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Sarah Kay: How many lives can you live?

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Spoken-word poet Sarah Kay was stunned to find she couldn't be a princess, ballerina and astronaut all in one lifetime. In this talk, she delivers two powerful poems that show us how we can live other lives.

- 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

(Singing) I see the moon.
The moon sees me.
00:15
The moon sees somebody that I don't see.
00:21
God bless the moon, and God bless me.
00:27
And God bless the somebody
that I don't see.
00:34
If I get to heaven, before you do,
00:40
I'll make a hole and pull you through.
00:46
And I'll write your name on every star,
00:52
and that way the world
00:58
won't seem so far.
01:02
The astronaut will not be at work today.
01:05
He has called in sick.
01:10
He has turned off his cell phone,
his laptop, his pager, his alarm clock.
01:11
There is a fat yellow cat
asleep on his couch,
01:16
raindrops against the window
01:20
and not even the hint
of coffee in the kitchen air.
01:21
Everybody is in a tizzy.
01:25
The engineers on the 15th floor have
stopped working on their particle machine.
01:26
The anti-gravity room is leaking,
01:30
and even the freckled kid with glasses,
01:32
whose only job is to take
out the trash, is nervous,
01:34
fumbles the bag, spills
a banana peel and a paper cup.
01:37
Nobody notices.
01:39
They are too busy recalculating
what this all mean for lost time.
01:41
How many galaxies
are we losing per second?
01:44
How long before next rocket
can be launched?
01:46
Somewhere an electron
flies off its energy cloud.
01:48
A black hole has erupted.
01:51
A mother finishes setting
the table for dinner.
01:53
A Law & Order marathon is starting.
01:56
The astronaut is asleep.
01:58
He has forgotten to turn off his watch,
02:00
which ticks, like a metal
pulse against his wrist.
02:02
He does not hear it.
02:05
He dreams of coral reefs and plankton.
02:06
His fingers find
the pillowcase's sailing masts.
02:09
He turns on his side,
opens his eyes at once.
02:13
He thinks that scuba divers must have
the most wonderful job in the world.
02:16
So much water to glide through!
02:20
(Applause)
02:25
Thank you.
02:31
When I was little, I could
not understand the concept
02:33
that you could only live one life.
02:37
I don't mean this metaphorically.
02:40
I mean, I literally thought
that I was going to get to do
02:42
everything there was to do
02:45
and be everything there was to be.
02:47
It was only a matter of time.
02:50
And there was no limitation
based on age or gender
02:51
or race or even appropriate time period.
02:54
I was sure that I was going
to actually experience
02:57
what it felt like to be a leader
of the civil rights movement
03:01
or a ten-year old boy living
on a farm during the dust bowl
03:05
or an emperor of the Tang
dynasty in China.
03:08
My mom says that when people asked me
03:12
what I wanted to be when I grew up,
my typical response was:
03:14
princess-ballerina-astronaut.
03:18
And what she doesn't understand
is that I wasn't trying to invent
03:20
some combined super profession.
03:23
I was listing things I thought
I was gonna get to be:
03:25
a princess and a ballerina
and an astronaut.
03:28
and I'm pretty sure the list
probably went on from there.
03:32
I usually just got cut off.
03:34
It was never a question
of if I was gonna get to do something
03:36
so much of a question of when.
03:39
And I was sure that if I was going
to do everything,
03:42
that it probably meant I had
to move pretty quickly,
03:44
because there was a lot
of stuff I needed to do.
03:47
So my life was constantly
in a state of rushing.
03:49
I was always scared
that I was falling behind.
03:51
And since I grew up
in New York City, as far as I could tell,
03:53
rushing was pretty normal.
03:57
But, as I grew up, I had
this sinking realization,
04:00
that I wasn't gonna get to live
any more than one life.
04:04
I only knew what it felt like
to be a teenage girl
04:08
in New York City,
04:11
not a teenage boy in New Zealand,
04:12
not a prom queen in Kansas.
04:14
I only got to see through my lens.
04:17
And it was around this time
that I became obsessed with stories,
04:19
because it was through stories
that I was able to see
04:23
through someone else's lens,
however briefly or imperfectly.
