” “To be a 14-year-old girl and have a stranger tell you that something you made has moved them was incredibly powerful to me. That’s what made me really get hooked, the ability to have that kind of introduction.”
Sarah started spending time in the Bowery Club, which she calls the “gross, dirty dive bar” where the average customer was in the late 20s. “I was really out of place but somehow nobody minded,” she says. “I learned most about spoken word poetry by going to this one bar, just watching people.”
After a while she learned to love the time spent after the readings: the talks with the spectators, the immediate relationship. “When you write a poem on a piece of paper and you publish or you send it to the world, I don’t get to be there, when someone reads that poem. I don’t get to know what their reaction is in the moment, she says. “But when I am performing on stage I get to see your reaction on your face and I get to control exactly the way you experience this piece of art, and I like that kind of immediacy.”
When Sarah was younger, she wrote a lot about her family because she grew closely around them. Her mother is Japanese-American, an artist, and her father is a Brooklynese photographer. Later, Sarah moved into subjects of love and relationships and the dynamics of these phenomenona and on to the present-day favourite: gender roles. “The subjects evolve as I evolve.”
Sarah creates poems by absorbing her surroundings “like a sponge”. “I am, for example, fascinated in the way men wear their hats,” she says while taking a look on my fedora. She keeps a notebook and squeezes the words on the paper. Or like she said at her performance “poops it out”. “If there is a poem inside you, it will have to come out. Sometimes it’s difficult, even painful but it will come out,” she said to the laughing crowd.
I guess many artists could be jealous of the fact that how little effort and marketing were needed (a simple Facebook page) to draw in a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd on a regular weekday – to a poetry slam arranged by Helsinki Poetry Connection, an organisation specialising in creative poetry happenings usually of a minor scale.
But how on Earth did Sarah find her way to this Northern city, which is still waiting for the warmer days of summer? A year ago, she received an email from a 16-year-old girl who had translated one of Sarah’s poems to Estonian. Sarah was invited to perform at an Estonian literary festival in late May. A few months after her invitation, she received another email from a Finnish guy in Brooklyn who had caught Sarah’s performance there. He invited Sarah to Helsinki. Sarah saw this as an opportunity to get a taste of two countries she had not thought of visiting. “It feels very lucky,” she says and takes a deep breath. “I would not be able to have the career that I have in another time period but the fact that the internet exists, the fact that videos of my work exist, means that people all over the world have seen me even before I arrive. So, it allows me to go somewhere and don’t know anybody and have people arrive and say, ‘I really love your work’.”
Sarah takes a bite of her Finnish rye bread, which she had barely touched after the interview started. “Sometimes I have a hard time knocking my head around the thought that I have a real gift and it’s something I appreciate and don’t take for granted,” she says and smiles. Sarah says she is yet to visit the fortress of Suomenlinna and take bath in the real Finnish sauna and then she heads back to New York.
We part our ways and I hope to see her again . . . hopefully in Finland.