Full transcript of poet Sarah Kay’s TEDx Talk: How Many Lives Can You Live? at TEDxEast Conference.
Right click to download the MP3 audio:
Sarah Kay – Poet
(Singing) I see the moon. The moon sees me.
The moon sees somebody that I don’t see.
God bless the moon, and God bless me,
And God bless that somebody that I don’t see.
If I get to heaven, before you do,
I’ll make a hole and pull you through.
And I’ll write your name, on every star,
And that way the world,
Won’t seem so far.
The astronaut will not be at work today.
He has called in sick.
He has turned off his cell phone, his laptop, his pager, his alarm clock.
There is a fat yellow cat asleep on his couch, rain drops against the window, and not even the hint of coffee in the kitchen air.
Everybody is in a tizzy. The engineers on the 15th floor have stopped working on their particle machine.
The anti gravity room is leaking and even the freckled kid with glasses, whose only job is to take out the trash, is nervous, fumbles the bag, spills a banana peel and a paper cup.
Nobody notices. They are too busy recalculating what this all mean for lost time. How many galaxies are we losing per second.
How long before next rocket can be launched, somewhere.
An electron flies off its energy cloud.
A black hole has erupted.
A mother finishes setting the table for dinner.
A Law & Order marathon is starting.
The astronaut is asleep.
He has forgotten to turn off his watch,
which ticks, like a metal pulse against his wrist.
He does not hear it.
He dreams of coral reefs and plankton.
His fingers find the pillowcase’s sailing masts.
He turns on his side. Opens his eyes at once.
He thinks that scuba divers must have the most wonderful job in the world.
So much water to glide through!
When I was little, I could not understand the concept that you could only live one life. I don’t mean this metaphorically. I mean, I literally thought that I was going to get to do everything that there was to do and be everything there was to be. It was only a matter of time. And there was no limitation based on age, or gender, or race or even appropriate time period. I was sure that I was going to actually experience what it felt like to be a leader of the civil rights movement, or a ten-year old boy living on a farm during the dust bowl, or an emperor of the Tang dynasty in China.
My mom says that when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my typical response was princess-ballerina-astronaut. And what she doesn’t understand is that I wasn’t trying to invent some combined super profession. I was listing things I thought I was going to get to be: a princess, and a ballerina, and an astronaut. And I’m pretty sure the list probably went on from there. I usually just got cut off.
It was never a question of if I was going to get to do something so much of a question of when. And I was sure that if I was going to do everything, that it probably meant I had to move pretty quickly, because there was a lot of stuff I needed to do. So my life was constantly in a state of rushing. I was always scared that I was falling behind.
And since I grew up in New York City, as far as I could tell, rushing was pretty normal. But, as I grew up, I had this sinking realization, that I wasn’t going to get to live any more than one life, I only knew what it felt like to be a teenage girl in New York City, not a teenage boy in New Zealand, not a prom queen in Kansas. I only got to see through my lens and it was around this time that I became obsessed with stories, because it was through stories that I was able to see through someone else’s lens, however briefly or imperfectly.
And I started craving hearing other people’s experiences because I was so jealous that there were entire lives that I was never going to get to live, and I wanted to hear about everything that I was missing. And by transitive property, I realized that some people were never going to get to experience what it felt like to be a teenage girl in New York city. Which meant that they weren’t going to know what the subway ride after your first kiss feels like, or how quiet it gets when it snows, and I wanted them to know, I wanted to tell them and this became the focus of my obsession. I busied myself telling stories and sharing stories and collecting them. And it’s not until recently that I realized that I can’t always rush poetry.
In April for National Poetry Month there’s this challenge that, many poets in the poetry community participate in, and it’s called the 30/30 Challenge. And the idea is you write a new poem every single day for the entire month of April. And last year I tried it for the first time, and I was thrilled by the efficiency at which I was able to produce poetry. But at the end of the month I looked back at these 30 poems that I had written, and discovered that they were all trying to tell the same story, it had just taken me 30 tries to figure out the way that it wanted to be told.
And I realized that this is probably true of other stories on an even larger scale. I have stories that I have tried to tell for years, rewriting and rewriting and constantly searching for the right words. There’s a French poet, an essayist by the name of Paul Valery who said that a poem is never finished, it is only abandoned. And this terrifies me because it implies that I could keep reediting and rewriting forever and it’s up to me to decide when a poem is finished and when I can walk away from it. And this goes directly against my very obsessive nature to try to find the right answer, and the perfect words, and the right form.
And I use poetry in my life, as a way to help me navigate and work through things. But just because I end the poem, doesn’t mean that I’ve solved what it was I was puzzling through. I like to revisit old poetry, because it shows me exactly where I was at that moment. And what it was I was trying to navigate and the words that I chose to help me.