04:26
And I started craving hearing
other people's experiences
04:30
because I was so jealous
that there were entire lives
04:33
that I was never gonna get to live,
04:37
and I wanted to hear
about everything that I was missing.
04:38
And by transitive property,
04:41
I realized that some people
were never gonna get to experience
04:42
what it felt like to be a teenage girl
in New York city.
04:46
Which meant that they weren't gonna know
04:48
what the subway ride
after your first kiss feels like,
04:50
or how quiet it gets when its snows.
04:54
And I wanted them to know,
I wanted to tell them.
04:56
And this became the focus of my obsession.
04:59
I busied myself telling stories
and sharing stories and collecting them.
05:02
And it's not until recently
05:05
that I realized that
I can't always rush poetry.
05:07
In April for National Poetry Month,
there's this challenge
05:12
that many poets in the poetry
community participate in,
05:15
and its called the 30/30 Challenge.
05:19
The idea is you write a new poem
05:21
every single day
for the entire month of April.
05:24
And last year, I tried it
for the first time
05:27
and was thrilled by the efficiency
at which I was able to produce poetry.
05:29
But at the end of the month, I looked
back at these 30 poems I had written
05:34
and discovered that they were
all trying to tell the same story,
05:38
it had just taken me 30 tries to figure
out the way that it wanted to be told.
05:42
And I realized that this is probably true
of other stories on an even larger scale.
05:47
I have stories that I have
tried to tell for years,
05:51
rewriting and rewriting and constantly
searching for the right words.
05:53
There's a French poet and essayist
by the name of Paul Valéry
05:57
who said a poem is never
finished, it is only abandoned.
06:01
And this terrifies me
06:05
because it implies that I could keep
re-editing and rewriting forever
06:06
and its up to me to decide
when a poem is finished
06:09
and when I can walk away from it.
06:13
And this goes directly against
my very obsessive nature
06:15
to try to find the right answer
and the perfect words and the right form.
06:18
And I use poetry in my life,
06:22
as a way to help me navigate
and work through things.
06:24
But just because I end the poem,
doesn't mean that I've solved
06:27
what it was I was puzzling through.
06:30
I like to revisit old poetry
06:32
because it shows me exactly
where I was at that moment
06:34
and what it was I was trying to navigate
06:38
and the words that I chose to help me.
06:40
Now, I have a story
06:43
that I've been stumbling
over for years and years
06:44
and I'm not sure if I've found
the prefect form,
06:47
or whether this is just one attempt
06:50
and I will try to rewrite it later
in search of a better way to tell it.
06:52
But I do know that later, when I look back
06:56
I will be able to know that
this is where I was at this moment
06:59
and this is what I was trying to navigate,
07:03
with these words, here,
in this room, with you.
07:05
So --
07:11
Smile.
07:13
It didn't always work this way.
07:20
There's a time you had
to get your hands dirty.
07:22
When you were in the dark,
for most of it, fumbling was a given.
07:25
If you needed more
contrast, more saturation,
07:29
darker darks and brighter brights,
07:32
they called it extended development.
07:34
It meant you spent longer inhaling
chemicals, longer up to your wrist.
07:37
It wasn't always easy.
07:40
Grandpa Stewart was a Navy photographer.
07:42
Young, red-faced
with his sleeves rolled up,
07:45
fists of fingers like fat rolls of coins,
07:48
he looked like Popeye
the sailor man come to life.
07:51
Crooked smile, tuft of chest hair,
07:54
he showed up to World War II,
with a smirk and a hobby.
07:56
When they asked him if he knew
much about photography,
07:59
he lied, learned to read
Europe like a map,
08:02
upside down, from the height
of a fighter plane,
08:05
camera snapping, eyelids flapping
08:09
the darkest darks and brightest brights.
08:11
He learned war like he could
read his way home.
08:13
When other men returned,
they would put their weapons out to rest,
08:17
but he brought the lenses
and the cameras home with him.
08:20
Opened a shop, turned it
into a family affair.
08:23
My father was born into this
world of black and white.
08:26
His basketball hands learned
the tiny clicks and slides
08:29
of lens into frame, film into camera,
08:32
chemical into plastic bin.
