How thinking like an entrepreneur helped one artist build a thriving career


Brooklyn-based Chinese Taiwanese American spoken word poet, playwright, and filmmaker Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai PHOTO/Yale University

Earning a living as an artist, writer or performer is notoriously challenging—and many people end up giving up on their dream, worn out by the pressures of keeping a day job, too.

Kelly Tsai, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based spoken-word performer, filmmaker, musician and activist has beaten the odds. She earns her living doing solo live performances and a variety of other artistic projects, where she tackles subjects such as identity, culture, feminism, domestic violence and war, often bringing her unique sense of humor to provocative work.

Tsai has presented as a spoken word poet at the White House, Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Apollo Theater, and BAM, to name a few of the 700 venues where she has appeared. She is currently writing a literary memoir, entitled The Invisible Word, which won the NYFA Non-Fiction Literature Fellowship, and is working on an electronic music project.

Spoken-word poet and performer Kelly Tsai has explored subjects from the history of Barbie manufacturing to the life of Chinese political artist Ai Wei Wei in her art.

This year, the University of Illinois graduate won a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature/Memoir and was the poet-in-residence for the Taipei Poetry Festival in Taiwan, where her family has roots. There, she performed Wai-Puo, For My Badass Grandma, a spoken word poem that opens up some of her family history, before a 700-person audience, alongside poets from around the world. She also performed the solo show, “Formosa” —inspired by the history of Barbie doll manufacturing in Taiwan in October, in a separate venue. One poem was about Ruth Handler, inventor of the Barbie doll, who saw her creation as a way to introduce girls to the idea they could shape their own destiny, albeit, Tsai notes, in a zebra-print strapless swimsuit and stilettos. “From her point of view, it was a doll who is independent, doesn’t have a husband, doesn’t have a kid and is doing her own thing,” says Tsai. “It’s pretty fascinating.”

Tsai started writing while growing up in the Chicago suburbs and began performing spoken word poetry while still in high school. “I had a high school English teacher who took a bunch of us into the bars in Chicago to watch the original poetry slams,” she recalls. “I grew up watching amazing poets like Patricia Smith and Tyehimba Jess. I’ve been really blessed to have teachers who have been really open to bringing me into their world and showing me what they were passionate about.” The poetry she experienced during those excursions, she says, “was very anti-academic, very anti-establishment, very eclectic” and influenced the work she does now.

Forbes for more

Comments are closed.