Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai is a talker — the 32-year-old spoken word poet of Chinese and Taiwanese descent does it for a living. You got a taste of some of her poetry in our Spring 2011 issue. Here, Kelly tells us more about what inspires her.
Audrey Magazine: Tell us a bit about your background.
Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai: I was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. I studied Urban Planning and Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I’ve been touring and performing nationally and internationally as a spoken word poet for over a decade. I currently live, work, and love in Brooklyn, New York.
AM: How did you get into spoken word/def poetry? What were your early works about?
KT: I’ve always been into writing, performing, and politics. I started writing and performing poetry when I was in high school. I had a high school English teacher who used to take us once in a while to the bars in Chicago where the original poetry slams (competitions between poets judged by the audience) were happening. I remember an early poem being a fictional persona poem about an immigrant woman’s experience coming to the United States and another funny one about how much Valentine’s Day sucks. I know I had other poems at that time, but those are the ones that I can remember from those days, which actually is pretty indicative of my body of work now since it’s a mixture of comedic and serious work with a focus on social and personal issues. I auditioned for Def Poetry in 2003, and I got cast on the show for the fourth, fifth and sixth seasons of the show.
AM: Your rhymes are very provocative and you don’t shy away from saying what you think. Is that an accurate reflection of who you are in everyday life, or are you in character?
AM: What inspires your pieces? Is it always personal to you?
KT: Each poem has its own unique birth. Sometimes it’s a person whom I love and care about. Sometimes it’s a question that’s nagging me that I don’t know the answer to. Sometimes it’s what I feel like is being swept over or lied about by mainstream culture. Each poem does have a very personal root, even if I’m writing about something that I haven’t experienced — I ask myself: How would this feel if this were me? How does this connect with who I am today?
AM: Who or what do you turn to for inspiration, for a “recharge?”
KT: Inspirations run the gamut from other artists I know to people that I meet on tour that tell me about what life is like for a cab driver in Vancouver or an accountant in San Antonio. I think truly creative people exist in every industry, so I love to experience visionary people and ideas whether that’s in music, film-making, scientific research, social media, or community organizing. I have a lot of curiosity about the world and a sense of play that I like to satisfy by exploring, learning, and questioning everything that I’ve learned and accumulated up to this point. As for recharge, hanging at home in Brooklyn with the “framily” (friend + family) helps me stay grounded and comforted through everything that I do.
AM: Assuming your parents are your typical Asian American parents, what do they think of your rhymes and career?
KT: My parents had a hard time with it at first, because they didn’t understand it. Now, they understand that it’s a real job that requires hard work and that I’ve been able to sustain myself and affect a lot of people positively all over the world. It’s a little sad since you’d hope that your parents would recognize and believe in you before others did, but once they saw that others believed in me, they felt more comfortable believing in me. Being honored as the Outstanding Alumni of the Year by the Asian American Cultural Center at my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in 2010 was a tremendous honor. It meant a lot to my parents and my family in Taiwan, because they could understand it. I know I’m pretty out there. Very few people have had careers like mine. So I feel really blessed to have such amazing audiences and supporters who continue to believe in me and my work over the years.
AM: What life experiences or changes were you going through when you wrote your new album Further She Wrote?
KT: Most of the poems on Further She Wrote were written during 2007-2010. It was time period where I was questioning a lot of my previous ideals whether they be about feminism, love, cultural identity, women in hip hop, electoral politics, or social change. Black Cracker, the producer, and I recorded 17 tracks at first, but we whittled it down to the 11 tracks that we felt were the strongest in terms of how the poetry and the music were speaking with each other. Black Cracker also produced my last album, so it was great to get back in the studio and see where the last 3 years had taken us personally, professionally, and artistically. So a lot of love, a lot of life, and a lot of late-night grinding at the studio on the producer’s part is what you will experience on this album.
AM: What is Kelly “The Person” like when she’s not on stage?
KT: Pretty much like Kelly on stage, but not speaking quite so loudly. I do have a more introverted side, but for the most part, I’m pretty much the same!
Find out more about Kelly at YellowGurl.com.
– Anna M. Park