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Up Close: Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai

Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai is a Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based Chinese Taiwanese American spoken word artist, and she's coming to Shanghai to peform with underground lit collective HAL. We grab her for a chat before she hits the stage.

By Asia City Staff | Oct 26, 2011

  • Up Close: Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai
    Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai

SH: Why did you decide to come and perform in Shanghai?

KT: I'm en route to Taipei to do research on a solo spoken word dance theater show that I'm working on, and I figured it would be great to come and connect with the community in Shanghai as a part of this trip as well. My mother's side of the family is originally from Shanghai, and a lot of artists I know in NYC have been telling me about the great energy that's in the Shanghai arts scene right now,

SH: Why did you choose to work with HAL?

KT: A choreographer friend of mine in NYC had mentioned how she came to a great poetry slam event in Shanghai when she was last in town, and that's what led me to HAL.

SH: What's your work all about?

KT: For me, my work as a spoken word poet is about being able to put complex ideas into simple language in the words and rhythm that are most true to my own experiences of the world. I grew up as a teenager going to the Uptown Poetry Slam in Chicago, which is the birthplace of the international poetry slam movement. I fell in love with the art form that really honors the experiences and forms of expression of diverse people from all walks of life.

SH: How do you think Shanghai audiences will react to your performance?

KT: I'm excited to find out. Shanghai is a very international and cosmopolitan city with a rich history, so I'm sure the reactions will be as varied as the people who will be in the audience that night. In my travels performing across North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, it's always been moving to realize the ways that spoken word poetry can transcend cultures and geographies. A poem that was written about a tiny moment in time really can speak to folks all over the world.

SH: What inspires you to write?

KT: Very often it's the people that I meet and that I know who inspire my poems. One of my favorite compliments that I receive from audiences is that my poems speak of a feeling or experience that they've had, but they've never known how to put into words before that moment. When I hear that, I definitely feel like I and the poetry are doing the work that we're supposed to do in the world.

SH: What sort of work will you be performing in Shanghai?

KT: A mix of my spoken word poems that often deal with women's issues, social justice, and forces that affect communities of color in the United States and more specifically the Asian Pacific Islander American community. I usually change it up depending on where I feel the energy of the crowd that night. It's very important to me to be fully present in each performance and really gear the set to what will speak to the crowd most.

SH: How do you classify yourself as a poet? A female poet? An American? An Asian?

KT: A spoken word poet. An Asian Pacific Islander American female. Chinese Taiwanese American. Originally a Chicagoan, but now a New Yorker and more specifically a Brooklynite.

See Kelly live on stage at The Rabbit Hole on Saturday October 29th. Event listing here.

More about Kelly
Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai has been featured in over 450 performances worldwide at venues including the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the House of Blues, the Apollo Theater, Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, and three seasons of the award-winning “Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry.” The author of Inside Outside Outside Inside (2004), Thought Crimes (2005), No Sugar Please (2008), and the CD’s Infinity Breaks (2007) and Further She Wrote (2010), Tsai has shared stages with Mos Def, KRS-One, Sonia Sanchez, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, Amiri Baraka, Harry Belafonte, and many more.

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