Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, 27, is a Chinese/Taiwanese American spoken word artist who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. A two season veteran of Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry, Kelly’s been involved with numerous arts organization and has worked as a community organizer, domestic violence counselor, oral historian and a youth worker. Currently a Brooklyn resident, Kelly is developing a play called Murder and the Machine and tours nationally with multimedia theater ensembles Mango Tribe and We Got Issues!
Tonight you can catch Kelly at the Women’s Poetry Jam at Bluestockings (172 Allen Street between Stanton and Rivington, 212.777.6028). The performance begins at 7:00pm and admission is $3-5.
How did you get into spoken word?
I was fortunate to have a high school teacher who was involved in the poetry slam scene in Chicago. He would take me and a couple of my friends around to the bars to see the poetry slams, so I grew up watching what were considered some of the classic poetry slam folks, like Patricia Smith, Regie Gibson and Marc Smith. After that, when I went to college, I started an open mic and a slam series.
How did your family feel about you getting into spoken word?
I’m sure this wasn’t what they had in mind when they were taking English language classes in Taiwan.
What I do is hard to describe to my family. For one thing, for my family in Taiwan something like spoken word doesn’t exist. And for my family here, because there are language issues (English is a second language for my parents) they experience it differently. When they come to my shows I ask them if they understand what’s happening since spoken word is usually so fast and they usually say they didn’t understand exactly what was being said but they get the general feeling of it.
I think it’s been a long road for my family but I think now my parents appreciate what I do and they understand that I’m about using my creativity to bring a message or many messages to different people. It’s funny because they’ll even tell their friends to watch Def Poetry, so there’s a small circle of older Taiwanese Americans who have all seen it.
For you, is there a distinction between spoken word and poetry?
I don’t think there is a hard and fast line between spoken word and poetry; for me it’s all one. I generally describe myself as a spoken word artist because it is more what I do. I definitely think my poems can hold up on the page and I appreciate people being able to have the intimate experience of taking one of my chapbook poems and reading it; I think that’s very powerful. But for me as an artist it is really important to be there in live performance, vibing with an audience, so that’s why I call myself a spoken word artist. If you tell someone you’re a poet, they’re not going to automatically assume that. But the bad connotation of spoken word is that it’s associated with a certain kind of rhythm or certain kind of delivery. And sometimes there’s a divide between stage poets and page poets.
Whenever I’m talking to people about poetry I’m basically working off a couple definitions. The first definition is that poetry is in a rhythm, so every person’s poetry should be different because every person’s rhythm is different - our rhythm is informed by our lives. The other definition I go by is poetry is about the words and it’s about order.
What do you think about the connection between spoken word/poetry and rap?
The worst thing I see happening in terms of spoken word and rap is people thinking that spoken word is someone rhyming, but rhyming really slowly; that’s not spoken word. I think some MCs are amazing poets. If an MC wants to do their piece a cappella, I’d much rather them do it and stay true to their rhythm as opposed to slowing it down because they think that’s what it needs to sound like to be considered spoken word. Poetry is about rhythm, so if you fuck up your own rhythm, you’re not staying true to your poem.
It’s really all one family. Spoken word and hip hop are like cousins in the family, just like page poetry is a cousin in the family. Everyone is going to have their different influences and variations, but basically it’s all one.
What do you think of the spoken word/poetry scene in New York versus Chicago?
I was telling some of my friends in Chicago that at an open mic here one of the prizes was getting your headshots done. They were like, “What?” because they couldn't imagine what a poet would possibly need a headshot for. And of course even within a city there are a ton of different poetry scenes, but I think that as a whole, people in New York or Los Angeles, because they are such strong entertainment centers in general, it’s not unusual for people to market themselves, have headshots, whatever, and it spills over into poetry too. In Chicago, there’s not as much of that.
How did you get involved with Def Poetry? What’s it been like?
I’ve been on it two seasons now. One of my friends in Chicago, Kevin Coval, has been on the show four out of the five seasons so they tapped on him and said, "We want more poets from Chicago, have them send their tapes." Kevin was like, most poets in Chicago don’t have tapes. So he organized a night of amazing poets and taped the performance and they picked 5 or 6 of us to tape for the show.
My experience with Def Poetry has been really good. I see it as a way for me to connect with a much larger audience. I feel really blessed to be able to kind of speak my truth on television because you know every other day of the year people aren't saying what's being said on Def Poetry in a national television format.
