Robert Flor: You’ve published a combination of 10 trade and limited edition books which makes Virga your eleventh book so far. I’m pleased to have had the pleasure of reading it and interviewing you. The collection felt like a spiritual pilgrimage taking the reader deep into a personal journey. Rohatsu, an early piece, concludes “…in blankets as I turn out the lights strike a match/to light the flame/take a seat to meet/the gathering darkness/of my many selves.” Would you tell us a more about what inspired your collection and how you conceptualized it?
Shin Yu Pai: Virga started to emerge and take shape for me in 2018. I lost someone who was important to me. A spiritual teacher who had helped turn me towards the path of Buddhism in my early 20s. That teacher chose to end his life by self-immolation. His death left me with many unanswered questions concerning spiritual faith, mental illness, community, truth and teachings. I had a moment of deep and extreme spiritual crisis that reverberated into several years.
That same year, I had a chance to travel to Bhutan for work and come home via Taiwan, where I planned to see family and observe a traditional Taiwanese festival. Going to places that hold sacred and cultural significance for me marked a return to earlier concerns in my poetry. An interest in ritual and spells also emerges in this collection.
Many of the poems in Virga were written during the pandemic and explore themes around love, practice and community. After finishing and publishing my last book, ENSO, in 2020, which was a survey of my creative practice across 20 years, I wanted to return to poetry as a central practice that has centered me. ENSO was about completing an evolution in my work, closing a circle. Virga is about exploring potentiality that is sometimes unfulfilled.
RF: The collection engages us through a number of personal and actual locations and spaces. I loved how you took us into the tactile experience of making tsa-tsas. In another, we share the sacred light of St. Ignatius Chapel. One poem expresses, “I am trying to hold the view that all spaces have the capacity to become sacred – the shell of a bronze mold acts as a womb.”
Shin Yu Pai: Those images come from Anything can go wrong at any time – a David Antin-style talk poem or performance-based piece. I’d been experimenting with presenting my work in different formats and wrote and performed the poem very specifically for an audience of writers and academics interested in the intersections between literature, Zen and place. When I read, I did so by making clay reliquary tsa-tsas in front of a room and pausing while engaged in making. Back in Bhutan, I had acquired two bronze molds used to make sacred objects. I’d planned on making 108 tsa-tsas and giving them away to people at the book launch for ENSO.
RF: Your work is laced with pearls of wisdom. In “The uncarved block,” you give us “imperfection a wholeness/complete unto itself.” You work in a numerous poetic forms…haiku, free verse, prose. How do you decide which to use when expressing an idea, thought or philosophy? Is this the gift of creative instinct?
Shin Yu Pai: Going back to the tsa-tsas – I have a mold or a form, but I don’t always know what I’m going to fill it with until I start making the thing. As the thing inside the mold evolves, it doesn’t look like the thing I expect it to. It grows outside of the boundaries of the shape. Sometimes, it doesn’t bear the imprints of the mold at all. It’s not just the thing, but the practice and the process that endow the meaning. All material is an uncarved block that the artist gives shape to. It’s by engaging with the material and materiality that the object comes into focus.
RF: In this time when many are experiencing loss, I appreciated those poems sharing your own losses “Elegy (for Kristin Kolb),” or the ones dealing with everyday relations and wisdom. “Marine Science Center: Port Townsend” explores parent-child experiences. I took this journey, made by many, to be deeply spiritual on your path.
Shin Yu Pai: The experiences of grieving and becoming a parent have both been very formative. Grieving has been a big part of these last few years of experience – the death of my teacher, the loss of community members to COVID, my Third Uncle died, there was the loss of employment and identity due to pandemic, and very significantly, racial grief.
On the sunnier side, I am raising a mixed-race young child with my partner. Someone whose consciousness and perspective I have a hand in shaping every day in the stories that I share with him, how I choose to talk about race and gender and instilling in him our responsibility to all beings and our fundamental interconnectedness.
RF: Did you have a favorite poem in the collection? There were many that I found returning to read and consider. Some made me want to simply slow down, take a hiatus and meditate.
Shin Yu Pai: “Chiang-kai Shek boneyard” is a favorite. It’s a bit different than some of my usual moves or impulses, but draws upon longstanding interests in Taiwan, and my tendency towards writing place-based poetry. The poem is a relic of my time working with a digital start-up company devoted to mapping wonder in the world. The statuary graveyard for Chiang-Kai Shek is part of the Atlas Obscura and I made a point of visiting it for those reasons. To see if wonder resonated in me. Being of the Taiwanese diaspora, I had to look at the locale with a more critical lens. In the way that a person of color might analyze a graveyard of Confederate statues. There’s more than one narrative to tell. But as far as poems that invite contemplation, “Empty Zendo” really speaks to my experience of practice and community in pandemic times and is a poem that renews a vow. “Being Avalokitesvara” is atypically sassy for me.