Award winning poet, visual artist, and storyteller, Shin Yu Pai was recently selected as the 2023-2024 Seattle Civic Poet by The Seattle Office of Arts & Culture in partnership with the Seattle City of Literature. As the first Asian American poet (and the fourth Civic Poet) in the program’s history to serve in this role, Pai is, “excited to collaborate with the diversity of Seattle’s cultural communities to create projects that celebrate expressions of poetry throughout our city”. In an email interview with me, Shin Yu shared her vision, dreams, and ideas for her tenure as Seattle Civic Poet.
Savita Krishnamoorthy: Fundamentally, what do you believe is the role of a poet in society? Do you feel a weight of responsibility if there indeed, is a “role”?
Shin Yu Pai: I hosted a podcast for a couple of years called Lyric World: Conversations with Contemporary Poets in which I explored this topic with many different poet guests that included Arthur Sze, Yona Harvey, Koon Woon, and Prageeta Sharma. I think that poets have different roles – artists, visionaries, shamans, social critics – they also bear witness. As for myself, I am interested in aspects of each of these roles and shifting between roles. I feel the weight of responsibility to my ancestors, to my various communities, and to my own self, to use my voice to say whatever needs to be said.
SK: What are you most looking forward to as the 2023-2024 Seattle Civic Poet Laureate?
SYP: I’m very excited to engage with more Seattle poets and poetry. My role is about being an ambassador to poetry. To me that means platforming and amplifying the work of Seattle poets who are not me. That will involve getting to know new corners of Seattle’s poetry community that may be new to me, discovering young and newer emerging voices from the margins. I’m also hoping to make some public poetry projects in public spaces. I’m co-organizing a reading for World Poetry Day with Seattle City of Literature, in consultation with La Sala and Seattle Escribe, that will feature Spanish-language poets working in Seattle like Raul Sanchez.
SK: You served as Poet Laureate for the City of Redmond from 2015-2017 where you organized many wonderful projects in your term. As the 2023-2024 Seattle Civic Poet Laureate, what insights have you gained from that experience? How will that experience shape the vision for your new position and what you hope to accomplish?
SYP: During my time for the City of Redmond, I participated in three iterations of the Redmond Lights Festival and a So Bazaar Festival in the summer. I learned from my first year with Redmond reading poetry on a stage to an audience, that there are other ways to engage with audiences that can center poetry in a different way. From writing poetic haiku-based wayfinding texts for the Redmond Connector Trail as part of a public art project to projecting a giant video poem on the back of Redmond’s City Hall – there are lots of interventions that can be made with poetry into public space.
SK: Some might say that poetry is a solitary practice, an internal journey. But you have done public art installations using poetry, for instance in the beautifully immersive balloon installation (one that I was fortunate to witness) for Redmond Lights in 2016. How do you navigate these two seemingly dichotomous approaches/practices of shifting between a space of solitude to being in community with community?
SYP: It’s true that poetry can be a solitary practice – but there’s a part of it that also has to do with writing for a reader, or an audience, or a community and thinking about how that poem can be delivered or experienced to resonate with that audience. Most people may think of the delivery mechanism for poetry as a printed book or a printed broadside. But it can also be an object, a moving image, a fragment of sound – something that delights the eye or ear that relies on the immediacy of the physical experience. The best poetry is felt and embodied and goes beyond a purely intellectual experience.
SK: How will you make your poetry accessible to communities in Seattle that are perhaps unexposed to the practice and the craft?
SYP: I hope to partner with public libraries and cultural organizations to offer a few workshops throughout the next two years and to distribute poetry posters and/or other ephemera. I’m hatching a plan to work with KUOW Public Radio to get some poetry on the airwaves in the month of April, during National Poetry Month.
SK: Who are the teachers/mentors that have shaped you as a poet?
SYP: There are many poets whose work has been important to me. Among them, Arthur Sze and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. For their innovative collaborations and their ability to write poems that leap across disciplines and knowledge. At Naropa, Bill Scheffel was important to me as a poetry colleague and my meditation teacher. Zen priest Peter Levitt’s work has shaped how I see and think and practice. And so many visual artists occupy space in my heart and mind. Among them, Yoko Ono, Wolfgang Laib, and Felix Gonzales-Torres.
SK: Who are your favorite poets?
SYP: Among my contemporaries, Portland poet Kaia Sand’s work really inspires me in her
ability to bring together poetry and activism. Tacoma poet Robert Lashley’s voice and place-based writing always excite me. Cedar Sigo and Sherwin Bitsui – two indigenous poets, who I have known and followed since my 20s – are also favorites.