Meet Kathryn Speckles, or “K-Specks” as she’s known to many on campus, though the spellings of her nickname can vary. You may have seen her rap at Spotlight as a part of Vandy Spoken Word, but she can also be found singing in Voce A Cappella, interviewing applicants for the McGill Project as co-Vice President of campus outreach or interning at a medical malpractice firm. The Hustler sat down with the junior to learn about what she does with Vandy Spoken Word, what it’s like living in McGill, and her involvement in an international scavenger hunt.
1. When did you first become interested in spoken word and what drew you to it?
So, this is actually a very funny story. I didn’t start doing spoken word until I got to college. I saw VSW perform at Spotlight and thought, “wow, they did some cool stuff, but that’s definitely not something I could actually do, that’s just not my domain.” So I was coming back one day from some sort of audition, probably an a capella audition, and ran into my friend Charles. Charles was like “hey, K-Specks, I’m going to this VSW meeting. I’m gonna be late, so you need to come with me so that I’m not the only person showing up late.” I was like, “how about no, I have homework,” but Charles said “no, you have to come with me.” So I went to the meeting. Because I got there late I didn’t have to do the activity they were doing– they had people acting out song lyrics as if they were spoken word––so it was super cool for me to watch and the people there were really nice, and I figured maybe I’d stick around and come back for another meeting, and then I thought maybe I could do this. I’ve always had this tendency to write very poetic prose or very prosaic poetry, which is a horrible combination, but spoken word lets you merge the two, which I thought was really interesting. And turns out I’m someone who has a lot of opinions, so this gave me a way to write out that stuff too.
I was terrified to perform at actual VSW stuff, though, because everyone else was so good. So my first ever spoken word piece I performed at a McGill coffeehouse. It was a series of 9 poems I had written that all kind of worked together as one piece but stood alone, too. And the McGill people were really supportive and enthusiastic. So then I started performing at VSW open mic, they liked it, and I kinda got sucked up into the organization. Now, here I am, vice president. Charles isn’t even in the group anymore, which I think is hilarious. Basically, it was a huge long string of lucky coincidences.
2. Was Spotlight the first time you rapped in front of an audience?
No it was not. The first time was at VSW showcase freshman year. That year we had kind of a plot to our piece in which I was dating both of the guys who were in the piece with me and they had just found out about it. So it started with the two of them rapping against each other trying to win me over, and then I was like “yo, guys, chill out” and then they turn on me and start rapping at me like “why were you cheating on me, you’ve gotta decide which one of us you want” and in the last verse I dissed both of them, decided I didn’t want either of them, and walked off with the beatboxer. My signature line from that piece was, “you’re a bike, I’m a Bugatti, I need someone more my speed.”
3. Did you write your rap yourself?
Of course– I wouldn’t perform someone else’s stuff.
4. What were people’s reactions like to your performance?
Performing for the freshmen was more exciting than performing for the upperclassmen. The freshmen were just a really great crowd–they had the wildest reactions I’ve ever heard. I actually had to stop at some points because people were cheering so loudly you couldn’t hear what I was going to be saying next, which was super exciting, I’ve never had that happen before. And then I delivered that notorious last line and the crowd erupted, people were standing up and screaming. I’ve never had a reaction that big before. It was mind-boggling to see it happen. Afterwards, too, people were coming up and saying, “you just… you killed me with that last line! I was dying!” and I was like, “yeah, I was dying too.” I had some friends afterwards who were very surprised– some people I’m in choir with, which is a very classical setting– they were showing up and saying “I didn’t know you could do stuff like that” and “holy crap, K-Specks, where’d that come from?” I was like “well, when I’m not in choir I do this thing called VSW.”
They were showing up and saying “I didn’t know you could do stuff like that” and “holy crap, K-Specks, where’d that come from?”
5. Sometimes Vandy Spoken Word’s pieces shine a light on social justice issues. How do you think this affects dialogue on campus about these issues?
I think the fact that we do perform pieces on so many major issues in some ways really helps advance dialogue on campus and get people started talking about things that they should be, because we do perform at events with lots of clubs related to major social issues. We had someone performing a piece about race in America today at the BSA Carnival, last year we had people performing mental health awareness pieces during the mental health awareness week. So we do things in conjunction with a lot of groups around campus, and even in our showcase we had a piece about sexual assault, I was in a piece about mental illness. We had pieces about race in Hollywood and film and stuff. We like to put ideas out there that sometimes people don’t necessarily want to discuss in person. I think seeing someone perform it on stage is a good way to get you both thinking about your opinions and then articulating those opinions later.
But I think one of the disappointing things is that we do a lot of stuff that has the potential to cause a lot of change, but because spoken word is kind of a niche area, there’s a lot of people who won’t come to it unless it’s associated with something else. Last year we hosted an event called Writing in the Margins which was co-sponsored by Hidden Dores, Lambda and Vandy Fems, typically marginalized communities talking about issues that are very important to their community as a whole. The event was great but the turnout was pretty low because the only people that showed up were the people who were already members of those communities, so the people who would have benefitted from hearing those stories didn’t feel as much of a need to come out and see it. So we’re a catalyst for change when people are willing to see it, but we’re still trying to get a larger presence on campus.
6. Last April, Vandy Spoken Word won the Southern Word Mid-South Grand Slam. Are you planning to compete in other poetry slams this year?
