Monday, November 09, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Shin Yu Pai

Shin Yu Pai [photo credit: Arzente Fine Art] is the author of several books including Ensō (Entre Rios Books, 2020), Aux Arcs (La Alameda, 2013), Adamantine (White Pine, 2010), Sightings (1913 Press, 2007), and Equivalence (La Alameda, 2003). From 2015 to 2017, she served as the fourth Poet Laureate of The City of Redmond, Washington. Her personal essays have appeared in CityArts, Tricycle, Seattle's Child, and YES! Magazine. She's been a Stranger Genius Award nominee in Literature and lives and works in Bitter Lake, Seattle. For more info, visit

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I published my first book of poems Equivalence in 2003, when I was 28 years old. I worked on it for three years and it collected together work encompassing the visual arts, Buddhism, and cultural identities. Assembling that manuscript felt like proof, to myself, that I would be able to sustain a creative practice beyond my academic program(s), and no matter what might be going on in my professional life.

I sent the manuscript around to a number of publishers and contests for about year and felt very discouraged by that process. Joanne Kyger, one of my former teachers at Naropa, suggested that I send the book to JB Bryan at La Alameda Press in Albuquerque. La Alameda had published some of Joanne’s work, as well as that of some of my other teachers — Anselm Hollo, Anne Waldman, and Andrew Schelling. Joanne thought it would be a good fit. She was right.

That book changed my life because of the nature of the collaboration with JB which went very deep. He was very supportive of how I wanted the book to look and invited my input and feedback on the cover art and design. Many of the poems laid out in unusual ways and this was never a design issue for JB.

I’m very proud that Equivalence was such a beautiful object as a published collection. Through JB and his partner Cirrelda, I came to know a vibrant poetry community in New Mexico and many of those friendships, with poets like Lisa Gill, Steve Peters, and Miriam Sagan, have endured throughout the years.

ENSO is a mid-career survey that looks back at twenty years of practice. It brings together the different areas of my practice: photography, personal essay, longer poem sequences, object-making, book arts, installation, sound, and performance. It is the first book that I’ve published since becoming a mother seven years ago and takes much greater risks in putting out work that ranges across personal interests and creative disciplines. It shows an evolution in my work and includes some of those early poems from Equivalence. If my earliest work was ekphrastic in nature, the place where I have arrived as a maker is in integrating my different interests and practices so that the practice itself is now much more hybrid. A poem literally takes the form of an embroidered textile, instead of being about an idea of cloth. Instead of concrete poems on the page, pieces now exist as moving poems that are projected into gathering spaces and experienced as temporary public art installations.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I grew up in household where English was a second language and the irregularities of how English was spoken at home made me self-conscious of my ability to write a perfect line of prose. The looseness of grammar and structure, and spoken language, seemed much more organic to poetry.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

It varies widely. At times, an image, or a line will arise in my consciousness and when I go to write the poem, it comes quickly without the need for much editing. Other times, I may sit with a fragment or a news story or an image for weeks or months or years, until the thing takes hold of my imagination and I’m ready to interrogate the subject on the page. My non-fiction work is heavily revised and goes through many iterations. It’s a longer form. I think poems and art projects are different. I come with a mental map or plan of the thing I’m trying to execute. Or I know how I want it too feel. I can visualize where I want to go and in that way the arrow hits closer to its mark.

4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I write poems and after a stack or a file of documents accumulate, I see patterns that emerge out of my present concerns and these reveal the structure of a larger preoccupation. That’s happening on a more subconscious level, but there are times when I feel more aware of a theme that I may be directly working with and writing towards that theme. Projects like my Love Hotel poems or Works on Paper were very intentional that way – poems curated and written around a theme.  Aux Arcs, a book that I wrote about my detour to living in the American South, came about more organically. I knew that there was a book in me about my experiences of race and place, but I didn’t know what that material would be or look like until it emerged. I didn’t know which geographies it would document until I was done.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Public readings give me the opportunity to better articulate to myself and to a public what it is I think I’m trying to do in my work. In that way, they create the circumstances to find the vocabulary to talk about my work, and that is useful. That said, my interest in giving traditional readings has diminished over the years. I enjoy visiting creative writing classrooms and talking about my work from a process perspective. I do a lot of hybrid talks that incorporate visuals, sound, and video alongside poem readings. And I also play around with presenting different kinds of content in live events to go beyond poetry. This might look like reading a piece in a history cabaret and singing a song. Or I might perform a talk poetry piece like David Antin, with a slideshow running in the background. I’ve worked as an events producer for a long time and I’m interested these days in creating an experience for the viewer and reader that can engage all of the senses.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I’m not big into theory. But I do think about power and positionality. I’m interested in the questions of what it is to be human together and to experience empathy. I’m trying to answer questions about what it is to love, to parent, to have a spiritual practice living in the world that we live.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

