Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai is a Taiwanese American spoken word artist originally from Chicago and currently based in Brooklyn. Her work often addresses the complexities of race, culture, gender and sexuality. She has appeared on three sesasons of HBO's
Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry
and toured all around the world. She is the author of numerous books, most recently
No Sugar Please
in 2008, and she has released two CDs,
in 2007 and
Further She Wrote
APA: How did you first get involved in spoken word?
Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai: I've always been into writing and performing ever since I was a little kid. I had a high school English teacher who used to take a group of us to the bars in Chicago to watch poetry slams when I was about 14 or 15, and and I've been writing and performing spoken word poetry ever since.
The teachers used to organize poetry slams at our high school, which was pretty rare back then, and I started organizing open mics and poetry slams regularly in college. I also started a women of color spoken word group when I was in college with four of my friends. partly in response to racially-motivated hate crimes that were going on in that area. So for me, poetry, politics, and my own personal life have been pretty deeply intertwined for as long as I can remember.
APA: What does the spoken word genre allow you to do that you can't do with other creative mediums?
KZT: I think spoken word allows a lot of possibilities that are more challenging to pull off in other creative mediums. In spoken word poetry, the actual words, the artistry of the words, and the message of the words are critically important. A lot of times when people listen to music, they listen to a song for years without knowing what it's actually about. In spoken word, the desire is for the audience to feel, understand, learn, know exactly what you're talking about emotionally and intellectually at that instant -- and hopefully with a deepening impact as time goes on.
In formats like stand-up comedy, stand-up comics are expected to deliver laughs. If they don't deliver laughs, they haven't done their job for the most part, but in spoken word poetry we have the opportunity to explore the whole gamut of the emotional palette from laughter to sorrow to embarrassment to pride to anger to joy. It's all available to us as poets, and it's our job to craft the words and the performance such that you can feel all of these diverse experiences through our sound and sense in the here and now.
APA: Can you describe what you're going to perform at the "State of the Word: Asian American Spoken-Word Artists" show at USC?
KZT: Well, I always come in with a few poems in mind, but then I tend to vibe off of the other artists who are on the stage that night, so I may change it up when I get to the stage. My poems usually deal with issues of race, culture, gender, sexuality, and conflict whether that's interpersonal conflict like sexual assault -- and to a lesser extreme, relationship issues -- or global conflict like war. I try to balance a conversational style with tight compression of rhythm and image within my work. At the heart of each of my poems is a question that I'm trying to enter into - a journey I want to take with the audience.
APA: Are you familiar with the work of the other two artists you'll be sharing the stage with?
KZT: Yes, D'Lo, Bao, and I have all shared the stage one time or another, and they are definitely two of my favorite writers, performers, and people in the whole universe!
APA: The three of you come from different places, LA, Brooklyn, and Minnesota. Can you describe the spoken word community where you live?
KZT: In NYC in general, there is a very healthy spoken word poetry community. You have a lot of cross-fertilization from disciplines like theater, music, and stand-up comedy. We have some of the most celebrated spoken word poetry institutions in the world with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and the Bowery Poetry Club, that both program poetry and spoken word poetry events seven days a week, nearly 365 days a year. We also have multiple youth spoken word poetry not-for-profit organizations. The largest being Urban Word NYC, which does its finals competition every year at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. There are a lot of different grassroots events that feature spoken word poetry in all five boroughs, and institutions like Lincoln Center, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Museo del Barrio, Central Park Summerstage regularly feature spoken word poets. So it's a lot going on.
I also come from Chicago originally, and you have tons of different kinds of spoken word poetry sets happening there -- from backpacker hip hop poetry sets, to political people of color poetry open mics, to bougie dress-to-impress kind of poetry events. You also have Young Chicago Authors, which runs the largest youth poetry slam in the world every year, Louder Than A Bomb. The Uptown Poetry Slam -- where I used to go as a teenager aka the birthplace of the poetry slam -- has had a poetry slam nearly every Sunday night since 1984!
Click here for more information on USC's "State of the Word: Asian American Spoken-Word Artists" event. For more of Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, check out her official website.