Mariah Carey blasts through cheap headphones as you walk down the street. Bikers careen by yelling at you to “move your skinny ass.” You pass a man sporting a fishnet t-shirt. These are the images that launched spoken word poet Phil Kaye’s reading last week.
Students had lined the old chestnut pews of Memorial Chapel early Saturday evening in anticipation for the arrival of Phil Kaye. Kaye’s work has been featured globally: he’s performed before the Dalai Lama and has written two poems that received National Poetry Slam Awards for Pushing the Art Forward.
The first piece Kaye read embraces the sweat and distinct attitude of sweltering New York City summers. Expressing a heated love for the big city, this poem set the show’s calm but emotionally charged tone. In it, Kaye converts New York’s stereotyped facade as the city of rudeness and absurdity into a testimony of its solidarity and empathy–one in which the shouts of speeding bicyclists are full of genuine concern for others and where it is an envied attribute when a man pulls off a fishnet shirt.
Kaye drifted from poem to poem by way of charming anecdotes, which gave the night a rolling, conversational flow. Many of the stories appeared tailored to the crowd, a couple even taking place with a friend of his at Wesleyan (both involved drugs, one ending with the friend spectacularly vomiting in a McDonald’s parking lot). The stories not only built an intimacy between Kaye and the audience, but also allowed for comic relief from emotionally heavy subjects present throughout his poems.
The next poem looked backwards, beginning with an account of the poet’s younger self attempting to understand why his Jewish and Japanese heritage seemed to create a barrier between a younger Kaye and Santa Claus. This piece eventually pivoted to centering on an experience at Jewish summer camp, where his heritage’s isolating effects suddenly melted into feelings of uplifting solidarity he felt amongst his peers.
In another piece, Kaye offered a poignant behind-the-scenes glimpse into the life of the famed GEICO gecko. By performing a startlingly accurate impersonation of the reptilian celebrity, Kaye looked beyond the little lizard’s recognition in the car insurance industry to parse the difference between the appearance of success and what it means to be successful as an individual.
The gecko poem reflected one of Kaye’s key style features: a sort of reverse bathos where the absurd swiftly condenses into meaning and the audience quickly goes from laughter to tears. As the night rolled on, the collapse of emotions into one another often focused on exploring the subtleties that differentiate hate and empathy. He pursued this hateful theme with abandon, elaborating on both his Jewish and Japanese ancestries’ views on World War II and trying to discover what it is to be an American in a country that keeps telling you you aren’t.
In one poem titled “Suburbia,” Kaye contrived the performance’s most vivid and terrifying image. The poem takes place in the California suburbs, from which the narrator watches a city whimper at a distance as it lies on an operating table, its body crinkled from years of smoking, its chest projecting tumorous skyscrapers.
Ultimately, Kaye’s poems speak to what it is to be an individual in an era where the powerful force of hate seems as unstoppable as global warming. As seas and walls rise simultaneously, his work is becoming, sadly, evermore relevant.
This event was hosted by the Adelphic Educational Fund, the English Department, and the Creative Writing Department. Kaye’s book, “A Light Bulb Symphony,” is sold by most major retailers.
The following day, Kaye hosted a workshop on spoken word poetry. At 11 a.m., a group of students streamed into Usdan 110 to learn the tricks of the trade in writing and performing poetry.
Sunday morning is admittedly not the peak time to inspire creativity within a group of college students, which Kaye quickly picked up on. While waiting for a few latecomers, he asked if any of us had anything interesting to share from the past week. We all sat in silence for several seconds and, teasingly, he commented: “Well, this is gonna go well as a workshop, then.” We laughed and loosened up a bit, contributing more as time passed.
He started out with a simple exercise: “At the top of your piece of paper, I want you to write, ‘Three Things That I Know To Be True.’” He laid out some simple parameters, namely, that they should be true to us, specifically. He went on to say that, if we wanted, we could go beyond the prescribed three, which immediately signaled that his rules were made to be broken. Kaye’s casual environment encouraged students to experiment with their work and share it with the group.
Although he was clearly the expert, sprinkling bits of learned wisdom throughout, he motivated us to explore different ways of expressing ourselves without condescension or snobbery. Kaye laid out the three questions that a poet answers before presenting a poem to an audience: “What do I write about?” “How do I write about it?” and, finally, “How do I perform it?” Answering his own first question, he simply said, “[Write about] whatever the hell you want.” His tendency to perform using the absurd and personal to make broader, poignant statements comes across most strongly in his approach to spoken word poetry, where a powerful piece can take root in any experience.
We went through a few more writing exercises, keeping the second of the three questions in mind. We paused after each to have a few volunteers share and receive feedback, and the writing portion of the workshop culminated in a draft of a poem. We then all stood and practiced the performance aspect of spoken word poetry, pairing actions with single words from our poems, experimenting with different forms of performance.
As the workshop came to an end, Kaye opened up the room for questions from participants. He gave advice on drafting and editing, verbally sketching out a metaphor as a figure that has a head on each shoulder. The head on the left shoulder, he said, should have the voice of someone extremely encouraging in your life–for him, his mother. During initial drafts, he advised us to listen to that voice and get everything on the page. Believe that all ideas are good ideas. Then, when revising, let the head on the right shoulder constructively criticize. He suggested that a balance between the two was key for good writing. Kaye also reiterated that creativity and writing require practice to develop, and that writing every day has been critical to his success and growth as a performer.
I left the workshop with a rant-like piece about the shower schedule at the sleep-away camp that I went to when I was younger. It’s not anywhere close to performance or even workshop-ready, but hearing his suggestions on writing and performing was valuable, though perhaps not unique from that of other poets. Still, finding uncommon advice is not nearly as important as finding useful advice.
Both the exchange of ideas with other students and Kaye’s support of our writing created a motivating, inspirational atmosphere. He exposed his own fears about public speaking and discussed the strange experience of revealing personal details to a room full of strangers, obscured by stage lights. He was honest and open, setting an important example for the rest of us. Perhaps the most significant piece of advice that he left us with was that the audience does not want the performer to fail. I think it’s safe to say that Kaye did not disappoint, as a performer or as an instructor, leaving us with higher level of confidence and determination to pursue our writing.