Q&A with Keith Mar

Updated: Jun 4, 2019

We have been fortunate to feature spoken-word poet Keith Mar, who shared his unforgettable poetry at Out Loud's May 2019 and October 2018 readings. We were interested to learn more about the process for generating and practicing spoken-word poetry, and grateful to Keith for his thoughtful and in-depth answers. Read on to learn more about Keith and his process, his worldview, and the heart that goes into every single word he shares!

You perform spoken-word poetry, which is different from poetry and prose that lives on the page. Can you tell us a little bit about your process? 

Writing poetry is a relatively new and mysterious  process I’ve undertaken in the last few years that often feels a bit frightening, if I’m honest. Frightening in the sense that when I first put my toe in the literary waters, it was as if a foreign entity had hijacked the part of me that creates words and images. At times, it felt as if I’m merely taking dictation. I suspect my feelings will evolve over time. As will be apparent, I have sought comfort in the sage words of many artists on the creative process, such as Austin Keon who states, “Ask anyone doing truly creative work and they’ll tell you the truth: They don’t know where the good stuff comes from. They just show up and do their thing. Everyday.” 

Having said that, I suspect whether for the page or the stage, my writing would have the same genesis. I have  discovered a deep and  profound need to express what has been the  unspoken or even the unspeakable, to excavate the censored and muted voice within me. This would be true whether the audience were readers or listeners sharing intimate space with me. 

For example, my poem Erasure, which I shared at my first OUT LOUD reading dealt with rising above painful childhood experiences with racism. I was waking at 4am with memories that would cyclically resurface for decades and then be  banished back into unconsciousness because of the shame I felt. However, this time, a voice urged me to write it across the public “blackboard,” to use Adrienne Rich’s word, if I was ever to be whole. It  resonates powerfully within me when she says “We should write as if our lives depended on it, certain words that are dredged; sieved up in dreams, from behind screen memories, out of silence---words you have dreaded and needed in order to know you exist.”

Furthermore, I return often to the words of Brene Brown when she says "Shame derives its power from being unspeakable,  if we speak shame it begins to wither….. language and story  bring light to shame and destroy it.” Her  beautiful words describe my poetic process and for me, at least, the power of poetry to heal. 

At the same time, I’m fascinated  with the act of writing or creating art as a transformative process. As a psychotherapist, I’m drawn to who we are becoming as we create. What happens to us as we become more authentic and willing to risk being  sufficiently vulnerable to express it? My creative process mirrors what Eric Maisel describes,  “An artist feels vulnerable to begin with and yet the only answer is to recklessly discard more armor.” This has been my truth. 

I have found removing the armor has opened me  to unanticipated riches and blessings. I see my life divided in two periods, BP and AP, before and after poetry. Since I began to my second life in poetry, I have discovered I am much more deeply moved by art, music and stories. I often am moved to tears. Moreover, speaking my truth in poetry has  encouraged me to speak my truth in my relationships with my wife, friends, in my work and with all other people. Being vulnerable in poetry has led to greater connection with others. 

The censored voice within me has often had to do with the anger I have not spoken or faced. For many, silence develops as means of survival but  as you learn later, it comes at a heavy psychological price. I have often been angered by demeaning depictions, portrayals and imagery of marginalized groups on TV and in the movies. Now instead of yelling at my TV,  I put it in a poem. I joke with my wife that I’m going to write a poem entitled Ten things I Yell at my TV!  Now that I have the title, I’m just waiting for the words.   The audience plays a crucial role in the performance of spoken word poetry, but at the same time, the audiences' involvement is one aspect that is completely beyond your control. What do you try and do to engage your audience and keep them involved throughout a performance?

Yes, the audience plays a crucial role. The ethos of spoken word poetry is that it is interactive and  participatory. The audience and the performer share the same universe. Poet Sarah Kay beautifully describes the experience of seeing a  live performance of poetry as ” the experience of sharing space, breath, time, and vulnerability with a room full of people all participating in art together.” 

What captures my imagination is  creating a safe,  intimate,  participatory and communal space through spoken word, in which it is safe for our stories to be seen and heard. To breach authentic, real and even uncomfortable human topics that are often felt but aren’t often discussed in polite conversation. These safe spaces can be healing and empowering  and the nurturing of them is equally  important to me as the creation of the poetry itself. 

By and large, one major difference between poetry meant for the page and that for the stage is that one is intended to be read and re-read while the other may only be heard once and must be digested and processed in a single exposure. For me, I attempt to create connection and intimacy with the audience in what may be my one opportunity. And, as is true in real life, we must allow ourselves to be seen, to be vulnerable, in order to foster connection.

My litmus test as to whether I’m being authentic is to ask if I’m afraid to death to say it. If so, then I know I am on the right track! So far, this principle has served to guide me  to the things that seem to create engagement with the crowd. What I need to say often requires me to be fearless and fierce. I often tell the crowd, “I need your help on this one,” and I mean it. 

