Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai


KELLY ZEN-YIE TSAI is a spoken word poet who has performed at over 450 venues across the continental US, Hawai’i, Canada, China, England, France, Germany, Kenya, Netherlands, and Trinidad at venues like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, House of Blues, Apollo Theater, Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and three seasons of the Peabody Award-winning “Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry.”

Kelly’s poems have been widely published in literary magazines like Drunken Boat, Tea Party, Wicked Alice, Versal Amsterdam, The Kartika Review and anthologies like The Spoken Word Revolution Redux (Sourcebooks Media) and We Don’t Need Another Wave: Dispatches From The Next Generation Of Feminists (Seal/Avalon Press).

Her awards and recognition include Illinois Arts Council Governors International Exchange Award (2004), New York Foundation for the Arts/Asian American Arts Alliance Urban Artist Initiative NYC Award (2007), Idealist in NYC's “Top 40 New Yorkers Who Make Positive Social Change” (2008),’s “30 Most Influential Asian Americans Under 30” (2009), HBO’s “East of Main Street: Asians Aloud” (2010), Asian Women Giving Circle (2011), Urban Word NYC-New York Live Arts Artist-In-Residence (2011). 

She has worked with award-winning dance companies like Urban Bush Women, VT Dance, and InSpirit. She toured nationally with spoken word hip hop theater companies Mango Tribe and We Got Issues! She co-wrote and performed in Ping Chong & Co.’s “Undesirable Elements: Asian America,” Remy Bumppo’s “American Ethnic,” and Asian Arts Initiative’s “Home Far & Near.” She also performed Howard Zinn’s “Voices Of A People’s History of the United States” with Harry Belafonte at New York University. 

Kelly has collaborated frequently with filmmakers for her spoken word poetry films: “By-Standing: The Beginning Of An American Lifetime” (Dir. Karen Lin), Media That Matters Film Festival War & Peace Award; “Weapons of Mass Creation” (Dir. Kamilah Forbes), Youth Noise National Youth Activism Summit Tour; “Black, White, Whatever…” (Dir. Jazzmen Lee-Johnson), Featured Video, 250,000+ views. 

Her residencies include Hedgebrook, Norcroft, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Unit One/Allen Hall, Michigan State University’s Residential College for Arts & Humanities, and New World Theater’s Project 2050. She is a proud alum of the Kundiman, Voices of Our Nation, Cave Canem, and Callaloo writing workshops. 

Kelly graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Double B.A. High Honors Urban Planning and Comparative Literature). In 2010, she was named Outstanding Asian American Alumni by the UIUC Asian American Cultural Center. 

Artist Statement

My first exposure to spoken word poetry was as a teen growing up in the Chicago area. My high school English teacher used to sneak me and a few other students into the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge on Sunday nights to watch the Uptown Poetry Slam, often heralded as the birthplace of the international poetry slam movement. 

What I saw in this old speakeasy (that the likes of Al Capone and Frank Sinatra used to frequent) was not just a night of off-the-cuff entertainment. It was poetry renewed to its populist form. The most invisible of us could put our voices, verses, and visions center-stage, if only for three minutes on the open mic or nine minutes in the poetry slam competition. 

My fundamental understanding of poetry, performance, and even the world are so shaped by these late-night forays performing for and watching thousands of poets at spoken word venues around the world. The mix of influences ranges across hip hop, punk, folk, jazz, funk, feminism, cultural nationalism, stand-up comedy, drama, religious oratory, political activism, performance art. This joyous multitude of voices has deeply informed my commitment to creative work and my creative process. 

For me, writing and performance are integrally linked. Performance is a form of writing. Writing is a form of performance. The spontaneity of the live interactive audience and constraints of the performance venue (whether it be a concert hall, detention center, or coffee shop) are a critical part of the alchemical ebb and flow of the creation of the work. Knowledge isn't conferred, so much as it is mined through diverse life experiences, a commitment to the languages within you, and a bravery to come to the stage and the page better every single week than the week before. 

Marine veterans, construction workers, driving salesmen, rappers, teachers, waitresses, advertising copy writers, night shift shelter workers, folk singers. Asian Pacific Islander, Black, White, Latino/a, Native American. From ages 8 to 80. All classes. All genders and sexualities. All poets. All valid. All unique. All a part of this magnificent democracy of life experiences, viewpoints, linguistic cultures, rhythmic patterns, poetic structures, and imageries. 

Nearly twenty years after my first nights at the Green Mill, I strive to continue to elevate the art form in its integration and exploration via theater, dance, film, music, and digital media. The goal here is to perpetuate the biodiversity of knowledge, language, culture, and performance on bigger and broader stages. The simplicity of one mic, one truth, and one poem dynamically transformed to resound authentically for communities and audiences around the globe.