08:35
His father knew the equipment
but not the art.
08:37
He knew the darks but not the brights.
08:40
My father learned the magic,
spent his time following light.
08:42
Once he traveled across the country
to follow a forest fire,
08:45
hunted it with his camera for a week.
08:49
"Follow the light," he said.
08:52
"Follow the light."
08:54
There are parts of me
I only recognize from photographs.
08:55
The loft on Wooster Street
with the creaky hallways,
08:58
the twelve-foot ceilings,
white walls and cold floors.
09:01
This was my mother's home,
before she was mother.
09:04
Before she was wife, she was artist.
09:07
And the only two rooms in the house,
09:10
with walls that reached
all the way up to the ceiling,
09:11
and doors that opened and closed,
09:14
were the bathroom and the darkroom.
09:16
The darkroom she built herself,
09:18
with custom-made stainless steel sinks,
an 8x10 bed enlarger
09:20
that moved up and down
by a giant hand crank,
09:25
a bank of color-balanced lights,
09:27
a white glass wall for viewing prints,
09:29
a drying rack that moved
in and out from the wall.
09:31
My mother built herself a darkroom.
09:33
Made it her home.
09:36
Fell in love with a man
with basketball hands,
09:37
with the way he looked at light.
09:40
They got married. Had a baby.
09:42
Moved to a house near a park.
09:44
But they kept the loft on Wooster Street
09:46
for birthday parties and treasure hunts.
09:48
The baby tipped the grayscale,
09:51
filled her parents' photo albums
with red balloons and yellow icing.
09:53
The baby grew into a girl
without freckles,
09:57
with a crooked smile,
09:59
who didn’t understand why her friends
did not have darkrooms in their houses,
10:01
who never saw her parents kiss,
10:05
who never saw them hold hands.
10:07
But one day, another baby showed up.
10:09
This one with perfect straight
hair and bubble gum cheeks.
10:11
They named him sweet potato.
10:14
When he laughed, he laughed so loudly
10:16
he scared the pigeons on the fire escape
10:18
And the four of them lived
in that house near the park.
10:20
The girl with no freckles,
the sweet potato boy,
10:23
the basketball father and darkroom mother
10:26
and they lit their candles
and said their prayers,
10:28
and the corners of the photographs curled.
10:31
One day, some towers fell.
10:33
And the house near the park
became a house under ash, so they escaped
10:36
in backpacks, on bicycles to darkrooms
10:40
But the loft of Wooster Street
was built for an artist,
10:43
not a family of pigeons,
10:46
and walls that do not reach the ceiling
do not hold in the yelling
10:49
and the man with basketball hands
put his weapons out to rest.
10:52
He could not fight this war,
and no maps pointed home.
10:56
His hands no longer fit his camera,
11:00
no longer fit his wife's,
11:02
no longer fit his body.
11:04
The sweet potato boy mashed
his fists into his mouth
11:06
until he had nothing more to say.
11:08
So, the girl without freckles
went treasure hunting on her own.
11:10
And on Wooster Street, in a building
with the creaky hallways
11:14
and the loft with the 12-foot ceilings
11:17
and the darkroom with too many sinks
11:19
under the color-balanced lights,
she found a note,
11:21
tacked to the wall with a thumb-tack,
left over from a time before towers,
11:24
from the time before babies.
11:28
And the note said: "A guy sure loves
the girl who works in the darkroom."
11:31
It was a year before my father
picked up a camera again.
11:37
His first time out, he followed
the Christmas lights,
11:41
dotting their way through
New York City's trees,
11:43
tiny dots of light, blinking out at him
from out of the darkest darks.
11:46
A year later he traveled
across the country to follow a forest fire
11:50
stayed for a week hunting
it with his camera,
11:54
it was ravaging the West Coast
11:57
eating 18-wheeler trucks in its stride.
11:59
On the other side of the country,
12:01
I went to class and wrote a poem
in the margins of my notebook.
12:03
We have both learned the art of capture.
12:06
Maybe we are learning
the art of embracing.
12:08
Maybe we are learning
the art of letting go.
12:11
(Applause)
12:16

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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