This is a question that I ask of all of the poets that I interview for my poetry podcast Lyric World: Conversations with Contemporary Poets that I produce with Town Hall. The writer has many roles – to bear witness, to critique, to interrogate, and question. It’s not a role that all writers will choose, but this is what I believe the role of writers should be.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

It depends on the editor and the alignment of values between editor and writer and the ability to communicate those values effectively. I do not engage editors when it comes to my poetry. But when it comes to my non-fiction and personal essay work, editorial feedback is something that I invite, because I feel less confident or sure of my prose and am aware of mechanical and stylistic issues that benefit from the close reading of an outside editor. As a woman of color, I do feel that the match between editor and writer has to include an acknowledgment of where there may be gaps in cultural competency—I’ve primarily worked with white editors and there are content issues that I work with that may not be well understood by an outside editor who is not specifically grounded in the specifics of the cultures or histories that I write about. I do feel very fortunate to have worked with Chip Livingston at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He’s an amazing editor and teacher who really helped me get my prose into better shape.

While I find working with many editors a largely transactional process, I deeply enjoy working with a director or other creative consultant when doing performance-based work. Someone who can give me notes on movement and how to speak a work to an audience or how to sing a line. How to reimagine work off the page. In Seattle, Jane Kaplan of The Rendezvous and Vanessa DeWolf, a movement-based performance artist have both helped me with different performance-based works.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Rainer Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet was a very important book to me when I first encountered it in my teens. In that collection, Rilke dialogues with a young poet through letters. His interlocutor is a young poet just starting on his path. He talks to this young person, Franz Kappus, about interrogating whether the impulse to write is one that he can live without. This becomes the determinant of whether or not one should become a poet.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays/non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

Moving between genres has been second nature for most of my life. There’s always been a camera in my hand or a notebook at my side. My poems tend to tell a story, versus burying a narrative. Sometimes it’s been necessary to explore longer forms and structures to tell some of the stories that I want to write.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I have a young child and we’re living in a pandemic, so I can’t speak to any writing routine at this moment. My day begins with a two-mile run. Then I clear out my mind and may do some writing before jumping into the day ahead. If I have a specific commission or assignment that I’m writing on, I’ll incorporate that into my workday. When my son goes to bed at night, I may do some editing. For me, the most fruitful periods of writing have always been in isolation, while in residency away from my daily life.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I go for a walk and get into nature. When we’re not in pandemic, I go to museums and galleries and look at works of art. I read books of poetry and nonfiction and I talk to trusted friends and colleagues who are working on interesting projects. I listen to music. I meditate. I trust that the stuckness won’t last forever.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Mrs. Meyer’s lavender soap and sandalwood or nagchampa incense remind me of my home in Seattle. The smell of green onions frying and Japanese oden stew remind me of my childhood home in Southern California. Also daffodils from my parents’ yard.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Visual art has been a huge influence for my entire life. My mother is a visual artist and I studied writing in the context of art school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After graduating from art school, I taught in a museum and that daily exposure to work of visual art really imprinted itself deeply upon me and influenced my aesthetics. But it’s not just looking at visual arts, it’s also learning their processes and practices — bookmaking, ceramics, photography. Translation was also an important practice to me early on – the engagement with languages besides English. The notion of place – whether placemaking or placekeeping — are very important to me, and I use these terms in place of nature. Because so many of the places that I have interacted with have been urban environments.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Michael Ondaatje is very important to me as a writer who works in both poetry and prose. Joanne Kyger and some of the Beat writers, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gary Snyder were early influences. Arthur Sze and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge are AAPI poets whose work has meant a lot to me. Peter Levitt, the Zen teacher/translator/poet is important to me. The literature of the sacred is important to me. Buddhist sutras, teachings, song, and poetry. But also Shiivite poetry and the literatures from India, China, Tibet, and Japan.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I’d like to learn to play guitar and ukulele and record an album and sing more with friends.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I have worked primarily in the nonprofit and philanthropic fields. I have not derived a significant income from my writing or art. I work with people, and the community, and that is what I enjoy, to a degree. But given to do over again, I think I would have enjoyed being an interior designer — making a home or space beautiful is something that brings me great pleasure, alongside decluttering and organizing. It’s a profession that relates to art, objects, interiors, space, and how space is used. Archivist/conservator also resonates for me for that love of objects and giving things another life.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

There were stories within me that I needed to tell — some stories that preceded me. My father is a storyteller, my mother is an artist. My father also told me a lie during a critical time when I was choosing a professional path. He told me that we were descended from the ancient Chinese poet Bai Juyi. It would take several years for me to learn the truth of our own name, but he planted a seed and that seed grew.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being.

Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Getting through the pandemic and finding full-time employment after being laid off in June. Promoting my new book ENSO. Writing about my experiences of dismantling a racist and misogynistic institution in Seattle through coordinated action. But also, I’m thinking through creating a new text-based video projection for a public space with a collaborator.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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