We are definitely planning to compete in that one again. It’s every year roughly around April. We’ve also been entertaining the idea of participating in CUPSI [College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational]. That’s the national level poetry slam for college students specifically. That’s been something that’s been on our radar as an organization for the past couple years, but especially with last year we’ve been trying to get involved with it, if not this year then next year for sure.
7. How has doing spoken word changed you? Has it changed any of your ideas about yourself, Vanderbilt, or the world in general?
In general, as an experience, spoken word is an interesting vehicle for talking about things that you might not want to talk to people to their faces about– not just social issues, but saying personal things about yourself. It’s the equivalent of getting up on stage and telling someone your heart’s contents, or a very significant part of your life story that you normally wouldn’t want to just hand out to someone but because it’s rendered in metaphors and pretty rhymes and other things, it suddenly seems more acceptable to say– like, talking about mental illness or talking about heartbreak or talking about the intense pressures of fitting in and keeping up in Vanderbilt culture. Things that are important to who I am as a person but that I wouldn’t want to say in person. I think it’s kind of powerful to be able to say things like that and be able to receive such tremendous positive feedback from it. Like most performing art things, no one’s going to come up to you afterwards and say “wow, I hated your piece” but someone will say “wow, that really resonated with me. This was something that I’ve experienced too.” In getting up there and doing something by yourself you start to realize that you’re not necessarily alone.
8. What is it like living in McGill and what does it mean to you?
McGill’s a fantastic place. As I mentioned earlier, my first ever spoken word piece, I performed at a McGill coffeehouse. It was kind of a lucky string of coincidences that I discovered McGill in the first place. At first I thought I just really liked it as a place but thought I could never live there. I started hanging around the place a bit and realized that the people who lived there were actually really nice and the campus rumors about “oh, the fourth floor is toptional and everyone smokes pot and disables their smoke detectors”– that’s not what McGill is really about. It gets this reputation as being the place for like, really crazy anarchists and potheads and people who are too weird to fit in anywhere else on campus. I think that’s not quite right– we are all weird, but who isn’t weird on this campus? It’s also the nicest, most accepting community of people I think I’ve ever met. It’s like a weird little family, granted it’s got some more traditional nuclear families and lots of extended crazy aunts and uncles, but we all kind of fit together in this nice little McGill framework. Now that I’ve become VP of selections, which I guess shows how much I’ve become involved with this project we’re now working on getting other people involved as well. McGill is the friendliest dorm on campus that you can live in– it’s more than just a place to live, it’s a place to find a new family, almost.
We are all weird, but who isn’t weird on this campus?
9. What did you do last summer?
Last summer I was interning at a medical malpractice law firm in downtown Chicago. I’ve been considering a lot of different career fields, so the past few couple summers I’ve been trying out lots of different things. I found out I really did enjoy law, I’m not entirely sure it’s something I want to do as a career, but it was a really exciting internship to have. Half the time I got to go down to the courtroom and just watch trials, which was really interesting. It’s not exactly like they show in movies, which I think everyone expected, but it’s also not as boring as people seem to think it is in real life.
I also participated in a weeklong international scavenger hunt for charity, which was crazy and super cool. I was on a team of 15 people, and we had some people in Australia, some people in Belgium, got a list of 200 really weird items and went and completed as many of them as we could. The hunt is called GISHWHES– Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen– and it was my third year doing it, first year on a competitive team. It’s run by the actor Misha Collins in conjunction with the charity Random Acts. I got to do some weird things, I had a 7-year-old do my hair and makeup and choose my clothes and then I went to the store with her. Fun fact: if you tell her she can do whatever she wants she will play tic-tac-toe on your forehead in eyeliner and put 3 or 4 different headbands on you and make you were two different heels of two different heights. That was fun. We covered the bus stop outside Trump Tower with Post-it notes and then we used different-colored ones to spell out the words “Love Trumps Hate” on the three panels of it. It was super fun and I hope it brightened some commuter’s day.
I also did a rap, actually, as Rosalind Franklin, and got a lot of positive feedback on that one, too, because any rap about Rosalind Franklin is obviously great. Ending any piece with “I got no Nobel Prize, just ovarian cancer” really seals the deal on that one.
10. What should the world know about you?
At Vanderbilt there’s this super over-involvement thing, and I’m totally guilty of it too. Most people just know me because I’m in Vandy Spoken Word or because I live in McGill which I shamelessly promote to people all the time. I’m also a team leader with VSVS, I’ve done ASB the past two years and I’m in a random leadership program right now. In the past I’ve been involved with Voce A Cappela, I was involved with the after-school program. Sometime last year I realized I was doing too much stuff and it looked like I was trying to be a resume-builder, which is not true, I actually just really like doing too many things. But I realized it was just not good for me or anybody involved because you’d always be shortchanging one group, leaving their meeting early to get to the meeting for the next one. I’d be staying up late doing homework at all hours. I think at Vanderbilt we have this idea that everyone has to be involved with everything all the time, and that’s not what you need to be doing with your life. I’m slowly trying to buy out of the overachiever culture at Vanderbilt. I think one of the biggest pieces of advice I’d probably give to anybody, especially first years, is go ahead and try out a bunch of things, but also know when to drop things that are just not meaningful enough for you so you can actually put everything you have into one thing instead of turning into this octopus person trying to do everything at once. Since I’ve started scaling things back now, I actually have time to write new pieces for VSW, and I have time to sit around with friends and watch movies.