Ensō, a handsome volume of generous size, is comfortable to hold. The font is easy to read. The text and images have room to breathe. The pages are a pleasure to read and look at.

Ensō contains a couple of surprises. One is that the reader can see and hear Pai’s video animation and readings from the book. This is fun and illuminating. I compare Pai’s phrasing and cadence to my own when reading her poems. Hearing her read evokes ideas and thoughts that haven’t occurred to me before. I hope the reader will try it. The other surprise, I will leave for the reader to discover. 

Pai describes her book in the Introduction: “As a project, Ensō traces the evolution of my creative practice and the many parts of the work that have helped to sustain an artful life. I was not attached to being a poet, but interested in using the instrument of language to make sense of the world. It has seemed fitting that this exploration should take more than one form, ever conscious of the presence and absence of language, the medium to which I feel most connected in spirit.”

Pai’s bio is given in the book:

Shin Yu Pai is a poet, essayist, and visual artist. She is the author of several books of poetry, including AUX ARCS (La Alameda, 2013), Adamantine (White Pine, 2010), Sightings: Selected Works (2000–2005) (1913 Press, 2007), and Equivalence (La Alameda, 2003).

She served as the fourth poet laureate of the City of Redmond from 2015 to 2017, and has been an artist in residence for the Seattle Art Museum, Town Hall Seattle, and Pacific Science Center. In 2014, she was nominated for a Stranger Genius Award in Literature.

She is a three-time fellow of the MacDowell Colony and has also been in residence at the Ragdale Foundation, Centrum, and the National Park Service. Her visual work has been shown at the Dallas Museum of Art, the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, Three Arts Club of Chicago, and the American Jazz Museum. She lives and works in the Pacific Northwest, where she produces and curates events centered on curiosity and wonder for Atlas Obscura. For more info, visit www.shinyupai.com.

I’d describe the story of Ensō as Pai’s 20-year journey to expand poetry to beyond words on the page to art in the world. On the flip side, poetry/art is Pai’s way to find herself, and her place in the world, and in community. On this journey, Pai presents poetry/art in her unique way, from hand-made books, to individually cut books, to ways that use old and new technologies. She seeks to be open to her spaces and environments, while staying true and authentic to her intentions.

Pai says in an interview a few years ago: “My early work was much more of the imagination and intellect, the abstract and conceptual, the lofty and spiritual. Over a decade of writing, I’ve grown as a person and my work is now more easily grounded in the quotidian and the larger world outside of myself. Whereas I was very interested for a long time in exploring the mind and imagination, my work is now about going deeper to explore my own position and biases, lived versus intellectual experiences that go beyond aesthetics and surface to excavate the human heart and my own personal disarmament. I’ve gone from a larger scale to a smaller scale in some ways. The global and the local seem like the macrocosm outside, but they are vehicles for exploring the inner terrain.”

While she explores “a smaller scale”, the presentation of her poetry has expanded beyond the book form. She also notices that as she puts her poetry into the world, “I could not control anything about the poem… My words belong to me, but once they enter the public space, I no longer owned them.” 

Reading Ensō is not like reading a straight poetry book; it is more like visiting an art museum exhibition. One has the opportunity to experience the art, to read the labels and text panels giving background information and context, or even to listen to the audio tour. To give context, Pai recounts or alludes to events surrounding the poems. Context can be a double edged sword; it gives a poem a depth of meaning, but too much context is like explaining a joke. I feel that Pai navigates this narrow path successfully. Reading the poems feels like a dream experience, where everything “makes sense”.

The book challenges me from the get-go, I start searching for meaning and context of the mysterious book title. I have vague notions of what Ensō is. I’ve seen many paintings of Ensō by Zen monks. The title conveys an ongoing journey with possibilities. A journey to savor the book? To get into another’s mind, to learn to slow ourselves down, to listen to the person, again and again.

As I read, I compare my life experience as a person with Pai’s, both of us growing up as Chinese Americans and as artists. And how different are our experiences indeed! She has had many more adventures than I, like attending the Naropa Institute, or living in very culturally diverse parts of the US. She knows many words that I don’t, like the Japanese “hannya”. Her palette of words, in both writing and speech, is much richer than mine. And (un)familiar Buddhist ideas are sprinkled throughout the book. Some surprising things we have in common, like discovering parts of our own Asian culture through reading books in English. Both of us fell in love with the Northwest, and moved here. 

The photos add context and sometimes emotional tones to the poems and stories. Perhaps like the poems, once the photos enter the public space, Pai no longer owns their vision. I especially relish the emotions that some photos evoke in me. As soon as I see the photo of Pai’s son Tomo in the apple orchard, I feel his joy and his presence, and that joy infuses many of the other orchard photos. The photo of Tomo also conveys the joy that Pai feels as a mother, “I wanted to see the poetry that is everywhere around us through my son’s eyes and to activate that space.”

Motherhood, from pregnancy to birth to raising a human, seems to be a pivotal point in Pai’s life not only as a person, but also as an artist. The exploration and expansion of her artform come at a faster and more intense pace. Pai immerses herself in, and responds to, her environment. She holds onto her courage to challenge herself and her fear. The publisher has described “Ensō” as “a guidebook for poets interested in moving their practice off the page and into the community.” Of course, Ensō does not lead one by the hand, or show one how to do it. The book illuminates the possibilities, but one has to take that personal journey, and live one’s own authentic life. 

In the chapter, SAME CLOTH, Pai expands the boundaries of the artform, the art’s presentation, and her role in community. As the City of Redmond’s Poet in Residence, she tackles racism in a most dynamic way possible, while staying true to herself, and to the events. 

As art flows through us, we are compelled to follow its lead. When we yield our control over to the universe, it leads us back to our deep self, sometimes to a deep seated fear. In the chapter, ANIMATING THE TEXT, Pai confronts her fear, and unearths “the value of my own voice.” “How easy it can be to fall back on familiar tropes and gestures that allow one to play it safe while being perceived as improvisatory. The real discovery happens outside of what’s known.”

The book ends with the title poem, Ensō, that travels in space and time, carried by memories and emotions. The excerpt below speaks to me about being present to the possibilities around us.

when the lights go black

a moment before, a knock

on the door brings you back
to the present

eyes gradually attuning
to a hundred glimmering lanterns

The joy of this book is that it invites you to read it again. Each poem becomes more beautiful after you have followed Pai’s journey once. Like the incomplete circle of the Ensō, each time around, the journey is a new experience.

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