Award-winning spoken word poet Sarah Kay delivered Scripps College’s 2015 Commencement address on May 16.
When I am inside writing,
all I can think about is how I should be outside living.
When I am outside living,
all I can do is notice all there is to write about.
When I read about love, I think I should be out loving.
When I love, I think I need to read more.
I am stumbling in pursuit of grace,
I hunt patience with a vengeance.
On the mornings when my brother’s tired muscles
held to the pillow, my father used to tell him,
For every moment you aren’t playing basketball, someone else is on the court practicing.
I spend most of my time wondering
if I should be somewhere else.
So instead, I have learned to shape the words thank you
with my first breath each morning, my last breath every night.
When the last breath comes, at least I will know I was grateful
for all the places I was so sure I was not supposed to be.
All those places I made it to,
all the loves I held, all the words I wrote.
And even if it is just for one moment,
I know I will be exactly where I am supposed to be.
And where I am supposed to be right now is on Elm Tree Lawn at Scripps College, speaking to the Class of 2015! Good evening parents and families, esteemed faculty and staff, and guests of the Class of 2015. Thank you for inviting me here today. What a beautiful day to celebrate, what a beautiful place to be. Olivia was right, it certainly is a very pretty campus to get to spend your time on. Isn’t it amazing the way a place can inform and shape who we are and how we grow?
I grew up 3,000 miles away from here, on the opposite coast. Manhattan is no place to raise a baby. And yet, my earliest memories are of sidewalk and crosswalk, of learning to look both ways for cars to pass. I was street sign literate long before I could read a book. I rode the subway alone at age 11. I fell in love on a rooftop and had my heart broken on a highway overpass. I watched the bodega down the street become a Jewish diner, become a Korean deli, become a clothing boutique, become a “For Sale” sign. My city sheds its skin and reinvents itself again and again, and within it, I am in a continuous process of becoming. What I understand as now, what I know as true, in an instant becomes abruptly incomplete and requires me to begin again. To adapt and change. Once, a city like New York was a wild imagining. A science fiction dream. A vision so far from possible. But hearts and hands and eyes and glass and bricks and years and years of work have created a pulsing, breathing beast. And now it stands and stumbles, lurching forward, squinting into the bright and menacing future.
And isn’t that always how it feels? Just when you start to get used to something, it begins to change. A new building appears on campus. A new Graffiti Wall. New trees. New faces. The faculty here has only just gotten used to you traipsing about, leaving your mark on things, and now you are gone. A college campus is a place of constant change. Of continuous becoming. Of building and rebuilding.
There is a fable I love that tells of a young girl who visits a construction site. She approaches the first workman she sees and says, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” He says, “Can’t you see? I’m laying bricks.” She approaches the second workman, who is doing the same work as the first and asks, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” He says, “Can’t you see? I’m building a wall.” She approaches the third workman, who is doing the same work as the previous two and asks, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” He says, “Can’t you see? I’m building a temple.”
When I hear her story I think, what kind of person am I? Do I focus on the task at hand? Laying brick. Do I connect myself to a job, a project? Building walls. Do I dedicate myself to a movement, a cause larger than myself, larger than my lifetime, even? Some temple to pray to? When I am writing poems, it feels like laying bricks. I move the words around, I place them here and there, I put concrete in between them in my brain to make them stick. When I am visiting a school, it feels like building a wall, building connections. And sometimes, rarely, I get to see a glimpse of something larger than myself. I witness a trans boy in California celebrate his transition in front of his entire high school through a poem on stage. I learn of girls in Singapore finding videos online to study poetry when their school cancels creative writing class.
In this Scripps graduating class, there are many different workmen. Some people are working on one specific goal. They are writing papers and doing research. Others work on forming a necessary part of a team to build the connections and projects we need. Still others are dedicated to a purpose. They are envisioning a new future, a Utopia we can move towards.
There used to be a radical feminist performance collective called Vox Feminista, whose motto was to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” This motto deeply resonates with my experience as a writer and performer, both in what I want to create for others, but also in what I want to create for myself. As an artist, there are moments when I find that I have become comfortable with an idea, an experience, or even a specific word, I want to disturb it and excavate it more thoroughly. Or I am disturbed by something and want to seek comfort in writing through it and sharing it with others. Lately, I’ve started to think that this motto might also serve as a way to exist in the world. As a guide for how we might try to build. When black men and women are being murdered in our streets, when there is sexual assault on our college campuses, it is our job to disturb the comfortable. To force those who consider themselves blissfully unaffected to engage, acknowledge, learn, witness, and act. To challenge spaces that need to be challenged. And it is also our job to seek ways to comfort those who have been disturbed. To provide for those who have been victimized by natural disasters or unnatural violence and tragedy. It seems to me that I am always trying to learn how to hold myself gently, but also hold myself accountable, as well as do the same for the people around me.