What are some of the themes you explore in your work?
I basically write from my life so it’s whatever is happening at the time. When I look back on my most recent chapbook, I realize there were a lot of questions about spirituality that have been coming up for me for the last year. Spirituality within the context of being a young person…being a young person of the hip hop generation…being a young person that is in community organizing, activist circles… being a young person that is a cultural mix of a lot of different things.
Something I am always thinking about is being true to the hybridity of my experience. A lot of times when you are looking at art and mainstream media things are pushed into boxes, like if you’re this, you don’t do this or this or this. So, as much as possible I try to reflect on all the things that “make sense” and all the things that “don’t make sense” but just are in our reality, like issues around violence, both on an individual level and a global scale, and what that is about. I think my work is moving toward acknowledging and appreciating that there is so much beauty in the world too and that there are so many powerful moments that are quiet or unnoticed; moments when we really connect on our humanity. Sometimes that’s just stuff that happens on the subway or at the deli or at home.
What are some of your current projects?
I’m finishing up a play right now that’s called “Murder the Machine” that focuses on a group of young people in Chicago between 2003-2004. Some of the major questions that come up with this play are what does it take to make change on an individual level, what does it take to make change within a community, what are some of the complexities and variants to change, how do we deal with our own contradictions and how does the global affect the personal.
Living in Chicago in the post-9/11 society, I saw things I never thought I’d see. In the play, I’m trying to document the events that touch on the fear and the anxiety that exist after 9/11, things like the E2 nightclub tragedy or the police response to the anti-war protests that shut down Lakeshore Drive. That was just really intense heavy stuff that changed the way I looked at myself, the way I looked at what was going on in our community.
And then the next project I’m going to work on is “The Grieving Room,” which is going to be an audience interactive piece that’s trying to get at the different experiences around grieving. I know it sounds terribly depressing but my goal is to make it something more about celebration of life because at the end of the day I believe grieving is about celebration of life; it’s about what the living need to do to move on in order to live. Absence and loss is something everyone experiences and I think one of the things I recognize most from working with young people is how the loss of a loved one that’s not dealt with can totally change or flip a person’s life. Holding that kind of pain inside, that goes somewhere and sometimes when people don’t have a place for that to go, it turns into things that aren’t positive.
Can you talk about your poem, "By-Standing: The Beginning of an American Lifetime."
That’s a piece that’s really close to my heart. I was asked to perform at the Not in Our Name rally in Chicago in October 2003, a few months after the war began. I wrote it the morning of the rally. My thought was how do I write an anti-war poem for people who don’t give a fuck about politics. I remember having this feeling in my head and in my heart, that war is something that’s with us even in times of peace. Prior to Iraq, people were talking about our generation as one that grew up without knowing war, but when I really started to reflect on it, militarization and violence have an affect on us even in times of peace. So I decided to start at the beginning and look back at my life and war and how it affects us. The basic idea of the piece is the last line, “This is why no war.”
It’s not an anti-militaristic poem. I had to spend some time in army ROTC and I met some really interesting, smart and powerful young people there. I think what really scares me is that all these people are over there fighting right now, 18 year olds that just enlisted, and how much have we equipped them to live their lives after having to go through an experience as extreme as that. Even when this war is done, and who knows when that will be, our generation will be experiencing the effects of it over and over and over again because we don’t take care of our own. We’ve got all these young people in these incredibly tense situations where they are asked to kill people and do they know what that’s for? Is the government going to be able to sit with them when they wake up at night?
What are you trying to accomplish through your poetry? Do you consider yourself an activist?
As an artist you engage people in either the beginning or the continuation of a process. They come to your performance and they experience something and maybe that sparks something else or encourages them to deal with something they are going through already. I believe my work as a community organizer helped me frame what it means to be an artist. When you’re an activist or an organizer and you’re trying to do right by a community, you’re under a lot of pressure and it’s taxing, emotionally, physically and spiritually, you really need something that’s going to replenish you. So, I really see that in large part as my role as an artist, to give people space to breathe, to understand their lives.
How do you feel about poetry/spoken word long term? Are you going to stay with it?
At the end of the day people don’t know what to do with poetry as a format, how do you promote it? Does it fit with music? Does it fit with theater? For me, I feel like spoken word is the destination, it’s not like I’m using it to jump-start my acting career. I think it’s exciting to move into some of these other formats (i.e., theater) just to learn more about how to express, but spoken word/poetry will always be part of what I do.