The best spark of creativity? Letting go and simply observing
MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
We want to close today's show with an investigation into the very nebulous concept of creativity and how the mind formulates its most beautiful and inspiring ideas.
SARAH KAY: Sometimes people imagine, you know, sitting down at a blank page and going, OK, world, inspire me now. That might work for some people, but it certainly has rarely worked for me.
ZOMORODI: This is poet Sarah Kay. And before she does any writing, Sarah says she does lots of observing.
KAY: Because poetry has been a part of my life since I was quite small, it is in my brain as a filter through which I look at the world, which means that as I'm just wandering about in my life, there's part of me that's always looking for little moments of, oh. I don't know what else to call it. I used to use the metaphor of, like, puzzle pieces that I'd be moving through my life and then look down and see a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle on the ground. And I just collect these little moments, which could be in the form of memory. It could be in the form of an image. But I hold onto them. And sometimes when I put them on the table, I'm able to go, oh, all of these things are in service of one line of questioning, or sometimes it's not obvious to me how they fit together. And for a long time, I've used poem as a verb - in my life, anyway. I poem my way through things. And poem-ing involves handing the reins over to my curiosity and my feelings without trying to dictate where it goes.
ZOMORODI: Back in 2019, you read one of your poems on the TED stage. It's called "A Bird Made Of Birds." And it sounded like you came to that poem with a similar process of putting together the puzzle pieces.
KAY: Yeah. So my friend Kaveh, who is himself a wonderful poet, found this photograph where scientists had dissected a blue whale, and in the dissection, they took the heart out of the whale and hung it on a hook from the ceiling, which is how they were able to see that the heart of a blue whale is big enough that a person can fit inside of it. And when Kaveh saw this image, he shared it with the caption, this is a reminder that the universe has already written the poem you were planning on writing. And that phrase really stuck with me. And I was first shaken by it and almost indignant about it, quietly to myself, because I was like, oh, no.
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KAY: I was horrified. I was like, come on, man. I'm trying to discover beauty that hasn't been discovered yet. What do you mean the universe is always going to get there before me? And I know this isn't a uniquely poet problem. But on days when the world feels especially big or especially full of grandeur, those are the days when I feel, what do I possibly have to contribute? Not long ago, I saw this video that makes the internet rounds every couple of months. There are these birds that are called starlings, and they fly in what's called a murmuration. And at first, it's just an amorphous blob. And then there's a moment where the birds shift, and they form the shape of a starling in the sky. And as soon as I saw it, I was like, the universe has already written the poem you were planning on writing.
KAY: Except for the first time, it didn't fill me with despair. Instead, I thought, OK, maybe it's not my job to invent something new. Maybe instead it's my job to listen to what the universe is showing me so that when it's my turn, I can hold something to the light, just for a moment, just for as long as I have. The universe has already written the poem that you were planning on writing. You can do nothing but point at the flock of starlings whose bodies rise and fall in inherited choreography, swarming the sky in a sweeping curtain that, for one blistering moment, forms the unmistakable shape of a giant bird flapping against the sky. It is why your mouth forms an oh, but is not a gasp, but rather the beginning of, oh, of course - as in, of course, the heart of a blue whale is as large as a house, with chambers tall enough to fit a person standing. Of course, a fig becomes possible when a lady wasp lays her eggs inside a flower, dies and decomposes, the fruit evidence of her transformation.
Sometimes the poem is so bright, your silly language will not stick to it. Sometimes the poem is so true nobody will believe you. I am a bird made of birds. This blue heart, a house you can stand up inside of. I am dying here inside this flower. It is OK. It is what I was put here to do. Take this fruit. It is what I have to offer. It may not be first or ever best, but it is the only way to be sure that I lived at all.
ZOMORODI: Oh, Sarah, that's so beautiful. I've listened to it so many times.
KAY: Thank you. Can I tell you a sweet epilogue of this poem?
ZOMORODI: Oh, please. Yes.
KAY: So since then, something that happens to me often is that strangers will let me know when strange phenomena is happening in nature, which is one of the loveliest accidental consequences of a poem that I've ever had. So, for example, scientists strapped a shark with GPS to follow the shark's movements, and then when they looked on the map, the shark had drawn a shark.
ZOMORODI: No, come on. Come on.
KAY: (Laughter) And everybody was like, Sarah, have you seen the shark made of shark? And I was like, thank you. Thank you so much. But even beyond that, they found these bees that live off of human tears. There's a beach in Okinawa, and each individual grain of sand is actually an exoskeleton from protozoa that lived millions of years ago.
ZOMORODI: Oh, wow.
KAY: And they look like tiny individual stars. That's definitely going to end up in a poem.
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KAY: I wander the world already, looking for these moments and experiences and phenomena that make me amazed and fill me with awe and fill me with wonder and questions, not just as poetry fodder but as reasons to wake up in the morning and reasons to stay curious and stay fascinated with the world.
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ZOMORODI: That was poet and educator Sarah Kay. You can watch her full talk at ted.com.
Thank you so much for listening to Part 1 of our series - Mind, Body, Spirit. Next week...
RYAN HEFFINGTON: Let's try it.
ZOMORODI: Let's try it.
It's Part 2.
Oh, I'm stiff.
HEFFINGTON: So we're going to stand up. We're here. Shake your shoulders out. Get the tension out of your upper body. Shake one leg. Lift it off the ground. Shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake.
ZOMORODI: We are shaking with choreographer Ryan Heffington.
HEFFINGTON: Reach your arms up over your head. Open your armpits.
ZOMORODI: We'll also dive into how we respond when our bodies change in front of our own eyes and learn about an unusual way to talk about consent and pleasure. This one's going to get you moving.
HEFFINGTON: We're just punching the ceiling, up and up and up and up. Now shake your booty as you do it.
HEFFINGTON: This is serious.
ZOMORODI: Don't miss more of our special series, Mind, Body Spirit, new ideas that can change the way you think, move and feel.
Someone just walked by, and I smiled and waved.
HEFFINGTON: See? See?
ZOMORODI: And they gave me a big smile back.
HEFFINGTON: (Laughter) Alchemy.
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ZOMORODI: This episode was produced by Katie Monteleone, Harsha Nahata, Andrea Gutierrez and Fiona Geiran. It was edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour and me. Our production staff at NPR also includes Rachel Faulkner White, James Delahoussaye, Matthew Cloutier and Julia Carney. Beth Donovan is our executive producer. Our intern is Susannah Broun. Special thanks this week to Mickey Capper and Malvika Dang. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our audio engineers were Stacey Abbott, Joshua Newell, Valentina Rodriguez Sanchez and Neil Tevault. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint, Jimmy Gutierrez and Daniella Balarezo. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
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