Sometimes it is hard to believe that we can be working on the same thing. Sometimes the way you build is so different from the way someone else does. You want to be big and visible and radical and loud, someone else wants to work quietly, under the radar, out of the public eye. It is possible to have many front lines in the same war. It is possible that the people you disagree with are really trying to do the same work, trying to build the same future, even if we see it different ways. You can lay bricks until walls are constructed, until a temple is built. Or you can dream towards a temple until you figure out which walls to build and which bricks to lay. You can shape behavior until it changes minds. Or you change minds until it shapes behavior. You create options by choice and example.
In December of 2012, I received a grant from the U.S. State Department to spend two weeks teaching and performing at schools in Katmandu, the capital of Nepal. While in town, I worked with a group of young 20-something-year-olds who called themselves the Word Warriors and were curious about spoken word poetry. I lead intensive workshops on writing, performing and teaching and each time I visited a school, I brought the Word Warriors with me. I had them perform with me and teach alongside me, and the kids got a chance to not only see what spoken word poetry sounds like in English with an American accent, but also what it sounds like in Nepali or in English with a Nepali accent.
And that might have been the end of the story. Except that it isn’t. Last year the Word Warriors applied for and received a grant to create a two-year project called Write to Speak, which will allow them to introduce spoken word poetry programming to six different regions in rural Nepal. The project’s primary purpose is to work with marginalized groups who are traditionally suppressed including members of the LGBTQ community, people with physical disabilities, survivors of abuse, and people recovering from drug addiction. In Nepal, the highest cause of death for women between the ages of 15 and 49 is suicide. Countrywide, cultural expectations of subservience and degrees of violence that women face is ongoing. It is complicated to be a foreigner in someone else’s culture and community, and there are nuances I know I am unable to see or understand, but I am so proud of the Word Warriors for tackling this matter in the same spirit as the Vox Feminista. With spoken word poetry, they are disturbing the “comfortable” system that devalues women’s lives. They are comforting women by creating community and opportunity for women’s value and voices to be honored.
This last December, I returned to Kathmandu to help the Word Warriors plan and facilitate their new project. We worked on teacher training and curriculum development. And I saw that these young poets are actively changing their world around them because they have fallen in love with an art form and believe in its potential and power. I was spending the holidays on the other side of the world, away from everyone I love. I could have felt the loneliest possible. Instead, I was surrounded by young poets who are bright and passionate. They are fighting a lot of odds and a lot of demons, but it is poetry that is fueling the fire. Something that seems as simple as laying words side by side is helping someone else find what they are looking for. It is helping someone fall in love. It is helping someone heal. It is helping someone dream big enough to make changes in their community. It feels like the kind of temple I believe in.
Three weeks ago, on April 25, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 ruptured through Nepal, killing over 8,000 people and destroying homes and lives and UNESCO heritage sites that had been standing for centuries. I scrambled to find out if my friends were safe. I learned that the Word Warriors had been at work on their spoken word poetry program, introducing the art form to a rural community in Birgunj, 130km south of Kathmandu and 230 km from the earthquake’s epicenter. They were safe. It is not that I believe that poetry saved their lives, but I am grateful that their love and dedication to their work placed them far enough out of harm’s way that day.
Nepal is still experiencing aftershocks and the entire devastation of this event cannot be fully quantified. The neighborhoods I fell in love with are rubble – my friends are so far away. It might seem like a moment when poetry is silly or inconsequential. There are more important things to worry about. There is so much rebuilding to be done. Homes, buildings, roads, lives, infrastructure. But healing is also a type of building. Creativity is also a type of building. And even if you do not know how to lay the bricks that rebuild a city, perhaps you have poems and words and care to create communities, shared experiences, and opportunity for empathy. Maybe you can help rebuild the people who have been left to fight another day. The heart and mind deserve rebuilding too.
In September of 2001, my neighborhood was turned to rubble and my entire world was turned upside down. We had many more resources than the majority of people in Nepal right now, and yet still it felt like nothing would ever be safe or whole again. I was 13 and terrified and aware of how small I was and how little I had to offer. The adults around me did not have time to answer stupid questions, did not have time for my doubts or fears, they were busy trying to rebuild the world. Not long after, I got accidentally signed up for my first poetry slam. The experience of performing in front of an audience was terrifying, and I shook the entire time. But two things were remarkable to me: first, everyone was listening, everyone saw me. And second, everyone was allowed to explore their fears and flaws and joys, without having to feel stupid for being human. It was through spoken word poetry that I found community and empowerment and empathy— a way to heal and a space to build.
