By J Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Shin Yu Pai stands at the podium in front of a packed house at Elliott Bay Book Store. She is petite, yet formidable. Gracious, yet forthright. She is there to read a selection published in the magazine, Full Bleed, that will be included in an upcoming book of her work. She is also there to support a fellow artist who is debuting a selection of poems that evening. This spirit of collaboration, of artists working and evolving together, and of artists celebrating their work with the community, is something that Shin Yu does very well.
Shin Yu Pai is the fourth Poet Laureate of the city of Redmond, the first Asian American Poet Laureate for that city, and the first person of color to be selected for the role. On Dec. 2, as part of the Redmond holiday tree lighting festivities, Shin Yu presented her finale for the city. The piece, which she created together with designer Michael Barakat, was a stunning finish to her two-year term, which ends this December. A time-based, multimedia work, it focused on the city of Redmond’s past history of logging that has led to its present efforts to expand its tree canopy.
During the four hours when the public had access to the work, one of Shin Yu’s poems, “heyday,” was projected upon the rear façade of Redmond City Hall, facing the lawn where the holiday tree lighting took place. The ephemeral quality of the work reflected upon the fleeting nature of time’s passing, of our precarious relationship with our environment, and of the citizens of the past who have come and gone.The work’s temporary nature welcomed and required the interaction and attention of the audience — before it, too, was gone. (But not entirely: Shin Yu’s exhibit and her poem can be found in video form on YouTube under “heyday” and “heyday installation,” respectively.)
I had the chance to sit down with Shin Yu at her Elliott Bay Books reading, just a couple of days after the successful presentation of her piece at Redmond Lights. I asked her what her main takeaway had been from her time as Redmond’s Poet Laureate. She explained that, while she had expected there to be some community involvement, there had been even more interaction with the community than she had foreseen. Shin Yu had welcomed this new form of responding to her audience, as she welcomed new ways of collaborating with other artists. Shin Yu said, “I was drawn to artists that could bring skills to enhancing my work and help me to take it in new directions. I gravitated towards artists with a high level of artistry that could understand my goals and intentions for a body of work.”
Shin Yu is the second generation of her family to live in the United States. Her parents moved to the United States from Taiwan, and she spent most of her teen and pre-teen years in California. Shin Yu acknowledges many artistic influences, including Young-Hae Chang, Arthur Sze, and Yoko Ono, whose multidisciplinary approach informed Shin Yu’s creative sensibilities. Shin Yu’s mother is a visual artist, and when she was growing up, Shin Yu used to listen to her father recite classical Chinese poetry. Of her identity and her development as an artist, Shin Yu states, “I am an artist with many identities — second generation Asian American, Buddhist, woman, mother, visual artist, photographer, poet, essayist — these are all expressed in complex ways in my body of work.”
For the last 10 years, Shin Yu has called Seattle home. She and her husband purposefully selected the area as a hospitable location to raise a family. “I feel certain cultural affinities with the Asian American community here in Seattle, in terms of the lived experience…I grew up in a community (Riverside, Calif.), where we were one of very few AAPI families. The kinds of resources and support that exist in Seattle for the AAPI community would have been life-changing for my parents, and my affinity for the AAPI community here is in many ways an effort in my adult life to recover some of the connection to AAPI identity and community that was missing from my early life.”
One of the themes that Shin Yu returns to in her work again and again is a sense of place. The works she completed in Redmond demonstrated this, as she strove to connect the people and the place to its shared history. This history is not always pleasant. Shin Yu’s work titled, “Same Cloth,” which she did in collaboration with textile artist Maura Donegan, was created in response to a hate crime, in which Ku Klux Klan robes were anonymously left at a consignment shop that has a Black owner. For the presentation of the work, Shin Yu’s poem of the same title was embroidered upon white fabric, a reminder of the incident and a symbol of the manner in which racism is ‘woven into the fabric’ of our society. It was a fitting exhibit of our times.
Shin Yu’s art often has an element of activism. When I asked her about the role that artists play in raising political and social awareness, Shin Yu’s response was passionate. “Artists working within an activist context take on a sense of purpose when they choose to be change agents and align themselves with social change. The work is no longer just about navel-gazing or aesthetics, but clearly aligned with the human condition and experience.”
Shin Yu’s time with Redmond as its Poet Laureate has been just one landmark on a trajectory of impressive landmarks. In every endeavor, Shin Yu has challenged herself to explore and evolve, just as she has challenged her audience to grow and engage. Her many credits include serving as a poet-in-residence for the Seattle Art Museum and assistant curator to the Wittliff Collections. She has authored eight books of poetry, which have been circulated not only in the United States, but also in Japan, China, Taiwan, the U.K., and Canada.
Currently, Shin Yu serves as Head of the Pacific Northwest Obscura Society for Atlas Obscura, where she is busy “creating immersive experiences that are designed to inspire curiosity and wonder.” In addition, she is working on a new project — a collection of her images, poems, photographs, and multimedia creations, as well as interpretive essays about her work written by contributors — to be published by Entre Rios Books in 2018. When asked where she would go from here, Shin Yu answered, “I’m interested in developing projects (which will likely involve collaborators) that continue to push and evolve my work in challenging ways.”
As we were wrapping up, Shin Yu told me a funny story about her family. Growing up, she said her father had told her many stories about her family history, one of the most influential on Shin Yu being that their family had a famous artistic ancestor: T’ang Dynasty poet Pai Chü-I, the author of “A Song of Never-ending Sorrow” and lover of the beautiful concubine, Yang Kuei-Fei, a monument to whom can still be found in China’s ancient capital city of Xi’An. Eventually, Shin Yu found out this wasn’t true, yet by then, Shin Yu was already well on her way to following in her mythical ancestor’s footsteps. How lucky for us.
Portions of Shin Yu’s work with the city of Redmond can be viewed at the Redmond Senior Center until Dec. 20. Shin Yu’s portfolio can be found at, shinyupai.com.
J Kai Curry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.