Why We Tell Stories by Phil Kaye (Transcript)

Phil Kaye at TEDxMiddlebury

Full text of Phil Kaye on Why We Tell Stories at TEDxMiddlebury conference

“Phil Kaye is a touring poet, published author, and co-director of Project V.O.I.C.E. He has appeared on NPR, performed at Lincoln Center, and most recently coached and performed on the 2011 Providence National Poetry Team, ranked third in the nation. His first book, A Light Bulb Symphony, was published in 2011, and his work can be found regularly in CHAOS Magazine.”

Listen to the MP3 Audio: Phil Kaye at TEDxMiddlebury – Why We Tell Stories


Hi. My name is Phil. And I want to start with a poem.

My mother taught me this trick

If you repeat something over and over again it loses its meaning

For example:

Homework, homework, homework, homework, homework, homework, homework, homework, homework

See, nothing

Our lives, she said, are the same way.

You watch the sun set too often, it just becomes 6 PM

You make the same mistake over and over; you’ll stop calling it a mistake

If you just

wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up,

one day you’ll forget why

I should’ve known nothing is forever

My parents left each other when I was 7 years old

Before their last argument they sent me off to the neighbor’s house,

like some astronaut jettisoned from the shuttle.

When I came back there was no gravity in our home,

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

Family, family, family, family, family, family

My mother taught me this trick

If you repeat something over and over again it loses its meaning

This became my favorite game

It made the sting of words evaporate.

Separation, separation, separation;

see, nothing

Apart, apart, apart;

see, nothing

I am an injured handyman now

I work with words all day

Shut up, I know the irony!

When I was young, I was taught that the trick to dominating language

was breaking it down

Convincing it that it was worthless

I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you;

See, nothing

Soon after my parents’ divorce, I developed a stutter

Fate is a cruel and efficient tutor

There is no escape in stutter

You feel the meaning of every word drag itself up your throat


Stutter is a cage made of mirrors

Every “What’d you say?”

Every “Come on kid, spit it out”

Is a glaring reflection of an existence that you cannot escape

Every awful moment trips over its own announcement


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Again and again until it just hangs there in the center of the room

As if what you had to say had no gravity at all.

Mom, Dad,

I am not wasteful with my words anymore.

Even now after hundreds of hours of practicing away my stutter,

I can still feel the claw of meaning in the bottom of my throat.

Listen to me, I have heard that even in space;

You can hear the scratch of an

I-I-I-I love you.

Thank you. Thank you.

So once again I am Phil. I’m a full-time spoken word poet. And if you don’t know that means, that’s totally okay. A lot of times I say that and people say things like what is that? Is that even a job? How do you support yourself? And by people I generally mean my family and friends.

And the short answer of what I do, in a nutshell, is I tell stories. And I’ve been incredibly lucky at a relatively young age to be able to support myself doing it. I co-run our organization with the best friend that – another TED – Sarah Kay, no relation, and we get to travel around nationally and internationally performing and teaching spoken word poetry workshops, helping people tell the stories that they want to tell.

Now I said I tell stories, but it’s a bit of a misnomer because all of us tell stories. I have a bit of an advantage especially in a place like this where I’m standing up. You’re sitting down. I’m in the place that we’ve all agreed as stage. Most of the time before I speak, somebody says a lot of really nice things about me that I write. But we’re all constantly exchanging our own narratives. Right? We do it all the time. We do it on the phone; we do it online. We do it in coffee shops. We do it with people we love. We do it with people we just met for the first time. And I’m really fascinated by this.

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And a lot of the work I do with Project V.O.I.C.E. centers around this question of how do you tell a good story? And there’s a lot of very tangible elements – topic, structure, diction. And as I was working with more and more people and hearing hundreds and hundreds of stories, I became obsessed with this different question – this deeper question – which is why we tell stories? For thousands of years, almost every human culture has been telling stories. What moved me to get up in front of a room-full of people I’ve never met and talk about a period in my life that for many years I just want to wish it never happened.

And it’s not just a historical thing or an artist thing. We all do it but why do we have a tradition of reading bedtime stories to our children? You know, why do we get online and spill these narratives about ourselves to people we don’t know very well or may never well meet?

And this is a real question that I really ask myself. And to be totally honest I couldn’t come up with an answer and I had a big freak-out moment. Here I was, I had this career and I couldn’t answer this simple question of why do I tell stories. Was it all just self-indulgence? You know when I’m feeling very cynical and people ask me, what’s it like to be spoken word poet, I’d be like it’s like the opposite of a therapist – therapist you pay the money, you sit down, you tell him your problems. Spoken-word poet, you pay me money, you sit down, I tell you my problems – which I didn’t believe.

And I thought do I – no, I don’t believe. Then what was it? Then what? Then, then what was it?

And I struggled and I went back and forth and I searched and I thought and I thought back to my own first experience. Some of my first experiences with stories were impression. I loved it. So I came home after watching the Pirates of the Caribbean – minus breakfast which was weird.

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