Beyond that, I use my own reaction as a spectator to identify the elements of performance that are personally compelling and use it to inform my own performing. I am attuned to what hits me in the gut, moves and touches me and makes me tear up. Most often, it’s the  performers authenticity and vulnerability that evoke that, whether they be poets, singers, speakers or even stand-up comics. I cannot sing but I’ve always wished I could. But as I learn more about the performative aspects of poetry, I realize I can call on my voice, body and various devices to create a type of musicality. This is the closest I’ll ever get. We all derive pleasure from listening to  appealing  sounds. I try to use  my voice and body, along with aural imagery such as rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and other devices to engage the audience’s love of pleasurable sounds

I am also encouraged to be authentic as I can be by findings from neuroscience. We are social animals and our brains thrive sharing emotions with others. Our mirror neurons lead us to vicariously feel others emotions as if they are our ours. If I can genuinely touch my own emotions then I might  evoke a passionate response in others. I believe our brains capacity for empathy and emotion can even  lead to creating emotional bridges between different communities and social groups, to transcend the limits  of our own personal experiences. 

And what is very cool, is not only does a crowd feel a connection to the performer, when we humans experience  art, music or poetry in a communal context, we can feel a bond with those around us. We can feel we a part of something bigger than us. We laugh harder in a crowd than when alone. Maybe I saw this when my wife and I used to travel and give workshops. The size of the crowd often varied. We found the larger the crowd, the bigger the laughs for the same joke.

Finally, my speculation  is that at this time in our culture, we as a people are hungry for human connection. We are starving for authenticity and intimacy. I’ve read that poetry is more popular now and selling better than ever. I have a hunch more people are seeking in poetry, the authentic connection that is absent in our lives. 

Anything you're working on you'd like to share a little about?

I’m very excited about a recent a presentation I gave on Asian American identity, masculinity and representation. It was a new format for me consisting of my poetry, dialogue and video. I’m intrigued with exploring the  possibilities there. I’m also planning on doing a follow-up poetry writing workshopI have a poem that’s been incubating longer than any other I’ve ever worked on that I’d like to complete just  to be done with it. Its been a challenge as it has seemed a topic  too nuanced to get right, too small an eye in the needle to fit the thread through.  I hope to finish it.  A singer-songwriter friend of me are talking about  a collaboration. I once had the honor of collaborating with a classical composer friend who is a pianist and performing it in concert. I would love to try my hand with another musical project.  If you were stuck on a desert island for the rest of your life with only one book, what would you want that book to be? If I’m there for the rest of my life, I can see myself having a desire for less intellectually taxing and more entertaining fare, so I’ll go with a childhood favorite, the complete Sherlock Holmes.  If you had to get a tattoo of a quote from a literary work, what quote would you choose? 

I don’t like pain, so it would have to be short. 

As a basketball player trying to keep up with the young hoopers, there’s a Seneca quote that encourages me, “We don’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing.”

Any words of wisdom for writers who are thinking about submitting to Out Loud?

Submit! Submit! Submit! Don’t be afraid. The world may be waiting to hear your words!  

What did we forget to ask you that we wish we would have? As I mentioned before, spoken word has been a platform which allowed me to share things that aren’t normally discussed. So I’m  grappling with the role of poetry in raising issues we should speak about. For example, John F. Kennedy’s  words from the sixties are extremely apropos today. He stated, “When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.” The question I ask is, how can we create poetry powerful enough to accomplish those goals as poets and good citizens today in our current climate? 

Another question I ask, is what is my proper role and how can I create poetry that delivers  the message powerfully that representation matters? A Junot Diaz quote that packs a punch personally is, "If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at any cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” I identify with this thought so deeply, I make reference to it in one of my poems. And the child development research bears this out. In order for children to have a positive sense of self-worth, they must see themselves in the media. Moreover, not only must they see themselves to feel they matter, they need to see positive images of themselves as well.

For most of my life, like many people from marginalized groups of all kinds, we grew up not seeing ourselves in movies, books, or on tv. And what is  curious to me, is that my absence, my lack of presence was not seen either. I call that phenomenon the invisibility of my invisibility. My longing for representation has led me to join the Asian American History Committee of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation. Our mission is to explore the untold stories and authentic Asian American experiences through annual events such as an Asian American Film Series, coming soon in July and theAsian American Neighborhood Festival every October. We are very excited  to be celebrating our tenth anniversary. For more information: https://www.sbthp.org

So for me, when I take the stage I embody the representation I so hungered for growing up. In my view, it’s so important to create and perform art that allows people to see themselves.  It’s making the statement, “There are people like me, below the radar, with stories to tell. We have  a history, a richness, depth, vitality and nuance to our lives beyond the usual easy and lazy portrayals. Our stories matter. And we matter. And our stories are American stories” When we create art that is inclusive, we capture the spirit of a quote I love by  spoken word poet Sarah Kay when she says, "Poetry is a house with enough rooms for all.” 

Keith Mar  is a spoken word poet who works in images, colors, and unflinchingly honest personal stories. His poetry asks questions about race, identity, self-love, and social justice. Intensely personal, his work seeks moments of emotional connection through the depiction of universal experiences. 

 Keith believes that spoken word can build bridges between communities, help celebrate roots and inspire a sense of social connection at a time our culture is urgently in need of it.  Keith has been an invited poet and speaker at art exhibits, literary readings, ethnic festivals, cultural celebrations, political events, benefits, national podcasts on race, television and radio programs, numerous universities, graduate programs, and national conferences. As a psychotherapist and diversity trainer, he has found his poetry to be a powerful vehicle to enhance the cultural awareness of the graduate students in his multicultural counseling classes.