Now, I have a story that I’ve been stumbling over for years and years and I’m not sure if I’ve found the perfect form, or whether this is just one attempt and I will try to rewrite it later in search of a better way to tell it. But I do know that later, when I look back I will be able to know that this is where I was at this moment, and this is what I was trying to navigate, with these words, here, in this room, with you.
So — Smile.
It didn’t always work this way.
There is a time you have to get your hands dirty.
When you were in the dark, for most of it, fumbling was a given,
And you needed more contrast, more saturation,
Darker darks, and brighter brights.
They called it extended development.
It meant you spent longer inhaling chemicals,
Longer up to your wrist.
It wasn’t always easy.
Grandpa Stewart was a navy photographer.
Young, red-faced with the sleeves rolled up,
Fists of fingers like fat rolls of coins,
He looked like Popeye the sailor man, come to life.
Crooked smile, tuft of chest hair,
He showed up at World War II, with a smirk and a hobby.
When they asked him if he knew much about photography,
He lied, learned to read Europe like a map,
Upside down, from the height of a fighter plane,
Camera snapping, eyelids flapping, the darkest darks
And brightest brights.
He learned war like he could read his way home.
When other men returned, they would put their weapons out to rest,
But he, brought the lenses and the cameras home with him.
Opened a shop, turned it into a family affair.
My father was born into this world of black and white.
His basketball hands learned the tiny clicks and slides
Of lens into frame, film into camera,
Chemical into plastic bin.
His father knew the equipment but not the art.
He knew the darks but not the brights.
My father learned the magic, spent his time following light.
Once he traveled across the country to follow a forest fire,
Hunted it with his camera for a week.
“Follow the light,” he said.
“Follow the light.”
There are parts of me I only recognize from photographs.
The loft on Wooster street with the creaky hallways,
The twelve-foot ceilings, the white walls and cold floors.
This was my mother’s home, before she was mother.
Before she was wife, she was artist.
And the only two rooms in the house,
With walls that reached all the way up to the ceiling,
And doors that opened and closed,
Were the bathroom and the dark room.
The dark room she built herself, with custom made
Stainless steel sinks, an 8 by 10 bed enlarger
That moved up and down by a giant hand crank,
A bank of color balanced lights,
A white glass wall for viewing prints,
A drying rack that moved in and out from the wall.
My mother built herself a dark room.
Made it her home.
Fell in love with a man with basketball hands,
With the way he looked at light.
They got married. Had a baby.
Moved to a house near a park.
But they kept the loft at Wooster street
For birthday parties and treasure hunts.
The baby tipped the gray scale.
Filled her parents’ photo albums with red balloons
And yellow icing.
The baby grew into a girl without freckles,
With a crooked smile,
Who didn’t understand why her friends did not have dark rooms in their houses,
Who never saw her parents kiss,
Who never saw them hold hands.
But one day, another baby showed up.
This one with perfect straight hair and bubble gum cheeks.
They named him sweet potato.
When he laughed, he laughed so loudly,
he scared the pigeons on the fire escape
And the four of them lived in that house near the park.
The girl with no freckles, and the sweet potato boy,
the basketball father, and the dark room mother
and they lit their candles, and they said their prayers,
and the corners of the photographs curled.
One day some towers fell
and the house near the park became a house under ash, so they escaped.
In backpacks, on bicycles to darkrooms but the loft of Wooster street
was built for an artist, not a family of pigeons
and walls that do not reach the ceiling
do not hold in the yelling
and a man with basketball hands put his weapons out to rest.
He could not fight this war and no maps pointed home.
His hands no longer fit his camera,
no longer fit his wife’s,
no longer fit his body.
The sweet potato boy mashed his fists into his mouth
until he had nothing more to say.
So, the girl without freckles went treasure hunting on her own.
And on Wooster street, in a building with a creaky hallways,
and a loft of the 12-foot ceiling
and a darkroom with too many sinks
under the color balance light, she found a note,
tacked to the wall thumb-tacked, left over from the times before towers,
from the time before babies.
And the note said: “A guy sure loves the girl who works in the darkroom.”
It was a year before my father picked up a camera again.
His first time out, he followed the Christmas lights,
dotting their way through New York City’s trees.
Tiny dots of light, blinking out of him from out of the darkest darks.
A year later he traveled across the country
to follow a forest fire,
stayed for a week hunting it with his camera,
it was ravaging the West Coast
eating 18-wheeler trucks in its stride.
On the other side of the country,
I went to class and wrote a poem on the margins of my notebook.
We have both learned the art of capture.
Maybe we are learning the art of embracing.
Maybe we are learning the art of letting go.