Last Thursday I ambled over to Goodrich for an Asian American Students in Action (AASiA)-sponsored performance by Kelly Tsai, a spoken word poet who has been featured in HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and even invited to the White House.
The atmosphere was comfortably laidback; With Goodrich still in its daytime coffeehouse guise, a couple of baristas were whipping up hot drinks for students happy to drift in and mingle. The poet herself arrived in a cheery fashion, looking much like a student herself in shiny silver sneakers, jeans, a zip-up hoodie and a dash of bright red lipstick. After a member of AASiA offered a brief introduction (slightly jumbled due to the speaker’s evident excitement), Tsai took the stage.
The first – and perhaps last – word necessary to describe Tsai’s performance is energetic. She talks fast and her body seems to be an extension of her mouth, constantly moving. I’ve seen plenty of spoken word poets who craft choreographed movements to accentuate their sentiments, and for these there is a stark contrast between the careful, deliberate performance and spontaneous words in between, a difference that can make the movements themselves feel stale. With Tsai, motions such as a sweep of the arm across her body or a quick step to one side during her poems were as integrated and effortless as the spontaneous tangents that bubbled up between them. Her physical energy and desire to move, perhaps strengthened by her background as a dancer, gave her words a clear vibrancy.
Though the subjects of her poetry runs the gamut, as a child of Taiwanese immigrants Tsai has a particular focus on the experience of Asians and Pacific Islanders (APIs) in the U.S. She brought this topic to the fore through vivid depictions of her relationships and memories: A poem about her mother, with whom she had often struggled to see eye-to-eye, described Tsai’s growing appreciation of the privilege she was given to explore what she loved due to her parents’ hard work – a freedom her mother had never known. As immigrants, her parents’ focus had been primarily on providing a comfortable suburban upbringing for their two girls. “What space was she ever given to understand?” Tsai asked.
Other poems touched on universal experiences, like the eternal surprise of time’s swift passing. Describing her sister’s wedding, she vividly painted “the decades crunching underfoot” with this rite of passage, and the realization of being “unable to catch up with the propulsion of our lives.”
Her poems were certainly not limited to personal narrative, however. In introducing a poem that she read at the White House called “Weapons of Mass Creation,” she launched into an impassioned explanation on learning about API history and the particular concept of “disaggregating data” (which, simply put, refers to looking within a group for variation rather than taking the averages at face value). It was not expected fare from a poet, and for that it was refreshing – it exemplified the enthusiasm and openness inherent in her creative process.
That openness extends to her approach to writing poetry, in which she also experiments with new forms and styles. She’s just as willing to share her work, even as she’s still polishing it – or, in the case of one poem, even before she’s actually figured out how to perform it, The poem in question, called “Two Heavens,” physically fades away on the printed page, dissolving into whiteness (the poem was inspired by a Facebook argument, and includes the admirable sentiment, “What if I want to live in a mediocre heaven?”).
Another striking poem, particularly for the spoken word circuit, was one which included footnotes; it was comprised of four sentences borrowed from bloggers writing about Nicki Minaj, which Tsai diligently cited. Tsai explained the footnotes in advance, though she chose not to read them aloud while performing the poem.
Tsai is even pushing beyond the bounds of poetry into essays which she performs alongside her poems, evidencing her personal need to follow her creative impulses. In the wake of “Linsanity,” she was asked to create something about the phenomenon, and for this she felt an essay was most fitting. Even in her prose, however, she was lyrical and vivid, bringing life to her words with energy and feeling.