Going Further with Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai

January 26, 2011

                                 Album photo by Katie Piper

Spoken word heavyweight Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai recently dropped her second album Further She Wrote, a follow-up to her 2007 album Infinity Breaks. Produced by Black Cracker, the electro-hop beats interwoven with Kelly’s resonant and uninhibited poetry create haunting atmosphere and electric depth. Listen and download a “name your price” copy on her Bandcamp site, and check back often at her personal site for tour dates. Look for a review of Further She Wrote in Issue 23 of Hyphen.  

Kelly recently did a Q&A with the folks at Bicoastal Bitchin. Here are selected excerpts from her interview.

Greetings, I am …

Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, spoken word artist based in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, NY, by way of Chicago.

I’ve been known to bitch about…

Artists, inconsistency, and things that are put on top shelves beyond my physical reach.

My influences are…

Really varied. On a given day, I may be addicted to Prince, Me’Shell N’Degeocello, Kanye West, Sonia Sanchez, Fleetwood Mac, The Bangles, Aimee Mann, Baz Luhrmann movies, reading up on obscure moments in Asian Pacific Islander American history (i.e. the Chop Suey circuit, transcontinental railroad workers who actually built a house from ice in the Sierra Nevadas), John Leguizamo, Kat Williams, Octavia Butler, Thylias Moss, Spike Lee, Margaret Atwood, Community, Top Chef All-Stars. My mother is the middle daughter of a Shanghai politician who fled to Taipei. My father is the youngest son of a Tainan farmer. They came here to the U.S. in 1968 and 1969. I grew up as a teenager going to poetry slams in Chicago. I studied Urban Planning & Comparative Literature in college. I moved to Brooklyn about 6.5 years ago. I’ve done a lot of stuff with dancers/choreographers, multidisciplinary theater people, filmmakers, musicians.

                        photo by Kevin Kane

On a Saturday night you can find me…

1) At a party in Brooklyn. 2) On the road/touring for a gig. 3) At home playing my guitar and trying to finish Anna Karenina.

On a Tuesday night you can find me…

1) At a party in Brooklyn. 2) On the road/touring for a gig. 3) At home playing my guitar and trying to finish Anna Karenina. (One of the perks of being a poet is that every night can be a weekend OR a weeknight.)

My usual drink/poison is…

Water, juice, or I tell people to surprise me. Red Stripe. Just had a Wells Banana Bread Beer in NYC, which is as delicious as it sounds, and a raspberry pepper martini (raspberri Absolut, grapefruit juice, club soda, a jalapeno, and fresh raspberry), when I was in Philly -- which I am going to try to replicate at home. I decided to stop drinking alcohol for a year in 2009, which made people wonder if I was an alcoholic. But no, nothing quite so exciting/reckless, just took a year off from drinking, which made watching drunk people while sober very very illuminating.

If I were a superhero my name would be…

Worry Poet, The Diva. I tend to be very anxious for a poet, which I can’t figure out how I make the least stressful job in the world so damn stressful, but I’m about to transform that for 2011.

      photo by Katie Piper

I have a borderline unhealthy obsession with…

Pastries. I’m one of these food porn people, not necessarily eating the food and definitely not cooking it. I just like to look at it. I like to stop and read menus on the street even if I’ll never go to the restaurant. I like to look at baked goods in their glass cases. Okay, it’s not that obsessive, but it is one of these things that I always do and seem to enjoy.

Favorite thing to do in New York…

I love chilling out in Union Square watching all the people walk by: the b-boys, the random musicians, the protesters, the kooky “free hugs” or “the world is going to end” people, the people waiting for each other for first dates, the skateboarders. The swirl of humanity that feels funky and free. It’s relaxing for me. Then I head over to Vanessa’s Dumplings on 14th Street for a veggie bun and a red bean bun.

Free Association time! First word I think of after “Asian America”:

Fractured. I feel really blessed to be able to travel the country and the world in general performing my poetry for folks, so I get to meet a lot of different people who I maybe wouldn’t have met otherwise. In some APIA communities, the biggest issue is gang violence. In other APIA communities, the biggest issue is being able to assert yourself from your parents and not being “white-washed.” In some APIA communities, the biggest issue is different APIA communities beefing with each other (not even to mention Black, White, Latino/a or Native communities). In yet other APIA communities, the biggest issue is access to education and health-care due to citizenship status and language barriers. In some APIA communities, the biggest issues are fighting for environmental justice and against gentrification in our ethnic neighborhoods. We got A LOT going on in our communities, and I think that geography, class, immigration history, language, and old political drama from back in the motherland keep a lot of us divided and in the dark about what is going on across the broader stretches of API America for everybody that’s not in our own community or clique.