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Home » Why We Tell Stories by Phil Kaye (Transcript)

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


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.

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.

But the reason I loved impression was because it was an immediate story. Just by changing the tone, the pitch, the timber, all of a sudden I took on this entire context of belief, of feeling, and it was fun. And I go out with my sister at fast food places and be like, can I have a number four to go?

And I thought about why I did that? It was a pretty simple answer. It was to make my little sister laugh and I thought about – we have a lot of times we tell stories with this very simple intention – to entertain, to warn, to scare, to explain and that was getting me somewhere but not down to the real crux of why we’re all telling stories. And I still haven’t figured out yet.

But after reading a lot of books and talking to thousands of people, my best guess is that we tell stories to feel alive. Bear with me right?

We like to believe that our lives are incredibly predictable. Take me, for example, yesterday I woke up in my apartment in New York, took a bus to the airport, got on a plane. And I’m here. And in retrospect, this seems incredibly linear, incredibly predictable. But right here is all the options of what could have been. I could have taken a bus – different bus and met the love of my life; taken a different plane with propeller failure and the whole plane could have gone down. I could’ve woken up sick, never been here, never met any of you, any of these relationships that I’ve had from this day would have never happened. We like to think that we can plot our lives out but there’s this big deep unknowing out there – this deep chance and I think maybe subconsciously that makes us feel vulnerable; it’s scary and in the face of that great vulnerability, that’s where that impulse to tell stories comes from, to share, to connect, to figure out what it is to feel alive. To stand here – and say I stood here with these people today and I want to celebrate as Lieutenant Choi said so aptly I am somebody.

Story lets us carve our initials into the wet cement of this moment. And it does it so well because it not only celebrates vulnerability but it embodies vulnerability. The act of telling a story is a vulnerable act in and of itself.

This TED talk could suck. I’m not sure it doesn’t yet and that suckiness would bring out on the internet for years. And that’s terrifying but here I am and here are all these other people who have been so incredibly vulnerable and shared so much of themselves, all here trying to figure out what it means to be alive. In the face of this great unknowing of our future I think we tell stories to make a context of our path.

Think about it this way. You’re walking through a city you’ve never been in before. You’re taking in the sides, walking down the avenue, looking in the shop windows, getting the scent of these particular streets. And later you look at a map and you say, okay, I was here, I walked along here. I saw this. I like this. This was not okay.

I like to think of life as one big new city, and the people that live it well know exactly what the street now is smelling. Stories let us build our own maps. They give us context. They become our streets, our landmarks.

I know when my grandmother passed away that is a bell tower of grief in my map. The first time I found poetry spring in the center of my map and life is erupted all around.

So what does all this mean? We tell stories to make sense of this great unknown. What does that mean in terms of telling good stories? I would say it teaches us to embrace the vulnerability, embrace the risks, dare I say, to break out of predictability.

The best way to tell a good story is to live a good story. Talk to the person next to you on the bus, maybe they are the love of your life.

Another piece is to not be afraid to be vulnerable enough to tell your story. The biggest question I get anywhere I go and this is five-year-olds and 75-year-olds is how can I start? I love this art form, whether it’s poetry, storytelling, non-fiction writing but how do I start? And there’s this underlying question to that of what book do I need to read, what certain life experience do I need to have? What’s the right school I need to graduate from the start?

And my best most simple advice is to completely throw that out. That’s not what it’s about. People haven’t been telling stories for thousands of years to all get published in Harper’s. Let go of this idea of perfection because that’s not what it’s about, it is to connect, I think it is to make sense of what it is to be human.

And with that I want to end with this last poem. If it’s not eminently clear, I’m desperately trying to figure all of this out myself. And in doing so and in becoming a young man in the world, I’m thinking a lot about not on my own stories but the stories of the people around me, where I fit into that. And this story or the poem is for my grandfather’s and it’s

Ojīchama is what I call my Japanese grandfather.

In 1945 his Tokyo home was burned to the ground.

Granpy is what I call my American grandpa.

In 1945 he was serving in the USS Shangri-la,

sending off American bomber pilots to burn down Japanese houses.

Our jaws have not yet healed.


1906, Poland: Granpy’s father is hiding in an oven.

He doesn’t know the irony of that yet.

He’s heard men singing on the streets below—hyenas, my family calls them.

After celebration drinks and songs,

the outside townspeople come into the Jewish ghetto

for a celebration beating: molar fireworks and eyelid explosions.

Even when Granpy’s father grows up,

the sound of sudden song breaks his body into a sweat.

Fear of joy is the darkest of captivities.


1975, Tokyo: my father, the long haired student

with a penchant for sexual innuendo, meets Keiko Hori,

a well dressed banker which forgets the choruses to her favorite songs.

12 years later they give birth to a lengthy light bulb.


1999, California: my mother speaks to me in Japanese.

Most days I don’t have the strength to ask her to translate the big words.

“They’ve burned that house down, Mother. Don’t you remember?”


1771, Prague: in the heart of the city, there’s a Jewish cemetery:

the only plot of land where Granpy’s ancestors were allowed to be buried.

When they ran out of room, they had no choice but to stack dead bodies, one on top of another.

Now there are hills made from graves piled 12 deep; individual tombstones, jutting out crooked like valiant teeth, emerging from a jaw left to rot.


1985, my parent’s wedding: the two families sit together,

smiling wider than they need to. You must be so happy, we can [capi] let all go…


1999: I sit with Granpy’s cousin, 91 years old and dressed in full uniform.

I beg with him to until the knots in his brow.

He says: “Hate is a strong word. But it’s the only strength that I have left.

How am I to forgive the men that severed the trunk of my family tree, and used it as timber to warm the faces of their own children?”


2010: Granpy and I sit together watching his favorite — baseball.

In the infertile glow of the television I see his face wet.

Granpy sits on his wheelchair, teeth gasping out of his gums

like valiant tombstones emerging from a cemetery left to rot.

The teeth sit staring at me, and I can read them:

Louie Burgman, killed at Auschwitz.

Sarah Liz, killed at Dachau.

William Kaye, killed at the coast of Okinawa.


“I will never forget what is happened to our family, Granpy”,

and he looks at me with the surprised innocence of a child struck for the first time.


“Phillip, forgetting is the only gift I wish to give you.

I have given away my only son,

trying to bury my hate in a cemetery which is already overflowing.

There are nights I’m kept awake by the birthday songs of children I chose not to let live…

they all look like you. A plague on both your houses.

They have made worms’ meat of me.”


Thank you guys.


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