Gathering in a packed and claustrophobic stairwell in Sanders Classroom Auditorium has become procedure for many popular campus events, which usually include outlandish comedic performances or hyped plays.
The spoken word poetry of Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye also gathered a crowd so large that attendees could hardly fit in the Sanders stairwell, waiting to hear words of poetry rather than what is usually performed at the venue. But Kay and Kaye both boast hugely successful careers, a possible explanation for the large number of poetry performance attendees.
Kaye and Kay stopped at Vassar as part of their tour, named Project V.O.I.C.E. (Vocal Outreach Into Creative Expression), on Feb. 15. Commenting on the size of the crowd, the poet herself joked, “Thank you for coming here on a Saturday night to listen to poetry, of all things.”
Kay’s love of poetry began in New York’s Bowery Poetry Club when she was only 14 years old. From there, spoken word poetry grew from being more than a passion into an actual career path for Kay. In 2006, she was featured in HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam,” and she became the youngest poet to compete in the National Poetry Slam.
Success was anything but short-lived for Kay. She continued her journey as a full-time spoken word poet, giving performances all around the world in high schools, colleges and conferences. Her TED Talk, featured on YouTube and the TED website, which she began with her poem “If I Should Have a Daughter,” has more than seven million views.
But Kay considers herself an educator as well as a poet and holds a masters degree in the art of teaching.
Phil Kaye also became interested in poetry as a high school student and first discovered spoken word poetry when he was 17 years old. Now, he is a full-time, touring spoken word poet and a published author. As the coordinator of Space in Prisons for the Arts and Creative Expression (SPACE) at Brown University, he gave weekly poetry workshops to prisoners and has received multiple awards and national recognitions for his poetry, including the National College Poetry Slam award for “Pushing the Art Forward,” which he received twice.
Kaye dabbles in just about everything. He said, “I write a lot of creative non-fiction. I wrote for a magazine for a while. I just finished a TEDxTalk.”
Now, Kay and Kaye are currently working on a collaborative project, titled Project V.O.I.C.E.. “Project V.O.I.C.E. is an organization that utilizes spoken word poetry for the purposes of education, entertainment and inspiration,” said Kay, and she added that they give workshops as well as performances to give people a chance to try spoken word poetry themselves.
“It started when we were sophomores in college, kind of as an accident,” said Kay. Kaye’s old high school invited him for a performance, and he asked Sarah Kay to join him. Kay asked Kaye to collaborate with her on a future project, which would later turn into Project V.O.I.C.E.. “The need and the desire grew organically. We never said, let’s make a living out of teaching spoken word poetry,” said Kaye.
One of Kay and Kaye’s stops on their Project V.O.I.C.E. tour was Vassar College. Kay said, “We were invited by Wordsmiths. Also, my brother goes to Vassar College, and I wanted to visit him and see the environment he lives in.”
Sarah Kay’s brother, Philip Kay ’14, was in the audience, dressed in a suit, as Sarah Kay said, not for the show but because he was headed to 100 Nights in the Villard Room afterwards. He even invited the whole audience to a party in his Town House, with an announcement he made after the performance ended.
Kay performed two poems she wrote for her brother and continuously made jokes about him. She opened her set by saying, “[My brother] gave me a list of things I’m not supposed to say when I’m on stage. I’m not to say that he’s single, I’m not to say he’s dashing, I’m not to say he’s an excellent dancer. All of those things are true.”
The poets went on to address the confusion that the resemblance of their last names might have created in the audience. Kay jokingly added, “We also look similar to each other, depending on if you’re wearing your glasses and/or if you’re racist.”
She went on saying that people ask them if they are siblings, if they are married, if they are dating, have dated, or will ever date and many other dating-related questions. “All of which is a resounding no,” said Kay. Kaye reiterated by shouting, “No!”
Their story, however, is one of many coincidences. Sarah Kay grew up in New York City and Phil Kaye grew up in California, and they had not met until college. During the orientation week of their freshman year, they met each other at an open-mic night, and realized their astounding resemblances: they had similar last names, Kay(e); the names of their siblings are Sarah for Kaye and Phil for Kay; they shared the same fifth grade summer camp counselor; and they both shared the ethnic background of being Japanese and Jewish, which was restated in their poem.
Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye’s resemblances are not what make them successful; it is their ability to perform in harmony and complement each other, which comes from years of performing together and being best friends.
And while the poets enjoy working and performing poetry as a team, the two did not refrain from presenting their own pieces of poetry solo.
The poets performed many well-known works of original poetry that have reached massive amounts of popularity due to the poets’ TEDxTalks. For instance, Kaye performed one of his strongest and most highly-acclaimed poems, “Repetition.”
“My mother taught me this trick. If you repeat something over and over again it loses its meaning.” He then recounted the separation of his parents and said, “I imagined it as an accident, that when I left they whispered to each other ‘I love you’ so many times over that they forgot what it meant.”
The poets not only gave powerful performances but made the audience feel that their work was accessible. After the show, Kaye and Kay did not hesitate to meet, talk to and joke around with their fans as they signed books and sold merchandise.
Brianna Lear ’17, who was one of the many students to attend the performance, appreciated the poets’ willingness to meet Vassar students and mingle with the crowd.
She said, “Even though Phil Kaye and Sarah Kaye are very famous spoken word poets, they were still down to earth and humble. I felt like they could relate to the audience as much as we related to them. The fact that they are best friends who have been performing together for a long time was apparent from their performance.”