Today you are graduating from college. You are off on wild adventures. And you are not just one of those three workmen—laying brick, building walls, building temples—you are all three. Sometimes you will be searching for a cause to believe in and fight for, and you will worry that there is something wrong with you if you can’t find it. There isn’t. Sometimes you are busy dealing with the task at hand. Sometimes you are falling in love or taking care of yourself or writing papers, and you do not have time to build a temple or to find a temple you believe in. You are allowed this time. Or you may find it and believe in something immense that gives you purpose, but overwhelms you. You want to solve world hunger or fix global warming. You want to build the temple all by yourself, but you feel like your hands are too small. They are not. Lay some bricks. Other times, you will look for the job that feels fulfilling to you right now. You will want to be a necessary part of a project or a mission. You will focus on building the connections. There will be time for all these things. Lay the bricks until the walls are constructed, until the temple is built. Or dream towards the temple until you figure out which walls to build and which bricks to lay. Allow your perspective to shift, and shift again. You are in a continuous process of becoming.
As you walk the streets of your home here, see the way it has changed, is changing. Next year the new resource center for survivors of sexual violence will open. The new dorms will be LEED Gold Certified. We are always learning new street signs. You have helped build this. You are already building the world around you, just as you are always building who you are. Once, the person you are, here, today, was a wild imagining. A science fiction dream. A vision so far from possible. But hearts and hands and eyes and glass and bricks and years and years of work are creating you, pulsing, breathing beasts. And together we are standing and stumbling, lurching forward, squinting into the bright and possible future.
The first girl I met as a freshman in college ended up being my best friend in the world. She is the smartest, bravest, strongest woman I have ever met. But, by the end of our senior year, she wound up in a relationship with a man that we had both trusted, that eventually became abusive. I wracked my brain and heart trying to figure out how I could stop it. What could I say to convince her that she deserved so much better than this? How could I prove to her that she was worthy of a love that did not hurt? But she could not hear me. I think that sometimes the people who love us most in the world, are often the ones it is hardest to hear. For weeks I searched for a solution, or words to offer, or something to do with my hands. I discovered a poem by a man named Richard Siken, and in it he writes, “Everyone needs a place. It shouldn’t be inside of someone else.” I carried this line with me for weeks. And finally I found my way to this poem. I wrote it for her, but today I share it with you.
Everyone needs a place. It shouldn’t be inside of someone else. –Richard Siken
If you grow up the type of woman men want to look at,
you can let them look at you. But do not mistake eyes for hands.
Let them see what a woman looks like.
They may not have ever seen one before.
If you grow up the type of woman men want to touch,
you can let them touch you.
Sometimes it is not you they are reaching for.
Sometimes it is a bottle. A door. A sandwich. A Pulitzer. Another woman.
But their hands found you first. Do not mistake yourself for a guardian.
Or a muse. Or a promise. Or a victim. Or a snack.
You are a woman. Skin and bones. Veins and nerves. Hair and sweat.
You are not made of metaphors. Not apologies. Not excuses.
If you grow up the type of woman men want to hold,
you can let them hold you.
All day they practice keeping their bodies upright—
even after all this evolving, it still feels unnatural, still pulls tight the muscles,
trains the arms and spine. Only some men want to learn
what it feels like to wrap themselves into a question mark around you,
admit they do not have the answers
they thought they would have by now;
Some men will want to hold you like The Answer.
You are not The Answer.
You are not the problem. You are not the poem
or the punchline or the riddle or joke.
Woman. If you grow up the type men want to love,
You can let them love you.
Being loved is not the same thing as loving.
When you fall in love, it is discovering the ocean
after years of puddle jumping. It is realizing you have hands.
It is stepping to the tightrope when the crowds have all gone home.
Do not spend time wondering if you are the type of woman
men will hurt. If he leaves you with a car alarm heart, you learn to sing along.
It is hard to stop loving the ocean. Even after it has left you gasping, salty.
Forgive yourself for the decisions you have made, the ones you still call
mistakes when you tuck them in at night. And know this.
Know you are the type of woman who is looking for a place to call yours.
Let the statues crumble.
You have always been the place.
You are a woman who can build it yourself.
You were born to build.
Thank you for allowing me to share poetry with you. Thank you for including me in this celebration of endings and beginnings. Thank you for being brave enough to take up space in this world. For having a voice and using it. Class of 2015: Listen to the ones who love you fiercely. Fight together. Disturb the comfortable. Comfort the disturbed. I wish you courage. I wish you joy. I wish you adventures and mistakes to learn from. I know you will build us a world I am excited to see. Thank you and congratulations!